You know who’s having a really good year? This guy.
I mean, I think when we go to a movie theater, we make a deal with ourselves.
This was James Cameron on the red carpet at the Golden Globes just a few weeks ago when everyone was predicting what we now know, that “Avatar: The Way of Water,” was on its way to multiple Oscar nominations and more than $2 billion at the box office.
What does that feel like to have three of the top grossing movies of all time that you’ve directed?
I’m kind of not thinking of it in those terms. I’m thinking of it more in the terms of we’re back to theaters around the world. People are going back to theaters, even going to theaters in China where they’re you know, where they’re having this huge COVID surge. You know, so it’s like we’re saying as a society, we need this. We need to go to movie theaters, you know, and have that experience. Enough with the streaming already, you know. Tired of sitting on my ass.
Okay. Let me just draw a line under that last sentence.
Enough with the streaming already, you know? Tired of sitting on my ass.
Because fundamentally, this is where Hollywood would like you to be. They want you to go back to the movie theaters. And the truth is, many of us aren’t there yet.
We’re really doing this?
I’m Courtney McCormick. I’m a makeup artist at CNN.
Why haven’t you gone back to the movies?
I like to be in the comfort of my own home in my pajamas, with my food and my kids on my couch, and my animals. And I’m just kind of lazy.
Courtney, by the way, is not lazy. It’s just that on going back to the movies, she and James Cameron are not aligned.
If we’re paying for all these subscription services as it is that have all these movies, why do I want to pay more money to go see something else? I’m already paying for 500 subscription services.
So why should we go back? Did streaming services hurt, help or throw dirt over the old Hollywood system for making quality films? Will studios drown us in a sea of reboots, prequels and sequels to make up for their losses? And what will happen to the smaller films if the audiences for them are just a little too comfortable at home? I’m Audie Cornish. And this is The Assignment. Just so we have the lay of the land here compared to, say, 2019, movie ticket sales in the U.S. are still down around 30%. And the parent company for Regal Cinemas is in bankruptcy. Studios are releasing fewer films to smaller audiences. Now, I mean, there’s a certain kind of movie that was never a blockbuster. Awards season is when studios get to show off their so-called prestige films, high quality in look, feel, writing, emotion. These are the films studios have always made for less money in exchange for polishing their image. These are also the kinds of movies that Franklin Leonard is very familiar with.
Yeah, we’re doing the work.
In 2005, he started an email chain to find out the best screenplays insiders were reading that were not being made into films. Now it’s a juggernaut of an organization called The Black List. More than 300 screenplays on its annual lists have been turned into movies.
And the Oscar goes to… “The King’s Speech.”
And more than 200 of those…
And the Oscar goes to… Diablo Cody.
Have been nominated for Academy Awards.
And the Oscar goes to Taika Waititi.
Now, typically when people talk to you, I think the set up is “this man who upended the gatekeeping system of Hollywood and opened the doors to all kinds of screenwriters who might not have gotten a chance.” But now it’s been a few years. Your numbers are pretty good. I won’t call you a gatekeeper, but you’re a guy. You’re the guy now.
I would never call myself the guy. If others want to, I’ll take it. But I, and now the team that I’ve assembled, I think, have tried to build a better mousetrap when it comes to identifying the needles in the infinite haystacks of great writing.
So he knows good movies, He knows how hard it is to get a good movie made, a movie that’s not a sequel or a remake or an adaptation. Which is why it pains me to describe to him what I learned in CNN hair and makeup when this very idea came up.
I’m Abby Phillip. I’m a correspondent and anchor at CNN.
And do you go to the movies?
What would make you go to the movies? What kind of film would make you want to go back?
I don’t know that there is a type of film, but maybe if you made a really strong case that it had to be seen on a massive screen in order for it to be understood.
So it’s like the Avatar argument.
Maybe, but I don’t want to see Avatar.
Will they ever make good movies again if you don’t go back to the theater? Is it your fault?
No, I think that they will. I mean, there have been so many great movies.
