Is there anything worthwhile left to say in movies? More and more it feels like the end of something beloved and the beginning of something else. So much has changed so quickly. Doors have closed and new ones opened. Some will embrace the change – adapt or die. Some will reject it, turn away from the new and lament the changing times, dreaming the impossible dream that things will return to “normal.”
What has changed? Oh, everything. The internet happened. Fanboy culture happened. The blockbuster happened. Movie studios do what they’ve always done – make movies they think will make money, whether they turn out to be right or not. Since their marketing strategies work so well they aren’t obligated to make “better” movies. Audiences have been branded and conditioned to the point where no one really notices nor cares about how many movies come out now that are sequels and remakes. And so it goes.
Two prominent filmmakers have conveyed different messages about the state of movies recently. First, Steven Soderbergh gave a speech at the Kabuki Cinemas wherein no video camera or recording devices could be used, thus, we have only 3rd person accounts to rely upon. This bit of his speech comes from Hollywood-Elsewhere:
“Executives Don’t Get Punished But Filmmakers Do: When a film bombs, it’s the fault of the filmmakers. There is no turnover in the executive offices, and the artists are just replaced with new artists and the machine learns nothing. There is no support of a filmmaker over his or her career. There is no talent development strategy so that a filmmaker grows by trying ideas, making mistakes and triumphs, learning from the experiences and becoming a better filmmaker. It is opening weekend numbers and end-product profits perspective.”
Escobar also reports that Soderbergh “concluded that if you’re a studio then the set-up is working fine. Then he pontificated that if he were given a half a billion dollars he’d gather up all the really good indie filmmakers he knew (including Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth and Barry Jenkins) and set them loose within a timeframe and budget total and say go for it, make me three films, spend the money as you see fit. But no one has given him a half a billion dollars.”
I’m not so sure his experiment would produce the kinds of results he’s looking for. See, to solve this riddle you might have to look at Paul Schrader’s point of view, which focuses less on the product generators and more on the consumers, how they’re world has changed, what they desire and seek out, what they shell out their pocket money for continually, what they illegally download because they’re entitled to it.
Schrader himself has grown weary of what he thinks of as the traditional model of sitting in a theater for two hours straight and staring at the screen, as he tells the National Post:
“I find it harder and harder to sit for two hours straight. Even in a theatre, I’ll go out halfway through and check my phone messages — although at least I go out, not like the people who sit and check them right there.
Our digital world was rewired our brains. And if it’s rewired mine at the age of 66, just imagine what it’s done to someone at the age of 12, who never had any other wiring. People think differently, they collect information differently, they regard themselves vis-a-vis information differently — how can art not change?
Movies as we know them have had a nice kind of run, but I’d hate to call them the future.”
Film isn’t even a good word anymore: audio-visual entertainment is a very fungible concept. I don’t even know if YouTubes are movies. Movies sort of got defined as hour-and-a-half to two-hour theatrical experience because of the economic parameters of the ’20s — and they hung in that way for 80, 90 years. Filmed entertainment is still popular, but the concept of movies itself is pretty much becoming a 20th century concept.”
Have you noticed how hard it is to pay attention now, especially when you’re watching a movie on a plane or at home? Do you find yourself getting anxious and wanting to check your phone while you’re sitting in a movie theater because so much of what happens now happens “in here” or online?
As Schrader says, those of us who came of age when movies were “it” were familiar with that experience of tuning out the world for two hours. That relief of escapism was a pleasure like no other. But for young people today movies are not necessarily an escape. Sure, the super hero, fantasy, rom-com genre movies are, perhaps, but the more difficult films that require you to do at least of the work? How does a young person coming up in the world tune out the far more engaging, exciting, tiny buzzing world in the palm of their hand and focus for two hours on what an artist wants to say?
The two opposing views of Soderbergh (“The machine”) and Schrader (the end of movies) sum up the world we’re living through right now.
For its part, Oscar is still stuck on the old model, and how. The last three Best Picture winners hearkened back to the past, dodging any attempt to understand the world we live in. The films that confront head on our changing world are often too much for Oscar voters to tolerate of late. The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo are movies that could have been made in any recent decade and would have been received exactly the same way.
And to a degree I’m not sure anyone in Hollywood has a problem with that. Two out of the three made upwards of $100 million. Actors dominated. The directors weren’t so important. The machine, as far as Oscar is concerned, is working fine.
So where’s the problem? There are so many movies that get made now – and so much creativity happening everywhere – anyone can cook and everyone is cooking. What is dying, I suppose, isn’t so much art and cinema but the old model of only the most accomplished in the business getting the eyeballs. Now, audiences are kind of scattered across all mediums and Hollywood can do well by simply plugging in a familiar formula.
What do you think? Is this the end of the world as we know it?