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June 18 at 11:00am

The Cinema Giants Agree: The Film Biz As We Know It Is OVER. Now What?

By Ted Hope

Perhaps this blog is now obsolete (now wouldn’t that be excellent!).  Or maybe blogging just doesn’t work the way I hope it would (man, that would be a real shame!).  Perhaps change in the film business just about impossible. I am growing afraid it might well be — at least the kind that comes from positive and strategic influence as opposed to spontaneous or reactionary disruption (that kind of change that always is constant).  So what is the next step? And why the bleep do I have to ask?

What is going on in this world when everyone agrees that something is totally f*cked but no one with power appears to be doing anything substantial to improve it?  Are there secret plansof a new cultural infrastructure hatching and its creators are just not sharing them with us?  I wish!

What is being said in the studios’ inner sanctums or the hallways of the NEA or across the desks at the various foundations, support organizations, and unions that all have a vested interest in the cinematic culture?  Not much I am afraid.

Do they know something we don’t know?  I don’t think so.

Is our film industry and culture better than we expect — because it better be or we all are just fiddling away as our love burns down through the ground.  I confess, I’d bet a whole lot more on the latter.

What’s got me in this lather you wonder?

Surely you know by know that this last week our celluloid heroes Speilberg and Lucas added their names to the lists that include SoderberghPuttnam, and Thomas – all of them stating that major changes in the film industry’s business model are needed.   Lynda Obst too has proclaimed “Hollywood completely broken“. And of course you have yours truly chirping away in my coal mine for an overly long time now.

7/5/13 Note: Add Gore Vibinski to this list: http://www.slashfilm.com/film-interview-the-lone-ranger-director-gore-verbinski-we-are-on-a-crazy-road-to-extinction/

Frankly, I wonder why those giants have been so slow to sound the alarm.  I gave my first speech on this topic close to five years ago. Not that I am bragging, but I think we can qualify there is a consensus on the subject.  Is the sky falling when Spielberg says it is? Yes, most definetly I say – because many many others have said it also.  And that is precisely why I get really upset now.

I thought that history was supposed to be a story about how when things go wrong, people do something to improve the situation (or at least try). I particularly think that in a world where wealth is concentrated in so few hands, some of the more fortunate would take a leadership role and take the talk out for a walk of commitment. Isn’t there a requirement that responsibility go hand in hand with privilege?  Or is the lack thereof related to how we let this great inequality of ours not just fester but infect us for the next near eternity?

People have been noticing something is wrong for a very long time now; some have even done things to start to improve things, but when you are a leader and you notice devastating practices occurring and you don’t build a ladder to get us out of our mass grave, you are guilty of making that grave a hell of a lot deeper — if not quite guilty of forging the bullets that may put us finally to rest.

How do we ALL move from talk to action? Or if we want to move a wee bit faster: how do we get those with power to actually do something?  Standing on an electronic soap box does not do much or even sitting and yakking on a physical stage, even when the trades carry you out across the planet.

Unfortunately, I also am not sure that the non-profit world can move quick enough to stop the downfall of cinema (as we know it). It takes a tremendous amount of money, focus, and energy to run a general film support organization, and not everyone can share the same sense of urgency.  I get tremendous inspiration from the work of many people, some I work with, others I conspire with, and But we are not organized. And Hollywood is not well represented as a force for positive change.

Nontheless, even without Hollywood’s help, I do think we have made a bit of progress.  Sundance, the IFP, FIND, and other indie support organizations (like SFFS) have opened up the art form to a wide swath of storytellers. Russ Collins and the Art House Convergence are making community theaters an incredible force in a very diverse culture.  The various tech start ups from the crowdfunders to the theatrical-on-demanders to the latest and greatest of discovery tools, transcoders, aggregators, and analytic & impact measurers show it really could get a whole lot better.  The improvements tech has brought to the creative and production process are huge.  From a creative perspective, there has never been a better time to be a filmmaker, and I am incredibly hopeful the same can soon be said from a business perspective — if we don’t go down in flames first because we have not all done our share to lift us so we can truly soar.

