Which Way to the Future?

First, there was Y2K. Then came 2012. Now, the film industry is bracing for 2015 (according to the article 4 Reasons 2015 Could Be the Movie Industry’s Worst Year Ever).

OK. Y2K kind of flopped. Likewise, 2012 was a farce produced by an odd collection of New Age gurus who didn’t know the difference between Maya and mayonnaise. But the 2015 theory has a point, even if the provided link is to an article at Cracked.com. Sure, it’s a humor site. But to be honest, their articles are better researched than most of the stuff at The Washington Post. They are, by the way, describing the exact process that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were warning about.

These days, everybody has something to say about the future of the film industry. There are many different pathways to all kinds of different futures. Some are good and some are…well, not so good.

Of course it could be argued that all of the worries prompting these discussions are simply needless. Heck, the commercial industry is having one of its best summers ever, right?  That’s what I’m reading in Variety.

But most of that claim is horse hockey. The box office figures used are Hollywood claims, always a tad suspect since the industry has a notoriously unique system of accounting. Likewise, they do not reflect the actual, increasingly wide range of ticket price differences and other significant economic inputs. In reality, ticket sales have gone up while actual attendance figures continue to drop. Moreover, no comparison is made to the actual cost of production. In most businesses, if you spend a $1.00 and make back a $1.01 in sales, that isn’t considered profit. But Hollywood refuses to look at it that way. They take raw data, proclaim success, then move on before the accountants go to work.

So all the recent reports about the great summer Hollywood had is just a lot of nonsense and most studio executives know they are whistling their way past the graveyard. That is also why everybody is sneaking around the internet, reading virtually every article available on the changing conditions of the industry and the marketplace.

One of the more engaging reads is the recent nofilmschool.com interview with producer Lynda Obst. Obst has depth of experience that makes her opinions valuable. Her comments are extremely insightful to both the commercial and indie markets. She is knowledgeable. She is thorough. I can’t believe that she is still falling back on a pile of false hopes and misbegotten assumptions as she wistfully describes a future for the industry that came and went over twenty years ago.

For example, she believes that the tent pole movie does not need to result in the dumbing-down of the script. Sorry Lynda, but you are wrong. The financial structure of these movies demands the largest available international audience and to achieve that, the script has to be kept incredibly simplistic. Take the example you used, Titanic. The script to that film was so simple, a deaf mute in Outer Mongolia could follow it. The same can be said of Avatar. Heck, I would even argue that among the many problems with The Lone Ranger fiasco, a key problem was that its script was too complicated for this type of movie. The I.Q, level of the script is forced to  drop in a direct relationship to the size of the budget.

However, Obst is right that the international marketplace is not only dictating the format for American cinema but may ultimately derail it; and indie cinema has gotten screwed in the process. The foreign market use to provide some (if limited) support for independent American movies. But those days are over. Today, foreign audiences mostly want American movies that are in 3D with lots of things that go boom. Hollywood is controlling the international market through its ability to dominate the technology. But that can – and most likely will – change. I personally suspect that we will see this shift within the next few years.

All the more reason to think that the 2015 “worst-ever” theory is plausible. And from an indie perspective, this could be a good thing. After all, the modern mainstream film industry has basically sent the indie world off to Siberia. Even the change to digital distribution is being strangled by the commercial industry in an attempt to choke off financing for small distributors, making it impossible for them to successfully operate within a system that is technically ideal for them.

Likewise, Hollywood is locked into a bitter fight with Silicon Valley over digital access not because of piracy concerns (though that is the official reason), but because Hollywood wants to control it. That is also why various major media companies are now making heavy handed moves into the online market. They are not there to help the future. They are there to own it.

The foregoing is one vision of the immediate future. A different vision can be found in a recent speech given by Kevin Spacey at the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival.

The subject of Spacey’s address is the emerging combination of digital distribution and television production. A recent blog post by indie filmmaker Jay Webb also explores the interconnections between indie film production, digital distribution, and television. In their own ways, both Spacey and Webb are presenting a film/TV/digital synthesis as a direction for the future. I think they are heading in the right direction.

-Dennis Toth Copyright (C) 2013 All Rights Reserved