Film Fund-amentals: Apocalypse Now and Again

The doom-saying business is getting ridiculously competitive. Oh sure, during the past year I had a decent run at spreading gloom and earning such catchy nick names as “Dr. No,” “The Dark Prophet,” and “Mr. Doom.” But that was before I found myself competing with Francis Ford Coppola.  In his recent comments at the Beirut Film Festival, Coppola went to the mattress and declared the end of cinema as we know it.

OK, the Godfather has just won a free ride on the Apocalyptic roller coaster. There is no way I can top this one. Well I could, but that would involve an alien invasion and I might be pushing a little too far (perhaps). Unfortunately, Coppola is basically right in what he is saying, and his comments are a reminder that despite the wild highs and lows of his own career, the guy has often been on target about the shape of things to come. He has been a great artist in this profession. Even when his methods became a little unsound, he could still make either a powerful movie (Apocalypse Now)  or a fascinating mess (Bram Stoker’s Dracula).  I just wish he would get out of my line of work.

Obviously, Coppola is extremely on-target about the major changes taking place in both production and distribution of movies. Between theaters, DVDs, downloadables, and other emerging technologies, the movie audience is fragmenting into a wide variety of venues that challenges traditional Hollywood practices at every level. Every major film company is currently feeling the heat (though this is due in part to changes in the film industry – the modern media conglomerate structure is actually another part of the problem). His predication that two or three major companies will go out of business is not at all unreasonable – in fact we will be able to make some predications about this real soon. His notion about the rise of interactive cinema, that one I don’t know about. Interactive cinema is a concept that Coppola is playing with at his winery, and while it sounds extremely interesting, I am not sure how it could function in any viable commercial manner. I would be delighted to hear Coppola explain this at greater depth (as long as it doesn’t involve a horse’s head).

Ironically, it was in sync with Coppola’s comments that the news broke from Mark Gill of the Film Department finance firm that major production in Hollywood is about to be drastically reduced from a peak of 606 movies (2008) to a projected level of approximately 400 in 2010. Further, this significant one-third reduction will most likely continue as part of an effort by the majors to pull back from small-budget productions while they focus their resources on just a few budget-busting whoppers. Despite the bizarre beating that Hollywood’s finest just received this weekend from a quirky no-budget alternative called Paranormal Activity, the studios still intend to Saw their noses off simply to spite their faces.

Oh sure, the majors pay some lip service to the changes underway. Why, they spent a whole day in Santa Monica at the Variety-hosted entertainment and technology summit discussing the impending changes. It was at this meeting that Orly Adelson of Dick Clark Productions proudly proclaimed, “Before, we were delivering. Now we’re connecting.” What is the point of this meaningless ad slogan? Nothing! It simply reminds us why Coppola sounds like a genius.

But if the summit in Santa Monica was a painful reminder of how far Hollywood has to go in comprehending the immediate future, then Rupert Murdoch‘s recent speech at the World Media Summit in Beijing is a wild blast from the Neolithic past. In a beer hall putsch that gives new meaning to the concept of Doublespeak, Murdoch attempts to lecture the Chinese on how they need to open their digital doors (in order to let him in to take over – well, that is where he’s trying to go, and he wasn’t being any too subtle); notes that people who think content on the Internet should be free are simply dumb flat-Earthers; and claims that the kind of “quality” crap he produces is exactly what folks will pay good money to read and watch. Murdoch went on to explain that day was night, up was down, and that he was billing everyone for his speech. (Note to News Corp minders: Check what’s in Rupe’s coffee cup before he hits the podium next time.)

Lordy, lordy! What a week of gloom! Where oh where can we turn for a ray of hope? Well, we could try the independent producer Ted Hope. In a recent interview with Film News Brief, Hope discusses his own interest in the wide range of emerging possibilities in the digital world and sees new openings for low-budget productions via new technology. Unlike Murdoch, Hope’s observations are well worth a read. By the way, Film News Brief has a lot of good articles and, strangely enough, it’s free (right there on the Internet). They must have a map of the flat Earth somewhere in their office.