The worst development in filmmaking—particularly in the last five years — is how badly directors are treated. - Steven Soderbergh
At the end of the day, Hollywood is all about making money [...] That sounds cynical, but it’s true. My hands are tied having to come up with big franchises. I can’t make certain movies anymore, no matter how profitable they might become. I make movies that turn into toys. - Major studio boss
It has come to this: a movie studio can no longer risk making good movies. - David Denby
We're In A Lot Of Trouble
When I set about to write this little editorial, I simply wanted to map out the different ways old-school filmmakers have been responding to the changing times. But after reading this excellent piece by David Denby, and perusing what Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, arguably the inventors of the modern blockbuster, had to say about our current cinematic times, I became more and more morose.
Ultimately I went straight into "screen apocalypse" mode, when I stumbled upon the second of the quotes above from a major studio boss who understandably choose to remain anonymous.
Times are changing rapidly. The age of the gigantic superhero movie is upon us, the blockbuster spectacle. And I haven't even mentioned different sorts of mega-franchises like Fast & the Furious.
In those silly sagas, the world is constantly on the brink of disaster, good fights evil, and one or several superheroes ride to the rescue. Between these words lies the destruction of cities, or the occasional planet which we behold while drooling in our popcorn buckets.
Sometimes these movies are made bearable by charming stars who invest the whole thing with a bit of irony or panache (, ); sometimes "deep" philosophical ideas seem to vindicate the enterprise ('s Dark Knight trilogy).
These are not the only films being produced, of course. There are tons of tiny indie movies for the metropolitan audience that still cares for them. Horror movies don't cost much and have proven hugely successful (case in point: The Conjuring. Budget: $20 million. Domestic gross: $127 million) and comedies occasionally also make big bucks on comperatively slim budgets (The Hangover. Budget: $35 million. Domestic gross: $277 million).
And our own website here, Moviepilot, caters largely to the most passionate moviegoers out there right now: the fanboys. They are, and please excuse my far-too broad strokes, mainly interested in movie adaptations of brands they already know and have love since they were children: Marvel, DC, The Lord of the Rings, etc.
If you happen to belong to said group: don't be offended. I once was one of you. I played with Transformers, grew up with shitty, loveable sci-fi movies of the 1980s. But my first love, the passion of my life, were good movies. Films that made me feel something, had story, fully-fledged characters. It doesn't need to be The Third Man. How about Die Hard?
Today, rare is the case of a movie costing over $20 million that is neither a comedy, a horror movie or belonging to some action or superhero franchise.
There is one seasonal exception to this, of course, and that is the Oscar season.
Last year, the communal hunt for the little golden baldies saw the release of 's Lincoln. The historical drama, heavy on politics and dialogue, grossed a truly astonishing $182 million domestically.
But Lincoln was very close to being made as an HBO movie, as recently revealed. Apparently nobody wanted to make an historical epic with one of America's greatest filmmakers, thinking it wouldn't be profitable.
And 's pretty great but also pretty gay Behind the Candelabra with (!) and (!!) recently - unbelievably so - just ended up on that same cable channel, because it was deemed as "too gay" for mainstream audiences. Read, studio heads thought it wouldn't make them money.
So how are filmmakers dealing with the fact that studios make "movies that turn into toys"?
Lincoln was nearly on HBO. A movie that nearly made $200 million domestically.
Truth be told, Spielberg's movie would have fit right in. More and more, the cable TV channel is turning out movies that once would obviously have been produced for cinema screens.
Take Hemingway & Gellhorn for instance. Not a great movie by any means, but on paper, this historical love story sure seemed worthy of a theatrical release.
A fantastic cast, a larger-than-life love story, war: We're talking Doctor Zhivago territory here! In the director's chair a capable man, , who made the terrific The Quiet American, and Rabbit-Proof Fence, but also good blockbuster fare like Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger.
Where did it end up? On HBO.
Soderbergh's theatrically unproducable Behind the Candelabra had the biggest ratings of an original HBO movie in nine years.
But it's not only producing movies on the cable channel that seems like a viable alternative to the long, uphill battle toward a theatrical release. We're - weirdly enough - also living in the age of great TV shows.
Director , creator of Miami Vice, the man responsible for Heat (sob), The Last of the Mohicans (double sob) and The Insider (no sob but still great film), recently - rather unsuccessfully - returned to TV for the horse racing drama Luck. produces Boardwalk Empire and directed the pilot. produces Netflix's House of Cards and directed several episodes.
Perhaps the best filmmakers of our time will soon stop making movies for the big screen, simply because they can't do them anymore.
