"Ninety percent of everything is crud."Both MissMollyGrue and ConradZero have written impassioned comments about the state of film in the U.S. today. I respect both of their opinions in this matter. I even agree with their central contention that the state of U.S. cinema is pretty fricking sad. After all, given the spate of movie bombs that made up the 2005 movie landscape, how could I possibly disagree with either of them?
-- Theodore Sturgeon
Of course, given their articles, I'm forced to ask that most annoying and powerful of one word questions as to what is really up with the state of our movies today: Why?
Conrad (and also MagicMarmot, though he didn't comment on this topic today) maintains that what we're seeing is movie-making by corporate spreadsheet. Movies aren't made because the stories ignite filmmakers into action any longer. Movies are made because -- according to a formula developed my MegaHugeCorp Accounting, Inc. -- Movie Type A. (with sub-plot B-1.7.5) will garner an acceptable return on investment. It's cold, it's calculating, and it turns out crap.
Thing is, if this formula actually makes the studios money then it would be foolish for them to stop following it. Sure, it might be romantic and idealistic for them to do so, but how many corporate execs do you know who wax philosophical about anything other than their latest par-four?
As ugly as it is to remember, movies are a big business. Taken in that context these companies actually do pretty freaking remarkable things in amazingly tight timelines using incredibly detailed schedules to turn out a new product within a given window. Sure, it may not be a particularly exciting thing to point out, but I for one actually find it admirable as hell.
If only the movies didn't suck.
I alluded in my response on MissMollyGrue's blog that the real issue here isn't the movies or even the studios, but the public to which these products are being sold. After all, the movie industry has never faced competition like this before. Sure, they survived radio, then TV, and even the dreaded VCR (which, as old-timers like myself recall, was "going to bring the movie industry to its knees"), but things are a little different today. And that difference is, of course, all in the audience.
Face it, folks: We're jaded.
Thanks to the magic of CGI (which, honestly, I do find pretty frigging magical, thank you very much) audiences of the early twenty-first century have seen stuff on the screen that filmmakers could only dream about in the old days of blue screens and motion-control. Our pictures are crisper, our sound is clearer, and our music is better than it's ever been. Still we aren't impressed. We're non-plussed because, well, we've seen it all before. Hell, even the edgiest mainstream film out there today -- Brokeback Mountain -- is essentially a basic love story. The only twist is that the protaganists are gay.
So what is Hollywood to do?
"Hire more writers!" is one immediate response.
Well, okay, as a writer myself I dig this answer. Unfortunately, writers get paid to write for studios, and those studios will often take the most talented people in the world into their fold for the soul purpose of script-doctoring the lamest shite imagineable. (Think I'm joking? Joss Whedon script-doctored Speed.) In short, until the studios allow different stories to be told, these armies of writers will be stuck turning out the same spreadsheet-driven crap that everybody is whinging about today.
"Make independent films!"
Another great idea! But...films cost money. A lot of money. Hell, even Pray for Daylight has cost enough to buy a pretty nice used car. Add in the troubles in distribution and the trials and tribulations that go into making independent film and, frankly, I'm amazed that there's as much independent stuff out there as there is.
Wait, did you know how much independent film work is out there? I thought not. The reason you don't is that it costs almost as much to market a film as it does to make one. If that's not a disincentive to making your own film, nothing is.
Lastly, there's the audience. As much as we'd like to believe that people don't want to see crap on their screens it's simply not true. People watch crap and even enjoy while acknowledging that it is, indeed, crap. As long as it distracts them and doesn't make them think they're happy. Given the generaly angsty-edge to most independent films, how is that going to appeal to a mass market?
Let me ask you a simple question: Do you honestly know anyone who, if given a choice between a slick Hollywood production and a small independent flick, would chose the small indie film?
Okay, besides aspiring filmmakers and artists?
I thought so.
Independent films are wonderful because, at their best, they're the cinematic equivilant of literature. Unfortunately, most people don't want to see something brainy on the screen. They want to see Kate Beckinsale in black vinyl fighting a guy with bad teeth.
