'Sleepless in Hollywood' Review: Producer Chronicles Hollywood's Tech-Driven Decline

Hollywood has changed, and it will never be the same thanks to the arrival of the Internet and the fragmentation of content distribution.

Producer Lynda Obst’s new book, Sleepless in Hollywood, chronicles the author’s transition from what she terms the Old Abnormal (how Hollywood conducted its business in its own bizarre fashion) to the New Abnormal. It’s a term Obst uses to describe the altered business paradigm that has emerged over the past few years.

Obst, a journalist who arrived in Hollywood some 30 years ago and has produced a string of notable films (Flashdance, Adventures in Babysitting, Sleepless in Seattle and Contact among many others), offers up a theory as to why and how the business changed. Slapping on her journalist’s fedora, she gathers intelligence from numerous veterans in marketing, distribution, production, film and television. The insightful commentary and analysis suggests that a perfect storm resulted in the implosion of the Old Abnormal: the cratering of DVD revenue collided with the financial crisis, which occurred simultaneously with the crippling WGA strike. 

The result is that Hollywood feature films now rely far more on international revenues than ever before. As such, Hollywood must focus on content that can “travel.” The clever romantic comedies that were Obst’s forte do not fall into this category. Neither do the intriguing little indie films she dubs “tadpoles” (as opposed to studio “tentpoles”). Now, this has always been the case to a certain extent--westerns never traveled, for example--but the situation has now grown dire because the tadpoles and rom-coms could rely on global DVD revenue to help push a project closer to profitability.

At some point, streaming revenue may or may not fully replace DVD. Right now, however, streaming has not yet become a fixture in homes around the world, so revenue still lags, making these genres films a rarity.

So if you’re wondering why every studio film seems to be based on some popular source material such as board or video games, or why Disney spent billions on the Pixar-Marvel-LucasFilm deals, it’s because these films travel everywhere.

As I wrote here, Disney in particular will have enough content to literally last for a generation or longer (provided the content remains strong).

Particularly intriguing is Obst’s first-hand account of chaos in the halls of Paramount, where she had a deal for many years, as studio management seemed to change every other day. Everyone in Hollywood lives in constant fear of becoming obsolete, a terror made all the more palpable because the entire industry is beholden to audience whims. Success is unpredictable and arguably random--except in the cases of quality branded content i.e. Pixar-Marvel-LucasFilm.

Obst is suddenly left without a chair when the music stops, and this successful veteran producer, with sophisticated taste and an eye for talented writers, is set adrift. Like all survivors, however, she discovers that content isn’t just about movies anymore. It’s all media. She broadens into television, almost by accident creating the hit show Hot in Cleveland and it becomes the flagship program of the TV Land network.

There are, as it turns out, second acts after all.

Obst’s journalist background in evident in her crisp prose. A concept she taught me (“sensibility”) is on display with her self-deprecating humor. Particularly amusing is a series of calls to her brother, Rick Rosen of William Morris Endeavor, as she attempts to understand this alien form of content known as ... ”television."

Insiders will find the Paramount maelstrom and account of the WGA strike compelling. It’s rare to get behind the studio curtain. While we don’t truly get any dish--Obst is too wise to tell too many tales out of school--we are privy to matters of greater import. This is ultimately a story of how the changing revenue models and the strike blew up a studio, and where the corpses landed (or resurrected). 

Insiders will smile at the Jane-Come-Lately revelations of the changing landscape of content consumption and New Media (who needs to pay attention to such things when one is making movies all the time, anyway?), whereas outsiders will be offered an educational and concise story of why things have changed at the multiplex.

I would have liked to have seen an analysis of the overall decay in box-office admission over the past decade. The volume of box office admissions has fallen some 15 percent, and I would love to see data linking this decline with what we often discuss here at Big Hollywood--crappy, valueless content that has alienated conservative moviegoers.

It’s a good read if you want to know what to expect from Hollywood going forward. In other words, unless you like big action films, you’ll find television to be a lot more rewarding.

On a personal note, Obst was a primary benefactor of my screenwriting career, discovering me during my final year at USC film school. I was fortunate not only because of the doors she opened, including representation by Rosen (the classiest guy I’ve ever known in Hollywood, and a great agent), but in learning what writing for the movies was really all about … plus about 20 other lessons that I have posted on my office wall. It’s not easy to find books written by people with her experience. Consequently, it behooves one to pay attention. 


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