The Problem with Hollywood (According to Two Successful Writers)

I cannot claim to have read the book yet, but after Kyle Smith’s write-up about it in the New York Post, you can bet your ass that I will. Screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon have recently published a book titled ‘Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!‘ In it, the duo bluntly lay out their brutally harsh opinions about the current state and problems with Hollywood.

Most well known for writing the series ‘Reno 911!’, Lennon and Garant have a terrible list of film credits including ‘Balls of Fury’, the ‘Night at the Museum‘ movies, ‘Let’s Go to Prison’, ‘Herbie: Fully Loaded’, ‘The Pacifier’ and ‘Taxi‘. These two have scraped the bottom of the barrel. They have nothing to lose and they’re not afraid to voice their brash opinions or bite the hands that feed them, just to give the rest of us an insight into the funk that Hollywood is (allegedly, of course) stuck in – and it’s absolutely entertaining to read.

Keep in mind that the following ideas are expressed in Lennon and Garant’s book. I did not come up with this flow chart. They did.

Lennon and Garant’s causal reason for Hollywood sucking begins with Wall Street. We all know at least one person from high school or college who has accidentally become filthy rich due to Wall Street. As Smith puts it, “Hollywood is happy to cash checks from Greenwich horndogs who want to meet Anna Faris. So way too many movies get made.” Because of this, actors without any actual star power are still pushed as if they were stars. Just because an actor makes a film that earns boatloads of money does not mean that he/she has power; however, every star thinks that he or she is powerful.

Movie stars have way too much power. They try to rewrite scripts as they see fit. If a writer doesn’t incorporate an actor’s suggestions, said writer is fired. On the flip side, if a writer’s work earns the respect and approval of an actor, then said writer is set golden.

Despite not being the highest person on the Totem Pole of Authority, actors certainly have a huge influence over their directors as well. Lennon and Garant believe that “Director is the only entry-level position left in the movie business. You can’t START as the property master or sound mixer. Or even as the assistant director. You have to work your way up. The only job you can get on a movie set with no experience whatsoever is: director. So is it like joining the Army and being made a four-star general on the same day? Yes, it is. And it happens all the time.”

Of course, directors have to answer to studios – but guess what? According to Smith, studios suck too. Studio executives are so frequently hired and fired that one must step on egg shells to make a long-term career. If an executive makes a movie similar to a past release, he/she can defend the decision by claiming, “It worked before. Who knew it wouldn’t work again? Can I please stay in this nice comfy office?” Now you know why content déjà vu is so prevalent these days.

The fact that nepotism is alive and well within Hollywood doesn’t help much either. The unqualified grandchildren of studio heads are clogging the system. Uneducated in the art of film, they keep their jobs due to family connections – not because they do anything to better the family business.

Which leads us to the final problem with Hollywood: it’s run like a nothing more than a business. Smith uses the example of the upcoming ‘Red Dawn’ remake, which has changed the story’s villains from Chinese to North Korean in post-production simply so that the film can play in the lucrative Chinese market. It’s all about business.

In my interview with ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ creator Phil Rosenthal last week, he criticized the Hollywood system for its overuse of merchandise-friendly films. “It’s very hard to get a movie made nowadays if you’re not selling a toy,” he said. See Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’ for real-life examples of how product placement damages the integrity of the art.

Marketing, product placement and sequels are destroying original filmmaking, but ultimately, the audiences who attend such terrible films are primarily to blame. If the masses would stop handing over their hard-earned cash for sub-par entertainment, Hollywood would stop churning it out. Unfortunately, until that happens, nothing will change.


  1. Jane Morgan

    Blaming the masses happens a lot in the restaurant business too.

    Chefs complain about the uneducated appetites for chicken tits and well-done steaks, while bemoaning the lack of respect for foie gras and tripe.

    Hollywood has to live with a conundrum that no other entertainment has: How do you make a huge budget product for a niche audience?

    Film is the only art form constrained by the cost of ingredients.

    This is why being a film snob is the world’s most tragic lifestyle.

