Who killed Hollywood?

Peter Bart, Variety’s Legendary Editor-in-chief Speaks


Peter Bart

Copyright © Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

Los Angeles, CA, April 29, 2014 – The movie and television industries have experienced enormous change since Peter Bart became a part of the Hollywood movie scene back in the late 1960s. Peter Bart recently sat down with the 2014 Media AMP participants during their Los Angeles module at UCLA. He introduced new trends for movie studios such as looking for young overseas audiences, lean business models and turning towards TV and pointed out the excessive power of marketing teams and the risk that art house movies face.

Peter Bart has been a high-level executive and producer at major Hollywood studios, involved in movies such as The Godfather. He’s best known for being the editor-in-chief of Variety, a top entertainment-trade magazine, from 1989–2009. He is a co-host of the weekly television series Shootout which, since 2003, has been carried on the AMC television channel and is syndicated in 53 countries around the world.

A less complicated era

"I got my training as a journalist and spent 12 years of my career with The New York Times. I became vice president for production at Paramount Studios at that time (1967)," said Bart.

He explained that one of his closest friends, Robert Evans, was head of production and simply asked him to be his right hand man. Bart described how, in a short ride car with Evans, they quickly green-lighted (i.e., the approval process) an unfinished gangster book they had optioned, that resulted in the first Godfather movie.

"At that moment in time it was pre-corporate Hollywood. So if you fell in love with a film project, you could simply go out and do something about it. You didn’t have a marketing committee, and you didn’t have to consult about the international or video rights. The green light process today is extraordinarily complex," said Bart.

Superhero summer blockbusters dominate the industry

"The real business of Hollywood is these so called summer tent pole movies, the superhero pictures. These are the pictures that support the studios’ structure. And the big hero of the moment corporately is, of all things, Marvel Comics, which Hollywood paid no attention to until the last two three years," said Bart who explained that these films can sometimes make $1 billion for a studio.

"The overseas market today is about 70 percent of the whole market. That’s the business, really," said Bart. That’s why "most superhero films now open overseas first", Bart explained.

Target demographic for blockbusters declining

"That’s the fascinating anomaly that the studios have totally focused on the youth and overseas demographic – Russia, Brazil, China – those are the audiences that Hollywood really wants to capture. But meanwhile, us older people are the most loyal movie goers, and we constitute 35 to 40 percent of the marketplace, and nobody gives a damn about us…. the older sector is the only loyal sector of the audience out there," said Bart. In the session it was pointed out that the 18 to 24 year olds declined as movie goers by 21 percent from 2012 to 2013.

According to a recent MPAA survey, the average frequent movie goer in his early 20s owns at least four mobile devices. All those devices are obviously competing for their attention, said Bart. "My youngest daughter watches movies on her hand held, and she has not been to the movies in a long time," said Bart.

Shift from Movies to TV

Motion pictures will move into the TV arena since everyone is viewing their small screens. TV right now is in its heyday with amazing series such as House of Cards and Breaking Bad, said Bart. "The whole business of Hollywood is television now. It is no longer centered around the film business," he said when asked about Amazon and Netflix entering the movie and TV markets. Smaller and shorter films are also on the horizon, said Bart. They cost less money and could be good for the industry.

What we see now on TV is really superior to what we see now in film, he said. "The brightest people in the arts today are going into TV."

The future of art house films at risk

When asked about independent films, Bart said the sheer volume of independent films makes it much harder for them to get any attention. "The festival circuit is tough, with hundreds and hundreds of films competing for a small space," said Bart.

"I am concerned that an art picture could become a thing of the past," he said. He noted that in the summer it is almost impossible to find an art house film among all the tent pole films at the multiplexes. There is hardly a film available that an adult would want to see, he said.

The marketing machine is ruining Hollywood, Bart said. We need to get back to good storytelling, quality productions, skilled and creative work.

New lean business models

Looking at art house labels, Peter Bart talked about Focus Features and explained that its owner, Universal, brought in a new head and introduced a new business plan. First, keep the costs of each film to $60 million or below per picture. Second, try to finance most of the films, if not all of them, with at least 50 percent of outside money.

"Peter Schlessel, the new president of Focus, believes that those three words: other peoples’ money is the key to survival in Hollywood with specialty or midrange pictures. His overhead is very lean," said Bart.

"In my studio days, we would have as many as 50 or 60 projects in development. A company like this (i.e., Focus) has maybe five or six. So the whole business plan is spectacularly different from the traditional studios," he said. "To a degree, I think that companies like Focus or Lions Gate, with less overhead, may be the key to the studios’ survival," he added.

Typically media people are the more creative types, he said. But you need a combination of sharp business skills to survive and thrive in the industry today. Creative types need to learn the necessary business skills so they can get ahead.