Meryl Streep: “Don’t they want the money?”

June 15th, 2012 by

This week at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards in Beverly Hills, Meryl Streep slammed “Hollywood’s big tentpole failures” like John Carter and Battleship, then added:

“In this room, we are very familiar with these dreadful statistics that detail the shocking under-representation of women in our business. Seven to ten percent of directors, producers, writers, and cinematographers [are women] in any given year. This in spite of the fact that in the last five years, five little movies aimed at women have earned over $1.6 billion: The Help, The Iron Lady believe it or not, Bridesmaids, Mamma Mia!, and The Devil Wears Prada.”

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She continued: “As you can see, their problems were significant because they cost a fraction of what the big tent-pole failures cost. . . . Let’s talk about The Iron Lady. It cost $14 million to make it and brought in $114 million. Pure profit! So why? Why? Don’t they want the money?”

On the face of it, a perfectly logical question: “Don’t they want the money?” But what about merchandise? What about the growing international market which loves big Hollywood spectacle movies? What about potential franchises, clearly one of the motivators for Disney and Universal greenlighting Carter and Battleship respectively? Those concerns seem to trump all movie discussions in this day and age.

It used to be that the studios had a line-up of movies on their development slates they thought of in baseball terms:

Singles: Small movies that would generate small profits.
Doubles: Mid-budget movies that would generate moderate profits.
Triples: Bigger budget movies that would generate substantial profits.
Home Runs: Big budget movies that would generate big profits.
Grand Slams: Huge budget movies that would generate huge profits.

I should note, the size of the budgets really wasn’t the determining factor in calling a movie a “double” or a “home run,” it boiled down to revenues generated. So a small budget movie resulting in huge profits, like Paranormal Activity would be a Grand Slam.

My point is, I don’t know if the studios think like this anymore, as they seem to be increasingly focused on Triples and above: Big budgets, huge profits. Some like Paramount with its Insurge microbudget division, pay attention to low-risk, high-reward type movies, but it’s just really, really hard to get a low to mid-budget movie produced nowadays.

And that is precisely the type of movies Streep is talking about. So yes, even though they can make money, and women are a huge demo group, the studios just don’t seem to be tracking that very much at all [with the occasional exception like The Help, which had the benefit of a huge pre-brand due to the book sales, and a movie every year or two by Nancy Meyers].

Once again, I contend if an independent production company had the guts to focus its attention on making movies for Baby Boomers and above, and especially women, moderately budgeted films in the $5-20M range, assuming they developed and produced quality product, that would be a profitable business model.

But perhaps without toys or franchises, the color of that money isn’t green enough for the major studios.

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20 thoughts on “Meryl Streep: “Don’t they want the money?”

  1. Lisa says:

    It’s green enough for me. Now I just need to get some people and some money.

  2. Brad Johnson says:

    I think a lot of this has to do with the Studios becoming just another cog in the machine of high multi-national corporations. I don’t hold anything against them, but the scope of those companies is so large, that it ceases to make fiscal sense for them to focus on smaller ROI projects.

    It’s like if a small boutique book store – more than happy to cater to a niche market that was extremely passionate – got popular enough to be bought by Barnes and Noble. Over time, the number crunchers at B&N headquarters are going to say – “hey, why don’t we carry more best-sellers? That high-volume best seller is really where we get the best bang for our buck and our investors. Plus there’s less risk of failure.”

    Unfortunately, I think it’s just the nature of the beast when a small company gets absorbed into a larger corporate entity.

    Okay – that rambled a little.

    1. Scott says:

      Brad, this definitely contributes to the situation described by Streep. Hollywood movies has always been a business, but now more than ever, it’s a more corporate environment.

      That’s why it’s hopeful to see so many of these independent film entities like Endgame Entertainment, SkyRock Venture, Indian Paintbrush, Black Forest Film Group to name a few who ARE making movies in the low-to-mid budget range.

  3. Lydia Mulvey says:

    “…moderately budgeted films in the $5-20M range, assuming they developed and produced quality product, that would be a profitable business model.”

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. As a woman, I’m sick to my back teeth of going to see a bigger budget film and being confronted with nothing but explosions (don’t get me wrong, I love explosions, but bombs are not subtle).

    The range of female characters is also narrow. You can choose between the cutesy two-dimensional manic pixie dream girl or the PVC-clad nubile twenty-something comic book female character of the kick-ass, wise-cracking variety.

    Where’s the colour? Where are the female characters who are not there purely for males to ogle? Where are the female characters in between those extremes?

    I love my sci fi films but recently there has been a real dearth of female characters in films of this type for me to identify with.

    Ridley Scott managed it with Alien. Ripley, to me, is still the seminal female character: multi-faceted, layered, flawed and smart; with beauty a secondary concern. Sarah Connor in the Terminator is also a wonderfully onion-like female character.

