A brief history of cynicism in American Film

OK, this is really just my take on how Hollywood got into its current situation of cynicism. It’s essential to understanding what’s going on now. Basically, it is the story about how money ruined everything.

The seeds of the cynicism started in the 70’s when some seismic shifts hit Hollywood. The studio system died, corporations started buying studios, the costs of films started to rise, but the one I want to focus on is the start of the blockbuster.

Before Jaws, films were not expected to make that much money. Before Star Wars, no one had really seen the potential of how much money could be made from a film.

The filmmakers who created the blockbuster generation were genuine film geeks in a way that their predecessors were not.   Of course, Spielberg and Lucas are at the front of  pack here, but I’m not blaming the cynicism on them at all – even if, judging from their films, they’ve become fairly cynical themselves.

These guys made phenomenal films which struck a cord with people, and created the blockbuster.    Unfortunately, these films weren’t easy to match.  Besides Spielberg and Lucas, no one seemed be able to get their numbers up there.  But they kept trying and they kept trying by imitation.

They copied the idea of using lots of special effects.  They copied the adventure/fantasy/sci-fi story lines.   Most of all, they copied the release strategy: open in as many theaters as possible and watch your competition drown.  And they mixed some star power in, just in case (something that Spielberg and Lucas generally avoided).

The side effects of this were that they had to spend huge amounts on M+A, stars became more expensive and to justify all those expenses, the films had to cost more.  A lot more.

They were successful, financially.  The tentpole film became a staple until, as it is now, that’s basically all they make.

The trouble is that they were successful because they were so good at marketing and distributing.  They became less good at making films.  Somewhere in the 80’s they began chasing a formula.  There were a few out there, sometimes under different brands, and sometimes they weren’t too bad, but this was where the cynicism crept in.  This is where the “high concept” became the rage.  This where the one page sheets started with a logline like: it’s Pretty Woman meets Top Gun, or something like that.

One of the popular formulas was basically the Rocky model, where a character faced impossible odds, but succeeded in the end in some sort of contest: think Flashdance, or Karate Kid, but there were a lot of them, believe me.  These things performed over and over again at the box office.  They were fun, uplifting films, sure, but they also didn’t cost too much and they we positioned to dominate at the theater.

But as the formula became stale, the studios kept making the films.  And people kept going because they had no choice.  When VHS came along, it pretty much killed the repertory theater, so if you wanted to see a film, your choices became more limited.  At about this time, Reagan started loosening the rule that studios could not own the distribution channels.  So a few different events combined, with the end result being that Hollywood was able to shove pretty much anything down the throat of the American consumer and they would buy it.

(This happened in the music business too.  The distribution, and the ability of the record companies to dominate the radio, gave them total control.  But as soon as competition opened up, via the internet, consumers were ready to jump ship overnight.)

So there were two problems.  One was that studios could put anything out, as long as it looked like something they were familiar with.  The other was that quality wasn’t as important as concept.  The end result was that the studios made films that they thought the audience wanted, but because the audience bought any dreck they put out, because they had no choice, the studio thought the audience was a bunch of cretin retards with eight bucks in their pocket.

I hope you can follow the logic here.  A process that was once driven by passion and love of cinema – and accepted by those who appreciated it – became dominated by a love of money.  Film became created backwards.

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Science and art

(part two of the cynicism series is coming)

I was listening to some scientists on the radio today and there were some things said that I found very relevant to film and art.

Science has become so complicated that it is very difficult for an ordinary person to understand it, even one with a fairly rounded education in science. Extra dimensions, nanotechnology, quantum particles, gravity: we’ve all heard of these things, but understanding them is tough. I’ve tried and I’m still not there.

Yet science continues to get massive amounts of funding, both private and public. Research for things that people don’t understand, that may not even turn out to be true, that may not even have an application outside of satisfying our curiousity. So I began to think of why this might be, while art funding is stuck somewhere in the third world of this universe.

At first I thought it might be that science helped create weapons. But art is a powerful weapon, and film, especially, can be used as powerful propaganda. Even the CIA went about secretly promoting American art during the Cold War because they saw it as an important way of showing what a democracy could accomplish.   Of course, physics will always have the A-bomb, which is the most glamorous and strangely mysterious death machine ever.

So then I thought of application. The researcher on the radio spoke about scientists always get asked about application, when they aren’t generally interested in that.  They just want to find out stuff.  But funders, and people, want to know, what can you use their discovery for? But he was saying that, in essence, you never really know until it is discovered and put into the world. He used an example from DNA research: who could have predicted that discovering DNA “fingerprints” would lead to people being released from prisons for crimes they didn’t commit.

