Blogging film art and commerce

I should probably blog more about my thoughts about film art, which I actually practice, than about the business of film, which I have only a layman’s knowledge and no real interest in practicing.   I follow the film business mostly like a soap opera fan follows a soap: I know how it works, I know the characters, so it’s interesting to me.  And I tend to be outraged more as a consumer of films these days than I do about the state of the art. I think that there are great films out there – mostly from outside America – but we’re not getting to see them.  And I’m sick of only seeing superhero movies in the theater.

I don’t like to talk about other people’s films because I like to feel like I’m part of a community of filmmakers and it’s hard enough to get people to see your film without some asshole telling people that it sucks.

Then there’s the whole employment problem. I’d love to go on about the dangers of taking Ron Howard seriously as a director, or how Sandra Bullock is proof that talent has nothing to do with success in film, unless you only count by the dollar. But what if Ron Howard was thinking of producing my film, then he saw that I think he sucks and changed his mind? Because, to steal a line from Broadcast News, “that changes everything.” Of course, I loved Apollo 13 and Far and Away actually gets better as it gets older, the way classics do. What a scumbag I am, huh?

I have the same worries about the blogging about the art of films. I have put some thoughts on here, including my manifesto, and who knows what producers think. One of my producers, who is actually producing one of my films, kept asking me if I thought this or that was too Hollywood, or not arty enough. I couldn’t help thinking he’d been reading my blog. Luckily, he had seen past my egotistical rants, because I doubt that he has the same feelings I do about what a film should be. Not everyone thinks that realism sucks, or would even agree about what realism is. It’s dangerous territory to blog about: if the system that pays for your films finds out that you have artistic aspirations, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

My ideas aren’t that radical. I love seeing things that are different and often find things that are more different than I would ever make something. I still like straight narrative storytelling, but I can go with Lost Highway or a strange French film like Innocence.

My main complaint about the state of film is that cinematic language is so unimportant to audiences and critics and filmmakers that they are mostly cinematically illiterate. As I’ve said in my manifesto, most films today speak at the literary equivalent of See Jack Run. Sure, the subject matter may be adult, but the language it is told in is virtually always more primitive than it was in the fifties or sixties. And this is not an old art form we are talking about. The cinematic language of television should not be what we expect in a film.

You see, it’s not that radical, except that these days, anything different is a cause for concern. And really, for me, why risk it? Not that many people read this stuff that I write. It would be shame if I was somehow hurting my career with my rants on the internet.  So, there is a little bit of self-censorship on this blog.  I love talking about film art, much more than about the business, and I’ll keep posting thoughts, but I’m not going to go crazy here.  Really, blogging is a hobby as much as anything else.  To update that old Godard adage: the best film criticism is to make films, not blog about them.

Distribution?

I’ve been thinking about all the problems in American film right now and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two main factors that are killing it, and they are so closely connected that they might as well be the same thing.

One is the cost of marketing and advertising a film. The other is the studio cabal which essentially dominates the theaters and squeezes out any competition. Why are they connected? Because when they can’t simply threaten a theater to fill their screens with their films, they roll over the other films with their huge advertising budgets. Which would you rather have in your theater: a little film of quality that has terrific word of mouth, or a 200 million dollar behemoth that has posters and TV commercials and saturates every corner of the media world for the week before it opens? A small film really cannot compete on that level.

There is also declining DVD sales, but that is really an economic problem. There’s not much you can do about Tower Records closing and most of the other DVD outlets. I’m not convinced that piracy, at least right now, is contributing very much to this decline.

But, the trends are clear: once a film hits DVD, it’s value is going down.

Now, films before the 80’s had a very simple model. They played in the theaters and that was it. VHS came along around the same time as cable and as foreign sales started picking up, and all that changed the game, but before that, a theatrical run was about all you could make your money from.

Now, with piracy and declining DVD taking its toll, theatrical seems to be the best option to make money. After all, attendance is fairly steady and people still like going to the movies.

