“One-offs,” said producer Lynda Obst with a wry smile. “They call them one-offs.”
On a rainy New York night at the Strand bookstore on lower Broadway, three floors up in the Rare Book Room, New York native Obst introduced her new memoir Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business.
With films like Sleepless in Seattle, Contact, and How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days on her resume, Lynda Obst has long experience in seeing what works and what doesn’t, movie-wise. But as she detailed for a full-house crowd, a major change took place in the movie industry roughly five years ago, a transformation she calls “The Great Contraction.” As online movie streaming took off, the cash-cow DVD market collapsed. To make up for lost revenue, the big studios increased their emphasis on the international box-office. One consequence? The kinds of movies Obst specialized in – romantic comedies; entertaining, intelligent adult-audience films – became tougher sells. Such dialogue-driven, character-focused movies don’t “travel,” to use the Hollywood-speak. What does travel? Big-budget action extravaganzas and thrillers with global stars (see the success of Taken, starring Liam Neeson). Paramount – where Obst had been producing since 1998 – joined its peers in going all-out to find and fuel franchise films, multimillion-dollar “tentpoles” meant to play out over the years in blockbuster installments.
Films without franchise engineering? One-offs. Lowly one-offs. Runt of the litter. Hollywood to producers: Don’t waste your breath pitching them. Come back when you’ve got a pre-sold comic book property or something in the Fast and Furious vein.
Wryness – gentle satire – ruled the night as Obst took us on a tour of “sequelitis”-infected Tinseltown. We learned about “tadpoles,” small-budget, modestly cast films, often in the horror genre, that sometimes can really take off and even launch a franchise (Paranormal Activity 5, anyone?). We learned that Hollywood executives, ever-mindful of the international market, sometimes interrupt pitching producers to ask, “Is there a role for Liam?” (Or Jodi, Meryl, Bruce or Denzel – “stars of the immediate past.”) We learned that Obst, a former college philosophy major, was once asked to consider developing a movie about Jello, since Jello – something most of us have known about since childhood – has that coveted “pre-awareness” factor.
And yet, Obst has not given up on the big studios. “I’m a company girl,” she replied when her conversation partner for the evening, New York magazine film critic and longtime friend David Edelstein, pointed out her “genuine fondness” for the studio system. This appreciation helps power the book, as there’s an affecting charge to her detailed mapping, from the inside, of Hollywood’s transition from what she calls the “Old Abnormal” to the “New Abnormal.” And it proved an asset in interviews with major studio players as well, as they seem comfortable enough to speak beyond soundbites about Hollywood’s latest transformation – a change, needless to say, that bears on what kind of scripts get bought, what kind of roles we get to see our most gifted actors play, and what classes of studio movies will survive into the future.
Author of an earlier, excellent Hollywood memoir (Hello, He Lied – And Other Tales from The Hollywood Trenches, published in 1996), this former New York Times Magazine editor addressed a range of topics in post-reading Q&As with Edelstein and audience (the crowd that night included film historian Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and Obst’s own brother Rick Rosen, a top Hollywood television agent). She tackled the impact of China’s burgeoning market, the explosion of superbly scripted television shows (she’s now producing for TV as well), and the frenetic nature of the summer TV pitch season: “Meetings take place all over town on the same day, with no regard for geography – the equivalent of going from Yonkers to Soho to Rye to Brooklyn to the Bronx in a few hours, with crazy traffic.” She looked back at the big-budget flop Cowboys & Aliens, saying she suspected it wouldn’t work, as no matter how well-made the movie was, cowboys on horses pointing guns at alien spacecraft would invariably look goofy. She predicted similar trouble for The Lone Ranger: “I don’t think it’s going to work with audiences. It’s not going to W with the A.”
Obst saved her most spirited riff for the 2011 surprise hit Bridesmaids, a broad comedy starring four women with television backgrounds that pulled in 169 million domestically and 120 million overseas. “For a few weeks, there was great excitement among the women of Hollywood,” the producer recalled. “We thought we might see a change in terms of greenlighting woman-centered comedies, and other woman-centered movies. But then . . . nothing happened. It was like the studios pretended Bridesmaids didn’t exist. Well, they did decide Melissa McCarthy was a star. But beyond that, they seemed to take nothing away.” She went on to mention The Heat, though, this summer’s female buddy-comedy starring McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. “Keep an eye on how it does,” said Obst. “If that one does good business, too, well, maybe. . .”
Through it all, Obst and Edelstein traded easy banter. “Well, what about you, David?” she said after copping to an enjoyment of Vin Diesel and gang in one of this summer’s big-budget franchise hits, Fast and Furious 6. “Do you have a favorite franchise?”
“Panera,” Edelstein deadpanned.
Before heading to a table to sign books, Obst left us with some tempered optimism. 2012, she noted, was a better year for original, adult-audience movies than 2011. And she had praise for this spring’s stylish, extravagant The Great Gatsby. She predicted Hollywood would find a way to make quality “one-offs” that would work for both American and international audiences. “There is an audience for something other than big, noisy movies abroad,” she observed. “Hollywood will try to reach them.”
As for her own future, it’s looking good. Obst has a production deal with Sony Pictures Television and is currently producing The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan’s next big film Interstellar, based on a treatment she cowrote with physicist Kip Thorne. A Paramount-Warner Brothers joint, the science-fiction film is due next year.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.