Monday, July 1, 2013

It's too late to save film culture

It is unfortunate that a large part of our national conversation about film revolves around money. It is understandable, of course; it’s fun to discuss art, and it’s fun to discuss commerce. However, the idea of these two getting into bed with each other has lost its taboo. Now, everyone knows what everything costs. People no longer ask for sequels, when they can plainly see the original did poorly. An indie movie is “legitimized” by its “surprising” box office success. Words like “branding” and “franchise” used to be considered insults; now they’re proudly saluted by industry heads. And it’s all polishing silverware on the Titanic.

Movies were always capitalist enterprises, but the competitiveness didn’t set in until the seventies, when studios were able to compare the decent profits from affordable films for adults and the raging success of cheap, gimmicky escapism for children while off from school. Since then, studios have been trying to create “the perfect movie.” That used to mean pioneering a successful, broadly-appealing picture that was also good, interesting well-liked by critics and audiences alike.

David Manning, the ghost from the machine.

Eventually, this involved the VHS market, which begat the formally formidable DVD world. DVD’s were easier to collect and appreciate than VHS or laserdisc, and reducing a film to a small disc loaded with behind-the-curtain moviemaking secrets was a sacrifice studios made willingly. It also, of course, turned movies into tchotchkes; the rise of the DVD boom coincided with the retreat of major film criticism to the web, to a fractured and mostly silent audience. Siskel was gone, Ebert was on his way, and now the names on top of movie advertisements attached to a quote meant nothing. Sony invented the fictional David Manning to praise their garbage, but the general public didn’t seem to notice there was little difference between Manning and quote-whores like Peter Travers.

The DVD boom died, of course, and everyone points fingers without acknowledging the actual culprit: bad movies. Not necessarily bad, of course, as the studio system was still employing talented screenwriters, directors and actors. But as DVD sales plummeted, a disposability set in, and a sameyness infected our bigger films until we didn’t realize an entire generation developed a consensus on what movies should be. Audiences sought the familiar, and executives, now ported over from Wall Street, saw this marketplace as far from fluid as possible.

Now heroes were fighting the same villains, stories were extolling the same virtues, plots had the same set-ups and resolutions. It’s very much like the evolution of CGI-effects, which ushered in this “golden age” of one single superhero movie, repeated ad nauseum. Developing these visuals was a tremendous achievement, a testament to the boundless imagination of the human mind. And then a sea of filmmakers used it to preserve the familiar, to create the fantastical within very strict parameters: this giant robot has to look like a real-life military application. These aliens need to resemble this specific Earth-set animal. If this guy flies, he absolutely needs to visually obey the laws of gravity otherwise.

And when there’s a similarity to everything playing at your local box office (and it’s mostly geared towards kids, with their disposable income and under-developed standards and morals), there’s less urge to watch again, to purchase the film for home viewing and relive that experience. Why buy that summer hit when there’s an identical fantasy picture in theaters this winter? An onslaught of “event” pictures has essentially degraded the concept of any film being an “event.”

Movie guaranteed to have "stuff"

What we don’t realize is that, in following this narrative, we also don’t realize how this approach, which greatly favors the new, harms the very idea of film history. The idea of films has shifted: there used to be several reasons to catching a hot new movie, like seeing a star, watching the sort of stuff you can’t see anywhere else, or generally getting away from real life. It only makes sense that as time would go by, we’d invent other ways to feed those urges (tabloids, video games, internet, respectively). What we didn’t realize is that the movie industry responded like an idiot trying to get an animal’s attention. The promise of new technology brought into your home was meant to enhance the DVD experience (which cheapened the theater experience, keeping adults at home and ceding control of the theaters to noisy, restless boors with no manners or etiquette, and leaving homegrown theaters without major industry support dealing with sagging attendance and sales on their own), and bells and whistles were emphasized as a sufficient attribute when stacked against great storytelling.

