Changing Culture

Young people don’t know nuthin’. Gee, I feel so much better having said that. Doesn’t mean anything, but it is sweet music to these old ears. Especially after going through the Empire magazine list of the 301 greatest films. This list was voted on by their readers and has become the subject of widespread pro and con debate. Of course, this list is pretty meaningless. In truth, most of these lists are without merit except for the way they represent a specific marker at an exact moment of time. Such lists also say more about the people voting than they do about the subject. This is just a fact, whether it is the Empire lineup or the most recent critics’ vote at Sight & Sound. Sure, Sight & Sound has a lot more prestige thanks to its sponsor, the British Film Institute. But the point stays the same. Professionally, I am inclined to take more seriously the Sight & Sound ranking. But in certain ways, the Empire list is infinitely more provocative. Oh sure, their list mostly represents the mindset of a large pack of mostly young, predominately male, fan-boy readers. In other words, the core demographic market that modern Hollywood is always chasing after. They may not be the average viewer, but they certainly represent a sizable chunk of the market. But the list also represents a good measurement of the radical shift in film culture that has taken place over the past thirty years. The easy way to explain this is to completely backhand everyone involved on the grounds that they are totally lacking in any sense of film history and/or aesthetics. Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly true. The issue is far more complex. At first glance, the Empire lineup strongly suggests that George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and Quentin Tarantino are the three greatest filmmakers to ever live. Also, it appears that the cinema has only been around for about forty years, the first twenty of which were seemingly weak and lackluster. With the exception of The 400 Blows and À bout de souffle, the French New Wave never existed. The New German Cinema? Never heard of it. Ironically, some old guard classic titles such as M, Rules of the Game, and Bicycle Thieves are included, though at the bottom of the list. Likewise, certain major entries from the longer version of the Sight & Sound roster make the grade, such as The Searchers and Rio Bravo (though I must add that I have always preferred El Dorado to Rio Bravo—I know, they are basically the same movie but there is a difference). But the most surprising entry is item number 300, Andrei Rublev. Yes, this is Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece (best seen in its original 205-minute version). No, you do not need to be Russian to watch this film, but it really helps. The movie is a complex, visionary, poetic, and intensely mystical and violent contemplation on the meaning of the Russian soul and its history. It stands in virtual opposition to everything found in contemporary mainstream cinema. Which suggests that the list is not simply the result of feverish fan-boy dreams (in which cinematic art is judged by the explosions and the special effects). Sure, a lot of the list plays that way, but something more is going on. Some of it reflects the increasingly ahistorical context of the digital revolution. No longer is the past simply a foreign country. It is virtually an alien planet from which we occasionally receive murky reports. The past is also primarily in black and white, a format with which a young generation of filmgoers are less than thrilled. Likewise, the whole language and structure of film has changed. It’s not the case that contemporary movies are superior (they are not). Nor are they more complex (they are actually simpler). But the whole sense of structure and presentation is distinctly, even overwhelmingly, different. The reasons are many and would take a book to truly explore, but it could be argued that this is a shift almost as radical as the change from Middle to Early Modern English. Modern film viewers are operating with a whole different sense of cinematic vocabulary. Add to this the extreme dominance of the corporate mediated image. Contemporary movies (just like much of contemporary pop music) are produced, packaged, and handled as a product in a manner remarkably similar to Coca-Cola. This is most self-evident in the dominance of franchise movies in the mainstream film industry. But the effect spills out in every direction. The radical changes in production and distribution can be found in editing, visual structure and presentation, as well as character structure and pacing. The average viewer attention span has decreased, while dramatic structure and characterization have arguably grown simpler (this point is admittedly more subjective and harder to quantify for purposes of a serious study). As individual components, each change could be seen as minor. But film is not viewed as individual components, and the total synthesis of these changes is resulting in a very different form of both perception and content. In other words, a radically shifting and very different film language. Which may be why many younger viewers look at old movies in much the same way that we quizzically perceive ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics: as flat, strange, and almost incomprehensible. As with any artform, the essential nature and quality of film are in the eye of the viewer. So in some respects, this is exactly what old movies are becoming: incomprehensible not just as a matter of perception, but in actuality. Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved

The Bible of Filmmaking

And on the seventh day, God rested. He kicked back and relaxed. Maybe went to a movie. At least that is the hope of an increasing number of people in the film industry. The religious movie is back. Sort of. The issue is extremely split and no one really knows what any of it means. Heck, religious views are contentious enough that if you give me a random selection of true believers, I can give you a full-blown riot within ten minutes. As a child, I went with my family to an extremely conservative Lutheran church and we spent lots of time in Catechism class learning why all other Christian denominations were a pack of heretics (it was a Lutheran church with a strong Calvinist streak; the elect were chosen by God before the world was created and those not chosen were essentially helpless to do anything about it). So I learned a lot of useful pointers for dealing with aggravation. But it doesn’t matter at the mainstream level. The current Hollywood interest is doomed to failure. The reasons are pretty simple. They are mostly hoping to attract an audience that hates their guts, doesn’t trust them, and believes that Mel Gibson is the victim of a Satanic Hollywood conspiracy. OK, I admit that I have been trolling through the internet’s back alleys. Many self-professed Christian film goers are not brain-dead zealots. But as Paramount recently discovered with the release of Noah, the religious audience is not something that Hollywood is accustomed to handling. Heck, they even had problems with the Pope and normally the Vatican has been more flexible. However, the greatest influence of the new religious movement is taking place within the indie trade. The “faith-based” spiritual movie is booming. Whether it be a full-blown biblical production such as Son of God or a slip-it-through-the-backdoor presentation like Heaven Is For Real, the Christian cinema is carving an unusual niche for itself in the indie market. The niche largely ignores the traditional indie audience. The basic demographic portrait of an indie film viewer tends to be young, college-educated (or at least some college), with a more than occasional film-going habit (at least once every couple of months). The audience who would identify themselves as Christian film viewers tend to be older, slightly less college educated (though not by that much), and less prone toward going to theaters (once or twice a year). They are more likely to order a cola than a caffè latte and are likely to mistake the title The Brown Bunny for a nature film. If indie is the alternative to mainstream, then the faith-based spiritual movie is the alternative to the alternative. In some ways, these movies exist in their own parallel universe. So these movies are actually going completely around the traditional indie market. However, there is a lot of open room in that “around” space. There is very little market comparison that can be made between a movie like God’s Not Dead and something like Nymphomaniac, Vol. One, and it’s not just about the sex. It’s more like the difference between pad see ew in New York and meatloaf in Iowa. It’s not really a question of which is better. They are just totally different. However, there are some things that indie filmmakers can learn from the faith-based crowd. For example, branding. This is a tough one since the faith-based folks are tapping into a brand that has been on the market for over 2,000 years, aided by the legacy of St. Paul (one of the most underestimated publicists in history). Many indie filmmakers have problems figuring out a brand, period. The first step in creating a brand is knowing your audience and many indie filmmakers have a problem with that first important step. It’s as if they think the audience will just magically appear. Doesn’t work that way. Something about a tree falling in the forest and nobody is around to hear. Once they figure out the audience, they can also start the process of community building. Many of the people working on faith-based productions are already part of a large system of evangelical and religious social networks. Part of Mel Gibson’s success with The Passion of the Christ was his own ability to link into these networks and be accepted as one of them (since this was at that magic moment when he was sounding just crazy enough to be taken seriously as non-Hollywood but not so crazy as to be considered deranged). Part of Paramount’s failure with Noah was their inability to connect with these networks. Sure, they tried. They tried really hard. But they were always viewed as dubious outsiders attempting to fleece the flock. Then they made the second mistake by trying to coddle them. The obvious insincerity of the process simply confirmed the worse fears of the faithful. This process of community building has become absolutely essential for the success of indie filmmaking. Part of the success of the faith-based crowd is that they have a brand and they know how to network with their audience and the rest of us need to take some lessons. I am not advocating that indie filmmakers should turn to faith-based productions. Heck, I don’t even go to these movies. But sometimes you have to give the devil his dues. So pay attention. There is a method to this system. Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved

Film vs. Television

In the past year, I have seen the hoary old question of film versus television come up in a variety of contexts regarding indie cinema. To be honest, I thought that the whole issue was a no-brainer. But people still ask. Should indie filmmakers be more focused on possible theatrical distribution or some form of television presentation for their movies? There are two ways of looking at this question. One is to view the glass as half-empty. The other is to simply ask: “What glass? What water? Why are you even thinking this way?” Virtually every technical difference between film presentation and television is gone. OK, that is a bit of an overstatement, but not by much these days. The visual gap between the sharp bright movie image and the dim fuzzy box is no more. In some cases, your high definition TV set will provide a much better picture than your local theater. Just depends upon where you live. Unfortunately, the same is true regarding distribution access. It’s marginal at best. Basically the same companies that control and lock out most indie filmmakers at theaters also own all of the network and cable systems. So it is pretty much the same either way. Except for a few differences. The IFC cable channel provides a much-needed outlet for indie movies. Other cable systems provide an occasional outlet. Though this is extremely limited, it is still more than is possible in theatrical release outside of a few of the largest cities. Any indie movie picked up for broadcast via a cable system will, at least in theory, reach a wider audience than it could achieve through theatrical release. Which brings up the next question: Does the average indie movie stand to make more money through theatrical distribution or television presentation? That’s another easy one. Neither. You see how simple it is. In principle, there are many ways that an indie movie could be handled for theatrical distribution. There are also many, many issues that have to be negotiated before a deal is even signed. A few, and I do mean a very few, filmmakers will get a great (or at least great-sounding) offer. That has become the magic Sundance event. But the average indie filmmaker will be lucky to break even. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but not by much. So how about television? Who knows? It varies. Like crazy. There are many different ways that a movie can be contracted into a TV presentation with lots of variables and only one consistent factor for the average indie filmmaker: You will be looking more for exposure than profit. The difference between movies and TV was best summed up years ago by Mel Gibson (and yes, I can’t believe I am quoting Mel Gibson) when he hosted Saturday Night Live. Movies are low effort, high reward. Television is high effort, low reward. Write this down. It’s the key to the whole thing. What really makes this ironic is the fact that the television industry basically props up the entire movie industry. More people watch TV than ever go to the movies. The television audience is a larger and more diversified market. TV programs produce a relatively high and surprisingly steady stream of income. The average movie, if it’s lucky, will break even once it is sold for cable TV presentation. So TV is basically the breadwinner of the media industry. It doesn’t get much respect for that, but it is the main profit generator. It is also a system in which the short-term ad profit is played off against the long-term revenue (DVD and syndication) that only a handful of participants in a production will ever see. At their most successful, movies are still just a flash in the pan. But television is more of a long, slow grind. And despite all of this, TV people are still largely treated as second-class citizens within the industry. Despite the major differences between theatrical distribution and TV presentation, they both share a common problem. The digital revolution. Over the last several years, major movie companies have been torn between buying into digital distribution and fighting against it. Meanwhile, TV broadcasters have just gone before the US Supreme Court in their fight against Aereo while also trying to decide just how much they hate Netflix and what, if anything, they can do about it. This is just the tip of the massive iceberg of contradictions and incoherent policies being pursued by virtually every major media company in town. It is a state of media corporate chaos, and for the indie filmmaker, chaos may indeed be opportunity. The foundations of the commercial film and television industry are in the process of crumbling. Heck, Disney isn’t slapping down $500 million for Maker Studios because it is worth that kind of money. They are doing so because they think it might become worthy of that amount. In reality, Disney doesn’t have a clue and they are simply anxious to be in some future position that might, just maybe, be the right spot. Indie filmmakers are going to have to work the same way. They need to find their foothold in the digital universe and go for it. So I think we can skip any more questions about film vs. TV. That is just so 1990s. Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved

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