The film business eats your soul

I was listening to a Jerry Weintraub interview the other day. He has a new book out, which I immediately ordered. He’s a producer of films and Broadway, but he started in music. He was talking about why bands break up and, basically, he said that there’s a point when a band becomes a business, and the band members become business men. When that point it reached, it’s all over.

Filmmakers are increasingly encouraged to be their own businessmen. We are told that we need to put together a business plan, know our audience, self-distribute. All of this to survive the horrible state of the industry.

On top of this, there is hardly any discussion in the media about the art of film. Hollywood has made critics cynical; they must guess an audience reaction to a film rather than simply judge it themselves. The headlines are more concerned with the box office of any given film than its quality. The NYT Arts section often carries the same stories as Variety, sometimes even scooping it. And the stories are the same doom and gloom that every industry is suffering through. The internet has made the Hollywood trades available for everyone, so we can all see who got hired at Fox or whatever.

It may sound naive, but this stuff will kill you as an artist. A filmmaker concerned about the film business, or as whiny about it as all the indie filmmakers I follow on twitter, is not concerned about making interesting films, or furthering the art. The irony is that they are sitting around like studio executives looking for the next big thing instead of sitting around like artists and creating it.

Hollywood has always had this business mentality. It’s a company town. Go to a party and they are most likely talking about the box office and the latest CAA star. One of the reasons I left LA was to get away from that.

Yet here I am in NY, and I know more about this business than I even need to know. Sure, as you work in it, you get to know it, and that’s part of the problem. Filmmakers need to gather around and discuss their techniques, their desires, their art. They need to look at films they love and decide what they think works and what doesn’t. They need to look at the established artistic dogma and see how to change it. That’s how exciting work is created.

Whether an audience will want to see that or not, it’s really not the point. Hopefully, they will. Historically, they have not. You can’t think about it like that, no matter what the producers say. Art can please an audience, but that cannot be its main purpose.

Audiences are craving something new and exciting. They might not know it when they see it, but give them a little time and they will, and you will have changed the world. You might not be any richer, but if you want to make money, maybe art wasn’t the right choice. There’s always Hollywood. Or Wall Street. There’s a reason why artists starve.

Being 40 and writing younger

That stuff is depressing, and trying to lie your way through a script with false optimism, doesn’t make the script good. Not to mention the fact that it makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning, and even harder to sit at your desk and write.

These are the things a mid-life crisis is built around, and generally you emerge from that either solidly cynical or with a new found peace with your insignificance.

It might make sense that these inner quarrels would make great material for your films, but you’d be wrong. Or maybe not, but the truth is that, just like no one really wants to hang out with someone having their mid-life crisis, no one wants to see their movies either. Cynicism in films makes for bad films. A little perspective on that might help.

The other sad reality for a filmmaker is that , while you get older, your audience doesn’t. I don’t know if it’s always been like this, but right now, it’s people under 35 who go see movies. I have a theory that in the 1950’s, when the pin up girls were all kind of wide and chunky, that the audience was older, because that shape is, honestly more appealing to someone in their 40’s than it is to someone in their 20’s, who prefers the skinny types we get now.

Making films about 40 year olds is generally not that interesting, and part of the reason is something I already mentioned. When you turn 40, you know how the world works. The other side of that is that your character is now fully formed. You buy the same stuff at the supermarket. You know what you like, and don’t like. You know what you believe in. Etc. If you make films about 40 year olds, it’s not going to have a lot of character growth. (Of course, there are exceptions. This is generally.) One of the things we love about American movies is watching things happen to the hero, and seeing how they affect the hero. People over 40 aren’t really that affected by what happens to them because they’ve seen it all before.

What 40 year olds, and above, have to offer is perspective. As I’ve said twice already, we know how the world works. Twenty year olds making films have the enthusiasm, the drive, the energy, they’re full of revolutionary spirit and they’re cute, but they really have no idea what’s going on. Look at those relationship movies where the characters go on and on about what love is supposed to be. One of my pet peeves. since I’ve had kids, is the father/son movie when the father has this big catharsis at the end about what a lousy father he’s been. It’s such a kid’s idea about what it’s like to be a parent.

So these are my thoughts: keep your characters young and look at them with the perspective of being 40. Knowing how the world works means that you can create a truer world, with truer characters, and fill it with the things that you think are important. Because even though when we’re 40 our character are fixed, they’re still different.  A grown up film doesn’t have to be full of grown ups.

Looking at the price of a film, backwards

I was talking to some friends who work in the art world – not artists – and I thought there were some interesting perspectives on the film business. They were talking about how critics had become mostly irrelevant in the world of art. Art, they said, had become fairly self-explanitory and it’s value was based solely on the price a buyer was willing to pay. Surprisingly, this wasn’t a cynical statement, just someone reflecting on reality.

If film were like art, it’s value would be measured by its buyers. But a shitty film costs the same as a masterpiece for the person who sees it, or buys their own copy. There is no value based on this price; there is only value based on the number of people willing to pay that price. This is pretty much the opposite of what gives art its value: prints of a great artist will never cost as much as their paintings, and the more prints there are, the less their value. The singularity is part of the value.

Film, obviously, doesn’t work like this. But, then I thought, maybe it does, if you sort of turn the logic around a bit.

Ted Hope and others always say that there are too many films, and, in particular, too many films that are made that never have a serious chance for making their money back. He wonders how can literally billions of dollars get poured into making films submitted to Sundance, when there are only low millions that are earned from the films that are actually selected. The point is that there is no way that all the money, or even a small part of it, has a chance of being recouped.

But what if we looked at it a little differently. What we called investors something else? What if we called them buyers or commissioners? What if the value of the film was what you can get to make it? If you think of it this way, then all that friends and family money, all that money coming from the rich dentists who need a little glamor in their lives, all those budgets going into Sundance, all of that has already bought something.

They bought a film.

Whatever happens to that film financially, they’ll have something decidedly more tangible than the DVD of that film. They will have something that would not exist in this world without their involvement.

Now, art is bought by buyers, mostly, as investment. It is meant to appreciate in value. But even if they can’t sell it, at least they can hang it on their wall and enjoy it for what it is. Art comes in and out of favor, and who knows, maybe you’ll make some money some day. You can’t hang a film on a wall, but what a buyer is getting isn’t just an investment, it’s an experience. And, watching a finished film that you’ve invested in is a very different experience than watching a film you have nothing invested in. If that is a positive experience, who knows, maybe an investor might do it again.