Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Big Picture

A few days ago I finished reading a book called The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, a book that examines the ways that Hollywood changed since the 80s as a result of the fact that all the majors are now owned by absurdly huge media conglomerates who see films as media commodities that can support their television channels and consumer electronics products. The book lambasts the present Hollywood studio system, dwelling on the way that mainstream films have ceased to be art and instead are loss leaders for ancillary products.

Now, the reason I read this book was because I read an article by the author on why there's less nudity and sex in movies recently. The reason for this is because of all purpose twenty-first century villian, Wal Mart, who consign films with nudity or sex to the 'adult' area of their video section, and refuse to give them prominent placement at the front of the store. Wal Mart is even reluctant to stock R rated films, which means that studios will lose a major revenue source if they put out films with the sort of content that runs contrary to Wal Mart's values.

Now, in the book he goes on to talk about how marketing campaigns are geared entirely to the opening weekend, which means they want a film that will make most of its money in the opening weekend, then get out of the theater so they can ride the coat tails of the theatrical campaign for the DVD release. So, they want films that don't rely on building an audience, they want presold properties, hence the huge amount of TV remakes this summer. You don't have to explain the premise to people, they already know it. The thing that vexes me is the fact that I seriously doubt most people under 20 have heard of Dukes of Hazzard, yet the film is targetted at them, so the brand name won't even appeal to your target audience. Why not make an original film then?

The book makes me feel very bad about the state of mainstream cinema in America, I've seen enough bad films to know that they really are churning out product, not art, and the thing that has me so annoyed is the fact that people continue to see these shitty films and buy them on DVD, while ignoring the stuff that is really great. It's reached the point where I've seen only one American film this year that I'd consider a truly great movie, and that's Revenge of the Sith, a film that despite being a prime example of the commodification of movies, also works as a stunning piece of art.

That's the crucial thing to keep in mind, just because your movie doubles as a toy commercial, that doesn't mean it can't be a phenomenal movie. Sure, your Star Wars or Lord of the Rings generates a ton of money through licensing, but they are also great films, whereas so many blockbuster movies don't even try to do something original, they just synthesize things that had been successful in the past into a 'new' film.

The book does give you a good idea of why most Hollywood product is so awful, there's so many stages a film has to go through to get made, it's inevitable that the auterial spark will be diminished along the way. It's a tough thing, as a writer, I'm sure there's a ton of great writers out there who refused to compromise, and ended up not having their movies made, as many as the number of writers who did write a great script, but ended up having it lost on the journey to the screen.

A while back, I did a blog comparing the current American film scene to that of the 70s, ending on the hopeful note that this summer of bombs would lead Hollywood to become more experimental and get back to the more challenging cinema that was dominant in the 70s. However, this book would lead you to believe that's never going to happen.

The reason for this is because of the Wal Mart thing I talked about before, and the fact that those more challenging films don't translate well overseas. Stars and effects are apparently universal, while more subtle stuff doesn't play as well. The other reason is that while the box office may be slumping, the DVD market is keeping the studios quite wealthy, which means there's not really a dire threat. Studios don't make that much money from theatrical distribution, and since they have no financial stake in theaters, there's not a huge need to try to help them out.

While the studios are churning out increasingly less artistic films, they still do keep indie studios under their wing, things like Focus Features and Warner Independent. These subdivisions usually do lose money, but they also churn out the best American films that are made, usually supporting auteur filmmakers with more challening projects. Looking at my top ten films of 2004, there were five American movies on the list, all of them from these mini-majors. So, that's where we're seeing continued support for more challenging films in America.

The only problem is this means that most of the best filmmakers in the country don't have access to big budgets, or big audiences for that matter. The sad thing is that even though I really wish that studios would make more challenging films, people are so conditioned to expect a certain type of story that they really couldn't handle more challenging films.

I showed Irreversible at my film series and a woman asked me, "Why would you watch this movie," and I talked about how it uses cinema to depict the way a single act of violence can destroy people's lives, as well as showing the futility of revenge. She responded to this by saying "Ok, but that's not an evening's entertainment." People just expect a movie to tell a story, to entertain you, and I suppose that's valid. The thing is, I find being challenged by a film much more entertaining than just watching a disposable comedy, laughing while it's on, but leaving barely remembering what happened. But, I view film as art and most people don't.

That said, the upside of America is that TV has become a medium very friendly to auteurs. Look at the story of Joss Whedon, struggling screenwriter, doctoring scripts, but unable to express his true vision. He makes a show and is given basically carte blanche to do what he wants, and as a result, he's able to tell a story with more scope and fully developed characters than any film I've ever seen. In the new highbrow serial type show, we see the mature subject matter and challenging characters that were the hallmarks of 70s Hollywood, but now with the added bonus of added time to develop much larger and more complex storylines. This season of Six Feet Under was better than any film I've seen this year, with the exception of Sith, and The Sopranos puts to shame even the brilliant Godfather and Goodfellas. TV is still looked down upon, but the work being done there is really phenomenal, and if I could do anything, it wouldn't be to make a film, it would be to be able to do a long form series on HBO.

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