BEN FRITZ is West Coast bureau chief for US News at the Wall Street Journal. He previously covered Hollywood for the Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Variety. A graduate of Swarthmore College, Ben is a co-author of the best-selling All The President's Spin, released in 2004. His new book, THE BIG PICTURE: THE FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE OF MOVIES, a Los Angeles Times Bestseller and winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at the 2018 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, is now out in paperback. He lives in Los Angeles.
Order Ben Fritz's book here.
Dave Watson: First, congratulations on a wonderful book, the quintessential snapshot of where the industry is today. How did the book come about?
Ben Fritz: Thanks so much for those kind words. The book began with an email out of the blue from an agent in the winter of 2015. He asked me if I thought I could write a book about the Sony hack, which I had been covering extensively for The Wall Street Journal.
I thought about it for a while but pretty quickly concluded there wasn’t a book-length worth of material left in the Sony hack, especially given how much coverage it was getting. And whatever there was to cover I thought would seem like old news by the time I finished and published a book.
But I read more of the hacked emails and documents while reaching that conclusion, I began to see how illuminating those materials were. They provided amazing insight into how a studio operated from the inside, what life was like for the executives who worked there and how and why they made the decisions they did. I realized these materials could be they key I needed to tell a story I had long wanted to: The story of how Hollywood became obsessed with franchises, superheroes and sequels and lost interest in original films for adults.
DW: You say early on that the “dawn of the franchise film" era is the most meaningful revolution in the movie business since the studio system ended in the 1950s.” Some might argue that it really started in the 1970s with the summer blockbuster. How is this era different now?
BF: You can certainly find some of the roots of our current era in movies like Jaws and Star Wars. But studios back then didn’t think of themselves as brand managers. They would make one film and, if it was a hit and it lent itself to a sequel, then try to make another. A lot of hits didn’t have sequels and many that did were inferior critically and commercially, such as Jaws 2, 3, 4 etc.
The Star Wars trilogy was a rarity and even that was three films over six years and then it was over.
Nothing back then was comparable to the Marvel cinematic universe or even the common practice of dating sequels before the prior film came out, as Universal does with its Jurassic World films, to take one example.
Most importantly, studios back then had broad slates of films and summer blockbusters were just one element. Now the big budget franchise movies, which come out all year long, are the primary reason that studios exist. And the most successful studio, Disney, is the most focused on them.
DW: It’s clear that branded franchises work, yet some appear to run out of material while others don’t. You note the arguably sputtering Spider-Man franchise along side the thriving Avengers films.
BF: Creative execution certainly still matters a lot. The team at Marvel Studios understood the essence of the Marvel characters and how to translate them to the big screen in a way the Sony team at the time of the Amazing Spider-Man series did not.
Controlling a popular franchise is not a guarantee of success. But it is a critical element. These days you’d rather bet on a good movie that’s part of a major franchise than a great movie that isn’t.
DW: Some genres get a boost and go through an era where they are “hot.” Thinking of legal thrillers in the ‘90s with John Grisham adaptations and Jurassic Park reinventing the monster movies that same decade. Yet these current franchises don’t seem endangered. Would you agree? Why?
BF: Yes, the fact that Marvel Studios hasn’t lost steam after ten years and twenty movies is extraordinary and unprecedented. It defies history and so nobody saw it coming.
It helps that Marvel has brilliantly balanced bringing back characters audiences love and maintaining it successful tone but while not making movies that feel repetitive. But it also may signal a change in the taste of audiences. I’m not sure if the Marvel movies would have been as successful back in the ‘80s or ‘90s.
DW: The franchises that take their time, such as Jurassic Park and Mission Impossible, seem to last. Is this because they take their time to develop strong stories? Dynamic, cinematic universes?
BF: Not necessarily. Independence Day took 20 years off and its sequel didn’t do well. Jumanji took twenty-two years off and the sequel was a big hit. It has more to do with audience-pleasing execution and good marketing than the length of the break.
DW: Movies are still cinema, and in trying to get people out of their homes and into theaters, are the obstacles facing movie studios purely content and the cinematic experience?
BF: It’s mainly competition from home viewing. So many films that would have done solid business a decade ago flop these days and so many films that would have been major hits just do solid business. That’s because people have SO MUCH good content, including original films, to watch on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, etc. etc.
DW: You also profile Amy Pascal and Sony Pictures in your book, conveying in my mind just enough detail and leaving room for our imaginations. Where are she and Sony at now?
BF: Amy is a producer now, which is really the job she should have had a long time ago instead of studio executive, I would argue. She was nominated for an Oscar for The Post and had a big hit in Spider-Man: Homecoming, for which she was on the set in Georgia every day. She also produced Molly’s Game, which didn’t so as well. Amy’s producing career is like her glory days at Sony: A mix of Spider-Man films and original dramas.
Her replacement at Sony is Tom Rothman, who’s much more bottom-line minded and internationally-oriented, making him a more natural studio chief for the current era. He’s still constrained by Sony’s lack of franchises but he had a huge hit in the latest Jumanji and some solid successes like Peter Rabbit. Sony’s far from its glory days and the mega-success of Disney, but it is doing better than in Amy’s last few years.
DW: Diversification is a theme in your book, in movies and the movie business. Are more and more studios diversifying structurally? You note a financial flop can be no big deal to an agile company.
BF: Studios themselves are diversifying a bit. Most are investing in growing or starting their television and online divisions. More studios are becoming parts of bigger companies. AT&T buying Warner, Disney buying Fox, etc.
DW: Is there anything endangering streaming content? Services?
BF: Probably just the fact that there are soon going to be so many of them. People can’t possibly subscribe to them all. Competition will be fierce and there may only be a few winners.
DW: Near the end you say there are three directors who can get the films they want to make made: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Christopher Nolan. This invokes Peter Biskind’s seminal book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls when a dying studio system handed control over to a group of directors. Will this kind of event and time ever occur again?
BF: I think filmmakers, and talent in general, have more power in the streaming world. Because anything that helps content to stand out amid the huge flow of content is a big plus and content or technology companies will trade creative control for that. But when it comes to theatrical movies, I think that day is largely over. Will there even be another filmmaker with as much power as Christopher Nolan again? Nobody new has reached that level yet this decade and it’s almost over.
DW: What’s next for you? You’ve written two books and report for The Wall Street Journal.
BF: I recently became an editor at the Journal. I’m West Coast Bureau Chief for U.S. News, which actually means I oversee our coverage of politics, the environment, natural disasters, crime, and the economy in this region of the country. Perhaps I’ll write another book about the entertainment industry. I would like to and am mulling some ideas. Nothing firm yet though. Right now I’ve got to finish the new afterword for the paperback of The Big Picture, which is out now.
DW: What is the afterword about?
BF: It’s about all the changes that have happened in Hollywood since I finished the book. There have been a LOT. Disney agreed to buy Fox, AT&T bought Time Warner, and Netflix has gone from dipping its toe into original movies to becoming a major, viable competitor with hits like Birdbox and Oscar nominees like Roma. Basically, the changes I wrote about in the book are happening even faster than I had expected.
DW: Congratulations on becoming editor as well as the paperback edition. Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment? One that inspires you to this day?
BF: That opening shot of Sunset Boulevard with William Holden face down in the pool. I’m not sure it has ever been bested.
Clip: Sunset Boulevard