Theater owners do not depend upon folks like me for their trade. After all, I prefer to watch movies in theaters that are largely empty. Quiet as the grave, and more deserted than a tomb. I love it this way. Too bad none of these places stay in business for long.
So the recent dust-up about rude audiences has sparked my interest. Especially since I have long felt that certain movies demand a loud and rude house in order to be properly appreciated. Heck, a misfire like Maximum Overdrive is only enjoyable with a rowdy audience.
Traditionally, the rude house debate has been mostly focused on the difference between a quiet, polite audience versus a boisterous band of total loudmouth jackasses who behave like a pack of Vikings on their way to England. The proper film audience stays reverentially silent while casting a studious glaze at the screen.
Film distribution is about to undergo the most radical transformation seen since the Lumière Brothers switched from private to public screenings. Heck, it may be the most dramatic change since Thomas A. Edison hooked a coin box to the Kinetoscope and began milking the audience.
The entire future of the film industry is changing as we enter the full blown digital universe. Which also means that we haven’t a real clue as to what is about to happen. All the standard rules and models for filmmaking, film distribution, and movie financing are coming to an implosion point. Oh sure, right now it all looks sort of normal (well, as much as the so-called “new normal” has ever looked normal). Some major figures in the film industry have begun a public discussion on these impending changes. Privately the industry is going half-crazy trying to second-guess and prepare for their advent. Bob Dylan once said, “You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows.” But these days, even the wind direction is confusing.
What Christopher Nolan would like notwithstanding, the change to digital production in Hollywood is a done deal. The reason is simple: the vast physical infrastructure needed for the use of the photochemical film process is gone. These days, trying to find some place that can develop film is like popping over to the hardware store for a vacuum tube.
Despite what some small theater owners would prefer, the digital distribution system is well underway. In theory, it will confer many advantages. In reality, many major companies are working awfully hard to make sure that those advantages don’t become too advantageous to anyone. The cost of the digital conversion has resulted in fees to the theaters and the fees are designed to cover the cost of digital conversion and well, gee, gosh golly gee whiz, it just so happens that the fees pretty much are usable as a means of blocking any indie players with major distribution plans. What a surprise!
The real source uncertainty is what everyone is looking at: digital online distribution. Which leads to the obvious question: Digital distribution to what? PCs? Laptops? Cell phones? Tin foil hats? No matter what the winning platform turns out to be (most likely all of the above, including the hats), movie distribution will be splintered between ultra-expensive spectaculars shown in the diminishing realm of theaters, and everything else unloaded in a mad stampede through wireless systems.
The process of distribution will become a battleground for competing systems. In theory, it should offer new advantages to indie filmmakers. However, the major industry players are already attempting to move into these new venues in the hope of controlling the various emerging digital forms. What they have on their side is money and a culture of corporate aggressiveness. What they do not have, is a clue. They bring a pushy sense of utter incompetence to the game. It could almost be fun to watch if the stakes were not so high.
Film financing is collapsing all over the place. The sheer cost of the dominant tent pole movie model is impossible to sustain. But all the major players have placed all their eggs into this one basket and cannot conceive of any way to alter the broken model. The large financial players that furnish the financing for these movies could make a difference. But they are also clueless. They have convinced themselves that movies have to cost gazillion dollars and deeply distrust any film that has a budget of only one integer and six zeroes. A lot of financial guys also still think that the DVD market will save a major movie’s box bottom line. Many of these folks really don’t bother to keep up with the industry’s business reports.
Since mainstream financial venues for movie funding has largely vanished into the tent pole vortex, indie filmmakers have increasingly turned to crowdfunding and other alternative approaches. The success rate for crowdfunding is hard to determine, though some reports place it around 35 per cent (give or take – well, no one is sure what that means which is part of the problem). Even if the success rate were only 20 to 25 per cent, this would place crowdfunding way ahead of most other approaches.
Crowdfunding is about to undergo an overhaul by the SEC, though the SEC is taking its grand old time on moving forward. The effect of these impending changes are still difficult to factor. Though crowdfunding has been relatively free of fraud, the possibility of fraud risk has been raised. The SEC overhaul of Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act is supposed to deal with this concern. Paradoxically, it may contribute to a problem that didn’t exist before the SEC were told to fix it. Before the overhaul, crowdfunding was a ridiculously simple process; the more it becomes a junior league version of corporate enterprise, the more likely the junior league version of Bernie Madoff will be on the prowl.
Nevertheless, crowdfunding has become the alternative Hollywood system for financing. From Zack Braff to James Franco, the Hollywood pack that wants to make a movie budgeted for one number and six to seven zeroes have packed off to Kickstarter. These big names with big needs bring a lot of media attention to the Indie scene. Of course, you would think they could do a better job of tapping into their Hollywood contacts or something as they increasingly steamroll over the small indie filmmaker in pursuit of public dollars. It doesn’t sound equitable, and it isn’t.