We all have to ask ourselves “Are we doing enough?” Sure Hollywood and pop culture have endured bigger changes before, as Russ Collins has pointed out so eloquently – but I would argue this time it is different.  We have had close to thirty years of industrial evolution, with growing access and supportive infrastructure.  We have watched everyone – the audiences, the creators, the middlemen, the exhibitors, the culture — benefit and some even prosper. But all of that is now in jeopardy.  And if it IS close to over, will we be able to say we fought back, that we tried hard enough to stop the flood?

Sure we see some change but the evolution is still too slow.  We may be doomed if we don’t get others to also take action. I really don’t know what more can be done — unless those giants start to really step in and confess: I LOVE CINEMA AND I WANT A DIVERSE AND AMBITIOUS CULTURE THAT IS FRESH AND ORIGINAL, SUPPORTING & RESPECTING ITS CREATORS.  You know that movie NETWORK?  I want that classic “stick-your-neck-out-and-yell” scene with a bit of a dialogue change…

Because let’s face it: even with these big giant giants speaking up now, none of us are expecting any of them — or those like them — to take much action, and that is really, really sad. I would love to be proven wrong.  And I love that they are speaking up.  I hope that is just the start, or the start of the start; if you say the problem is still outside of you, can you say you’ve actually seen the problem?  We have to first face that the problem is us.

Unified action is needed and it must come from our leaders if we are going to jumpstart change in any significant way.  But then again, if folks don’t care, particularly our leaders, maybe I am on a fool’s errand…

I guess it should not be a big surprise that no one wants to really save the film business.  We certainly know that climate change will destroy the planet and we are doing very little about it.  We know that corporate funding and corruption has destroyed democracy in America and we doing very little about it.  Our education system fails our kids.  Our financial system furthers the wealth divide.  Civil liberties are restricted. Our government now routinely spies on us. Our food supply is contaminated beyond repair.  Really, do we expect someone to do something for the Arts? So what if our cultural future is at risk… We pale in comparison to other giant problems we are doing very little about.

I confess, I still do expect all of us who are vested in and committed to this film thing, all of us who clearly do it for the love and not for the money, to also recognize that the film business and culture can not continue as usual.  It’s just that there is that gulf between thought and expression. It is colossal. We don’t really do enough.  Who among us, really — and not just those Hollywood leaders with significant bank accounts and influence – can say they are working to save the culture they love? I am afraid that making another good movie and putting it through a damaged system is adding fuel to the fire at this point.

And I am so tired of talking about the need for change. And hearing these stronger voices join the chorus now, I start to get ill.  The song is not a rallying cry but more of elegy. Something about the tune makes me think we have already passed crisis point.  I was hoping when the big voices joined it would be for a rousing marching tune that would encourage the good fight.

Can we get people to act on what really matters? When we talk about how the system is broken or a paradigm shift occuring, are we recognizing what is truly afoot. It is not just about the occasionally crappy content.  It is not just about the studio business model, the loss of DVD, the need for shorter windows, the transition to digital projection, or reliance on MBAs in the studio circles. Yes, those are some problems in the film business, but we need to look at the big picture.

If we look at the film biz just as the Hollywood biz, then we have no way to develop new talent or tell stories that appeal only to mass markets. If we look at creative expression as only for the market, we lose a sense of purpose and individuality. If new artists can only come from the ranks of the financially privileged then we get a uniform voice of creation (and worse).  If we don’t make sure that both creators and their supportors directly benefit financially from the work they create, then we won’t have enough capital at play or any encouragement to innovate. If we only encourage people to come together in our community theaters around vfx-drunk shoot-em-ups, we lose the ability of cinema to help show us all what we can aspire to as a culture.

Thirty years of independent cinema has brought us an incredible group of well-developed storytellers. Fifteen years of technical innovation has reduced all barriers of entry. We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us, but we also stand on the brink of a great constriction.  Yes an implosion looms, but the fall out won’t just be Hollywood, but the real losers will be lovers of ambitious and diverse cinema. Hollywood may have, as Soderbergh stated, gotten out of that racket, but those still on the front lines are about to be nuked.

