Will Hollywood Movies Start To Look Cheap?

There is much speculation that, thanks to Covid, the era of the Hollywood blockbuster is over. While some may rejoice, I'm not so sure.

I suppose you could say we have a love/hate relationship with Hollywood blockbusters. By definition, the plots are pitched at the lowest common denominator. To appeal to the greatest number of people, they have to be. We get paper-thin characters, lots of car chases and explosions, and lots and lots of sequels. But, the production quality and creativity that go into the sound, picture, and CGI are an absolute marvel to behold. There is a reason why, when you want to wring out and evaluate a home theater system's chops, you don't use a quiet, intellectual film. You reach for a big and noisy blockbuster. So, blockbusters often fall into the camp of guilty pleasures.

But are blockbuster movies in danger? Are their super spies, mythical creatures and epic battles themselves staring at their own doom? Is the golden age of blockbusters coming to an end? Maybe.

The logic goes something like this: The only way an expensive movie makes sense is if it can be shown in thousands of movie theaters around the world. The movie might cost several hundred million, and marketing adds millions as well. To recoup your costs, you need many millions of people to pay serious ticket money. If all goes well, you might gross a billion dollars. Pretty good. And, that loot subsidizes all your movies that fail to make a profit. The business model works.

But what if, thanks to Covid and the resulting rapid rise of subscription services, future audiences trend toward stay-at-home viewing? Would HBO buy a studio's blockbuster for a billion dollars? Nope. Likewise Netflix is more interested in quantity over blockbuster production quality. The risk/reward ratio for making big-budget movies goes out the window. Hollywood studios adjust. They begin producing less expensive movies – fewer blockbusters. At least that's one theory.

Here's where it gets interesting. Whether you love or hate big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, you have to admire their technical excellence. When you drop $200 million on a movie production, you can hire the best people in the business. And that includes the very best audio and picture people. The audience is treated to superb sight and sound.

When you shoot a movie on a tighter budget, the quality of the production values will inevitably suffer. Lower-budget Hollywood movies, and those made by the streaming services themselves, aren't terrible, but they generally aren't cinematic spectacles either. The technical excellence, all of that expensive post production work, taken for granted in the past in blockbusters, might not be so guaranteed going forward.

But here's the plot twist. If movie theaters indeed go into decline, an interesting opportunity arises for movie studios. Suddenly, movie studios don't have to split revenues with theaters. Studios can keep all the loot for themselves as they push their movies to streaming services. That might allow them to keep their production values high, albeit tailored for smaller screens. Also, if the movies are releasing direct to streaming platforms, there is less need to encourage audience attendance at theaters; marketing costs might be reduced.

One thing seems increasingly clear. The way we watch movies will never be the same. We will increasingly watch new releases at home. Whether production values are diminished, whether the sound, picture, and CGI are diminished, no one knows. People talk about seeing every dollar up on the screen; will we start seeing every dollar missing from the screen? I guess we'll find out.

MatthewWeflen's picture

Having just watched The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, which has sterling production values that seamlessly integrate period CGI backdrops into beautifully composed and lit shots, I am not terribly worried. Artists will find a way to make their art, and technology makes it easier now than it's ever been.

If we see a shift away from CGI-stuffed tent pole comic book movies, I think that would be a good thing.

DoughMucker's picture

"When you shoot a movie on a tighter budget, the quality of the production values will inevitably suffer." This may be true initially, but should diminish over time. Increased demand for improved production values will lead to improved pre- and post-production products and services.... "point and click" production or "production in a box", if you will. But, I don't think companies like Disney will disappear overnight. They will still produce Avengers movies and churn out the merch to drive their revenues. We will likely still end up with niche/indie films and blockbusters. But the niche/indie films should get better and the blockbusters will become even more cookie cutter. And I'll still watch both types....but at home. :-)

Note: I only saw two of the twenty three Avengers movies in a traditional theater and that was because they were "comped."

John_Werner's picture

I would wager there was a time when folks couldn't comprehend drive-in theaters would disappear. It seems that now we are in danger of the same thing happening with traditional walk-in movie theaters. While I get a little nostalgic thinking about the fall of the drive-in theater I don't feel some great loss. I think I'm at that same point with the walk-ins. I mean I'm like most who have probably only went a dozen times in the last five to ten years. What I do notice, rather immediately since the second quarter of 2020 is that there have been almost zero great and/or blockbuster films to come out. This makes me wonder if the dreck that mostly populates streaming services might be the new norm? If so I will feel we've lost something important. The way the ever more technically advanced theaters help support amazing feats in CGI, sound, and visuals that made talented filmmakers reach ever higher. Your recent article on the technical sight and sound excellence of The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit series is a good example. I doubt without a large number of theaters this outstanding achievement could have ever made sense at least as we witnessed it. So I'm wondering what the future holds. We must hope the dismal 2020 season and now early 2021 isn't going to be where the industry is headed.

DL777's picture

I can't imaging our society wants to be cloistered away for the rest of their lives. Young people will miss out on so much actual living if they sit in front of their computers and have no physical interaction with people any more. Discord and messaging can only go so far. I hope we all support public institutions like movie theaters and malls and zoos and museums again. They are all available virtually now but I don't think it is a good thing for the long term. The price of movies will have to come down substantially as well since movie theaters still have a huge lead over most people's home viewing setups. Most people I know either use their built in speakers or very weak sound bars. It is worth $9-12 a person for such in experience in my view. Wasn't Mulan $30 to view? That is price gouging. It should have been $3-4 a person with the average viewing number being 3 probably. Big business most always gouges. Look at what the cable TV operators charge for delivering content they don't create that includes ads as well.