An Open Letter to Hollywood Studios:
As a lifelong fan of films, there are many things I could ask of you. I could request the release of movies that have yet to appear on DVD even 10 years after the format’s Golden Age. I could lament the trend of there being fewer theatrical releases each year, the increasing reliance on a limited number of film genres, and the dearth of foreign films in U.S. theaters. However, none of these pleas, I fear, would have much effect, for they are unfortunate, yet justifiable business decisions. After all, the films I would rush out to buy on DVD would likely sell less than 1,000 copies nationally, and that’s just not a number that those who crunch the numbers could justify. I get that. I do. Perhaps it is time to do away with region coding and to finally allow all lovers of film to have access to the world’s vast collection of releases.
But that is not the request I wish to make today, although I would be ecstatic if it occurred. No, what I’d like to ask of you is for less information. Specifically, please stop releasing star salaries and film budgets to the public. I understand how strange this sounds, especially given the fact that we are living in the supposed age of information. Hear me out, though.
We have become a world seemingly obsessed with numbers. We know the pay, for instance, of professional athletes, and slumping superstars often have to put up with news articles that calculate how much they are making per hit. The message of these articles is unmistakable: The production doesn’t warrant their pay. Before you say, but this is sports, remember, they did the same thing for Schwarzenegger after he made Terminator 2. For more evidence, just look at all of the articles about the best or worst bargains in Hollywood. It is a very odd way of critiquing talent and their influence on moviegoers.
This obsession has extended into conversations about movies, especially about those that reportedly lose money. A film’s budget is now frequently used as an adjective. We hear about A-listers’ salaries, the production budgets of movies that flopped, and the budgets a particular executive approved, almost as if they are proof of a person’s effectiveness or incompetence all by themselves. And then there are the conversations that make frequent use of the counterfactual, those that include lamentations that go something like If only this movie hadn’t cost so much to produce or What were they thinking spending that much money on that film? A particular pet peeve of mine is a remark that links someone’s opinion of an actor or actress or movie to that someone’s salary or a film’s box office results. As you know, salaries have always been a gamble, a sum based on past performance and the hopes of continued success, and two, making or losing money has no bearing on the quality of a film at all. Or at least it didn’t used to.
Listen to the way your own executives talk about their movies. Only in a Bizarro-world can a movie make over $220 million and be labeled a flop, and only in a truly maddening interpretation of numbers can $870 million be considered disappointing. Yet these are the labels given to 2016’s Ghostbusters and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and they have become part of the generally accepted narrative regarding these films. The focus should just be on whether the films are worth watching and whether audiences liked them. Sometimes a film that does not initially find an audience eventually warrants a sequel, and sometimes a film that makes $1 billion does not.
Finally, listen to the way some people speak of Hollywood’s A-list and its executives. They are often referred to as “the elite” and as overpaid know-nothings who should keep their opinions about politics and issues such as climate change and equal pay to themselves. It is as if their status in Hollywood, and the salaries that they make as a result of that status, somehow disqualifies them from having opinions. I’m not suggesting that sentiments such as these would absolutely and immediately go away if the public had less information about their salaries, but it would certainly take those numbers out of some people’s mental equations and perhaps put more of the focus on the messages that celebrities are trying to get across, which are much more important than their yearly earnings or recent flops. I also believe that not knowing someone’s salary would remove some of the separation that exists between those fortunate enough to be making a living in Hollywood and those working outside of it, for it is only possible to attack someone for being rich and successful if you know of their wealth.
I know this request goes against current trends. Talent agents may have a vested interest in publishing their clients’ salaries if for no other reason than self-promotion. And I am aware of the persistent pursuit of bragging rights in Hollywood, that it gives studios a warm glow to be able to see its films at the top of the box office charts each week and be able to say, “We’re number one!” I’ll say it again. I get this. It just that it’s not helpful to the product or the industry you are pushing. It turns the focus from quality to dollars and makes what should be private public. It is a distraction from what really matters: the audience’s – regardless of its size – enjoyment of the film itself. Leave the numbers to year-end reports and shareholder meetings.