Film Fund-amentals: Future Imperfect

Just as I was settling down to work on this piece, I got the news that Ray Bradbury had died. Never having been a huge fan of his work (to be honest, I always leaned more toward Philip K. Dick), I was surprised at my reaction, which was a strong sense of loss.

Then I realized why. Aside from his role as a seminal figure in the mainstream acceptance of science fiction as a literary form, Bradbury also became, in his old age, the necessary critical counterpoint to the rapidly emerging digital future. Over the past decade, Bradbury made his views about the internet pretty clear when he said things like: “The Internet is a big distraction. It’s distracting, it’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.”

Of course the fastest way to find this quote is by going online. But Bradbury had a point. He was an old style hard copy kind of guy who wanted books, not ebooks. Despite a prolific career spent envisioning the future, he was not comfortable with many of the cultural effects of our new and rapidly emerging world. Though much of his scathing criticism about the digital future was focused from the perspective of a writer appalled at the epublication universe, the comments also apply to many similar changes taking place in film.

Ironically, indie producer Ted Hope printed a blog piece that had a strangely similar tone. Written as a letter to old friends, it almost reads like a resignation note. Hope is missing the good old days (which weren’t that long ago) when he just had to focus on making a movie and getting it to the theater and the whole business operated on a pretty straightforward rate of return. He notes in the letter (and has also commented many times in lectures) that the whole indie business involves more work for less return as the business slides into a digital realm where there are few if any financial returns.

Hope even says that he feels “…under siege by ‘weapons of mass distraction’….” OK, I had to work on this sentence twice because I kept glancing at news updates on CNN and The Huffington Post. Sure, he has a point but what does he want us to do? Mass distraction has become the cultural norm in the modern world, for crying out loud.

OK, Hope also has an extremely valid point about that “doing more for less” stuff. The digital cinema is about to change the film industry in virtually every possible way. In principle, digitalization is making the cost of producing and distributing a movie much cheaper. Ironically, the actual cost of making mainstream movies is shooting through the roof while the theatrical distribution system is virtually a hostage of the usual small camp of major companies. Low-budget indie movies are largely being driven into the digital realm, which is sort of half OK. Barring an act of Congress, they have room to exist online. But they are not (at least not yet) exactly making a buck out there.

New distribution systems are bypassing theaters, television and DVDs. Case in point being the AT&T production of Daybreak, which pools together material from the TV show Touch along with five online films, several web sites and a smartphone app. The result is an attempt to structure a multi-level narrative across multiple platforms in order to create a shifting synthesis of forms and material. In other words, they are working on a mega weapon of mass distraction. Well, they use words like “spirituality” and “metaphor” and fancy terms like that — but it kind of comes back to the Bradbury comment.

It is the face of the future. One face of many futures. Actually, it is the face of the corporate version of the digital future. A total synthesis of multiple platforms in what is still a rigidly controlled top-down distribution system that is largely designed to sell smartphones (and the increasingly expensive services needed to use them). It is an attempt to adapt an old business model to a new form.

At the other end of the digital universe is a world of constant flux and change that is steering toward a new narrative form that is increasingly interactive and highly decentralized. It has yet to evolve an effective business model. Heck, it basically hasn’t got a business model, period. It is a nebulous cloud-like thing hovering on the horizon, and despite its misty, ill-defined presence, it is sending panic through the entire corporate system, whether it be film, television or print publication. Everything is changing and nobody knows what it means or where it is going.

I have previously compared this process to evolutionary history. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. For all practical purposes, film history is over. What we are watching now is the murky and combative rise of whatever will be the new form. It is a form yet to be named. A narrative process that is still in its very first stirrings of development. Personally, I do not fully celebrate its birth because I am (quite simply) an old film person. Much the same way that Ray Bradbury preferred his rooms filled with books, I was pretty comfortable with the flicker of a 35mm image in a darkened theater. Likewise, I am still resisting the allure of Kindle despite working almost exclusively within the confines of online publication for the past 15 years.

So I have come to realize why I was so struck by Bradbury’s death. The author of I Sing the Body Electric became the cranky contrarian of the virtual universe, a peculiar but supremely important role. We all must adapt to this future. We must also remember what we have lost, whether it be the pleasant, quiet feel of a book or the simple pleasure of a double-feature on a summer afternoon.

In the one-sided and sentimental mirror of memory, it all has the nostalgic feel of a Bradbury tale, and the future seems cold and dim by comparison.