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Q&A: WSJ’s Ben Fritz weighs in on the present and future of movies

Tobey Maguire, clockwise from top left, in the 2002 movie “Spider-Man”; Adam Sandler in the 1999 comedy “Big Daddy”; Robert Downey Jr. in the 2008 action adventure “Iron Man”; Will Smith in the 2016 movie “Bright.”
(Columbia Pictures; Myles Aronowitz / Columbia / TriStar; Zade Rosenthal / Marvel; Scott Garfield / Netflix)

In the 21st century, cinematic universes housing the canons of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Harry Potter and other franchises have largely replaced movie stars on the big screen.

As Netflix and Amazon Prime gobble up content for their streaming services, and cable networks such as HBO and FX attract talent who would have worked exclusively in movies at one time, some of the major studios face consolidation or even extinction.

In his new book, “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies,” Ben Fritz, who has covered the movie business for a decade for Variety, the Los Angeles Times and currently, the Wall Street Journal, explains how we got here.

Jumping off from emails and documents uncovered through the 2014 Sony Pictures hack and through extensive interviews, Fritz details the studio’s decline after 2002’s “Spider-Man” (the Tobey Maguire version) launched the modern superhero craze. In a compelling, well-reported narrative, Fritz deftly ties together some of the industry’s biggest questions with some arresting twists and turns, topped with the irony that two of Sony’s biggest stars of the early 2000s, Will Smith and Adam Sandler, both now make movies for Netflix.

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Recently, we talked to Fritz about the book and where things are heading for the movie business.

How did the book come about?

I’d been thinking about as a reporter covering this business for a long time. People always say to me, “Why are there so many superhero movies? Why are there so many sequels?” I started digging into the hack more and realized there are answers to these questions here and it’s a story.

Covering these stories on a daily basis as you do, how did you get enough perspective to connect the dots?

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The best advice I got was, if you get a book leave, do all your research early on. From the time I sold the proposal in the summer of 2015 to the fall of 2016, I spent researching. I was working, and I would spend an hour or two in the evenings and on the weekends, when I could, and I would read 10 or 20 emails or some of the documents or set up an interview. I did interview about 50 people for the book.

I was trying to focus on the 30,000-foot view, to immerse myself in this material. I had to virtually shut off the news — which was weird, there was a lot going on — and live in this world of what was happening to the movie business over the past decade and see where it’s going.

My job for the past decade was covering the business of movies and even I hadn’t really stepped back to think about this ‘big picture’ trend. Marvel’s the great example. We all know Marvel is really successful. Marvel has become the dominant movie company of the 21st century — how did they do that and how did it impact everybody else?

Did any of these connections surprise you?

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Digging into the history of Marvel and their connection to Sony surprised me. I found out Sony had the opportunity to buy the rights to all the Marvel characters for $25 million and they were like, “Who would be interested in a Captain America movie or a Thor movie or a Black Panther movie? Nobody wants that.”

I understand hindsight is 20/20, but that was a shocking moment to me. And that was not from the hack; that was from interviews I did. And the story about how Marvel got into movies basically because of their anger over how successful Sony was with “Spider-Man,” which was their character. Sony was making money off their character and Sony was getting credit for their character and they wanted to get into movies in response to that. They were doing it not because they cared about movies but [because] Marvel saw movies as a way to sell toys. Even to the extent that they picked “Iron Man” because they did focus groups with kids and kids liked “Iron Man” best of all the characters.

Partly intelligently and partly by chance, [Marvel] was ahead of all the trends. That was the most interesting part to me of all my reporting.

You discuss the idea of premium video-on-demand studio movies being available shortly after their theatrical premiere. Is that the next big domino to fall in this?

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At this point, I would call it an evolutionary change. It’s absolutely inevitable. The biggest studios — not Disney at the moment but Universal and Warner Bros. — really want it. The only reason they’re not pushing for it is that with this Disney/Fox deal happening and AT&T/Time Warner, a lot of mergers, you don’t want to upset anybody when you’re trying to get a big deal approved by the government. The companies want it and a lot of consumers want it. Some movie lovers may be upset, but the audience, especially younger people, understandably in the age of Netflix, are used to getting what they want when they want it. It’s a cliche, but it’s true.

Already, the date from a movie’s theatrical release to when it is available to buy online has shrunk to 75 days. It used to be 120, then it got down to 90, now it’s 75. It’s not going to start with day-and-date for the bigger movies; it’s going to start with three or four weeks for a higher price, and eventually it will go lower. Maybe it will start to be two weeks, and then it will be fewer and fewer movies that will qualify for the longer theatrical play. We’re definitely going to a shrinking window, and you’ll pay a higher price to see it sooner.

This idea that a movie has to be seen in a theater, it’s not going away, it’s going to be a smaller class of movies and a smaller number of audience members and filmmakers who insist on that.

How will that affect multiplexes?

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We’re already seeing [that] the chains are ripping out seats and putting in luxury seats. We’re definitely going where the moviegoing experience is becoming more of a luxury, high-end experience. Going out of the home has to be special. It’s got to be a better experience than you can have at home. That makes movies something affluent professionals can do but tougher for teenagers to do or people who don’t have a lot of money.

It’s a nationwide trend. I still think there will be cheap bargain theaters for movies that have been out for a month or two, but like so many things in America, the middle is what’s going to fall out. The middle-class movie theater, so to speak, is going away.

What’s next?

The biggest thing I’m paying attention to that I write about in the book is the push of the streaming platforms into movies. Neflix’s spending on movies has risen rapidly. They’ve hired a bunch of executives.They’re getting bigger and bigger films. They’re bidding on all the biggest films in Hollywood these days. They’re spending $8 billion on content this year. They have 700 pieces of content, including films, TV, comedy specials, etc. They are just eating Hollywood alive.

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I think movies are the toughest area to do that, but they are pushing aggressively. How they do that and how that changes audience behavior and how the major studios figure out how to respond, I talk about that in the book. I saw it coming, but it’s coming even faster than I thought.

With Disney buying Hulu, Hulu’s going to become a bigger player in movies for sure. The Disney direct-to-consumer platform, is something again I think that’s predicted in the book, but not talked about. Disney is making original films, family films for its direct-to-consumer platform.

How do the traditional studios differentiate their content? How do you get people to leave their homes and leave streaming to see a movie in a theater? What is the definition of a movie anymore? Those are questions I thought were a few years out when I finished the book, and in reality, they’re maybe one year out. They’re happening right now.

What are we losing out on?

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The great thing about a movie like “Get Out” or “Black Panther” is we’re all seeing it at the same time and we’re all talking about it in this cultural moment. That’s something that’s special about theatrical release that might be lost. A Netflix movie, I put in my queue and I get around to it when I get around to it. You might see it now; I might see it in a few months. It’s not this cultural moment, and that is something movies were always able to do and it’s tougher now.

How does the book help readers understand the future of movies?

The entertainment business is changing so rapidly now. Since I finished the book, Disney agreed to buy Fox, Netflix has accelerated their push into movies, China’s investment has taken a pause. These are all things that are changing. My hope and belief is that the book is not just about little specifics but about these big picture trends and these things happening now are not surprising to anyone who’s read the book.

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