Factory Filmmaking: The Assembly Line in Today’s Hollywood

by Christian Kozlowski
From the December 2015 IssueThe Dark KnightThe assembly line has been around for hundreds of years. It’s one of the most influential inventions humankind has made, providing jobs and allowing for goods to be efficiently made. Even today, almost every good is made on an assembly line, where it can be churned out to make a profit as quickly as possible. Implementing the assembly line into the moviemaking process would seem to be an incredible opportunity for movie lovers. “I mean it’s so cool, you know? So many movies could be made, and like, faster too! What could go wrong?”

If at 13 years old, I was promised that my favorite movies were to be released faster and in higher quantity, that would have totally been my response. “More pirates? More superheroes? More Star Wars? Heck yeah!” It would be a dream come true. Not only would there be more movies to watch, but also more movie news too. As someone who grew up loving movies, the Internet was my gateway to all things cinema. I didn’t have to be in a theater or in front of a television: I could get the same thrill on a computer as I searched for new and exciting pieces of information about upcoming films. In fact, surfing the web was just as much a part of the experience for me as actually going to see the movie.

For example, when The Dark Knight was approaching release, I devoured every bit of information I could: from the announcement of Heath Ledger’s casting as the Joker and how everyone was like, “What a terrible choice,” to when the first trailer dropped. I had so much anticipation for it, that when July 18th came, I was lined up at the theater, ready to go. I was looking forward to it so much that when I finally got to see it on opening weekend, it didn’t disappoint. It was everything I wanted and more. And good thing it was! I can’t imagine going to see The Dark Knight and being completely underwhelmed. To put in so much time researching after school—time I should have spent exercising and making friends—and to come out of the movie thinking it sucked? Now that would have been the worst.

Everybody came out happy: me, my dad and the folks at Warner Brothers. They got their money and I got my entertainment: a fair and even exchange within the Hollywood system. It’s an exchange that’s at the core of any commercial transaction, but in this case, the good being sold is entertainment. Their goods are packaged and sold to as many people as possible in the hopes of filling the most seats they can. Just to be clear, this was always the goal for Hollywood. Ever since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood execs always had the motive of making a profit, and for the past hundred years, that’s what they’ve been doing. There were good eras for profit, and there were some troubled ones, but the goal was always the same. And that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Hollywood is a business and that’s what businesses do.

But when businesses become lazy, that’s when consumers get angry, and I think for the past twenty years (and especially for the last five), that’s exactly what Hollywood has been doing. They’re using the assembly line mentality, and in any other business, that would be fine. The assembly line approach has always been around in the moviemaking process. Griffith made at least one movie every year for about twenty years, so it clearly isn’t anything new. But the fact that modern Hollywood remakes, franchises and builds expanded universes from beloved properties at a rapid rate makes the money-grubbing increasingly more obvious.

To understand how we got here, let’s go back to where it all started, with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas—the two fellas that ushered in the “Hollywood blockbusters.” Without these two, we never would’ve had the #1 movie of the year, Jurassic World, or the soon to be second #1 movie of the year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Spielberg and Lucas established the assembly line Hollywood runs on today. They made movies with mass appeal that didn’t just make a profit in theaters, but also tied them in with every other product imaginable. With works like Jaws, Star Wars, the Indiana Jones series, they ushered in the tightly packaged products we know today (likely unintentionally). Like all filmmakers, Spielberg and Lucas just wanted to make the best movie they could make. It just so happened that the movies they wanted to make appealed to the majority of moviegoers, and Hollywood took note of this.vader1After a string of financial failures in the late 70’s concluding with Michael Cimino’s low-concept, high-budgeted Heaven’s Gate, Hollywood studios backed away from the auteur-driven films of the era and went towards what had worked in Spielberg and Lucas’ movies. From there, the models of their work were put on the assembly line.

In my opinion, this assembly line peaked with The Dark Knight, and the quality has been slowly declining ever since. What I mean is: The Dark Knight was the last huge tentpole where I didn’t feel like it was a part of an assembly line in any way. Maybe it’s a generation thing, but The Dark Knight was my Jaws. It had that same zeitgeist in 2008 that I assume Jaws had in 1975. It was a movie in which a filmmaker had a vision, and that vision could be shown with over $200 million backing it up. I’d never seen something like that before. The story, the characters, the action; it all felt completely thought out on a grand scale. Growing up, out of all the memories I’ve had in movie theaters, watching The Dark Knight is the clearest. Sitting with my dad in the back row, I was completely transfixed in the world of Batman for two and a half hours. Exiting the theater, I was just as excited as when I walked in. Even at the age of 13, I felt that.

Maybe it’s an age thing, or maybe it’s because I have become a jaded film student, but I don’t think I’ll ever have an experience with a big budget franchise movie like The Dark Knight again. Sure, there have been good blockbusters since. Marvel Studios is definitely doing more good than bad, but I see Marvel as the point of no return. With Marvel Studios running a smooth, financially successful assembly line, competition is beginning to crowd the field. The Hollywood universe is big, but it’s not big enough to support all the tentpoles. There’s only 365 days in a year, and only a handful of them are prime movie release dates. Studios are jumping on dates like hotcakes.

Now if you made it this far, you might think my motives for this piece is to bash the Hollywood system, but they’re not. I don’t necessarily hate Hollywood: I’m more frustrated than anything. I’m frustrated with the way things have become ever since The Dark Knight released. I remember when the movie first came out, I read somewhere that Christopher Nolan never thought about a sequel when making the film. He simply gave all his attention to the task of making the best movie possible. You would think that Hollywood might take this into consideration with tentpole movies moving forward, but if anything, they went in the complete opposite direction.

Honestly, you can’t really blame them, though. When consumers devour your products, spend hours online searching for new information on them, willingly camp out until your product is released, how else can Hollywood keep up? The assembly line is here to stay because Hollywood needs it, due to the impossible demands fans have made. This is the best Hollywood can do in today’s pop culture.

One of the best tentpole movie experiences I’ve had in a long time was seeing Mad Max: Fury Road. It actually conjured some memories of my first time seeing The Dark Knight. The reason? The new Mad Max didn’t feel like it was apart of any assembly line. Warner Brothers didn’t go to George Miller and ask him to make a new Mad Max—there wasn’t a huge demand for it. It was something Miller wanted to make because he felt he had to, and that resulted in the best movie I saw this summer (and possibly the best I saw this whole year). And the most encouraging thing I read online about it? The fact that there’s no permanent plan for a fifth Mad Max yet. There’s talk of a new trilogy, but at least there aren’t five new movies lined up for the next five years.

As I mentioned earlier, the second #1 movie of the year will soon arrive. And as we all—with our huge expectations—anxiously count the days till it’s here, let’s hope Disney got it right, cause if not… well, at least we get another chance in 2016 with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and if that doesn’t work, then maybe Episode VIII in 2017 will be great. And if, by chance, that isn’t all that, then maybe the Han Solo spin-off will be the ticket on May 25, 2018. And if that just doesn’t satisfy, then Episode IX in 2019 will be the one. Oh and there’s also that Boba Fett movie coming out at some point…

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