For every show and movie a person enjoys, the story behind how those shows and films got made is often just as a fascinating because the business of entertainment production is a never-ending drama. And few journalists cover the business of Hollywood and entertainment companies better than the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Fritz. In addition to regularly reporting on the entertainment business, Fritz has recently published his second book, The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, which uses the Sony Pictures Hack of 2014 to explore changes in the movie industry. Wanting to learn more about his career and book, I am grateful to have been able to interview Fritz for Sequart.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, when did you become a fan of movies? Was there a specific film that grabbed your imagination and hooked you on this medium?
Ben Fritz: I have been a movie fan for as long as I can remember. But I do have a specific memory of seeing Return of the Jedi when I was five years-old. It was the perfect sci-fi adventure for a little boy. My parents had recently separated and I got both of them to take me. It was the first time I realized there could be a benefit to the break-up!
Not long after, I remember seeing Spaceballs, which I thought was the funniest movie ever made. I probably rented it a dozen or more times.
As I got older, my mother showed me many classic movies that deepened my love for the art form. Sunset Boulevard remains an all-time favorite.
Yanes: You’ve built an amazing career covering the film industry. What got you interested in understanding the business and politics of movie making?
Fritz: I don’t remember exactly how and when I discovered that Hollywood was a business, but once I realized it, I was obsessed. I never cared a lot about celebrities, but I was just fascinated by box office grosses, television ratings, etc. I can remember reading Variety in the library in high school. I guess it’s because I really love popular culture but I also am the kind of person who loves to know why things are the way they are. And when you understand the business of the studios, networks, etc., you understand why we get the films and TV shows that we get. I’ve turned this fascination/obsession into my career.
Yanes: Before we get into discussing your book, what is your ideal movie going experience? Do you enjoy a packed theater or do you try to go when a cinema is mainly empty? Do you have a favorite movie theater?
Fritz: I definitely like a crowded theater and a big screen. Of course I appreciate huge Imax screens and state-of-the-art sound, but I also really like old-fashioned single-screen movie houses with beautiful art on the walls and ceilings. There is a theater like that near my house in Los Angeles called the Vista and it’s usually my first choice to see a movie.
Yanes: You have recently published the book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies. What was the inspiration behind writing this book? Was there a moment in which you realized you had story that had to be told through a large manuscript?
Fritz: This book was sparked by the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures. At the suggestion of my agent, I started looking into whether there was a book about everything that happened behind-the-scenes during the hack. But I quickly concluded that story was being told by many journalists in real time and there wasn’t enough interesting material left for a book that would come out two or three years later.
In the process of browsing through the hacked materials for that idea, though, I started to realize that the hacked emails and documents could be the starting place for a bigger and, in my opinion, more compelling story about how the movie business has changed in the past century. I had actually for several years wanted to write a book about how Hollywood became obsessed with franchises and original films for adults became an endangered species. But I never had a good narrative hook for that story. The hacked materials, I realized, were that narrative hook. They let me go inside one studio to show how it was navigating those changes.
That was my “Eureka!” moment and I knew immediately I had a book.
Yanes: A large part of The Big Picture is spent examining leaked material from the Sony hack. While researching the leaked emails, what were some of the insights you gained that took you by surprise?
Fritz: So, so many. I gained a much deeper understanding of the economics of motion pictures by reading the financial projections that accompanied every movie Sony greenlit during the period covered by the hack. I learned that studios don’t care whether movies are profitable as much as whether each movie meets the profit projections they set during the greenlight process, all of which theoretically add up to the profit projections for the company that they are supposed to hit each fiscal year.
I also learned how anxiety-ridden studio executives who exude confidence to the outside world really are. There were so many late-night emails written by executives like Amy Pascal, who ran Sony’s motion picture business, where she was grappling with the same questions about super-heroes, sequels, and the viability of original ideas that those of us on the outside were debating. But she rarely showed that uncertainty in public comments.
Finally, I’d say I gained a greater appreciation for how studio executives want to be making more original, risk-taking movies for adults. They don’t necessarily like the trend toward super-heroes and sequels. It’s more of a market reality they are managing.
