Why is Lynda Obst Sleepless in Hollywood?

Why are there so few good rom coms? The movie producer-turned-author thinks she knows

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With prequels, sequels, and trilogies crowding movies theaters, the aphorism “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” has never felt more true. Why is that? That’s what veteran producer Lynda Obst wanted to know when she began writing her latest book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. Over the past few years Obst, who has produced movies like Sleepless in Seattle and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, noticed that it was becoming harder to make good films. She began researching the changing dynamics of the movie industry and details her conclusions in Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, her recent book about living and working in an industry that has been radically changed by technology and globalization.

Was there an exact moment when you knew you wanted to write Sleepless in Hollywood?
I was at dinner at my son’s house and I was complaining to him about being unable to get a movie made that, in the past, I had always been able to get made. The studio had been real excited about it from the beginning and all of a sudden, whenever I talked to the studio about it they’d look at me with sort of a blank stare. It had been a blank stare I had been getting a lot recently when I’d been talking about romantic comedies. I said to Ollie, ‘I have no idea why I can’t get this movie made, it’s so good.’ He looked at me as if I was from Mars–this is 2006, maybe 2007–and said, ‘Mom trying to get a movie made because it’s good is so 2003.’ I was stunned. I was unable to say anything because I realized he was right.

What about the change in the industry surprised you the most?
In the book I include a graph on the Ice Age sequels, “sequelitis.” Ice Age, which we never think about in the United States, would continue to go up like $250,000 a year domestically but logarithmically internationally. It showed you how a pre-awareness could quadruple the value of a product internationally and have no effect domestically. That’s sequelitis. That’s how the international box office has grown so valuable. Not only are they building more theaters but the value of these products accelerate overtime as they sequelize. So a one-off has no value. If you make a movie that makes $200 million and you can’t make a sequel out of it, it’s a dead property. That’s what happened to the rom com.

Do you think the romantic comedy still has a future?
I do think they can come back if we can find some room for them in the slate, if it’s a really good one and it’s not expensive and the studios aren’t too nervous so they don’t have to stuff them with movie stars who cost too much and ruin the model. They have to reflect the times. They can’t be glossy and formulaic like they were in the 1980s and ‘90s; they have to be edgy and real. And someone has to be willing to do a one-off and make a shorter term profit.

Do you really think a film like Forest Gump would be passed up by today’s studios?
There are wonderful people who came into this industry not to make franchises. They love movies as much as anyone else. At the individual studios, certainly at the best of them, they’re trying to find a way to sneak what they would call original one offs–you would call movies–between the tentpoles. Sony’s a good example with Moneyball, The Social Network, and The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. They have to make them for a price. They have to make them along with Spiderman and all of their other tentpoles but those movies are now made by what I call the Olympians, the five or six directors in rarified circumstances who can do it. We just don’t have a regular diet of those movies; we have the miracles that we get to see at Academy Awards time.

In Sleepless in Hollywood you wrote that Bridesmaids was a fork in the road for female-driven scripts. Did the film’s success change anything?
When Bridesmaids came out we were all incredibly excited that there would be a whole new state for female movie comedies. It turned out it only meant Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig could make movies. It was really disappointing. I don’t know what to attribute that to. I’m not one to easily attribute that to sexism; there are too many women at the head of studios. It’s just that people somehow continue to generalize from the wrong principles. When Something’s Got to Give came out, trillions of women from all around the world came out to see that movie. When Bridesmaids came out everybody went out. Much higher numbers then they expected and it worked internationally. So I don’t know why. It mystifies me. It’s the only thing I can’t answer.

Has what you discovered while researching Sleepless in Hollywood made you hopeful or pessimistic about the movie industry?
All of the above. There are aspects of the industry that are disheartening and there are aspects of it that are wildly optimistic. There are people like Sue Kroll, the head of marketing at Warner Brothers, who can take a one-off original movie and can open it like it’s Fast and Furious 6; that’s hopeful because that’s just an individual who has the talent to come up with a campaign that can save an original move. Talent can be cultivated and hired and that’s how marketing is not only the bane of this industry but potentially a boon to it. So that’s one hopeful thing.

The audience is really hopeful. The audience is going to reject a bad temple; it did that a few times last year on movies that cost $200 million. Word of mouth is so fast because of the internet; marketing can’t just put any piece of crapola out there. As a result bad temples will get weeded out like they are this year so only the best ones get made and possibly more money will be left over for a piece of good writing and casting, like Argo, to get made.

Lynda Obst will be signing books this Thursday, June 13, at Book Soup at 7 p.m.

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