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Film Culture Must Shift Away From A Mass-Market Focus
By Ted Hope
The Film Biz, and thus the culture it birthed, originally had no option but to be mass market. But we now have a tremendous opportunity of an alternative method and it is right before us, ripe for creating. Shall we do it? Or should we just sit on our ass and let this moment pass? Although most of culture is waking to this reality, those of us who opted to first and foremost create feature films are still leaning towards the latter.
Look at where we were however, and you might just be able to see where we need to go. Back in the olden days of yore, EVERYONE had to go to the movies for the infrastructure to be built. And they did. And it was. And it was pretty fantastic and widely loved. But….
Gradually technology has allowed the infrastructure to evolve — sometimes forcing it to — and with it so has the art form and it’s content has changed, often for the best, and sometimes also for the worse. Significant lasting change comes slowly though, at least the planned variety, even when opportunity presents itself. I don’t know about you, but I am getting really impatient with the process of slow evolution.
I recognize that change in our industry does occur. Russ Collins recently pointed out on this blog how the industry HAS changed: “Movie attendance at theaters in the USA by the late 1940s appeared stable at 4 BILLION admissions per year. By the early 1960s movie attendance at theaters had fallen dramatically and re-stabilized at around 1 billion admissions per year – the theatrical audiences was just 25% of what it had been 16 years earlier.” Yet as movie attendance at theaters dropped, viewing on other platforms increased. Whew! Similarly the reach of distribution and the penetration into homes across the globe grew with access to diverse content and forms consistently being enhanced. Things looked good for awhile and no one felt they had to worry. Or so it seemed.
New technologies, new mediums, new platforms eventually also birth native forms of expression and culture. Radio gave us the radio drama, television the newscast and the 22 minute sitcom. The old persists alongside the new iterations, be it in harmony or battle, and art spledidly morphs in the continual mash-up. Art, audiences, and technology change faster than markets or industry (sorry, all you free market fanatics, but it just ain’t so that the market is most responsive beast on this planet — people and our creations are always the leaders).
Where are we now? Over what has been less than a decade, tech improvements, digital innovations, and the web have presented us with a tremendous opportunity – we can make localized niche audience film designed truly to engage. Film does not need to gross millions of dollars to be worthy of financing, making, or appreciating. We can focus on small footprint movies, made with tiny crews and tiny budgets intent on connecting with niche audiences. Creators, financiers, exhibitors and distributors can NOW be FREE of mass-market concerns. Never before could we make movies for such a low price. Never before could we connect with audiences all over the world at so little expense. Never before could we make movies about the world as it is right now and get it out to an audience before the world has moved on. Never before could we keep our gaze close to our local community, presenting them for them as they are and just for them.
Hollywood — or at least it’s main form of expression — is collapsing… again…. and new forms bloom in the rubble. After all, this niche audience focus is what is now driving YouTube, right? When the model of the bloated blimp finally bursts, will we start to recognize we don’t need everyone to want to see our films for them to make sense?
Local cinema is a growing phenomenon. Sure there have been examples of this over the ages, but we are quickly moving to flashpoint, and the fire this time will be joyous. True, we are not YET taking advantage of the possibilities of locally sourced small footprint cinema, but it takes time for the news to go down the wire. And it does not just have to be local. Local is just another niche. We can target and get specific. By aiming small we can connect deeper. It is a whole other way of working within cinema than we have ever had the possibility of doing and now we can. Let’s start.
I live in San Francisco now. I never thought I’d leave New York. I want to see my new community’s film culture thrive. Hopefully someone will reach out and say they want to annually sponsor a local Bay Area micro budget feature that the SFFS can present at our Cinema By The Bay fest and give away to our members. Maybe it would have to be made and released within a three month period and be about our community as it is at that time. How great would that be? Reach out if you want to be that one. And all you filmmakers in the Bay Area, get working on those ideas. If that funding is found, I think it should be greenlit on a ten page or less treatment.
But that is just one model among many. It is time for the film business to stop thinking big, and for all of us to think small in a much fuller way than we have before. Think local. Act local. Make local.