Elizabeth Banks: It’s Getting Harder to Make Money in Hollywood

For my project about the future of movies, the actress and director Elizabeth Banks was bullish about the new opportunities offered by streaming services, but she’s noticed that the entire industry has been tightening its purse strings. “Everything is now being scrutinized so deeply that it’s getting harder and harder to get these deals done,” said Banks, who is next directing “Charlie’s Angels” for Sony. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Before we look to the next 10 years, what have you personally noticed has changed in the movie industry over the last decade?

There’s a lot more work, but it’s a lot harder to make money on anything. It’s one of the reasons the unions are up in arms right now. For low-end workers, the people on the tail of those big productions, it’s a lot harder to get by. And that’s true for middle-class actors and writers, too.

In the old days, you could pay off student loans making a commercial — and that happened to me in the early 2000s! That’s because the union did a great job of protecting us. Now, most commercials are nonunion, and somehow the advertising industry is getting away with that.

Even for top-tier stars, the simple idea of a huge paycheck based on box office performance will be harder to measure in the streaming era.

I arrived in Hollywood at the very end of the heyday of big movie stars, and you hear through the grapevine about things like Keanu Reeves’s “Matrix” deal [he reportedly made more than $100 million through that deal]. The idea of those types of deals happening now? It’s much harder. Every negotiation is much harder.

The internet has changed a lot of things, too. People have been putting out their content for free on YouTube because they want to get noticed, and suddenly the value of their work goes to zero. We’re still kind of coming back from that, in my opinion.

When you’re updating a property like “Charlie’s Angels” that’s intended to become a major franchise over the next decade, what are you anticipating about the changing audience?

The last “Charlie’s Angels” movie was made nearly 20 years ago, and it was very star-driven: Cameron Diaz was the biggest female star at the time, Drew Barrymore was huge, and Lucy Liu was coming off a hit show with “Ally McBeal.” That felt like it was enough, you know?

But now you’ve got to think about selling the movie all over the world — you can’t just have girls on the beach in California. The idea of setting the movie on a global scale opens it up to various audiences. Everything these days feels like you want it to be event-ized in a way.

And you’ve got to have diversity in casting it. Young people especially want to have ownership over what they’re seeing, and when they discover someone, that sense of ownership feels real to them. The idea that films and TV are star-driven is falling away a little bit.

What will the landscape look like for female directors a decade from now?

Oh God, I’m trying to be hopeful. I’m excited, because I made “Charlie’s Angels” at Sony and they also made movies this year with Greta Gerwig and Marielle Heller, both of whom I admire so much. My hope is that more and more women get to do every job behind the camera.

The good news is that there’s more than just Kathryn Bigelow, although I will say that there always has been more than Kathryn Bigelow. I encourage female filmmakers to reach for bigger movies. We work in an industry where we’re second-class citizens on many levels, and it takes a lot of courage and confidence to go in and say, “Give it to me.” But I meet those women all the time. They’re here, they’re ready to do the job, and they just need the opportunity.

When you’re putting together a new project, how often are you asking yourself, “Should this be theatrical or streaming?”

All the time. We’re all storytellers, and we all want to get the most eyeballs on the story. We’re constantly asking ourselves what we think the best home is for the content, and it’s also been sort of liberating to feel like you can get a piece of material that you think is going to be a huge movie, and then two years into developing it, you realize, “You know what? We should break this up into six episodes and make it a limited series!” That’s actually an option now.

Do you think there are certain genres that simply aren’t going to come out in theaters anymore?

I do believe the theatrical experience is going to be more and more event-ized for major studios, but for someone like me who grew up on romantic comedies, watching them come back on streamers has been really gratifying. People actually like this stuff that the studios stopped giving them, and the streamers picked up the slack. So that’s one example of how streamers can make these sorts of midrange movies that the big corporate studios are not as interested in putting out theatrically.

Look, as someone who grew up with art-house theaters, who went to Lincoln Center to see “sex, lies, and videotape,” I’m really bummed out to not have that same sense of community in the theater anymore. But indie film is still happening, people are just consuming it more and more on their couches. I think it’s actually an opportunity for the midrange movie.

When you talk to people younger than you about the way they watch movies and consume pop culture, what do you find striking?

I find that young people really want to interact with the experience, they don’t just want to be presented with the experience. That means social media gets involved, and they’re sharing it with other people. But honestly, that feels very similar to what I felt growing up. I didn’t go to the movies alone very often — you’d go to the big animated movie with your family, or you’d sneak into a film with your friends on Friday night.

The biggest difference is that there’s just way more choices. It’s all about how you cut through.

Kyle Buchanan, a Los Angeles-based pop culture reporter, writes the Carpetbagger column. He was previously a senior editor at Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment website, where he covered the movie industry. @kylebuchanan

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