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Hollywood’s Content Crisis: Robert McKee (Part 2)

Posted on Thursday, Oct 1st 2009

SM: The film “Up” did well with more sophisticated audiences.

RM: That is partly because “Up” was a family film. I think that even the more sophisticated audiences enjoyed “Up”. I enjoyed it a lot. Pixar is the most successful film company in Hollywood, and all of the creative staff from the CEO on down are all students of mine. They have an absolute dedication to content.

SM: The reason I am drilling down on this is that I see this as a business opportunity. You are telling me that there are great writers out there, they are just writing for television.

RM: It is definitely not a crisis of talent.

SM: Yet it is a crisis of story such that a whole market of consumers are going unsatisfied for whatever reason. I don’t get it.

RM: It has a lot to do with the politics of power. The reason that writers of high quality have left movies and gone over to television is for money and power. Let me give you an example. Alan Ball is a wonderful writer who won an Oscar for “American Beauty”. For the next year or more he could not get arrested. No one wanted anything that he wrote.

Alan Ball then went over to HBO, pitched them the series “Six Feet Under”, and created years of wonderful characters and stories. There is a major difference between television and movies. In television the writers are the producers. When you see an American TV series and you see all those producers’ names, they are all in fact writers. They are the writing staff of that series. They have gotten their titles because they can write. In television they have the power. The creator of the series becomes the executive producer, hires all the other writers, supervises and quality controls their work, and as long as that series is drawing audience it will continue. The money that writers make as writers/producers is 10 times what they would make in the movies.

SM: You spoke very highly about a film company called Merchant Ivory Films and especially Ruth Pawar Jhabvala. I love their work and their business model. They are a team dedicated to content that produces extremely high-quality films with extremely good stories. Merchant Ivory is also a financially successful venture. Why don’t we see more of that?

RM: You have to start at the heart of it. The genius behind Merchant Ivory is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. She is a superb writer in her own right as a novelist and short story writer. In my judgment, she is also the most brilliant adapter of novel to the screen in cinema. Her genius provided the material that James Ivory could direct and Ismail Merchant could produce. Without Ruth there would be no Merchant Ivory.

SM: I understand the value Ruth has brought. I also think they have a very good business model among the three of them.

RM: You can build a business model, but it must be filled with talent.

SM: You just talked about Alan Ball, who could not get his movies produced. Why doesn’t a talented writer like that get together with a great director and a great producer and create their own unit to bring to bear the type of work they would like to see, and the type of work they believe in?

RM: I think that is everybody’s ideal situation. There was another wonderful writer/director/producer team, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and Ed Saxon.They were working independently and they made films such as “Adaptation”. Then Charlie decided to become a director and the team fell apart. It is like rock ‘n roll. When Diana Ross says that she is going off on her own, that is the end of the team. What you are trying to do is apply business models to artists.

SM: This is big business. You make one product and this product makes $300 million a year.

RM: As long as you have talent the business model works. The same business model was established long before Hollywood in France. It fell apart as well. When artists decide to go off on their own, and they take their talent with them, the business model falls apart. Hollywood, unlike almost anywhere else in the world, has been the epicenter of talent. It gets talent from all over the world.

Hollywood is a very international town. Talent has always flowed towards talent, and talented people fight among themselves to find a place inside of the business model. That is why Hollywood would survive. If, as in the recent history of television, the best of the talent decides to leave and go into another dimension, then Hollywood begins to fall apart. It then scrambles and finds another formula, which is extremely expensive effects-driven films or low-brow comedies. I don’t think that this model in Hollywood can be duplicated anywhere else in the world.

This segment is part 2 in the series : Hollywood's Content Crisis: Robert McKee
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