It seems that, like lemmings, we are all racing faster and faster into the sea, each of us trying to outrun and outspend and out-earn the other in a mad sprint toward the mirage of making the next blockbuster.
– Jeffrey Katzenberg, Some Thoughts on Our Business, 1991
I have started reading James B. Stewart’s book Disney War about the twenty years of Disney under Michael Eisner and I’m only 200 pages in, when Disney was at the height of its power with the success of The Beauty and the Beast still fresh and the Eisner-Wells-Katzenberg team still together.
The book does not dwell on the industry’s changing mechanisms during the late 80s, when the advent of home video and globalisation started turning the mechanisms of the business on its head. But it does quote extensively from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s infamous 1991 memo, which is now fully available online.
It’s hard not to see a direct line from Katzenberg’s words in 1991 – in which he goes on to say that “[i]f every major studio release must aspire to repeat the 1989 success of ‘Batman,’ then we will undoubtedly soon see the 1990’s equivalent of ‘Cleopatra,’ a film that was made in the hope of repeating the 1959 success of ‘Ben Hur.'” – to this summer’s speeches by Spielberg/Lucas and Soderbergh about ballooning marketing costs and a possible “implosion” of the business (which, despite a summer of flops, is unlikely to happen).
You can derive two possible conclusions from this: 1. Things “broke” in Hollywood long before the Noughties and what we’re experiencing at the moment are just the last ripples of a child that fell into a well long ago (to use a German expression that denotes a lost cause). 2. The “problem” of today is not really a problem, it’s just the way Hollywood works and there has always been some version of the same problem around.