Yanes: The Big Picture has several pages discussing The Amazing Spider-Man films. The two Amazing Spider-Man movies earned over $1.4 billion worldwide, yet, it has largely been forgotten. What happened to this series that lead to it being dropped? On this topic, do you see this as an example of studio meddling gone wrong?
Fritz: The Amazing Spider-Man movies were Sony’s attempt to use the one super-hero they controlled to compete with Marvel Studios, which was at the time beginning its unprecedented run of success. $1.4 billion is a big number, but given the hefty budgets of each film and the huge profit projections Sony had for them, they were regarded as failures. No. 2 was supposed to gross $850 million, for example, and Pascal privately hoped it would hit $1 billion, but it petered out at $709 million in global ticket sales.
Why did the movies underperform? I think there was no single person or small number of people who had a clear vision for what a great Spider-Man movie should be who were empowered to go make that movie. There was so much pressure from the highest levels of Sony to keep up with Marvel Studios that the movies got bogged down with too many ideas. The worst example is the many villains in Amazing Spider-Man 2, who were included so they could appear in a spin-off called Sinister Six. They were distractions from the main plot. In the end, the Amazing Spider-Man movies lacked the joy of a teen-ager discovering new super-powers, a joy presents in 2002’s first Spider-Man and in the successful 2017 reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Yanes: Your book greatly discusses the future of movies. When discussing the future of this industry, many seemed locked into a fight between traditional movie theaters and home streaming. What do you see has the major factors shaping the future of movies? Do you think it is as simple as home streaming taking from theaters?
Fritz: I don’t see it as a battle, I see it as content finding the platform where consumers most prefer to see it. I believe people have long preferred to watch mid-budget dramas, comedies, etc. at home and go to the theater for big budget spectacles. But for a long time, TV was the idiot box and high quality storytelling of all time, including dramas, played in theaters first. Now thanks to changing business models that I discuss in the book, people can see virtually everything at home if they prefer. And what they are demonstrating is that, in most cases, the types of content they prefer to leave home and pay to see in a theater is “spectacle” style branded franchise films, as well as horror films like A Quiet Place.
Yanes: I know a book can’t cover every topic, but while you do discuss China’s growing influence on Hollywood, I was curious to hear your thoughts on Saudi Arabia’s potential impact on movie production. Given that the country just lifted its ban on movie theaters and it is rumored to have paid WWE over a hundred-million for an event, do you see Saudi Arabia using its wealth to influence movie production?
Fritz: Yes, absolutely I think Saudi Arabia is trying to become the next China: a market that can drive global box office growth and in the process start to influence what types of movies get made. We may see Saudi values and restrictions start to impact the movies Hollywood makes much as China’s already do. And many years in the future we may see Saudi Arabia develop a robust film production business, as China is currently doing.
Yanes: Reading The Big Picture made me feel that executives are almost always out of step with what the general audience wants in movies. How is it that with all the tools at their disposal, business leaders in the film industry aren’t in sync with audiences?
Fritz: I think they are doing their best and often do make smart choices. But remember from the time a script is written to the time a movie appears in theaters can take three years or longer. Audience tastes and cultural trends can easily change in that time, which makes it difficult to always make smart predictions. In addition, producing films is difficult, with technology, egos and money involved, and many, many things can go wrong during producing and editing. So the final product is not always what studio executives envisioned when they begin.
Yanes: When people finish reading The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, what do you hope they take away from it?
Fritz: I hope that regardless of what they think about the types of content currently available to watch in movie theaters and on streaming devices, they will understand why that content is being made. They will know why we get so many super-hero movies, sequels and remakes on the big screen and so few original films for adults. And they will understand it’s not because studio executives are hacks who don’t care about quality.
And I hope that people who are cynical about the state of movies will recognize movies are not as distinct from television as they used to be. And that if you consider the state of visual storytelling, including streaming series, mini-series, direct-to-Netflix/Amazon movies, etc., we’re really living in a golden age with a lot for which to be grateful, even if you are concerned about the future of movie-going in movie theaters, as I am.
Yanes: Finally, what are you working that people can look forward to?
Fritz: I’m not sure yet what the next book will be, but I’m working on a bunch of stories for the Wall Street Journal that touch on issues in the book that I hope people will enjoy. And the audio version of The Big Picture, which was delayed from launching day-and-date with the print/e-book, comes out this summer.