Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Whither the movie biz? A trendwatcher's view

February 10, 2014: 8:44 AM ET

The man who gave Hollywood producer Brian Grazer his daily dose of cultural knowledge now helps companies understand trends. Here's a peek at Brad Grossman's 2014 Zeitguide.

140207140710-laptop-illo-620xaFORTUNE -- I met Brad Grossman about a decade ago when I went to interview Brian Grazer, who is Ron Howard's producing partner and the force behind movies from Apollo 13 to A Beautiful Mind to last year's Rush. Grazer is a fascinating and eclectic guy, and Grossman, who was Grazer's "cultural attaché," is one of the reasons why. Grazer employed Grossman at Imagine Entertainment, his and Howard's company, to tell the boss everything interesting about the world that he might not know and also introduce Grazer to one new fascinating person each week.

To me, Grossman was practically as interesting as Grazer because he was so wonderfully curious and knew lots of things that normal people don't know. Grossman left Imagine in 2008 to move from Los Angeles to New York and start his own firm, Grossman and Partners. Now he sells his expertise about culture to companies such as General Electric (GE), Microsoft (MSFT) and Viacom (VIA), and he publishes for clients his annual Zeitguide, a compendium of insights about everything from fashion to technology to healthcare, as well as media and entertainment trends.

Now, as the Oscars approach (the Academy Award nominees' annual luncheon is today in LA), it's a good time to share a part of Grossman's 2014 Zeitguide: his take on today's movie business.

It's no coincidence that some of the biggest tent-pole movies over the last year, such as Gravity, All Is Lost, and Captain Phillips, focused on survival. Given the changes afoot, how to survive is something the movie industry itself is grappling with.

Even as worldwide box-office reached $10.9 billion in 2013, the number of tickets sold stayed the same. And the combination of a glut of summer movies with some giant flops killed the bottom line at many studios. This resulted in an upheaval of studio chiefs and producers; most of the scapegoats seem to be marketing executives, suggesting that the industry is blaming its digital-era woes on its old-school marketing.

Or maybe it's more than that. Steven Soderbergh's "State of Cinema" talk at the San Francisco International Film Festival bemoaned the shrinking space in the industry for "specificity of vision." "You've got people who don't know movies and don't watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you're going to be allowed to make," he said. (His last directing project was "Behind the Candelabra" for HBO, and his next is the pilot of The Knick, a 2014 series for Cinemax.) Steven Spielberg and George Lucas foretold a "big meltdown" or "implosion" of the film industry during a talk at the University of Southern California. Spielberg called Hollywood's dependence on blockbuster tent-pole pics "unsustainable." He predicted $25 tickets for blockbusters. Lucas suggested a Broadway-theater model of longer runs for event films like Gravity in 3-D.

Critics, oddly, are less gloomy. "Within this landscape of bloat and desolation, there is quite a lot worth caring about," A.O. Scott noted. "What movies enable—what they may now, in fact, depend on is … the refusal of any given film to conform to the available models and dominant expectations." He mentioned the audacity of "Gravity," the boldness of "All Is Lost." Whether it's through the grandness of scale, hugeness of screen, or greater creativity, Hollywood will survive by upping its wow factor—so that whether viewers are streaming, renting, downloading or queuing up at a theater, the content will be unmistakably cinematic.

This reflects what Brad's mentor, Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer always says, "I'm in the feelings business." There was a huge emotional range in 2013's great films -- laughter to tension in American Hustle, the pain and horror of 12 Years a Slave and the whole roller coaster ride from thrill to revulsion in The Wolf of Wall Street. Movies remind us that you don't need 13 hours of binge viewing to complete an emotional journey. One two-hour film can do the trick.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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