So then I thought about art, because the art world exists in a similar sort of way. Art, fine art, has moved beyond simple representation into territory that is not easily appreciated by the ordinary citizen, or even the people who buy art. So there are people called buyers and dealers, who have a better understanding of the work, who tell people what they should buy. The people with money trust them, because they know what they are talking about and because sometimes you can’t tell if something is great just by looking at it.   Sometimes you need to understand it.

So these thoughts of complexity and funding sort of crossed in my mind thinking about film, which has virtually no funding for research outside of film financing outlets, where the sole justification is immediate profit and where the language is seemingly stuck at a perpetual third grade level.

Films that break rules or try new things are an endangered species because they need to appeal to people that can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, appreciate them in order to make their money back.  Sometimes critics can help an audience understand, or guide them through a film, but too often this provides only the most superficial understanding – probably at about the level that I understand gravity.

But what was interesting about the scientists was that, despite the fact that they live in a sort of bubble of knowledgeable people, there were millions of laymen out there that were curious about what they were doing and what they were discovering.  They needed it to be explained in ways that they could understand it, but what they are researching is fundamentally interesting.  Everyone wants to know things like what happened before the big bang, or how our bodies are built up from DNA.  These are fundamental questions that we ask from childhood and people remain so curious that they’re will to shovel billions of dollars at things like CERN, which will hopefully discover a graviton, or even evidence of other dimensions.   I’m not sure what they hope to sell from this discovery, but I would buy the T-shirt.

So how can we arrive at the same thing for film, where esoteric films can be made that don’t necessarily depend on the marketplace to finance them?  The answer is, from the people who want to see good films and are curious to know what film can offer that is outside of what they are seeing.  These people are out there.  I’ve seen them at festivals.  I’ve met them at parties.  Sometimes they’re attracted to the glamour, but not always.  Would they be willing to put a billion dollars of tax payer money into making films without really knowing what they are going to get for their money?   Obviously not.

So, while filmmakers are generally concerned with similar inquiries, like, what makes us do the things we do, and how the world works,  that’s generally not what they are getting into the multiplex.  And the more that happens, the less important film as an art appears to be.  If we expect to get government financing, or even private financing, we need to get people excited about what we are discovering by showing them the way into the films that we love, including our own.  Because as people who love film know, once you get hooked on good films, nothing else will do.

Cynicism and the movies (part one)

I facetiously asked Ted Hope on his blog about how he avoids being cynical, but since I asked it, I’ve been thinking about it. I’m planning a trip to LA next week. I haven’t been for a while, and it brings back memories of living there, which I hated for the very reason that I found the attitude towards film there to be completely cynical. Hollywood is a strange place where people who passionately love making films, make films that they would never go see and judging their quality entirely on their box office take.

In LA, people talk box office at parties and at work. I remember a producer I worked for asking me if I had seen City Slickers 2 over the weekend. I had, and hated it. “Great script,” he said, without a trace of irony. It was number one at the box office that week. Clearly, a classic film.

The film business can make anyone cynical, and it is easy to think from watching films that the people making them are completely jaded. The strange truth is that most people in the film industry, even in Hollywood, are passionate, caring people who genuinely want to make good films. So how do they get from that to, say, CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC?

The way I see it, there is an ocean of cynicism that we are all swimming through and that this ocean is made of many different ingredients.

The main ingredient, the water, to continue the metaphor, is money. Films are expected to make money in a way that most art is not, and that it is expected to make that money instantly on release. You’ll find that most classic films didn’t do so well at the box office. Art sometimes takes time to be digested, but most importantly, art is not something that can be judged by its worth or cost. And that’s the rub. The people behind the studios would like nothing more than to put out high quality, artful films that educated people like themselves would want to watch. But the numbers don’t lie. As much as we all dream about that utopian world where everybody likes great films, whenever that stuff gets thrown into theaters, audiences stay away.  So they make films that they think will make money, not films that they like.

