Filmmaking in 2011 And Beyond

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! In many ways, the first year of the 10s was a marked improvement on what I’ve earlier called the decade of the suck that preceded it. Really? How is that possible? The economic recovery everyone seems to be talking about is more of a mirage than a reality. My older friends – who would be happy to work – are being forced into early retirement. My younger friends are climbing deeper into debt to stay afloat. Friends my age are spending their hard-earned savings (if they have any) taking care of aging parents and grandparents, thanks to the hospitals, nursing homes, drug companies, and insurers whose sole mission seems to be to gouge the elderly and their families at every opportunity. The ripple effects of all this will be felt for the next twenty years, here and across the world.

There is hope, however. While the half-measures put in place by our government are just that, they’re better than nothing. For every step backward, we seem to take 1.5 forward.

Similarly mixed news pervades the film industry. DVDs and box office revenues are not being replaced dollar-for-dollar with streaming/online (and probably won’t be in the future). But the DSLR came into its own as a viable production camera this year. In fact, technologically we’re at the point where you can pick up just about any piece of gear or software and create something worthwhile – provided you have good skills to begin with. The tools are our friends, not our obstacles.

On the other hand, I feel that 2010 will be seen as the beginning of the end for the studio system as we presently know it. Bad debt, an unsustainable business model, and top-heavy management are leading them all to the brink. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Taking the broad view, this is only the latest of a series of shakeups that have both threatened and energized the industry since its inception. Edison nearly choked the industry with his draconian demands for a piece of the pie (since he had the patent on most of the film equipment made up to that point). His attempt at monopolizing the industry backfired, with the best and brightest American producers relocating beyond his long arm – to Hollywood. Television and the breakup of the studio system in the 50s led to the "new" explosion of good filmmaking in the ’60s and ’70s.

The consolidation of the industry over the last twenty-odd years, and its takeover by companies not necessarily interested in media production at all, was responsible in part for the rise in independent filmmaking (since it’s easier for them to buy a film than make it on an indie budget). But it’s also led to the weakening of the labor guilds and unions, the near-disappearance of the "b-movie", and the development of an unfair business model – everyone’s a freelancer, and profits rarely go back to the media creators. The pursuit of the "tentpole/high concept/four quadrant" Holy Grail has also meant the watering down or outright abandonment of intellectually stimulating films or filmmakers.

But that brings up an important question: will film as a medium survive the contraction of film as an industry? The short answer is yes. Consider it in light of other media:

Like jazz, film as a medium has adapted to new forms and paradigms, and embraced change as its modus operandi. Once films were only seen on really large screens; now they’re seen on everything from IMAX theaters to iPhones. Filmmakers have incorporated sound, color, and new styles of editing, storytelling, acting, lighting; new technologies for production and post; new methods of distribution, promotion, advertising; new sources of funding, education, and training… this indicates a medium that’s still growing and finding new ground to cover.

The upside of the low cost of production is that you don’t have to go out and raise a fortune to make a movie. It’s possible (though not easy) to make a film for not much more than it costs to put on a play or write a novel. You can take bigger creative risks. There’s no guarantee that anyone will see your masterpiece, but then again, there’s no guarantee anyone’s going to read that novel on your hard drive either. If the profit margins for film fall in line with book and magazine publishing, the big economic powerhouses may sell off their film distribution companies or shut them down. They’ll take their football and go find another industry to make them gobs of money. But the distributors that stay in the game will be doing so because they genuinely like making and promoting films.

Okay, so filmmaking will continue. And distribution will continue. But can we make any money at it? (Are we condemned to day jobs for the rest of our lives?) Will it become a fine art, essentially something done for its own sake? Will it become regionalized like theater (Broadway, off-Broadway, community, touring, etc.)? Or will it fold into television and webisodic forms – will a new medium emerge that combines film, tv and web formats? This last seems less likely in the short-term, given how the internet and television have staked out their domains. But written epics, poems, and bardic news/storytelling were once separate mediums. They have all contributed to the rise of the modern play and novel forms.

Perhaps in the future we’ll have features that are short, webisodes that run long, episodic television that can be of varying/irregular lengths. Novels don’t have a page-count limit; albums are no longer bound by LP limitations; fine art is contained by whatever canvas size the artist deems necessary. Removing some of the economic pressure and incentive for filmmakers may actually open up the medium for more interesting forms. If you can make it cheaply enough, and do it well, you can find an audience. Writers, fine artists, poets, playwrights, and sculptors are used to dealing with small audience numbers. These forms show no sign of dying out. Perhaps film is headed in the same direction.

Personally I find this both very hopeful and rather depressing. Hopeful because I feel that there are a lot of stories that deserve to be made into movies, and now maybe at least a few of them will get made. But one of the reasons I chose film over writing was because it seemed easier (relatively speaking) to make a living at it (no day job). The idea that I’m going to continue to have to work multiple jobs for the rest of my life so I can pursue my "work" is not a very heartening one. And what about the poor private equity investors and producers out there, the unsung heroes (and often close friends/family members) who’ve invested time/energy/money/love into these projects that will no longer have any hope of coming close to recouping? And do we really want to make $50K movies once every ten years for the rest of our lives? Is that a sustainable model?

I suppose what you’re getting from this screed is that I have no idea what the hell is going to happen next in the world of film production and distribution. Well, you’re right – I don’t. But I’m hopeful. Which is more than I could say a year ago. So that’s something, right?