LOS ANGELES — “Hollywood’s like Egypt: full of crumbled pyramids. It’ll never come back. It’ll just keep on crumbling until finally the wind blows the last studio prop across the sands.”
David O. Selznick, the golden era producer, made that glum proclamation in 1951. A new entertainment technology, TV, was emasculating cinema as a cultural force, and film studios had started to fossilize into bottom line-oriented businesses. As Selznick put it, Hollywood had been “grabbed by a little group of bookkeepers and turned into a junk industry.”
Since then, Hollywood has repeatedly written its own obituary. It died when interlopers like Gulf + Western Industries began buying studios in the 1960s. And again when “Star Wars” (1977) and “Superman” (1978) turned movies into toy advertisements. The 1980s (VCRs), the 1990s (the rise of media super-conglomerates), the 2000s (endless fantasy sequels) and the 2010s (Netflix, Netflix, Netflix) each brought new rounds of existential hand-wringing.
Underneath the tumult, however, the essence of the film industry remained intact. Hollywood continued to believe in itself. Sure, we churn out lowest common denominator junk, studio executives would concede over $40 salads at the Polo Lounge. It’s how we make our quarterly numbers. But we can still generate the occasional thunderclap, with ambitious films like “Get Out” and “1917” and “Black Panther” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” arriving on big screens and commanding the culture for months on end.
In one breath: All is lost! Big Tech is going to eat us alive.
In the next: Everyone still loves us. Just look at all those pinwheel-eyed fans buying tickets.
But the moment of crisis in which Hollywood now finds itself is different. In the 110-year history of the American film industry, never has so much upheaval arrived so fast and on so many fronts, leaving many writers, directors, studio executives, agents and other movie workers disoriented and demoralized — wandering in “complete darkness,” as one longtime female producer told me. These are melodramatic people by nature, but talk to enough of them and you will get the strong sense that their fear is real this time.
Have streaming, the coronavirus and other challenges combined to blow away — finally, unequivocally — the last remnants of Hollywood?
“The last nine months have shaken the movie business to its bones,” said Jason Blum, the powerhouse producer whose credits range from “The Purge” series to “BlacKkKlansman.”
The feel of a dismantled film set
Streaming, of course, has been disrupting the entertainment business for some time. Netflix started delivering movies and television shows via the internet in 2007. By 2017, Disney was trying to supercharge its own streaming ambitions by bidding for Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, ultimately swallowing most of the company for $71.3 billion in an effort to expand its library of content and gain control of Hulu.
In recent months, however, the shift toward streaming has greatly accelerated. With more than half of the 5,477 theaters in the United States still closed, more than a dozen movies originally destined for big screens have been rerouted to streaming services or online rental platforms. Pixar’s latest adventure, “Soul,” will debut exclusively on Disney+ on Christmas Day. It will compete with “Wonder Woman 1984” (Warner Bros.), which will arrive in theaters and on HBO Max on Dec. 25, a crossing-the-Rubicon moment in the eyes of analysts.
Meantime, the owner of Regal Cinemas, the No. 2 multiplex chain in North America, just took on emergency debt to avoid insolvency. Trying to keep his own company afloat, Adam Aron, the chief executive of AMC Entertainment, the No. 1 chain, quoted Winston Churchill on his most recent earnings call. (“We shall fight on the beaches!”) And the National Association of Theater Owners has found itself begging for a federal bailout. Deprived of one, the trade group warned, “movie theaters across the country are at risk of going dark for good.”
Without appearing on big screens, are movies even movies? Wrestling with that question alone has pushed Hollywood into a full-blown identity crisis. But the film industry is simultaneously dealing with other challenges. Outrage over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer has forced the movie capital to confront its contribution to racism and inequity. Coronavirus-forced production shutdowns have idled tens of thousands of entertainment workers. The two biggest talent agencies, Creative Artists and William Morris Endeavor, have been hobbled by the shutdown, resulting in a diaspora of agents, some of whom are starting competing firms, a once-unthinkable realignment.
There has been an abrupt changing of the guard in Hollywood’s highest ranks, contributing to the sense of a power vacuum. Nine of the top 20 most powerful people in show business, as ranked a year ago by The Hollywood Reporter, have left their jobs for one reason or another (retirement, scandal, corporate guillotine). They include the No. 1 person, Robert A. Iger, who stepped down as Disney’s chief executive in February, and Ron Meyer (No. 11), whose 25-year Universal career ended in August amid a tawdry extortion plot.