"Don't use big name actors so you can make cheaper films," is another common refrain.
Okay, I dig this...but everything about Hollywood is expensive. Sure, you'd save a chunk of change by not going with names, and your budget would be smaller...but now you're right back to where you were with the small indie films and getting exposure. "Who the heck is Mark Hofferman?" a potential audience member will say. Then they'll see Kate Beckinsale in tight vinyl and say "She's hot," and, well...
I could go on, but I think I've made my point: There is no magic bullet solution. Films ae the way they are today because the audiences around the country demand that they be that way.
A CHANGING WORLD
There is, of course, another issue at work here. It's this thing that, honestly, I think is going to have the real long-term impact on films as a whole: People don't consume media like they used to, and the entire entertainment industry has no idea how to handle the changes ahead.
NPR recently ran a story about how the TV industry is in a deep panic because none of their business models apply any longer. People don't sit down to an evening in front of the TV any more. Most people are too busy to do that. Nevertheless, audiences still see the broadcast and cable shows because -- you guessed it -- the advent of easy time-shifting devices like TiVo and Media PCs -- and, more tellingly, affordable multi-function portable players like the Sony PSP handheld -- has made TV -- and, by extension movies -- a purely portable commodity. People no longer schedule their weeks around their favorite shows. Instead, those shows are fit into their schedules as they see fit.
Oh, yeah, and commercials? Never liked them and -- given that they've grown from taking 10 minutes out of every broadcast hour when I was a child to now sapping over twenty minutes from the same slot -- now they're just skipped over.
As you can imagine, to an industry as monolithic as the American TV system, this is all paint-your-pants-brown scary.
This all has a very strange effect on filmmakers. If a person reason that they don't want to see a movie in the theater because they'd rather buy (or even worse, download) the UMD version for their PSP so they can watch it on-the-go, a huge part of the current film-going experience is lost. Surround sound? Ha! Super-wide screen? Are you kidding? Suddenly, the concept of a director getting his movie on "the big screen" can really mean it'll be viewed on a shiny 2.5" LCD display on some guy's portable video game player.
Can you blame Hollywood if it looks at that situation and says "Eep?"
THE BIG COMPETITION
As if that problem wasn't enough, both TV and Movies are fighting a losing battle with arguably the biggest media form of the 21st Century: The video game. Between games and the Internet, people spend less time in front of the TV or at movies and more time wrapped in their own electronic cocoon. (Think about it; you're doing it right now.)
Unfortunately, Hollywood thinks it has an answer to that problem. "If people like video games so much," they reason, "Then we just need to make movies that are exacty like -- or even based on -- video games!"
Oh, yeah. If a person can go to hell for having a bad idea, then the studio exec who pitched that little gem will hopefully get to spend eternity being sodomized by Adolph Hitler wearing a French Maid's outfit.
See, video games don't make good movies. No, not even the really, really good ones. They're a completely different art form. So trying to emulate them on the big screen is a bad thing.
Alas, I can say this all day, but the truth is we get movies on our screen that look less like the world around us and more like an expensive video game. (And no, I'm not referring to CG here, folks. I'm talking about cinematographic choices.)
WHAT LIES AHEAD
I don't pretend to have a solution. Instead, I'll pitch a prediction: The movie industry will shrink dramatically. It simply can't support its own weight for much longer. It will follow the consumers to portable and handheld players in order to turn a profit.
And there, ironically enough, is where things will get good again.
See, once you strip away the big screen and surround sound and force a person to watch a tiny image in a distraction-filled enviornment, what are you left with?
Oh, yeah, that's right: The story on the screen.
When all of the bells and whistles and parlor tricks are taken away from the movie studios you'll finally start seeing innovative filmmaking again. But until that time you're gonna just have to accept that movies aren't going to be particularly good for a while.
As for me? Well, now I'm wondering how Pray for Daylight will look on a PSP...