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.

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