Retrenchments at Warner Bros. have also bruised Hollywood’s psyche. Over the years, as other film studios were lobbed between owners (Universal), downsized (Paramount) or subsumed (20th Century Fox), “Warners” remained virtually untouched, emerging as an emblem of stability and spending. In recent months, however, the studio has been streamlined by an aggressive new owner, AT&T, resulting in the departure of a startling number of executives who had been there for decades. For now, Warner Bros. has 10 movies on its 2022 theatrical release schedule, according to the database IMDbPro. Last year, it released 18.
The black icing on the cake: The shutdown has stripped Hollywood of its internal culture, the otherworldly (some would say silly) rituals that have long served as a magnet for so many. It has been a year without red carpets. There have been no see-and-be-seen power lunches at Chateau Marmont. Zoom is the new awards ballroom.
In a recent phone conversation that felt more like a therapy session, one Warner Bros. executive told me that “the town” felt like a dismantled movie set: The gleaming false fronts had been hauled away to reveal mere mortals wandering around in a mess.
Or perhaps, he continued, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid conflict with his employer, the proper metaphor was a movie — perhaps “The Remains of the Day,” the 1993 drama starring Anthony Hopkins as an English butler. As Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review, the Merchant Ivory film was about “the last, worn-out gasps of a feudal system that was supposed to have vanished centuries before.”
‘Normal wasn’t good enough’
Not everyone in Hollywood is walking around in a stupor. Some people even seem energized, especially those who have spent their careers wielding jackhammers against the Hollywood status quo. Ava DuVernay, for instance, has been outspoken about the need for studios to remake themselves — to dramatically diversify their upper ranks, which are overwhelmingly white and male, and to prioritize storytelling from a kaleidoscope of voices. Her production company, ARRAY, uses “change is ours to make” as its slogan.
“I see this as a time of opportunity,” Ms. DuVernay told me. “Sometimes you have to take it down to the studs and build something new.”
She continued: “It’s not going to go back to the way it was, nor do we want it to. We want to move forward. I hear people saying that they can’t wait for Hollywood to get back to normal. Well, I really resist that. Normal wasn’t good enough. All of this change in such a short amount of time really lays bare how shaky the ground was to begin with.”
Ms. DuVernay, whose film and television credits include “Selma,” “Queen Sugar” and “When They See Us,” grew more pointed. “Some folks are scared, and I have sympathy,” she said. “But it’s mostly the folks who are clinging to the idea that Hollywood is theirs and it was built in their likeness, and they will do anything to cling to it, even if that means destroying it.”
She concluded by rolling her eyes at the Chicken Littles who fret that moviegoing is over.
“Talk about dramatic,” she said. “Theaters aren’t going anywhere, at least not all of them.”
In fact, multiplexes may get a post-pandemic bump. Because so many studios have pushed back their biggest movies, next summer’s theatrical release calendar looks like a blockbuster heaven: “Black Widow,” “Fast & Furious 9,” “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Hotel Transylvania 4,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.” (To name a few.) With any luck, studio chiefs say, the newly vaccinated masses will come out in droves, in part because they won’t take the theatrical experience for granted anymore.
In Japan, where cinemas are fully operating again (the country’s response to the coronavirus has kept cases and deaths low), more than 3.4 million people turned out last month to see an animated movie, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train,” on its opening weekend. One Tokyo theater scheduled a jaw-dropping 42 screenings in one day to meet demand.
Popcorn for everyone!
“There’s a reason that the Roaring Twenties followed the 1918 pandemic,” J.J. Abrams, the Bad Robot Productions chairman, said by phone. “We have a pent-up, desperate need to see each other — to socialize and have communal experiences. And there is nothing that I can think of that is more exciting than being in a theater with people you don’t know, who don’t necessarily like the same sports teams or pray to the same god or eat the same food. But you’re screaming together, laughing together, crying together. It’s a social necessity.”
Streaming services and theaters will settle into coexistence, he predicted.
“I think going to a theater is like going to church and watching a movie at home is like praying at home,” Mr. Abrams said. “It’s not that you can’t do it. But the experience is wholly different.”