Which means that the immediate future of indie filmmaking is about to become a free wheeling combat zone. OK, that is not exactly new. But it is going to get worse. Or, at least it will until the mainstream model goes into deep collapse, which is coming soon.
According to the prophets, the major studios will soon implode into a vast dark pit while meteors will fall and the rain shall turn into fire and brimstone.
OK, that isn’t exactly what was said by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but it would be pretty easy to jack it up that way for the movie version. The recent presentation by the two grand men at the media center of the University of Southern California has stirred up debate through out the film industry. Obviously I am no stranger to preaching about the End of Hollywood. But I didn’t realize that they were already opening the Hollywood Death Cafe. At the core of their chat, Spielberg and Lucas both outlined the imminent demise of the current studio system. It seems ironic that they would bring this up about the same time that the movie Man of Steel would set a domestic release record. But Man of Steel actually proves their point.
Several years ago, I asked if the film industry knew their audience. It’s a question that can be asked at virtually every level of the business as demonstrated last month during a panel discussion at the International Cinema Technology Association.
Of course, the presentation at the International Cinema Technology Association was primarily focused on exhibitor related issues. Especially issues related to digital conversion, alternative content (for example, sports) and items at the concession stand. For indie filmmakers, the second item might be the only interesting point. After all, it’s not impossible (though it might seem to be) that a theater might host something like a Thursday night indie presentation.
Some people are still pondering the business market for DVDs. Guess they haven’t seen the memo. It’s over! Kaput The DVD is not yet dead, but it has been admitted into hospice. Various news agencies are already working on the obituary. It will eventually join the rank of such other great devices as the VHS cassette and the Laserdisc. I don’t think it will be a sudden death. More like a lingering decline (which is already well underway). But the end of the DVD format is in sight and the reasons are all pretty straightforward.
Technically, the format has long been iffy. It wasn’t supposed to be, but that thinking was based upon the presumed archival possibilities of DVDs.
The words “boobs” and “Academy Awards” have often appeared together in a sentence. Normally we have meant the non-anatomical meaning of boobs.
But not this year. In a pitch to a younger demographic audience model, the Oscar presentation went on a bumpy joy ride combining its usual institutional blandness with an occasional bitch slap at the audience. I don’t mean the TV audience. I mean the fancy-dressed folks sitting for more than three and a half hours like hostages in the Dolby Theatre.
I am not particularly interested in debating Seth MacFarlane’s handling of the hosting duties at the Oscars. Hosting this show has to be one of the most thankless jobs around. An Oscar host is expected to be a toothless court jester. They are suppose to spoof the business but not the egos as they provide biting commentary but only so long as they lack either bark or bite. No wonder Billy Crystal doesn’t want the lousy job.
To be honest, MacFarlane was better than David Letterman. But then, a colonoscopy was funnier than Letterman. Of course, I also thought that Chris Rock did a swell job back in 2005, so I am not speaking from a mainstream Academy perspective.
However, the fallout from this year’s Oscar presentation has been a singular spectacle. Granted, every Oscar show has its controversies, things like, “How did the movie Crash ever get nominated, less alone win” etc. But this past week most press reports have been so obsessed with women’s breasts and Anne Hathaway’s nipples, I’m beginning to confuse the Oscars with lunch at Hooters.
Low budget indie movies are hot.
That is supposedly the message from the recent Sundance Festival, where distribution purchase records were being set. Titles were being grabbed at $2.5 million (Fruitvale), $4 million (both Austenland and Don Jon’s Addiction), and finally hitting the grand jackpot of $10 million for The Way, Way Back.
Are they sure this was Sundance? Sounds more like a sweepstake being worked by Ed McMahon. But hey, it’s a great boom for a few indie filmmakers. The question is: Does this help the indie business?
It certainly suggests a resurgence of interest in medium budget movies. Take for example The Way, Way Back. It’s not really low, low budget. It was directed by the two guys who previously scripted The Descendants, which means that they are not exactly newcomers. (If you count TV, they’ve been around for a while). It’s designed to be a slightly quirky, mildly feel-good, low key crowd pleaser.
In other words, it is the kind of movie that mainstream Hollywood use to make on a more regular basis several decades ago.
We are already well into the second decade of the 21st century and I still don’t have my own personal jet-pack or robot. Heck, I don’t even have a lousy iPhone.
But 2013 is almost here, and everyone is beginning to peek ahead at a coming year of changes within the film industry. Of course that means looking back at the immediate past in hopes of second-guessing the imminent future. It’s a tough call. 2012 feels a bit like the year when many of us were run over by a truck and we hadn’t even left the house.
It’s not often that a low budget indie movie scores international attention. Too bad. The past couple of days have been a grim reminder that there really is such a thing as bad publicity.