But you haven’t gone to see them.
They’re in my house. And you know what? There are so many bad movies and those are all in the theaters. There are a lot of bad movies. And I think maybe if they made fewer bad movies and more good movies, people would go and see that.
I’m always frustrated by that debate because I think the real question should be is, is each individual movie good? You know, what James Cameron is doing with Avatar is extraordinary and everyone should see it. I thought that Top Gun: Maverick was an incredible film while also giving me the nostalgia that I was looking for from the original. So, you know, Wakanda Forever, you know, what Ryan Coogler is doing in the Marvel Universe is extraordinary. So I’ve always been very much agnostic about the notion of sequels, remakes and adaptations as long as the movies are good. And for me, that has to be the real question. Now, are there pressures that make it harder to make certain kinds of movies and to make those movies good in this environment? Absolutely. It is an odd thing to try to make a movie that everyone in the world can consume and can love. And I think that one of the mistakes that the industry is making is not recognizing that audiences want both Top Gun: Maverick and Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Tar and things like that. I think they’re also doing a bad job of identifying who should be making the Tars and the sort of smaller independent films because they’re not serving the audience that is willing to go to the theater to see those things.
Well, I mean that, you know, if you look at the people who can get the resources to make an independent film in 2023, they’re not a terribly good representation of the moviegoing public. Right? And that’s on gender. That’s on race. And then when you do get some someone young and interesting, like the Daniels doing something like Everything Everywhere All At Once, people definitely go to the movie theater. So I think it’s a question of who are we giving resources to make smaller budget movies and do they reflect what the audience actually wants? I would argue that in some ways they don’t right now.
So stop complaining about there not being enough good movies?
Well, no, I wouldn’t say start complaining about there being enough good movies. What I’d say is make a little bit of effort to find the great movies that are out there. And if you still think they’re aren’t enough great movies, fair play. But I suspect that if you find a favorite film critic or two or you join something like Letterboxd and you look for movies that other people say are great and check those out, you may find a lot of surprises that you would not otherwise know about. Because a lot of those movies that are incredible, like you said, they don’t have the budgets that the major studios have and they don’t have the marketing budgets that major studios had.
But you have been working to change that for several years now.
Disheartened? Where are you?
I think I sort of live in a permanent state of amusement, if anything. And that may be a surprising answer. I think for me, it is stunningly obvious that increasing the diversity of the industry is the sort of most cost effective way to improve business results. Right? And there are studies that reflect that instinct, right? McKinsey did a study on the amount of money that the industry is losing specifically as a result of anti-black bias. And they found that on the low end that number is $10 billion annually. Address anti-b;lack bias, make money. And the fact that the industry hasn’t- I I’m I think it’s a it’s a frustrated amusement but I’m as frustrated by and sometimes even more frustrated by irrational business decisions than I am bias that I already know exists. I think it’s one thing I’m like, yes, racism exists in America, patriarchy exists in America, but at least let’s make good business decisions while that’s true.
More in a minute. We’re back with Franklin Leonard, creator of The Black List. After the world started to rely more heavily on streaming services for entertainment, those same streamers started aiming higher. The thinking was exclusive premium content would translate into more subscribers. Think Netflix, which for the last three years led all the studios in Oscar nominations. Not this year. Now the big streamers are facing layoffs and rethinking their big spending.
I think it’s just a shift in the reality of the corporate concerns of those companies. You know, when the streamers were the insurgents and needed to put a marker down and say we’re just as important and big and have, you know, as big shoulders as the studios do, it made sense that they were negotiating aggressively for the things that the studios were negotiating for. And the Academy Award and Academy Award nominations are always sort of represented, even if not in financial terms, in reputational terms, we’re here. Right? And now that the streamers are arguably hegemonic or sort of operating semi oligopolistically, it’s inevitable that they know that they can now exert downward pressure on, you know, what they’re spending. Whereas before they didn’t have to.
