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How the Hollywood system shapes which movies get made — even bad ones

It’s Oscar season, so let’s take a few minutes to talk about the movies — and how they get made. Ted Hope has an inside view on that front.

He’s an Oscar-winning movie producer, a former film executive at Amazon Studios and author of the popular Substack Hope for Film. He said that when he took over the role at Amazon Studios, he got to change the conversation around what movies got made: the good, the bad and the just mediocre.

Full interview

TED HOPE: You know, the question of how come movies aren't better, I think haunts all filmmakers and all executives and somewhere along the line, I became perhaps we should say obsessed with the idea of, of how the system we are in affects what we make. And do we have to succumb to that conform to that or can we start to see, you know what we actually want to make and move the system to enable that? And perhaps the most obvious factor was, you know, rightly so, downward pressure on budgets, right?

And you know, this is a creative industry where people get ideas, they, they get inspired, they actually enjoy collaborating and that magic happens. And you start to wonder, can you actually engineer serendipity? Can you manage complexity and render it into some form of simple beauty? And if you actually believe yes on those questions, you start to wonder, what can I do to do that?

LAUREN GILGER: So then you were, you know, one of the people in Amazon studios in charge of picking the projects, right? So you're getting pitched a lot, it sounds like, by directors, by screenplay writers, you're reading a lot, you're trying to figure out how do you find the best projects to go forward. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like? And the kinds of, I guess, mediocrity you tended to see, it sounds like?

HOPE: I think that there's so many systemic factors that keep people from even dreaming that they'll get to have the opportunity to aspire to, to excellence or greatness that they almost are self-censoring and self-defeating. You know, in the beginning of Amazon, what was kind of fun was kind of the recognition that sometimes, you know, good ideas are not planned and we needed to have some financial resources to encourage people to dream. And you know, you, you have to both start to look at like, why, why do people lower the bar for themselves? How do we help them, encourage them to dream big and how do they dig in to get it?

Because you know, the truth is making a movie is really hard work, and I think most folks collapse under, under the, you know, whether it's the drain or the weight or just the responsibility. There's too much going on. And, you know, we, we have to find ways to keep people, you know, dreaming and reaching and believing that they can get there. One of the easiest things that makes movies better and I've, I've certainly found it true to myself is actually one of the least risky and cost efficient, but yet is rarely done, which is just giving people more time.

Perhaps, like one of the reasons that so many movies end up being mediocre is that there is like questions of degrees, right? The experts, the editors and the filmmakers on the team can see, you know, the small incremental improvements in a film. But will it make any difference at the box office? Now, does that mean you shouldn't do it? No. What that next, you know, whatever increment you can do in that final 10% is the thing that makes movies last forever.

GILGER: Let me ask you, Ted, I mean, so the movie industry has changed so drastically since, you know, in the course of your career. Like there's so much content now, there's so many streaming outlets, there's so many, probably more movies made, right? Like, has that meant that a whole lot more bad movies or mediocre movies are also getting made or does it kind of open the door for projects that never would have gotten green lit before?

HOPE: Excellent question, Lauren. And I, I think, you know, my view of it is kind of surprising. I think less bad movies get made, and I think that's unfortunate. And I think less adventuresome movies get made, despite far many more movies getting made. I think that we've gotten really good all across the board at all different levels of experience and background to knowing what has worked before, right? And aping that in one way or another.

So we don't get those gloriously bad B and Z movies that used to, you know, play in places like Times Square and grindhouses that were off the works of mad people who would, you know, possessed by a fever dream of some sort of delirium and had the, the reckless courage or abandon to put the, you know, unmentionable up on the screen for all of us to be overjoyed with a shock. Those films rarely get made, right?

But you also have, you know, what has led to this era of peak content or cultural abundance, you know, it is business, it is corporate strategy, right? Business goals where you know, to build an audience, you want to give them a regular cadence, you know, of a consistent quality in, you know, on your platform.

What I found super interesting is that as the amount of movies got made every year over this last decade, I don't think we got a proportional increase or anything close to it as a number of great movies that got made. I think we got many more, you know, good, you know, C's and B's right. You get a passing grade. But why are you, why are you going to engage with this film? You recognize the, the system as such that producers only get paid when movies happen. So, so producers aren't often in deep in what that what the script is and how to make it really sing, and they often aren't really in deep in, in the edit because they have to get the next movie launched.

If you want better movies, that's one of the things I think we need to, to do, is make sure that we have collaborators alongside the, the writers and directors who actually understand every moment of cinematic potential on the page and can help determine when they should do that.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.