    But since then, the general trend has been to put female characters in purely for fourteen year old boys to salivate over.

    I would love to see more thoughtful films (across all genres) that focus on three dimensional characters and stories that grab you and won’t let you go. Transformers did not grab me. Battleship did not grab me. They may have made a bucket load of money but will people still want to watch them on Christmas day in ten years time like they do Indiana Jones or Aliens or Terminator or It’s a Wonderful Life?

    1. Brad Johnson says:

      Lydia – while I agree with a lot of what you said, to me you’re steering towards a different topic – namely the “why do they keep making this garbage” argument.

      The general public continuously complains about the large spectacle movies – the tent poles – the never ending stream of adaptations and sequels, but they tend to forget the basic premise of the film industry…they want to make money.

      When it boils down to it, the studios are going to put more out, of whatever people are paying to see. If every who says they are fed up with sequels and comic book movies actually stayed home and didn’t go to see them, they would go away.

      If everyone and their mother went to see “The Iron Lady” – then small, personal, biopics would be all the range and every studio would have 3 or 4 on their slate. It’s just the nature of the business.

      1. Scott says:

        Lydia, I regret to say it, but Brad is right: The studios will chase money wherever they think they can make it. This has been consistent throughout the 100 years of the film business in the U.S.. Really at this point, the only way ‘quality’ movies get made is because (1) the studios still put some emphasis on winning Academy Awards, so they can always be relied up on to make at least a few prestige movies, (2) a significant A-level talent prods them to make a passion project [like how Brad Pitt pushed “Moneyball” through its tumultuous development to the finish line, and (3) pick-ups of indie films at Toronto, Sundance and elsewhere which they release through specialty divisions.

        This could change. I’m going to post an article soon which points to statistics that suggest young people are moving AWAY from movies as a preferred form of entertainment. This may mean we see shorter and shorter movies and/or movies supported more and more by Old Farts.

  4. Because we have what we call summer movies. (bIg) Studios are more concerned about these money-making period. They want to make fun and entertaining movies that can hopefully last to a number of sequels. They want to have the next Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Pirates of Carribean franchise. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. John Carter and Battleship are two examples of lack of marketing and interest from the audience.

    The studios are trying to milk the money from small or modest budgeted film during fall/awards season.

    1. Scott says:

      Mikhael, that’s basically true, although we see counterprogrammers, too, in the summer such as “To Rome With Love” (Sony Classics) which opens next week, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Fox Searchlight) which opens the week after that, “Ruby Sparks” (Fox Searchlight) which opens the week of July 23rd.

  5. This whole topic is frustrating on so many levels. While there is definitely an overlap between Why don’t they make better, story focused movies, and Why don’t they make more female focused movies, they are two different issues. I’d love us to start focusing on fixing both of these problems, but mashing them together just turns two valid arguments into a muddled mess.

    Does Streep want to make small movies that are “pure profit,” or does she want women to be better represented in Hollywood? Does she want women to have better roles? Be in better movies? Be in more movies? Make more money? Is her point that John Carter and Battleship flopped because they were poorly made? Too expensive? Starred men?

    Everyone wants more money. There’s no debating that. But what she’s saying isn’t logical. There’s no more guarantee that a 14M. movie is going to break out and make a fortune than there is that a 140M. movie will do the same.

    There’s no reason not to invest in making smaller/better movies. But the fact is, no matter how much money or star power you start with, you can’t predict the box office. She’s talking the same nonsense the studios are, as if she knows the secret to making money. She doesn’t. No one does. If they did, everyone would have started doing what Matsushita suggested when they bought MCA, and only make hits. That idea is as worthless now as it was then, no matter who says it.

    Swinging for the fences every time is a stupid, selfish way to play the game.

    1. Scott says:

      typingprincess, if I ran a studio, I’d make movies for Baby Boomers and Seniors. Both have a lifelong love affair with movies. Huge demo groups. Most discretionary time and income. It would be singles and doubles all the time.

      But then, that’s yet another reason why I would never be in that position.

  6. BenEverhart1 says:

    The production budget on The Iron Lady was probably $14 million but that probably doesn’t include P&A costs, which are a problem right now. They probably spent double that to promote and release the movie, sadly. Reaching your audience and convincing them to go is expensive because people’s attention is very fragmented. In the 1990s, all you had to do was put your movie ad on Seinfeld and almost everyone would see it. Now you have to advertise in a myriad of places to reach the same numbers.

    1. Scott says:

      Marketing $$ have skyrocketed to be sure. This is one of the reasons why some of the studios scaled back on movie production a few years back as they tried to find the minimum number of movies they could produced each year to sustain their fixed costs yet still maximize profit on each film. Marketing costs were killing them. I don’t have numbers in front of me, but I believe they have managed to reign in those costs a bit. But it is one noisy consumer marketplace out there, difficult to get messaging across on movies.