If the streamers burst on the scene in part making prestige films, making films in the genres that the big studios had sort of, not given up on, but they were focused on the big popcorn blockbuster movies, the streamers came in and started to make those little films, right? What happens if they become less interested, right? What happens when they start, as you said, exerting that downward pressure? Because it seems like that’s squarely in your wheelhouse. The kinds of movies that come out of the Black List were the kinds of movies that greatly benefited from the streaming boom.
I think that’s right. I think that there’s you know, I think it’s going to be harder for for movies that are sort of made by filmmakers who have a great focus on the art and are not sort of focused exclusively on entertaining or distracting you briefly or partially from whatever it is that you’re doing.
I don’t have a lot of natural instinct towards nostalgia, particularly about the way business organizations have functioned, because I’m acutely aware of the ways in which those systems failed. Right? Like, I’m not looking to go back to a world where movies are distributed widely in theaters, but there are no women or people of color directors, right? Like that- and that’s a tradeoff I’m happy to make, is that it’s harder to get certain kinds of movies made, but everybody gets to make them equally. I’ll take that trade. And I also have a great deal of faith in new filmmakers, new business models. And so I think the bigger question for me is less are we losing something, than it is, okay, well, how do we build something that serves all audiences and all artists? Because it’s not the way it was done before, because that didn’t even if we want to tell ourselves the lie that it did.
Right. I mean, it’s funny, I think so much about how nostalgia for, say, the late seventies or the mid-nineties colors how many writers talk about modern indie cinema.
Even though these are completely different environments from the late seventies or the mid-nineties.
I think we have- I don’t know if it’s a sort of natural failure of human thinking, but you see it mirrored elsewhere. Right? Like you, there’s a community in the United States that wishes we could go back to the 1950s, and for a lot of folks, the 1950s weren’t great, but they’re looking to go back to a time when it was easy for them and not moral good. Right? And so my question is less, how do we go back to when Hollywood functioned as it used to and more how do we build a Hollywood that again serves audiences and artists, which historically we haven’t done? And I think the technology allows for the potential to do much better.
What has surprised you out of the pandemic, out of these last 2 to 3 years?
I don’t know that anything is surprised me necessarily. But I’ll say one thing that gives me a great deal of hope is that despite all of these crazy changes, despite the reality of COVID shoots, despite how- just how difficult it is to get movies made at all in this time, there continue to be extraordinary movies made. I saw lots of great movies last year. And, you know, I think a lot of people- I’ve heard it for 20 years, ah, movies have gotten so bad. And I don’t see the evidence of that. And I think statistically it’s not true. I think that people are maybe more aware of bad movies or there’s a recency bias, and the old days were better. I know that with like for me, for example, I’m like, hip hop was better in the nineties. Yeah, that was that was my time. And so that was the era that I latch on to. Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. I think similarly, there’s a tendency to assume that when I fell in love with the thing or after, after I fell in love with the thing, it got bad. So I- there are a lot of great.
But can I challenge you a little bit? I’m going to do devil’s advocate because I have not gone really back to the movies at all. It’s like I’m a woman over 30, I’m a parent, and I see the trailers for things and I’m just like, I don’t want to see that.
And they’re not making anything I want to see, and it costs too much money, and the babysitter and the mask, all those things you’re saying, like I am reluctant. I don’t know if anyone is going to make anything that’ll bring me back.
To the in-theater experience.
But again, I. I would love it if you did go back to the in-theater experience.
Well, because I think it’s I think it is a better experience. I think that being able- I think that seeing-
Better than my couch and the cookie’s that- the breakaway cookies I make from the supermarket? Tell me.
The exhibitors will hate me for this. Bring the cookies in a pocket. In a bag.
Okay, now you’re taking it to my childhood.