So why is it that an industry was once able to make its money in the theaters alone and now it can’t? And the answer is in the first paragraph. Only a few films can afford to compete against the studios. Niche markets are ready and willing to spend money, but good luck getting a screen near one of them.

So what can be done about this? Outside of government intervention, there isn’t much. But remember what happened to the music business?

The studios controlled the music business in the same way. They only put out huge bands that cost too much and others had trouble competing. When music became free, it was a disaster for the studios and for a lot of artists. But it also allowed smaller bands and different bands to find their audience and make some money on the road. From the consumer point of view, the internet was the best thing ever for music as it opened up competition that was shut out before.

Could the same thing happen in films? I think it could, but theaters have to be opened up to competition because that’s the only equivalent filmmakers have to a live show, ie. making money.

The new foreign Hollywood film

I’ve noticed a trend lately of English-language films that have been produced and mostly financed outside of America. I’m not talking about the latest Working Title Brit-com, or even the high-brow Dickens adaption – they’ve been doing those for a years.

I’m talking about District 9 and Taken. These are fairly high-budgeted films with their sites set firmly on America, and probably with distribution in place (I don’t know). They were studio movies made outside the studio system. They’re not indies, because indies are an American thing. They are foreign films, embraced by audiences because they are foreign. Because they are different. Because they could never be made in the current studio system. They may have (and look like they have) lower budgets than a big Hollywood film, but they still look damn good, and, as I’ve been saying, it’s amazing what you’re willing to overlook when you like a movie.

Let me just say that again: these movies cannot be made in the studio system.

Look at Taken, where Liam Neeson’s character is an unrelenting killer, hell-bent on getting his daughter back.  Here’s why it couldn’t be made in America: he’s cruel.  He doesn’t just drop a casual, sadistic line off before shooting someone.  He tortures someone, then kills them in the most painful way he can think of.  You think this was survive a Hollywood script meeting with D-people wondering if the audience was going to sympathize with the hero?  No fucking way.  There’s no character arc.  He hasn’t learned anything at the end.  If anything, he’s proven to everyone else that his paranoid craziness was justified.  He’s not even a good father.

District 9 involves a spaceship landing in South Africa.  (That, in itself, is refreshing.)  But what’s really refreshing to me was the main character, who was just so different than what you find in the American version of this movie.  Instead of the super-tough, macho shithead that usually carries these films, District 9 has a bureaucratic clown who’s only qualification was that he married the right girl.  He’s not particularly good at his job – an impossibility in an American action movie.  Even in Pehlem 123, the train operator was a total expert, hard-working blue collar “everyman”.   District 9’s hero is a racist, power goes to his head, right to the end he’s only looking out for himself.

This stuff just does not happen in Hollywood.  My point is that this is competition, in the same way that Toyota was competition to GM in the 70’s.  The only difference is that the studios own the theaters (or access to them) so they distribute these films.  They know they can’t make them, and they’re cheaper than they can make them, it fills up their slates and they make them money.

They make money because audiences are desperate for something that is not the crap that Hollywood is making right now.   For years foreign countries have been trying to imitate Hollywood by trying and failing to copy them.  But now they’ve grown up on them, they have their own take on what a Hollywood film should be and, with American audiences so bored that they’ll give them a chance, they’re finally succeeding.   Change isn’t coming from Hollywood, but at least it’s coming from somewhere.

Real life and comedies

If you want to see a film that has any relevance to real life, your best bet (in America) would be a comedy. For some reason, only comedies have any real interaction with the lives we live. I saw Extract last night (just OK, I’m sad to say) but it reminded me how heavy handed films that aren’t comedies are; not just Hollywood films, but indies too.

