Flying to Los Angeles, there’s a choice of about a hundred films on my entertainment system but there isn’t a single one I want to watch.
A few of them I’ve seen already but the majority (including a vast array of Lycra-clad superheroes) seem utterly alien to me, unconnected. Suspended in this strange, metallic void, 35,000 feet above the sea, I have the almost existential feeling of doubt that comes to all writers. Is it me? Am I losing my connection with the mainstream audience? Or is it the films that have changed – themselves becoming irritating and irrelevant? I mean, how many skyscrapers can you throw yourself off, how many times can you blow up the world before you find yourself inducing only ennui?
Then again, there are occasional surprises. Black Panther is one. Nobody in the world thought it was going to be the breakout movie that it became perhaps because it was actually intelligent and that took everyone by surprise. Wes Anderson’s quirky animation, Isle of Dogs, was another. Three Billboards. But they are, I think, fewer and far between.
Certainly the film business in Hollywood has contracted. All my meetings here are about television which is where all the action seems to be happening. George Clooney has just announced that he’s going to be starring in and directing a remake of Catch 22…for the subscription service, Hulu. That would have been unthinkable ten years ago. And it’s incredible how quickly the S-boxes (Netflix, Amazon etc) are taking over the world. Only this week it was announced that more young people watch Netflix than the BBC. With The Crown coming in at $10m an episode, the Americans can achieve spectacle and ambition that frankly makes UK television look like a quiet stroll in Croydon.
How to succeed in Hollywood? It’s not just about having good ideas: you need a complete package. A best-selling book, a major talent attached, a hot director. And right now, a woman in the lead role is almost a prerequisite. The #MeToo movement has Hollywood in its grip and at least that’s something to celebrate. The majority of my meetings here have been with women and I’m also working with a powerful female producer. Being married to her helps.
Strangely, it’s not too helpful to be an English writer – not if you want to create new shows. My favourite series at the moment is Babylon Berlin. If you haven’t seen it, I downloaded it from Sky catch-up. Based on the novel by Volker Kutscher, it’s a fantastic, brilliantly realised thriller set in 1920’s Germany – and at $40m, the most expensive non-English-language series ever made. As with The Killing (Denmark), The Bridge (Sweden) and Spiral (France), it strikes me that it’s very foreignness, the need for subtitles, elevates it and makes it special. Out here, I get the feeling that if Americans are making shows in English, then they need to take place in America with a completely American sensibility.
Here’s something else that’s changed in Hollywood. I’m not staying in a hotel. These days, wherever I am in the world, I rent an Airbnb and in LA I’ve found a very pleasant, three-storey apartment– at around one quarter of the price. At the place where I usually stay, they charge $40 simply to park the car overnight. And that’s another thing. Nobody in their right mind rents a car (around $400 a week) any more. Call Uber and a driver will arrive in less than three minutes. It makes me wonder if Mayor Sadiq Khan is really going to follow through on his decision to ban Uber from London. They’ve appealed and there’s a hearing scheduled to take place at the end of this month. Uber only launched in the UK six years ago but it’s very difficult now to imagine life without them.
Last night, I saw Ready Player One, even though I’d been put off by some of the reviews I’d read in the UK. What do critics know? Like so many films these days, it’s perhaps twenty minutes too long and seemed to have not one but half a dozen different climaxes, but I thought it was great fun and it’s amazing how Steven Spielberg, now 72, still has his pulse on what young people want to see. The film is a smash hit. Part of the pleasure was that – in my eyes, at least – the lead character, an avatar called Parzifal, was the spitting image of Alex Rider. Alex himself may soon be on TV. There’s hope yet!