The current firestorm, protests, and deaths over the YouTube tape Innocence of Muslims is a nasty tribute to the global power of the digital process. It is also an example of how much fakery and deception goes on out there. For all practical purposes, the movie doesn’t actually exist. Sure, some kind of a movie was made last year but it is highly likely that the stupid thing was never completed.
Aside from the ongoing international crisis caused by this exercise in provocation, this movie is also an incredible lesson in the darkest aspects of indie production. Every emerging detail concerning the making of Innocence of Muslims is a detailed study in fraud and deception.
The mainstream Hollywood film industry dominates the global market. The reason is best summed up at the beginning of a report from 2001 (Why Hollywood Rules the World, and Whether We Should Care). Back then, Hollywood still had “…the largest single home market for cinema in dollar terms …,” which gave it a huge base from which to operate.
That was then, this is now. That home field advantage is gone, replaced by a desperate need for the foreign marketplace. Today, a major Hollywood movie makes the majority of its box office overseas: between a 2-to-1 to even a 3-to-1 split. Without the foreign market, the typical Hollywood producer would be begging for lunch money at various street corners across Los Angeles.
You would think that this would make the foreign productions from the overseas marketplace of interest to Hollywood. Nah. Heck, everybody in Hollywood is busting a gut to get into the Chinese film biz but they have shown no particular interest in learning anything about the Chinese cinema. I can assure you that some of the folks in the industry are not even aware that there is a Chinese cinema (outside of a few Bruce Lee movies).
Privately, I have always suspected that this “trade deficit” in knowledge will become the Achilles Heel of the system. Unfortunately, the ignorance of Hollywood is strongly mirrored by the American audience, many of whom are also unaware of the Chinese cinema. Despite certain recent successes such as The Artist, foreign film distribution is basically dead in the United States, at the commercial level.
Which is why American film viewers have to seek out alternative venues for the foreign movie screen.
Sure, there are still a few theaters that specialize in foreign movies, and not all of them are in New York. A few are in Chicago. Some are hidden away in strange out of the way locations like the legendary Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs, Ohio. But they are very few and extremely far between. This lack of outlet is a major reason for the sizable drop in distributors who will even deal with foreign movies.
Many art museums used to provide a range of ambitious film programs. Unfortunately, many of these programs got cut during the 1990s as part of an austerity move during that recession. (As opposed to all of the other recessions – by the way, when were we not having a recession?) But some still exist, and a few are even notable for actually doing the job of presenting movies that would otherwise be unavailable. Take for example the periodic movie programs offered by the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan. I recently discovered this series during a Google search for a particular foreign title and was pleasantly surprise to discover that someone up there is doing a solid job of programming.
With the basic collapse of any extensive distribution system in the States for foreign movies, alternative means have become incredibly important. Various private organizations devoted to the study and appreciation of various national cultures are extremely important in this regard.
One of the most prestigious and important examples of this is the Japan Society. Their current program, Japan Cuts 2012, offers a well curated presentation of the best in recent Japanese movie productions. They also maintain a regular series of touring film programs for American colleges and museums that provides a critically vital view of Japanese film history.
Likewise, the Goethe Institute in Washington, DC provides a similar service for contemporary German cinema. Also from the European scene, the cultural Services of the French Embassy in the US are currently hosting selected titles from the Tournées Festival. The program is making the rounds of over 80 campuses across the US and is a must for anyone lucky enough to be near one of the scheduled stops.
Foreign embassies have long been a source for international movies. Back in the 1980s, the only source in the US for most of the founding films of the Chinese Fifth Generation movement was the Office of Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of the People’s Republic in San Francisco. Likewise, the Netherlands Embassy distributes various programs on the Dutch cinema such as Dutch Voices: Jos De Putter and Peter Delpeut.
I should add a few personal notes about dealing with embassies to any ambitious film programmers. Language problems are pretty marginal since most embassies will have a staff that speaks English quite well. (Heck, at the Dutch embassy, they speak it better than we do!) However, problems can sometimes occur. I gave up trying to correct the staff at the Italian Embassy, who kept insisting that my name was Denise Toast.
Geo-political issues should not intrude in your dealings with the staff of any embassy. Likewise, there should be no such thing as authentic imitation leather. You really don’t want to get into politics with the embassy staff but you also should be aware of any “issues” that might be going on with the country in question. Back in 1982, I contacted the Soviet embassy in Washington in hopes of gaining access to several films they were handling by Andrei Tarkovsky. It was a very cooperative conversation and everything seemed like a go. A week later, I called my contact at the embassy to finalize the details. I was slightly surprised to discover that he couldn’t recall talking with me; claimed to have no knowledge of any such movies; practically told me “Nyet! There is no Tarkovsky!” It seemed a tad odd.
The next day I got the news. Tarkovsky had just defected while in Italy. And I had probably just been on the phone with the KGB.