I’m thinking of some pretty good comedies, The Good Girl, Adventureland, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, Old School.  I still remember that line in Old School where Will Farrell says he’s got a busy day tomorrow, you know, going to Home Depot.  That’s reality.  Or Superbad, where the plot was kids trying to get some booze for a party.   The characters in these films are all people I either know, or know of, and are mostly working and playing in environments that are pretty real to me.

Where’s the drama equivalent?  Recently, I can only think of Little Children, which was ok, but the actors get so breathy and serious.  I like a little style in films, and Little Children was trying, but it just didn’t strike a chord.  And it’s weird because that’s the life I lead in the same suburban, kid-raising world I know, but, after the first scene, it didn’t seem real.

Mostly dramas are so busy being serious and important that they sort of work on a different plane.  I know murder happens everyday, but I don’t really live with it.  A drama without a murder is a pretty rare thing in America.  Let’s just forget about the 95% of Hollywood films that are complete fantasies – the superheroes and the Harry Potter-esque stuff.  (At least we all know someone like Hermione, the know it all swat).

And then you get the indies, which are generally trying to be closer to slices of life, but the characters are always too quirky to be real, or the actors are too busy hyperventilating seriousness.  Realistic style, ie. the generic, no-style world of the indie, Sundance favorite (usually hand-held these days, does not make a film any more realistic.   I’m not talking about realism, which I generally don’t like, but relevance to real life.

I’m not sure Hollywood ever made the kinds of films I’m talking about, except for a brief time in the late 60’s/early 70’s.  France can’t get enough of them.  I always think of Naruse, the great Japanese director, who made films about real people just trying to get by, arguing about money, and managed to make it great.   Real people dealing with real problems.   If you can’t identify with any of the characters, who are these movies supposed to be for?

At least there are comedies, I guess, but it seems like there’s a whole world out there that’s just being ignored.

Forgiveness

Perfect movies are hard to come by, so we put up with a lot of imperfections when we watch them and it doesn’t, for me at least, kill the pleasure. I mean, you have to take the pleasurable parts of a film and sometimes ignore parts you don’t like. It’s a little like going to a restaurant where the entree is great, but the sides aren’t good, or the service sucks. I already talked about dumb plot points, but there’s plenty of other stuff that can really get in the way if you let it.

I rewatched ALMOST FAMOUS the other day, and I liked it even more this time. It’s really a good film. So what that the last twenty minutes are a dumb schmaltz fest. I’d have to be a real sour puss to let that ruin the enjoyment of the rest of it.

I always think of Luc Besson when I think of films that are frustrating imperfect. His films are, in some ways, incredible. Visually, there’s nothing like them. He has a sort of optimistic view of things that really sets him apart. But then he has that dumb sense of humor that keeps screwing things up. There always has to be a bad joke, or stupid comedy part, that you have to sit through. But it’s his film. He’s not asking me for my opinion. Maybe it’s those dumb parts that make his movies unique and personal. Without them, they’d be like all the other movies that don’t have those dumb comedy parts. He’s putting the movie out there that he wants to, and he’s inviting me to watch it for what it is and take what I choose away from it.

When movies are bad, they’re usually bad in every respect.  I tried to sit through BEFORE AND AFTER today, and was amazed how there was just nothing to love (and a lot to, shall we say, not love).  Tarkovsky used to say that you could tell if a film was good or not from just one frame.  I know what he means, but if I just said no to everything, I’d hardly ever get to enjoy a film.

The budget gap

I was wondering about those great art house films of the 60’s and 70’s. About how much they cost, how much they made, etc. Obviously, now that they’re classics they have some financial value in a library, but what I realized was that these films were the low budget films of their times. What’s changed is the gap between the lowest budget films and the highest budget films.

PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, which cost a few million or more, was actually a studio movie. It managed to get made because it was so much cheaper than all the other movies at the studio – a story you hear all the time. But at the time, the bigger budget films were only about 8-10 million. This is staggering, not just because a high budget film now costs 200 million, but because a low budget film still costs 3 million.