      1. I don’t know, Scott.

        There’s no reason, imho, why someone like Meryl Streep can’t start her own production company making low/medium cost, union scale movies, and get them out to the audience she claims is just begging to see them.

        I mean you take a $1M movie like The Devil Inside, which had godawful reviews, but which created a great trailer, leveraged youtube and picked its spots wrt TV advertising… well that movie did $100M box office.

  7. Jason Warner says:

    Can someone explain to me (if anyone is actually confident they know or understand) why the cost(s) of marketing a movie (or, perhaps, even a TV show) are skyrocketed so much or continue to rise every year? Are the capabilities and/or materials needed to do that really just becoming more expensive to generate and create for some reason, or is it just the ol’ “inflation” blurb that can be applied to seemingly anything that is a business or involves money of any kind?

  8. Jason Warner says:

    Can someone explain to me (if anyone is actually confident they know or understand) why the cost(s) of marketing a movie (or, perhaps, even a TV show) have skyrocketed so much or continue to rise every year? Are the capabilities and/or materials needed to do that really just becoming more expensive to generate and create for some reason, or is it just the ol’ “inflation” blurb that can be applied to seemingly anything that is a business or involves money of any kind?

  9. BenEverhart1 says:

    There are actually a few reasons why costs have skyrocketed. First, as I mentioned in my earlier post, there aren’t the numbers of people watching TV shows like they used to. There is no longer a “Seinfeld” with which to reach the masses. People spend A LOT of time online — but honestly, online advertising isn’t especially effective and you have to advertise in a lot of different places to reach your audience. Video games and the Internet are competing for people’s attention. And so often, it is very difficult to “cut through the noise” as Scott said. Waiting for DVD/blu-ray/download is a choice a lot of people make while, at the same time, the stuidos are seeing home video revenues drop because of Redbox, Netflix, Hulu and so on. Rampant piracy is also a factor. As is the rise in ticket prices. As is the cost of the elaborate press junkets that are now the standard. But also, the lack of truly great movies makes the audience skeptical. In order for your movie to earn out, you have to convince people to go to the theater and that is tough to do with smaller, independent fare. Oh, and with Iron Lady, a lot of the box office success was the result of all the Oscar buzz around Streep. Those campaigns are costly as well. I’ve worked production before and you would be shocked how long accounts still work on a movie after release. It’s a long, long slog. Independent producers have to really be in love with a project to go ahead with it for all these reasons.

  10. BenEverhart1 says:

    Also, independent movies are so often dependant on word-of-mouth and in order for that to work, you need to provide marketing support for weeks and weeks after a movie’s opening weekend. Movies like Battleship, The Avengers and Men in Black 3 are all about opening weekend. Independent movie-goers take their time — a movie like “Midnight in Paris”, for example, played through a good chunk of the summer very well. But the marketing campaign had to run into the fall. Independent films are just hard to market. Last summer, “The Rum Diary” is an example of what can happen: it was a lower/mid budget movie that opened poorly and led to layoffs at FilmDistrict.

  11. BenEverhart1 says:

    Oh, and something else to consider: the cost of printing a feature film onto 35mm is at the minimum $1500 per copy — but I’ve heard estimates of over $3,000 per. When people wonder why an indie movie isn’t playing in their town, that is often why. If a movie opens on just 1,200 screens, you’re looking at $1.8 mill to $3.6 mill on that alone. (Digital projection cuts costs per “print” to $150 — however, many indie film cinephiles are against digital projection.)

  12. “Once again, I contend if an independent production company had the guts to focus its attention on making movies for Baby Boomers and above, and especially women, moderately budgeted films in the $5-20M range, assuming they developed and produced quality product, that would be a profitable business model.”

    I’ve literally been saying this for the past decade. I’ve been watching my father (who is responsible for my love of film) having fewer and fewer films he actually wants to go see.

    There’s a huge demand. The Baby Boomers actually have money (especially when compared to their children that make up the bulk of the 99%ers).

    The reason the 18-35 year old demographic was such a POWERFUL one is NOT because of the 18-35 year olds. It’s because they were tugging on their parents sleeves to go see these films. The baby boomers were the ones footing the bill.

    But the children of baby boomers are at the upper end of that demo now, without the disposable cash our parents had. We also are the first wave of multimedia saturated consumers. We’d just as easily spend money on a video game as a film (maybe are even more likely to do so), as are our children. We’re also much more likely to torrent a film than our parents (who probably don’t even know what that means).

    It’s no surprise to me that films that cater to baby boomers do surprisingly well. There’s less competition for these films and the demand is as high as it ever was.

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