Woog’s World / Westport’s Ben Fritz and the future of Hollywood
Ben Fritz had a great growing-up experience in Westport. During summers here with his father, he enjoyed Camp Mahackeno and beach school. On weekends, he went to the movies.
At Swarthmore College, Fritz majored in political science and economics. He was always a voracious reader — including Variety magazine, at the Westport Library. After junior year he got a summer internship at that publication.
As a senior he took a journalism course at the University of Pennsylvania. He learned how to interview, and turn people’s stories into narratives.
He considered writing as a career, but spent a year after graduation with Americorps in South Carolina. Then it was off to Los Angeles, where Fritz blogged about politics in media. In 2004 he wrote “All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth.” He jokes, “It’s available on Amazon now for one cent. It’s definitely worth the price.”
Variety hired Fritz as a reporter. He interviewed studio executives, producers and filmmakers, and immersed himself in the movie industry.
In 2009 he joined the Los Angeles Times, covering the business of entertainment. Four years later he was hired by the Wall Street Journal. His beat there is the movie business in general, with a focus on the Walt Disney Company.
“I love my job,” Fritz says. “I go to premieres, talk to interesting people, and explain it all to readers.”
Several themes come through in his coverage. One is the rise of China. The most populous country on earth is emerging as a strong rival to Hollywood — and American studios are noticing. In a 2012 remake of “Red Dawn,” for example, a late decision was made to replace China as the enemy. Using digital technology, every reference — in dialogue, scenes with flags, you name it — to that nation was changed to North Korea.
And, Fritz says, “I can’t report enough on the effect digital distribution on traditional studios.” Netflix and other streaming companies are reacting in different ways. Disney is launching its own streaming service. Some studios are cooperating with the newcomers.
Three years ago — after a trove of Sony Pictures’ confidential data was hacked — an agent approached Fritz with an idea for a behind-the-scenes book about the incident and its ramifications. That evolved into a different concept: a book exploring a major studio, in today’s quickly changing entertainment environment.
Fritz wondered, “How has Hollywood gone from making a wide array of movies for adults, to focusing so much on superheroes, spinoffs and sequels?”
The result in “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies.” It was published last week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
His book explains, for example, how Sony stuck with stars like Will Smith and Adam Sandler for so long.
The studio also passed on the opportunity to buy movie rights to all Marvel characters for $25 million, Fritz adds.
The underlying theme of Fritz’s new book is that “we’ve entered the franchise era of films. Today, movies are brand-driven. Now they go to movies because they’re loyal to Pixar, ‘Star Wars,’ or ‘Mission: Impossible.’”
Fritz writes that DVD sales once provided an enormous revenue stream, allowing studios to produce diverse films. “I don’t think anyone in Westport has bought a DVD in years,” he says.
Another factor: the internationalization of movie audiences. “Rain Man” was typical: aimed at American filmgoers. It’s been replaced by “Transformers”-type movies.
In addition, Fritz says, “television is no longer ‘the idiot box.’ HBO and other subscription networks are now the places making original dramas.”
His book ends with the question: “After the rise of streaming and digital technology, what’s next?” The answer is that Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others are providing more and more Oscar-worthy films. “They’re taking the creative risks that studios used to take,” Fritz says.
If you believe that movies should be seen communally in theaters, the future is not good. However, he notes, “if you want good, original movies made for adults,” and enjoy watching them at home, the future looks fine.
So what does Fritz watch? Thanks to his job, he attends plenty of premieres, of all kinds. And he’s got a 6-year-old. So he every animated film ever made.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday.