If anyone can write a thoughtful, entertaining analysis of the film industry, it’s Anne Thompson. For three decades she’s been sharing her insights about the business for Film Comment, L.A. Weekly (where she penned the “Ricky Business” column), Premiere, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and now IndieWire, where her daily blog Thompson on Hollywood is a must-read.
She’s just penned her first book, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System. It’s a look into how films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Searching For Sugar Man, and Argo made the long journey to the Oscars, what went wrong with mega-budget tentpole John Carter, and what went right with The Hunger Games.
SSN spoke to Thompson about her book, the rise of television, and the state of female directors.
SSN: How did the book come about?
Thompson: I’ve never written a book before so I was a bit naïve. I wrote a proposal 15 years ago and didn’t get very far at the time. I think it became more palatable to a publisher because they could imagine the blog being a marketable element, that I would have fans and followers. That made it sexier to them.
SSN: How was it balancing the book with your blog writing?
Thompson: I was reporting throughout the year, but writing a book is a whole different thing. It’s really hard to do long-form book writing when you’re doing a blog every day, so it was a challenge. I did most of my work on the weekends.
SSN: In the book you write about shifting your focus from films to TV, which a lot of people are doing.
Thompson: I noticed that I was starting to prefer watching television, cable television especially, to going to the movies. I’m the biggest movie fan in the world, and it is a disturbing and upsetting thing that I don’t go to them as much as I used to.
SSN: You also wrote about the glory days of film being over. Do you really think that’s true?
Thompson: I was talking to Jodie Foster the other day at a party, and she’s been directing Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. She was being very Pollyanna-ish about the idea that you have to adapt. I was also talking to Kimberly Peirce about that fact that everyone is heading for TV. That’s where the money is and the jobs are. The studios don’t care if they’re making money from HBO or from Warner Bros. They’re in the business of trying to make big tentpole movies that will get people to theaters. That’s their view of how to succeed. The whole middle range of movies is gone, and if they’re getting made they’re being financed independently, overseas, or by Megan Ellison. Then the studios will come in and distribute them without taking the risk of financing them.
SSN: So what’s the solution?
Thompson: The smart studios should recognize the benefit of making original material—it’s just harder to sell. The studios are so risk averse, they don’t get that they have to take risks on original material every now and then, like Avatar—hello. Don’t get me started. It was an enormous blockbuster and it was original.
SSN: By focusing on the films of 2012 from Sundance to the Oscars, what do you hope the book is saying about the trajectory of those films that made it to Oscar night?
Thompson: The point I’m trying to make is that Best Picture contenders are all anomalies. They’re all either big directors who had the clout to get the financing and the stars they needed, or they come out of nowhere like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It surprised everyone that it got so many nominations; Amour wasn’t as surprising. Last year we all were pretty sure Argo would win by the time we got to the Oscars.
With her back-end gross on Gravity, Sandra Bullock could make $70 million…if you put a woman in a big budget, mega-successful blockbuster, she can compete with the guys. – Anne Thompson
SSN: You take time to focus on the lack of female directors in Hollywood in your book. What was your reaction to the latest report from The Women’s Media Center, that showed that women are still underrepresented?
Thompson: It’s depressing that it hasn’t changed much. You scratch your head because the numbers show that movies aimed at women, and directed by women, do really well. So what is the real explanation for why things don’t open up? The first explanation is that it’s a white boys club [and] it’s difficult to get someone to bank an enormous amount of money on you. If everything plays out with her back-end gross on Gravity, Sandra Bullock could make $70 million. What [that] shows is if you put a woman in a big budget, mega-successful blockbuster, she can compete with the guys. It’s just that women don’t get cast in those roles unless it’s Angelina Jolie, and she has what I call “noble woman syndrome.” Geena Davis was someone who wanted to be an action star and she tried. She got Cutthroat Island, one of the great bombs of all time. That’s what led a lot of studio people to think that women couldn’t carry these types of movies.
SSN: Who is your ideal audience for the book?
Thompson: The idea is the same idea as the blog, but you’re playing to the inside and the outside at the same time. I aimed the book at the smart movie lover who maybe isn’t an industry insider, but who wants to learn more about the inner workings. It’s from an insider’s point of view but it’s aimed at a broader, smart film fan demo.
The $11 Billion Year came out March 4 from Newmarket Press for It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.[Photo 1 Credit: Meg Madison]