Over? Hollywood? C’mon. “I’m working on and excited about and hopeful about a number of theatrical projects,” Mr. Abrams said.
His most recent film, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” took in more than $1 billion at the global box office. It was one of nine movies to reach that threshold last year, with “Avengers: Endgame” collecting nearly $3 billion. All told, ticket sales stood at $42.2 billion, with weakness in North America ($11.4 billion) offset by an increase overseas ($30.8 billion).
The hoary tradition of exhibiting movies on big screens, which dates to the 1890s, may have vast challenges — not the least of which is a 78 percent plunge in domestic ticket sales for the year to date. But a business of its scale, as Mr. Abrams and others will tell you, does not vanish forever in the span of a few self-quarantining months.
‘People change their habits’
But what happens in 2022, once the thrill of mingling together has burned off, studios have worked through their blockbuster backlogs and streaming services are stronger than ever?
Will young people — trained during the pandemic to expect instant access to new movies like “Hamilton” and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” — get into the habit of going to the movies like their parents and grandparents did? Generation Z forms a crucial audience: About 33 percent of moviegoers in the United States and Canada last year were under the age of 24, according to the Motion Picture Association.
Most young people will have gone a full year without visiting a cinema by the time vaccines are expected to be widely deployed.
“Yes, there is pent-up demand to see movies in a theater,” said Peter Chernin, whose Hollywood career has spanned four decades. “But people change their habits.”
Mr. Chernin, who oversaw the release of theatrical megamovies like “Titanic” and “Avatar” while running Mr. Murdoch’s empire from 1996 to 2009, has already voted with his feet. Last year, he aligned his Chernin Entertainment with Netflix, where he has more than 70 movies in development. The films in which he specializes — high-quality dramas like “Hidden Figures” and “Ford v Ferrari” — are a dying breed in theaters. It’s too hard to make money when marketing campaigns start at $30 million.
But the audience has also shifted. Sorry, film snobs: Most people seem fine with watching these films in their living rooms (sometimes, shudder, on their smartphones).
“Cinema as an art form is not going to die,” said Michael Shamberg, the producing force behind films like “Erin Brockovich,” “The Big Chill” and, rather appropriately, “Contagion.” “But the tradition of cinema that we all grew up on, falling in love with movies in a theater, is over. Cinema needs to be redefined so that it doesn’t matter where you see it. A lot of people, sadly, don’t seem to be ready to admit that.”
In other words, the art may live on, but the myth of big screens as the be-all and end-all is being dismantled in a fundamental and perhaps irreversible manner. Because of the pandemic, the film academy has decided for the first time to allow streaming films to skip a theatrical release entirely and still remain eligible for the Academy Awards, nudging the Oscars closer to the Emmys. (The academy deemed the move “temporary,” but some people, including Ms. DuVernay, one of the organization’s 54 governors, think it will be hard to backtrack .)
Imagine what that means to Hollywood’s sense of self. Since always, the film industry has swaggered into every room it has ever entered — Spielberg on line one, Scorsese on line two. Nothing less than “ensuring film’s legacy as the great art form of our time” is one of the stated goals of the soon-to-open Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
Mr. Abrams, as much a television wunderkind as a movie one, described the difference between small screens and big ones by summarizing something he once heard on National Public Radio. Television, he explained, is the child and the audience is the parent. It’s smaller than you. You can control it by changing the channel. With movies, the roles are reversed. You are the small one. You’re supposed to look up at them.
Exactly how does that work in the streaming age?
No wonder Hollywood has been experiencing, as the trade newsletter The Ankler recently put it, “a heart attack wrapped inside a nervous breakdown.”
Next week, the Oscar race will kick into high gear with the wide release of David Fincher’s “Mank.” Set mostly in the 1930s and filmed in black and white, the film focuses on Hollywood’s romantic heyday — back when pictures were pictures — by telling a story about the creation of “Citizen Kane.” (The Australian actor Toby Leonard Moore plays David O. Selznick.)
Critics have been transported. “Time-machine splendor,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in Variety. “A tale of Old Hollywood that’s more steeped in Old Hollywood — its glamour and sleaze, its layer-cake hierarchies, its corruption and glory — than just about any movie you’ve seen.”
You can find “Mank” on Netflix.