But what I’ll say is, is that. Look, I’ll give you one example. I loved the Whitney Houston biopic. I thought Naomi Ackie’s performance is incredible. And Stanley Tucci has created an entire genre about being a supporting character in an iconic woman’s life. I watched it at home. I know the experience of watching that movie, I would have had a different experience if I had been in a theater for that closing number with a bunch of other people who love Whitney Houston’s music. I know that for a fact. Now, is it enough to get me to go to the theater to see it? Depends on the day. And it’s not going to be enough for everybody. But I’d prefer that people have that experience seeing that movie. If I have to choose between them not seeing it and seeing it on streaming or in their homes, see it in their homes. Right? By all means. And so I think the challenge for us as an industry is less how do we get people to go back to the theaters, though that should be a priority. It’s how do we build a business model that allows the filmmakers whose movies are on streaming to be able to sustain long term careers and participate in the upside when they do make something that everybody sees and loves?
Are people like me inadvertently breaking down the very idea of what a film or cinema is? Here’s a quote that made me think of this. The- Tom Quinn is the chief executive of Neon. That’s the indie studio behind Parasite — they won the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture — and a small film from last year, The Worst Person In The World. He told the New York Times that this letting the audience control the presentation of a movie is antithetical to everything movies are supposed to be. He says the reality is that seeing some of these movies at home on a portal where you’re in complete control and can turn them off and walk away, you can alter the way the film is edited by virtue of how you see it. It’s no longer cinema. And he says this kind of breaks down the relationship or alters the relationship between the audience and the filmmakers vision.
Yeah, I fundamentally disagree. And I’ll use an analogy to explain why. Does my ability to look at great art on my laptop or phone change the existence of that art that I may never get to see in person? I may never be able to to go see paintings that are at museums and cities that I may never visit. Why would you prevent me and the rest of the world from being able to experience that art, however different the experience by looking at it on my phone or laptop, because I can’t get to that location? I don’t think film is any different. And if we believe that film is an art form, I think we have to look at that analogy and take it seriously. The idea that film can or should only be experienced in theater is a level of exclusion of audiences globally and within the United States that I just frankly can’t stand for. And as somebody who, you know, has been involved in making films, I struggle with the idea that, well, if people can’t see my movie in a theater, they shouldn’t see it at all.
I love this answer, but it may be because I feel like it allows me to stay home. It does not bring me back to the theater.
Well, look, let’s let’s let’s let’s imagine a world where films are only distributed in theaters as they used to be before the, you know, the advent of the technology that we used to watch them now. Who got to watch movies? It was people who could afford to go to the theater that had theaters that were showing those types of movies near their homes. And that’s not most of America. It’s definitely not most of the world. Now, if you- let’s assume, though, that that’s neutral as a phenomenon. The next step of it is, okay, well then what movies get made to serve those audiences and that audience that is only in places where they have the ability to go see movies in the theater? The movies then don’t look like the world. They look like the community of people who have the resources or the proximity to the theaters to go see it. And then you have a film culture, an entire artform that is entirely, entirely defined by a very narrow sliver of, let’s be realistic, wealthy, white people. And when the primary way or one of the primary ways in which all of us around the world learn about the world, who we are, what value we have, what value other people have is via film and television. That’s a very dangerous scenario, and it’s not one that I can get down with. And then the last thing I’d say is if you feel comfortable, if you feel safe, try to see things in theaters. I think especially if the movie is great, you will be reminded why it was an experience that we enjoyed prior to the pandemic. And it may make you more inclined to do that more frequently, which is good for the business, obviously, but I think it’s good for human enjoyment to be in a room with a bunch of people and have a shared experience about a story, especially if that story is good.
Franklin Leonard, thank you so much for speaking with me.
It’s my pleasure.
That was Franklin Leonard, film producer and creator of The Black List. We want to thank you for listening to this episode of The Assignment. New episodes drop every Thursday, so please listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like the show, please leave us a rating and a review. The assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai and Lori Galaretta. Our associate producers are Isoke Samuel, Allison Park and Sonia Hton. Our senior producers are Haley Thomas and Matt Martinez. Our editor is Rina Palta. Mixing and Sound Design by David Schulman. And Dan Dzula is our technical director. Abbie Fentress Swanson is our executive producer. Special thanks to Katie Hinman. I’m Audie Cornish. Thank you for listening.
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