Film Fund-amentals: No Nostalgia, No Return

2009 is nearly over, and not a moment too soon. After exhaustive studies, scientists have firmly concluded that 2009 is the crappiest year in living memory. Undoubtedly it is the lousiest year of the 21st Century. It is barely equaled by 1914, 1918 and 1929 in the 20th Century. Heck, it’s almost tempting to say that 2009 is the worse year since 476 (that’s the rough date for the fall of the Western Roman Empire).

With a few highs, and a lot of lows, the year mostly had the bad feel of a roller coaster ride to hell. Even for a decade that may yet be dubbed The Age of Gilded Nitwits, ’09 was extremely worrisome, sometimes heartbreaking, and mostly full of no fun. Within the film industry (which is suppose to be the source of some fun), there was little mirth to be found. The independent film business was even worse, and a lot of filmmakers found themselves in the awkward position of forgetting to even bring a knife to a gun fight.

The year began with virtually every major studio in town telling small budget productions to go take a hike. 2009 was officially the year of tent pole movies and 3D madness. The theaters would go digital and nobody would mind paying an extra $4 to $5 dollars for a cheap pair of glasses that they don’t even get to keep. The economic recession was going to be good for business because people were too broke to do anything else, which was a reminder of how the movie industry has a strange habit of advertising itself as a bad date (“Hey, honey, let’s stay, in if you know what I mean”). 2009 was going to be a golden year for a screw job.

Instead, most of the budget-busting productions largely succeeded in busting their budgets. The digital conversion process is moving at a very slow pace. Meanwhile, most of the successful movies of the year were small to modestly-priced items. Recession has not been good for business, and 3D is still widely viewed as a dumb gimmick that causes headaches. Pressed to the wall, Hollywood began to reinvent math. Accounting figures have always been a tad magical in the film business. Now, they became mythic. For example, take Avatar. It has a production budget somewhere between $200 million and $5 trillion dollars (depending upon the mood of the publicist). Most likely, its real cost is somewhere around $350-$400 million, based on some educated guess work. But it’s a hit. It made $73 million – oops, now it’s $77 million – on its opening weekend. Too bad the original hopeful estimate for its opening was actually higher. Much higher. While bad weather is partly to blame, the movie will undoubtedly follow what has become the standard model (the high side of the standard model) that has come to dominate this type of film. It will be that and nothing else.

While independent American filmmakers are practically being forced to sell their movies from the trunks of their cars, this has also been the year that the international marketplace has become powerful. Inglourious Basterds proved that bad spelling is no detriment to overseas success as it earned the majority of its box office in the foreign market. The same is already true of Avatar (which earned twice internationally what it made in the States). The noticeable imbalance is getting very wide, and eventually you have to wonder why anyone would bother releasing a film in the States.

But this hasn’t stopped foreign filmmakers from seeking connections to Hollywood. In the wake of Slumdog Millionaire, Bollywood has sought various partnerships with American companies. The first real test of this bi-cultural approach will be Disney’s impending US release of the 2007 Hindi film Like Stars on Earth.  I personally suspect that more success will be had with the curious YouTube popularity of Jingle Bell – Punjabi Tadka.

The other major invasion starts in January when Korean independent movies storm New York, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service and Tribeca Cinemas. Since tickets are free, they should find an audience in Manhattan. Otherwise, I doubt the invasion will make it very far inland. But I sort of like the attitude in their publicity, especially the part about their plans to “liberate Americans from their current system of entertainment.” We need this type of thinking out there.

This was also the year that the real digital revolution appeared like the Ghost of Christmas Future. For better or for worse, movies are in the process of moving beyond the studios, the distributors and the theaters in a downloadable direction that is already rewriting the rules. Well, actually, it’s throwing the rule book out the window and steering everyone into uncharted waters from which there is no return. Perhaps a promised land awaits us all. A new future, both bright and clean. But this direction is inevitable, and while Hollywood stumbles about in confusion, the ship sails on.

At least 2009 is nearly over, and few, if any, will feel the slightest hint of nostalgic yearnings as the year slips away. Whatever 2010 shall bring, it will have to do, for there is no desire to return to this past. May the future be ours.