The Movie World is Flat

Reading stories of independent movie makers is fun because their backgrounds, methodologies, ideals are all different. But one theme is curiously similar (except for their love of films): how difficult a task it is to make their films. On that point, sometimes they sound as predictable as Hollywood stars reading the description of their roles aloud with lifeless eyes in promotional interviews. Is the movie industry an eternal uphill battle, in which Davids (indie creators) fight against Goliaths (studio executives, bank loan officers, unappreciative families)? In other words, is it unfair?

At a glance it looks so. On one extreme we have Transformers, a US $200,000,000 project destined to dominate the earth. On the other extreme we have Blue Valentine, a $1,000,000 project aimed at winning the hearts of the audience. And far off the scale, there are $1,000 projects from my friend Enrique Amador, aimed at sharing personal visions (and perhaps some lunacy). As Brad Pitt, playing Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball, says: “There are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.”


The movie industry’s hierarchy triangle might look like a flat line because the skirts are so wide, but it’s still a fair world because most movies that get distributed compete within the same conditions: appearing in the same venues, asking for the same amount of money, and most importantly, taking the same two hours from the audiences’ lives. The fairness becomes more apparent when the movies hit households: Each film is just a piece of software listed in a shelf (or hard drive). Whatever differentiating factors—stars, special effects, intrusive ad banners—exist, they all get dissolved in the screen, forcing the movie to answer one question from the audience: Is it worth my time?

There are service industries that carry the same level of “unfairness” in the cost structure, but they aren’t necessarily “fair” at the consumers’ end. Take the restaurant industry for example. The original cost per meal at a three-star restaurant might be $200. The same index for McDonalds might be $1. (Still expensive? Here is my 20-cent recipe: rice + two eggs = combo meal.) The cost ratio between the top and the bottom is 200:1 as in the movie industry—I am graciously ignoring the bottomest players—but the venue, price, and time all vary. In the end, there are many yardsticks to measure a meal’s worth: Can I afford it? Is it delicious? Can I make out with her afterward?

The “fairness” doesn’t mean the movie industry is “better” than other service sectors. By some economic definitions, it might not even qualify as a legitimate industry: The initial cost is not reflected at all in the final price. How could it exist in this capitalistic society?

The reason the media cites unfairness is because it is indeed unfair and difficult from the producers’ point of view. But what ultimately matters is what we, the consumers, think. The movie industry might be structured in a vertical hierarchy, but from our point of view, it is totally flat.