This past summer, Hollywood earned its lowest box office revenue since 2006. More than a dozen films from every major movie studio “bombed hard,” to quote film financial analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen & Co.
“I wouldn’t want to be a movie theater owner right now,” he said. The losses were nothing short of historic.
Many turn to the rise of Netflix, the role of Rotten Tomatoes and sequel fatigue, and other themes for answers. But two veteran Hollywood producers say the lack of family fare is a major factor behind Hollywood’s slump.
“Families are way underserved today,” says writer Brian Bird. Now Bird and former Disney executive Mitch Davis are revealing their aim to create compelling films and TV shows that run counter to mainstream trends.
‘Audiences Are Starved For Family Programming’
Movie producer Mitch Davis got his start at Walt Disney Studios in the late 1980s, working behind-the-scenes on “Newsies,” “Dead Poet’s Society” and other releases now considered iconic.
He wrote and directed “The Other Side of Heaven” for Disney in 2001, the first film role for young actress Anne Hathaway. She went on to star in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. (Worth noting: Nolan’s World War II drama “Dunkirk” was this past summer’s only original, non-franchise hit.)
“The movie industry is the most persuasive, pervasive creator of popular culture on the planet,” Davis said in an interview to support “The Stray,” his independent family film opening in theaters October 6. “To make a world-class movie, it costs upwards of 50 to 200 million dollars. What do those economic forces mean? If you’re spending that kind of money, you have to know you have a legitimate path to recouping it. The answer to that question becomes the lowest common denominator: sex and violence.”
Brian Bird, executive producer of “When Calls the Heart” on the Hallmark Channel, echoed Davis’s analysis. “It’s a race to the bottom everywhere in the media conversation, except for a few small networks who are trying desperately to program for a family audience.”
Writer of successful biopics “The Case for Christ” and “Captive” for Paramount Pictures, Bird recently co-founded Believe Pictures with Michael Landon, Jr., son of the famed “Little House on the Prairie” actor and producer.
Co-produced by Believe, “When Calls the Heart” has driven record ratings for Hallmark in a year when most cable networks are seeing declines.
“Audiences are starved to death for this kind of family programming,” says Bird. “They love the show so much because it’s giving them what they don’t get anywhere else.” Centered on frontier women seeking love, raising families, and solving conflicts in a small coal-mining town, the historical drama was just renewed for a fifth season.
Bird shrugs off critics of his work with Hallmark. “People can call it cheesy, they can call it sentimental—I’m okay with that,” he says. “I’m not ashamed about this show at all, because I think it’s necessary in our culture.” And, he adds, “Other people agree with me. Five million people are watching this show in some capacity on TV, on Netflix or by other means.”
How Hollywood Went Global
“When I was an executive at Disney, I came there a bit idealistic and naïve,” says Mitch Davis. The House of Mouse hired him in 1989, fresh out of film school at the University of Southern California. “Movies are where art meets commerce, and I was all about the art. I quickly found out about commerce. Yet I went into the movie business because I wanted to tell stories that uplifted and inspired people.”
But Davis believes the world of film is changing—and not for the better. Alluding to summer box-office flops like “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “The Mummy,” he says, “I used to feel like movies insulted audiences. Today, movies assault us.”
The growth of international markets has heavily influenced Hollywood’s film content, Davis says: many spend 100 to 200 million dollars making a movie, and an additional 100 to 200 million promoting it. Once ancillary costs are added in, half a billion dollars are at stake. “Our planet has become one big movie market, which means films are now made to appeal to the lowest common denominator—not just of one region, but the entire world.” For a movie to play well in every country and region, he explains, you’ve got to find compelling content that doesn’t require subtitles. Like violence and sex.
Davis speaks with firsthand knowledge of executive decisions at Walt Disney Studios, whose $3 billion film revenue last year far surpassed every other studio. He believes the standard-bearer of family films has declined.
“Walt Disney was fiercely protective of his audience,” he says. “He wanted to make money, sure. But he also wanted to not degrade the sensibilities of his viewers. Those kinds of scruples have largely disappeared.”
When A Culture Loses Shared Experiences
Bird, whose work as a TV producer dates back to “Step By Step” in the early 1990’s, also expresses concern about what content has become acceptable in the mainstream. “Everywhere we turn in media nowadays, what we see are zombies, vampires, werewolves, dead bodies, crystal meth dealers and cynicism,” he says.
Yet Bird sees the issue in broader cultural terms. “When I was growing up, my family had a shared experience of watching television together,” he recalls. “We weren’t off on our own little iPhones, tablets, computer screens or TVs niched off in different rooms watching our own content. We all watched together.”