For a hot minute, there was a generation heavily removed from the great films in our cultural canon, but who still had awareness for “The French Connection,” “Apocalypse Now,” “8 ½,” “Touch Of Evil,” “Chinatown,” “Citizen Kane.” They remained cultural touchstones, sometimes household names. Movie lovers of a certain age don’t seem to realize this, but those films have been tossed by the wayside by the digital generation. High definition viewing options, and the excited commercial sponsoring of such concepts, has kept movie culture into the realm of the here and now. It sure makes “Avatar” look shiny and exciting, but it makes old films even older, ancient special effects seem embarrassing due to their lack of “reality.” Even “The Matrix,” the first massive hit of the DVD generation, seems quaint to modern audiences who can cram a new Marvel picture into their DVD player and listlessly let it wash over them. And while you watch “Thor” with this viewer, you’ll realize this person will never even know what “2001: A Space Odyssey” even MEANS – is it a title? A book? A philosophy? Reality show?

This is from a movie. 

Eventually, studios realized that the idea of the “perfect movie” was obsolete and needed revision. The explanations were entirely capitalist: critics didn’t vote with their dollars, but audiences did, and their money counts regardless of their opinion. Of course, the only way to drown out word of mouth was to ensure bigger opening weekends and promote films as “more than films” but societal occasions as well. Never mind the fact this was another way to cripple independently-owned theaters, where they generate larger revenue if a film plays longer; it also made films much more expensive, meaning greater success was needed. The DVD revolution was dead, and overseas expansion has proven to be the next step.

I’m very… uneasy about the fact that most bigger films generate bigger profits internationally, no matter the quality. Our export in these cases isn’t the quality and uniqueness of film, but the disposability. The 3D movement took hold of the industry (though massive studios refused to foot the bill on the glasses, forcing theater owners to charge you for it) and it allowed an overwhelming emphasis on the visual component of films. These pictures translated because you didn’t need to speak English. Basically, studios have erected theaters all over the globe to turn films into remedial light shows for international audiences, some in territories where movies are new to them. For some of these kids, they won’t know “Wizard Of Oz,” or later “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane.” They WILL know “Epic” and “The Croods” and both “G.I. Joe” movies.

 Still from "G.I. Joe Retaliation." Or "Man of Steel." Or "2012." Or "Fast And Furious 6." Or...

More importantly, to today’s studios the concept of the “perfect movie” is now self-sustaining. The hope that a certain blockbuster would become the “Heaven’s Gate” of its generation, forcing studios to remodel the blockbuster formula, is diminished every day. New potential franchises are born every week, and skilled filmmakers become slave to a series of release dates. It’s a bludgeoning of the marketplace, with Disney hovering above the kill switch. In 2015, the studio will have two Marvel films, including the sequel to the billion dollar-grossing “The Avengers.” There will be a Pixar film, as well as a traditionally-animated picture. There will also be a new “Star Wars” film, the intention being to feature new “Star Wars” universe pictures every year. And of course, we’ve got another “Pirates Of The Caribbean” installment with Johnny Depp on its way.

Depp in some ways offers some insight into this culture. He recently dropped out of the film “Black Mass” when they wanted him to halve his $20 million fee (which likely includes a hefty back-end deal, otherwise global moviestar Depp is making exactly what Jim Carrey did in “The Cable Guy” seventeen years ago). Of course, cognizant of bad press perhaps, Depp has re-entered negotiations, but with a “compromise” of $15 million instead. Depp is one of those many celebrities that actually spends his money, owning a couple of private islands, but it’s amusing that his public dealings with “Black Mass” (unprofessionally leaked by that film’s production team) coincided with a tabloid report about Depp purchasing a $16 million ranch in the Midwest for his new lady love Amber Heard. It’s the cost of living for Mr. Depp, simply “what he knows” at this point in his career. He famously said he would stop doing the “Pirates” movies as soon as Disney stopped paying him “stupid” money, which reportedly included a $55 million payday for the last insipid film, a billion dollar grosser.

Johnny Depp, true to scale

The fact that “On Stranger Tides” became the lowest-grossing film in that series domestically, even with enhanced 3D prices, matters little to the studio. Where Disney felt excitement was the nearly $800 million generated in foreign grosses alone, which far outpaced the last pictures in overseas regions. The global market continues to expand, allowing studios an ever-growing profit margin; most consider the explosion of formerly-picky Chinese market ground zero for this sort of thing, and if reports are to be believed, China will become the biggest international market by 2020. This seems like more of an accurate assessment that 5% of the Earth’s population lives in America, but given the output, it certainly suggests a film culture being buried under piles of money. Or, as Johnny Depp would say, stupid money.

1 comment:

  1. You literally could have just said "Movies aren't as good anymore because of money and special effects and greed and money" and accomplished just as much as you did with this whole article.