Last week The Times surveyed the year in showbiz with two stories, cheek by jowl, one about the movie business' box-office revenues, the other about the record industry's top concert grosses and album sales. As good as the stories were, the real revelation came from their illustrations. The photos of the music industry's top hitmakers showed flesh 'n' blood pop stars. The photos of the year's five top-grossing movies didn't have a movie star in the bunch. They were iconic figures: Shrek, Spiderman, Mr. Incredible, Jesus Christ and Harry Potter.
That's the real story of today's movie business. It's not about the movies, it's about the brands. In today's Hollywood, where marketing expenses are growing so fast they may someday outstrip production costs, studios increasingly rely on franchises and sequels propelled by brand awareness and instantly identifiable visual iconography. Fifteen of the last year's 25 top-grossing films were projects based on books, comics, old movies and TV shows or sequels to previous films.
2004 was no fluke. The new year is crammed with more remakes and spinoffs. Sony, just to pick one studio, has remakes of "Bewitched," "Prom Night" and "Fun With Dick and Jane," along with sequels to "Deuce Bigalow," "Mask of Zorro" and "Underworld." This spirit of retro culture is hardly limited to the movie business. Two weeks ago, the music business' top-selling CD was a collection of songs by Tupac Shakur, an artist who's been dead for nearly a decade. Ray Charles, who died last summer, just sold 2 million copies of "Genius Loves Company," a collection of duets with (Norah Jones excepted) a host of aging artists. The fastest-growing segment of the DVD business last year was the sale of old TV show collections. Even art directors are digging into the recycling bin. When Entertainment Weekly put Lindsay Lohan on the cover last month, her coyly naked pose was an evocation of a notorious 1960s photo of Swinging London tart Christine Keeler. In the ad world, you can't buy a watch without being hustled by a dead movie star. The current Longines campaign ("Elegance is an attitude") is anchored to a photo of Humphrey Bogart, while Steve McQueen is the pitchman for the new "What are you made of?" ads for TAG Heuer.
Hollywood's embrace of brands even extends to the Oscar race, the one area where original drama, not retro chic, once reigned supreme. Many of this year's contenders are biopics, meaning that even to make a run for an Oscar you need a sexy historical figure (Howard Hughes, Ray Charles or Alfred Kinsey) to grab some attention. Without the hot flash of originality, which now comes from such incubators as hip-hop, HBO and video games, the movie business is rapidly losing its status as our dominant form of pop culture. It's hardly a surprise that the only two movies compelling enough to spark a national conversation last year were "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," films no major studio would touch.
"We're all doing remakes and sequels because at least it gives your movie a little sticking power," says Terry Press, head of marketing at DreamWorks. "If you can get someone to say, 'Oh, "Bewitched," I've heard of that,' you've at least attached yourself to one memory brain cell. There's just too much entertainment out there. Instead of going to a movie, I can watch the first season of 'Arrested Development' over three nights -- and I can do it either through TiVo or by buying the DVD. It's become a Herculean endeavor to get people out to see a movie today."
Outside of Ben Stiller, Will Smith and Brad Pitt, few movie stars earned their $20-million paychecks last year. Worse still, in an era of media overkill, rising stars risk being overexposed before they can establish any intimacy or connection with their audience. Just ask Scarlett Johansson -- when you're on the cover of 40 magazines after your first big success, the public doesn't get to feel that it's part of the discovery process. That said, virtually every major studio made money last year, thanks to DVD sales and a global box-office surge; "Troy," for example, grossed nearly three times as much overseas ($363 million) as it did in the U.S. What follows is my 2004 Studio Report Card, which offers two grades: first for box-office performance, second for film quality. The accompanying illustration features the studios' grades. See the box on Page 6 for a look at the studios' specialty divisions.