Actually, it’s much more complicated than that: they actually are trained to think like that.  It’s not just them, it’s in the entire culture in Hollywood.   Money is how they make their decisions, but they have adjusted their tastes so that they genuinely like this stuff.  Honestly, you cannot make Hollywood films and be cynical.  You have to love them.   You have to think that what you are doing is awesome.   It’s the cynical films that fail: even at the box office.  That’s why other countries have so much trouble imitating Hollywood: because they cannot adjust their minds to the films that audiences like.   The people who succeed are people whose tastes are naturally attuned to the audience’s expectations.  Someone like Ron Howard is a good example.  He grew up in Hollywood and he makes the gold standard of what Hollywood considers quality: serious-minded films that make money.  It doesn’t matter that they are simple-minded drivel, there is not a speckle of cynicism in his films.

Now within this ocean of cynicism, there are tidal flows and eddies and undercurrents and stuff like that.

For example, there is this horrible whirlpool of cynicism that comes from the audience. It goes something like this: audience member sees a typically bad, unimaginative film;  this leads to the thought that “anyone could have made that”; which leads to “I could have made that”; which leads to writing screenplays.  This creates an incredible high tide of cynical, awful screenplays by people who don’t know what they are doing.  Screenwriters who actually know what they are doing, who are not cynical, have to constantly tread water just to keep their heads above this mass of suck.

I have to get back to work, so check back in the next couple days for part two…

Part two: history of cynicism in films in America

Part three: writing films and cynicism

The Broken Star System

If you want to get your movie made, you need a star attached to it. Of course, I’m talking about a film with a budget of a million dollars or more. But under that budget, you will have to ask your parents for the money, or hit up your dentists, because there are no professional resources for films that cost less than that (that I am aware of.)

OK, so you need a star. The trouble is: there are only about ten stars that can get a film financed and they are all men over 40, most over 50. The sad state of the industry is that women stars do not get your film financed – with the exception of Julia Roberts (40) and maybe Reese Witherspoon.

If you are sending out your script where the main character is a 40 year old man, then you get to deal with the usual routine of getting agents to call you back, etc. But you have a chance, as slight as it may be, because, if the star says yes, then you can have your movie.

But if your script does not call for that 40 year old male lead, you’re are basically shit out of luck because it doesn’t matter who you get, you are still not going to get your film financed.

I have a producer friend who is sending a script out with a lead for a 30 year old man. It has an A-list director attached and a studio behind it. Who was the first person they sent it to? George Clooney. Age 47.

I have a script where the lead is a 22 year old woman. There is no question in my mind that any 22 year old actress would die to get this part. It doesn’t matter. They are not going to get this film financed. I have heard that Sigourney Weaver isn’t enough to get your film financed, unless you’re doing Alien 6.

For this, and another film I’m raising funds for, we have to look to the supporting roles to attract the stars. Why would Robert Downey Jr. want to be a supporting role in an indie film? He just got back into starring roles. Basically, if you’re a big enough name to get a film financed, you want to be the lead.

There are two things I find incredible about this. One is that I am talking about indie films, films that used to take less money so that they COULD USE NO STARS. After all, why make a film for a million dollars if you need to meet every requirement that a studio is going to throw at you? But the indie financiers are even more dependent on foreign sales agents, so they need stars to sell your movie and make a profit.

Which leads me to the second thing, which is that Hollywood has largely moved on from the star system. That’s not to say that they don’t still make star-driven films. But they have started making films where the concept takes the lead in their M+A, like Cloverfield or Confession of a Shopaholic, or the superhero sells it.

So indie films are basically fucked. Are we doomed to see only films with 40 year old men as leads? I guess that’s been the case for a while, but I don’t remember a time when the stars were so old and so few, or when independent film was so reliant on them.

Too many films or not enough?

Some how, I managed to relisten to a Mark Gill interview from back in Oct. He touched on a few subjects, but the one that hit me – as it did when I first heard it – was this idea that there are too many films coming out, and that is killing the business. Now, six months later, the studios are making less films and the indie companies have been cut down and the ones that are left are making less. So this year, or maybe next, there will be less films made or at least released.  Like it or not, we’ll have less choice in the future.

I can’t argue with the idea that there are too many movies being made. Ted Hope had a good article last year where he combined all the budgets of the films at Sundance and came up with a staggering number, money that will almost entirely go down the drain.

But from the audience point of view, there is an astonishing lack of choice in theaters. As I said in my last post, there were about 14 films at the local multiplex and the same 14 films available at all the theaters near here, and pretty much the same 14 films available nationwide.