    • EM

      I’m a matinee fiend, but sometimes I’m willing to pay more for admission if I have reason to believe the movie will be worth it. However, Hollywood frequently gives me reasons to seek out discount tickets—or just skip the theater altogether.

    • Jane Morgan

      Budget reasons are stifling entire film genres.

      In the entire history of film, there are only 20 Sci-Fi movies that have made more than $200M.

      There are only 20 R-Rated movies that have made more than $200M.

      There are only 3 R-Rated Sci-Fi movies in the Big Money Club.

      In the last five years, there have been 50+ R-Rated/Sci-Fi video games that have made more than $200M.

      Hollywood keeps giving me more reasons to ignore movies and invest my entertainment time in story-driven games.

      • EM

        Are those figures gross revenues or profit margins? Usually it’s gross revenues that are quoted, but you’re often not usual. 😛 Do lists based on top grosses look pretty much the same as lists based on top profits?

        Sci-fi is often cited as expensive to make, but it doesn’t always have to be. Sure, I love my big-budget Star Wars and whatnot, but some of the best sci-fi is light on special effects, unusual sets, and other costly trappings. I wouldn’t mind if the film industry made more sci-fi films of the Thing From Another World or (original) Stepford Wives variety. I don’t know how such films’ profit margins have generally turned out, but it seems plausible that Hollywood could make quality sci-fi that earns less but costs less and ends up making a goodly sum.

        • Everything you say makes good, rational sense. Unfortunately, the Hollywood system isn’t rational. It’s based on so much “creative” accounting and outright fraud that it’s impossible to ever know for certain how much any specific movie really cost to make, or how much of a profit it brought in.

          When writer Art Buchwald famously sued Paramount for a percentage of the profits from ‘Coming to America’ (which was allegedly developed based on his story idea without credit), the studio claimed that there was nothing to pay up because the movie had never actually turned a profit. Mind you, we’re talking about a movie that reportedly grossed almost $300 million based on an official budget of only $39 million, and was the #3 box office earner of 1988. Paramount insisted that the movie had so many back-end and profit-participation deals that it never left the red.

          If that were true, then it would be virtually impossible for ANY film production to ever make its money back. Yet somehow, Hollywood hasn’t gone bankrupt, and the studios haven’t changed their business practices one iota in the decades since. Clearly, people must be making money somewhere, quite lucratively in fact, for the system to perpetuate itself the way it has. But trying to pin that down is an impossible task.

        • Funny thing is, “A New Hope” was – even in 1977 – a relatively inexpensive movie and it’s far superior to the 125 million dollar Star Wars-films. So good sci-fi doesn’t have to be expensive; all it has to be, is creative.

          Local example : an American location scout was flabbergasted after he found out an entire series of a Belgian television drama series was made with the average make-up budget of a Hollywood movie. In Belgium, $5 million dollars is a VERY expensive movie that probably won’t ever turn a profit.

          Shoestring budgets fuel creativity. “El Mariachi” is a good example.

        • Jane Morgan

          Those figures were worldwide grosses, a loose benchmark of profit.

          What I lust for, which might be a mirage, is Huge-Budget R-Rated Genre Action.

          Historical is somewhat successful. Braveheart, Gladiator, Troy, 300, etc…

          But sci-fi and fantasy have struggled to make money at the Hard R level.

          The failure of ‘Watchmen’ perfectly illustrates the puzzle.

  2. All of these complaints can be leveled at any industry. Nepotism, unqualified managers with a degree passing by 20 year men, uninformed customer base. These aren’t qualities limited to only movie making. Not to mention there’s nothing in these guys’ filmography that makes be think that they had great scripts that were somehow “screwed” by the studios.

    • I don’t think they’re trying to say that they’ve been “screwed” at all. They’re just being very open and honest about the realities of the business.

      Tom Lennon is a regular on the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He doesn’t have any pretense of writing great art that’s been bastardized by the studios. He’s a working writer. He writes what he’s hired to write. One of the comments he made recently was that he doesn’t trust any writer who doesn’t have a lot of crap on his resume, because that means the person isn’t working.