I could go on, but I have been going on and on for five years now.  I want some action — not on the screen, but in the boardrooms, union halls, and on social media pages.  It’s the embrace of the amateur we truly need, the desire to have a world where people can afford to do for the love of doing, where people gather for the pleasure of sharing, for the recognition of how close we are no matter how different we may be.

Let’s be frank.  It’s great that our Hollywood leaders are speaking some of the truth now, but we have already heard so many experts speak up on this damn paradigm shift. Have we gone deaf?  Grown immune to the tunes of struggle and pain?

Am I wrong to assume we really just don’t care?  Should we JUST LET IT BURN!!!?  I have been willing to help. Maybe you have too. I have summoned many allies. And maybe you have too, and yet, together we are feeling alone.  The gods have agreed but few have taken heed.  Yes, I have seen some others take action. I feel I have given enough and yet I am still willing to give even more. But, here we stand, with the experts all declaring THE END…

Where can we look and see the actions and not just the words? Without the actions, no one is going to say “Hey, they are going to make a difference.  They might save it for the rest of us. I want to give them a hand.”  When does that time start?  Can we afford to wait any longer?

We need something equivalent to The Giving Pledge in Hollywood just to keep cinema alive. Or The X Prize to keep indie alive. Even if we had just a few true “leaders” step forward, I would gladly give all my labor to make sure my effort is not just the good fight but an inevitable victory.

Infrastructure rebuilding is not a fast or glamorous process.  And it will never get done with just words.  Now that Hollywood has spoken up, can they also take action? Can we get organized?  Can we acknowledge the power and beauty of individual stories told from the heart by those that do for the love, recognizing the privilege and responsibility that come with the opportunity?

Dang, and this was going to be a short post…

P.S. As I recognize this is a bit of a rant without any concrete recommendations (thanks Alison O.!), and I don’t want to leave you without a prescription (which would start by signing up for a free subscription to this blog), check out what I recommended last month as “Best Practices For A Sustainable Creative Life

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  1. cj / Jun 18 at 11:00am

    Far from art houses they’ll be AV entertainment centers. They’ll show low budget films the studios used to make (usually with big names), cult, premium cable, cable and broadcast TV events (providing the extended family experience and a prohibitively expensive screen and sound system), movie manifestations of cult TV (Veronica Mars), major and mini-major pickups from film festivals, break-out indies from online dist. platforms, and fare important to the local community. With the tech leviathans involved, they will likely have a large screen gaming evolution that I am unable to comprehend. Concessions may be a full bar and coffeehouse depending on local law. Think HBO-Netflix-Apple-Microsoft- Google-etc. theaters.

  2. Jonathan W.C. Mills / Jun 18 at 11:00am

    The cynic in me says few audiences are ‘seekers’ in contemporary culture. I believe we’ve been so well marketed to that we no longer WANT to look behind the curtain. There is a waning desire to use film (and art) as a critical way to examine popular culture. Modern tent poles are the white bread of culture – digestible, bland, and highly addictive. There is an audience for challenging films, but it will only grow larger when it’s once again perceived as a positive to BE inquisitive. No one goes to work to talk about a challenging film they saw, they want to talk about Iron Man! Because everyone else is talking about it, because $100M was spent to make that conversation the important one to have on Monday morning. Sad but true.

    I don’t know if this makes sense…Hope so (pun intended).

  3. lustgarten / Jun 18 at 11:00am

    The future so close, but so far away.

  4. cj / Jun 18 at 11:00am

    You said it. It could be a reality in Johannesburg and Durban before LA or Omaha. Development with committed government support trumps redevelopment with the wealth of the nation in securities and swaps. If the individual theaters were franchises available for ownership by private investors, it might move things along a little faster. A few companies holding the entire theatrical exhibition infrastructure to a 1930′s industrial and business model is part of the problem.

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