The Rise of the Comic Book Movie (from Liberty magazine 2008)

Posted by freedomforall 2 weeks, 6 days ago to Entertainment
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The Rise of the Comic Book Movie -
Looking at the hit movies released by Hollywood over
the past 20 years, one is struck by the large number that
are based on comic books (aka "graphic novels"). X-Men,
Spiderman, Batman, IronMan, Superman, the Transformers
... why?
Whether you find these movies interesting or puerile,
entertaining or boring, it's an interesting question. The
answer seems to lie in some major changes both in the film
industry and in society at large.
Let's begin with the film industry. It's important to
remember that this is a business like most, aimed at mak-
ing money by providing a service or product for a mar-
ket. Nothing has changed in this regard in over a hundred
years of American cinema. But during the first half of
Hollywood history, up to about 1950, Hollywood stu-
dios were vertically integrated companies, with a business
model tied to that structure. That is, the studios produced
movies internally, choosing actors, writers, directors, and
so forth from employees under contract; the studios then
distributed their product to theaters they often owned. The
vast majority of their capitalization was actually in real
estate. And from the 1920s until the 1950s, there were five
major studios, built up in several cases from mergers along
the way: Loews (MGM); Paramount; Warner Brothers; Fox
(Twentieth Century Fox); and the short-lived RKO.
Their general business model, which I call the buffet
model, was to produce a continuous flow of movies of all
genres: westerns, thrillers, mysteries, "women/s movies,"
comedies, and so forth. They also put out a lot of shorts
- brief documentaries, cartoons, and the like. The idea

The sketch I give here is filled out by Richard Maltby, "Holly-
wood Cinema/" Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 2003. The figures I
cite when discussing the change in the Hollywood business model
come from that source.

was to target all kinds of audiences, having different kinds
of tastes, and keep their theaters filled. Remember, they
earned money directly from ticket sales and concessions.
In this they succeeded. In 1925, over 300 films were
released - in a nation dramatically smaller in popula-
tion than it is today. Between 1930 and 1940, the time of
the Great Depression, the figure was over 350 a year - a
movie a day. Production dropped during the war, to a low
of 225 in 1945, but rebounded to over 250 by 1950. During
the ensuing 25 years, however, production of new films
dropped linearly, hitting about 100 in 1975 and staying
fairly constant until rather recently. During this decade the
number has averaged about 190 per year.
One of the biggest factors in all this was the 1948
Paramount decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which
viewed the major studios as an oligopoly - a small group
of businesses exercising monopoly control of a market -
and ruled that henceforth they could not control exhibition
as well as production and distribution. Studios could pro-
duce flicks and peddle them to theaters, but not own or run
the theaters. The Great Hollywood Divorce did not end the
studios, of course; but by depriving them of their reliable
source of income, the exhibition side, it made them change
their business model. They had to focus on making money
from the production side, from the widespread rental of
their films to the now independent theaters. (The Court's
ruling didn/t help the theaters. Their number dropped by
over half from 1947 to 1963.)
The new way of doing business was what I call the block-
buster model. The idea was no longer to produce a large
number of movies, most making modest profit by appeal-
ing to audiences of different tastes as the movies circulated
to theaters across the country over a two year period. No,
it was now was to produce fewer movies and keep aiming
them at a mass audience, releasing them simultaneously
at theaters nationwide, hoping for huge revenues from a successful competition with TV. In the '60s it was movies
such as ""The Sound of Music"; in the '70s, "The Godfather,"
""The Poseidon Adventure," and especially "Star Wars."
As the blockbuster model developed into its "Star
Wars" phase, it involved not just producing a big hit in the-
aters (with lots of sequels) but also retaining merchandise
tied to the hit. ""Star Wars" earned more from merchandise
sales than from ticket sales. The 1989 "Batman" earned
four times as much from its merchandise as from tickets.
Merchandise used to be just T-shirts and other branded
items; it now includes video games and a great variety of
other stuff.
Now, the audience most likely to go to a theater is often
a younger one, from early teens to twenty-somethings. This
is, not coincidentally, the age group most likely to buy film
merchandise; it is a rare 50-year*0Id who is brave enough
to wear a Batman T-shirt. Here we have come to the social
During the past few decades, the amount of reading
- especially of literature - that is done by elementary
:lnd secondary students has dropped significantly. There
He several interconnected reasons for this, involving the
iecline of the family and the mediocrity of the public
;chools, which have dropout rates of roughly one-quarter
:or white students and one-half for black and Latino stu-
lents. It's no surprise that reading has suffered.
And of course, TV viewing has risen since the 1960s.
. recent study reports that the average student spends 12
lours a week watching TV, and only one hour reading.t
Studios produce most of their fare for a young American
udience that has a declining exposure to and apprecia-
,on of literature. To appeal to this audience, they turn to
1e material that young people spend their leisure on. This

,andra Hofferty and John Sandberg, "How American Children
Ipend Their Free Time/" Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63
May 2001).

naturally includes comic books, video games (hence mov-
ies such as the ""Lara Croft, Tomb Raider" series), and TV
shows (hence the "Charlie's Angels" movies, and the cur-
rent ""Simpsons" and "X- Files" films).
The studios are doing exactly what their business
model and their understanding of their target market dic-
tates: trying to come up with blockbusters that appeal to a
mass audience with a high number of nonreaders in it.
Where the studios see literature that does have a popu-
lar following, they are happy to produce movies based on
it. ""The Lord of the Rings" and IfThe Chronicles of Narnia"
come to mind here, as does (perhaps) "Harry Potter."
When Ang Lee produced "Sense and Sensibility," and it
was a surprise hit, other Jane Austen books became flicks
as well.
But for the foreseeable future, you will see American
studios continue to produce movies based on pop culture
of the lowest level of literacy. The economics of the indus-
try and the quality of American education pretty much dic-
tate it. And it's worth noting that both these things were
pretty much dictated by government.
Also, there has been a rapid spread of cinematic tech-
nology abroad. Gone are the days of grainy art flicks with
low production values. What foreign producers now create
has all the cinematic quality of American flicks, but often
with more depth and diversity.
We are seeing the globalization of the film industry,
and thank God for it. - Gary Jason

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