He contrasts his Hallmark show with options families have today. “Maybe a couple of reality shows, like ‘Property Brothers’ or others on HGTV, you can watch those with your kids. But you can’t watch anything else. Kids’ shows on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, parents can’t watch those because it makes your eyes bleed!”
As a guest lecturer at Act One, the Los Angeles-based training program for people of faith, Bird constantly shares his love for storytelling. “The world has forgotten about the great virtues,” he says. “Our show is all about the great virtues: community, hope, forgiveness, redemption, resurrection, sacrifice and nobility. Those are violin strings running through all human beings. But we’ve forgotten how to play the melody in our culture.”
Rediscovering the Deeper Themes of Life
Even those who entered Hollywood for good reasons can forget core values. The lead in Davis’ new film “The Stray,” a writer and young father played by Michael Cassidy (“Argo”), is as autobiographical as characters come.
“You get caught up in the commercial aspects, the financial realities of the business, and you forget why you wanted to make movies in the first place,” he says. “The more successful I got, the more I forgot what I wanted to say.”
It’s an experience common to all parents, Davis observes. “All of the biggest stressors reach their apex at the same time: when our families are young, we have the most marital, financial, career and parenting stress. It’s all happening at the same time, and I think that’s why so many marriages and families disintegrate.”
“I wasn’t a ‘bad dad’ when I was working crazy hours. I just wanted to pay the mortgage, feed and clothe my family. Yet the busyness of day-to-day life took over to the point that I forgot what it was all about,” he confesses. “I had to be reminded by a stray dog and a bolt of lightning.”
Filmed in the Rocky Mountains, “The Stray” centers on a dramatic moment when Davis was on a backpacking trip with his son and two scout friends. A storm kicked up just as they had set up their tent and turned in for the night.
“I was struck in the chest, right over my heart, by a direct strike from lightning,” says Davis. “I don’t remember it; part of my life is missing in my mind. It’s from the boys’ accounts that we could portray what is in the film.”
“I wasn’t breathing, moving, or responsive,” he says. “Then I came to, and heard the boys crying, screaming, and praying. It was a traumatic, dramatic scene. I couldn’t respond, I just lay there. I couldn’t do anything to comfort these boys or answer their prayers. Then at a certain point, I realized that I was going to die.”
Similar to Bird’s “The Case for Christ” and Sony Pictures’ recent “All Saints,” Davis’s story portrays faith in an authentic and less overtly religious manner than is typical of the genre. “When you reach certain moments of crisis in your life, really all you can do is call upon a higher power—because it doesn’t take much for us to be out of our depths,” he says.
The film’s big takeaway, he adds, is that “family matters more than anything on earth … and they’re complicated.”
Finding Success in a Fragmented Marketplace
Davis has taken a risk by raising millions to produce “The Stray” and release it in theaters. “As an independent filmmaker, I’ve raised money from investors to make this movie,” he says. “It’s easy to say, ‘When art and commerce meet, art oughta win.’ Or believe that integrity should win out over lowest common denominator. But that’s somebody’s money and it’s big money. The math is not on your side.”
Davis takes his inspiration from directors who have gone before him. “One of my film heroes is Frank Capra,” he says. “I believe that morally courageous, upright people should be entrusted with our children’s hearts and minds. Not just people who are trying to make a buck, but people who have a conscience.”
Meanwhile, executive producer Brian Bird points to zealous fans of “When Calls the Heart,” called ‘Hearties,’ as key to his show’s success. “The Hearties are a fan base that we didn’t invent. They found our show and they’re truly an organic, unique, grassroots fan tribe.”
The Hearties tend to be women aged 35 to 55, Bird notes, and “all of them are evangelists for the show. … They are rabid about it, getting nearly every episode to trend on social media when it airs — with the hashtag #Hearties, of course.”
Hallmark has marshaled its considerable resources behind the show, folding the season five premiere into its popular Christmas movie marathon in December.
“Obviously, the one big thing fans want is a wedding,” says Bird, when asked about the upcoming “When Calls the Heart” season. “They’ve been waiting for four seasons for that to happen! I’m not going to spoil that and say yes or no. All I’m going to say is, they’re going to be happy.”
Bird believes that shows like “When Calls the Heart” are necessary to bring healing and peace to our culture. “I see that as a really positive thing in our culture where there’s so much cynicism happening and so much political divide.”
“The Stray” directed by Mitch Davis open in theaters on October 6. Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime, “When Calls the Heart” returns to Hallmark Channel in December.