Gill’s argument goes something like this: you are given a choice between a blockbuster, a chick flick, a comedy, a horror movie and a specialty film. If there are too many specialty films, it does two things: it divides the audience and it increases the cost of marketing, because, in addition to competing with the juggernaut of the blockbuster, a specialty film has to compete against other specialty films. I find this a very cynical stance.  Basically, he is saying that because specialty films can’t compete, there should be less competition.  Isn’t that like Coke saying that they need to improve their business by making less Pepsi?

Giving the audience less choice may help a specialty distributor cover the costs of their 24 Million dollar movie, but all it does to an audience is give them less.  The audience always has another choice that Gill doesn’t seem to include in his equation: they can stay home.  Most of them are already doing this.  Gill is essentially saying that he is only after people going to the movies already, and for him, the specialty film audience.  So his slice of that audience is getting smaller.  There is never ever talk about increasing that slice, or, God-forbid, looking at the fact that all the specialty companies are bidding on the same films instead of making films that are completely different in character from each other.  No talk about changing their production model or their M+A model because they simply don’t know how to do that.

But there are reasons that most people stay home and don’t go to the theaters and one of those reasons is that there is nothing in theaters that they want to see.  In fact, entire audiences has been disenfranchised from going to the movies BECAUSE they had stopped being catered to.  Over the last 30 years, blockbusters took over all the screens and basically what happened was this: when Star Wars started filling up all the theaters, the grown up movies had less and less space to compete.  This worked pretty well for the industry because it had complete control.  You could see Star Wars or nothing.

But the choices have grown.  I can stay home and watch French Connection again on my blu-ray player (which I intend to do tonight).   All I’m saying is, when you cut the choice, you cut the audience.   It’s a great way to keep costs down, but also a great way to keep audience numbers down too.  I think, in economic terms, this is what they call a deflationary spiral.

At the multiplex

Taking a look at the multiplex this week and I’m surprised that there’s a few films out there I want to see. This is March, which is usually a desolate time for films in theaters.

There’s your usual kids movies. If you’re a kid, there’s always something to see at the movies. Coraline was much better than most of the crap that’s usually served up for kids. It was actually great: cinematic, moving, unsettling, imaginative (the ingredient missing most from kids films, or all films I guess.) Then for kids, there’s Mall Cop and Jonas Brothers. Luckily, my kids hate the Jonas Bros, but I may still have to sit through Mall Cop.

I want to see Watchman and I still haven’t seen The Wrestler. Slumdog was good.

Taken, The International and Street Fighter all look like mediocre action pics, but each one has something going for it. I’d be happy to try out any of them, with low expectations.

There’s the perpetual horror film (usually a remake), this time Friday 13th. I guess I’ll skip it, but it wouldn’t kill me to see it.

Rounded off with two chick flicks and a black flick. Chick flicks are pretty new on the scene, but are apparently delivering box office. Too bad they make chicks look like hot, stupid people. The Tyler Perry has a very specific audience, which is not me, but more power to him.

All in all, not a bad selection and a full 14 movies for the theaters 16 screens, which isn’t bad either. Sometimes there’s only 8! Too bad every other theater out here has the same 14 films. Studios continue to stifle our selection and they will pay when piracy takes over for that very reason.

WFMU

WFMU is holding their pledge week this week. They are the greatest radio station in the world, without question. Like a lot of stations, they’ve been increasing the number of listeners on the internet, but they have to pay for each of those listeners – money that, in turn, maybe, goes back to some artists. So, as their audience goes up, their revenue needs to go up as well.
Donate here…
http://www.wfmu.org

Is this a possible model for film finance? Volunteer payments for curated films that are distributed free, with the only incentive being that, if you don’t pay, no more will be made? It may be the only revenue model available in a few years.

PLEASE STOP!!!

I know I’ve gone on about how handheld camera sucks before, but IT JUST WON’T STOP. Can someone please tell any and all indie filmmakers that they see that directing a film is more than just pointing a camera in a general direction and hoping for the best? Please, spread the word! And for any producers who read this, if you’re talking style to your director and he says something like, “for this we want a gritty, realism, so I’m going handheld”, please don’t let them! They have decided to not use their imagination! They are not creating anything! They are not bringing anything new or exciting to the table! Handheld is that silent partner of the crappy improv movie. “Don’t write the script, don’t storyboard, just let’s have a single idea and see what we happens when we point a camera at it”, as if magic is somehow going to shoot out of the actors ass and make your movie good. It’s like putting a stamp across every frame of your film that says, “look at me! I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing!” Please, stop this madness! Use a dolly! Use a tripod! THINK about where your camera should go in order to tell your story on a shot-by-shot basis!