Why Do We Make Movies?

Fans line up for the premier of The Hunger Games in 2012.
Fans line up for the premier of The Hunger Games in 2012

Over the past three years, the business journalist Adam Davidson has written two articles for the New York Times Magazine that taken together raise a persistent and surprisingly tricky-to-answer question that lies at the heart of cinema studies: why do people make movies anyway? For students and fans of the movies, the answer might seem obvious: because movies are awesome! I’m certainly not going to argue with that, but making a movie is different than, say, writing a song or painting a picture. Mainly, movies take a lot of work and (the crucial point) a lot of people. They also often require a lot of time and money as well, certainly compared with many other art forms. Even a novel, which does require time and persistence to write, doesn’t cost much money, and you certainly don’t need to enlist the cooperation of dozens of other people, at least not until you might try to publish it.

Interestingly, taken together Davidson’s two articles seem to offer contradictory responses to the question of “Why do we make movies?” The title of the piece he wrote in 2012 reframes this question in terms of basic economics: “How Does the Film Industry Actually Make Money?” Using the example Men in Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012), Davidson makes a persuasive case that, from a strict cost/benefit analysis, the idea of investing in the movie in order to reap a profit makes no sense at all. Counting all production and marketing costs, Men in Black 3 probably required close to half a billion dollars in investment, and as of today it’s worldwide box office gross topped out at $624,026,776 (as always, movie finances are notoriously tricky to calculate. This number doesn’t include DVD/Blu-ray sales, streaming rentals, product tie-ins and endorsements, and a variety of other revenue sources).

So, the movie earned a profit eventually, but it took over two years to make, and even though the Men in Black franchise had been a reliable money maker, there was still no telling if the movie was going to be a hit. As Davidson summed it up:

There must be an easier way to make money. For the cost of “Men in Black 3,” for instance, the studio could have become one of the world’s largest venture-capital funds, thereby owning a piece of hundreds of promising start-ups. Instead, it purchased the rights to a piece of intellectual property, paid a fortune for a big star and has no definitive idea why its movie didn’t make a huge profit. Why is anyone in the film industry?

Just yesterday, however, Davidson pointed to the movie industry not as a strange aberration to normal business practices but as a model for the future of the American economy: “What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work.” “The Hollywood Model,” according to Davidson, offers an alternative to the now-outmoded “corporate model, in which capital is spent up front to build a business, which then hires workers for long-­term, open-­ended jobs that can last for years, even a lifetime.” Instead, for the last half a century American movie production has followed a more flexible model: “A project is identified; a team is assembled; it works together for precisely as long as is needed to complete the task; then the team disbands.” More and more, Davidson contends, the rest of the economy is adapting to the Hollywood model. Rather than making no economic sense, the Hollywood model that developed in response to the collapse of the studios screen age in the early 1950s anticipated the economic reality that now defines the post-factory economy.

There are several ironies in all this. As I explain in Screen Ages, for many historians and fans of American movies the studios era of the 1930s and 1940s, when Hollywood most organized itself along the lines of factory mass production, represents the pinnacle of movie making achievement, a golden era that has long since passed and from which the movies have never recovered. Yet the Hollywood model, as Davidson calls it, that emerged at the end of the studios screen age has lasted three times as long as the old factory model. If the old studios were copying the production strategies of the automobile industry in the years after World War I, it is now the movies that seem to be leading the way in the 21st century.

But taking Davidson’s two articles together also speaks to another source of contention and argument about movie history: the role of money and profit in the film industry. Filmmakers from D.W. Griffith to the present have lamented how the demands for big box office returns restrict artistic expression and diminish the variety and sophistication of American movies. Yet even these complaints ignore the more basic question: how did the movies ever become an art form in the first place? As we see in Screen Ages, the early movie industry was not started by storytellers and artists but by business people and engineers. Thomas Edison thought the future of movies lay in journalism and the documenting of actual events. The story of Alice Guy Blaché, who asked her employer Léon Gaumont if she might use her lunch hours to experiment with using movies to tell stories, shows just how open the future of movies was at the turn of the 20th century.

Alice Guy Blaché’s La Fée aux Choux from 1899, one of the first experiments with using the movies to tell an imaginary story.

In the end, the mystery of “How Does the Film Industry Actually Make Money?” points to what is maybe most fascinating and inexplicable about the movies. For all the millions and millions spent on summer tentpole blockbusters, for the increasing domination of the movie industry by a small group of global megacorporations, for all the focus groups and Big Data crunching and cynicism that surround contemporary movie production, the question of why we make movies persists. Our love and need for narrative, for personal expression, for the imaginative construction of new worlds, finally exceeds even the profit motive. While Hollywood and the movie industry are certainly no strangers to greed and the love of money, the ultimate economic futility and inefficiency of the movie business suggests a more enduring attraction of the movies. Maybe the answer to the question of why we make movie is because we have to.