Soderbergh did exactly that. He'll direct the TV show The Knick on Cinemax.
Are HBO and the other cable TV stations the only hope for filmmakers intent on making something other than small indies or Avengers 23?
As Yoda whispered so meaningfully to Obi Wan as Luke left Dagobah: "No. There is another" ... well, actually two!
Will the burgeoning form of crowdfunding be the dashing Prince that rescues filmmakers not being able to get their films made by Hollywood?
I have my doubts. Above you see the three biggest movies financed on Kickstarter to date. Up there with them, the biggest failed Kickstarter movie project to date, Darci's Walk of Shame, starring Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, aka .
The latter is mainly there to introduce the idea that a project may, in fact, fail at raising enough money to get made. Director , a man arguably not exactly universally beloved, had his fair share of problems raising the money, too.
Crowdfunding surely can play a significant role in the realms of indie filmmaking. Everything up to $10 million seems entirely possible.
But what about those big, daring, projects which have the disadvantage of not being, well, a horror, sci-fi, action or fantasy movie? Would David Lean have gotten Lawrence of Arabia made today, even with the help of Kickstarter? I dare say: hell no!
I remain doubtful, for instance, if could finance his next $30 million epic on the site.
And perhaps he shouldn't. His last one, The Master, didn't even make its $32 million budget back globally. It's a very difficult film, long, unashamedly ambiguous, with a disturbing protagonist. Perhaps such a film shouldn't get made for this much money.
And it wouldn't have been if it weren't for...
The sweet patron of the arts
The Master wouldn't have been made without the contribution of Megan Ellison, the daughter of billionaire Larry Ellison, and equipped with considerable funds. The same goes for 's upcoming Oscar contender American Hustle, starring , , and .
The heiress isn't the only outsider with a huge wallet and a passion for good movies to enter Hollywood in recent years. Black Swan, for instance, was co-financed by the Thompson brothers, a Louisiana oil-and-gas family under their Cross Creek banner.
You may laud these benevolent patrons of (movie) art, or find fault in the whole process. You may say movies are strictly business and those rich kids shouldn't mess up the free, self-regulating movie market. If Anderson himself cannot raise enough for The Master, that's IT!
As I love movies like The Master, I strongly suggest option number one.
Woe to us
Looking at last year's Oscar nominees and their grosses, one could feel inclined to say nothing was wrong.
Six out of nine made over $100 million, with an average gross of about $111 million.
Or take . The director, in a remarkably good position after the success of Black Swan, managed get the huge Bible epic Noah financed.
But, as David Denby points out in his essay, it takes forever to produce them: 's difficult and unwieldy masterpiece took ages (and was made only thanks to Ellison). And let's not forget: It didn't make its money back theatrically.
If your subject matter is tricky, it doesn't even matter if you have stars attached to your project anymore. Ask .
I didn't think I'd end up in that group, but I have to agree with the prophets of the Temple of Doom, with David Denby, Spielberg and that fat-chinned demon George Lucas: we are living in a never-before-seen era of cinematic shit, and, because of that, it's getting harder and harder for even renowned directors to get their non-mainstream films made.
And it's our own fault.
When I saw Transformers 2 I left the cinema with my head hurting more than that one time I was was KO-ed by a kick to my head - and I would rather have someone kick my head again than watch Transformers 2 a second time. Yet, people apparently loved that movie. It took in over $800 million worldwide.
But it's not just adolescent fanboys who seem to have lost grasp of what it means to have a story well and logically told with characters you care about.
Just look at the Dark Knight franchise by one . All three films have a Rotten Tomatoes rating of higher than 80%. Even The Dark f*cking Knight Rises! While I watched the movie, I looked around in disbelief: people were finding this bloated pile of crap good!
Before I get too cussy, I'll point out this passage by Denby, which puts into somewhat more eloquent words what I felt and underscores the entire reason the landscape has completely changed for classic filmmakers:
In Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, sensation has been carried to the point of a brazenly beautiful nihilism, in which a modishly “dark” atmosphere of dread and disaster overwhelms any kind of plot logic or sequence or character interest. You leave the theater vibrating, but a day later you don’t feel a thing. The audience has been conditioned to find the absence of emotion pleasurable.
It's that last line that highlights the uphill battle directors are working with in getting thoughtful, non-blockbuster, non-mainstream films made. It's not that there are no ways for the great filmmakers to adapt to our crazy times. It's that the majority of audiences don't know anymore what great filmmaking is. Or doesn't care. What they, what we, apparently want is the cinematic equivalent to a kick to the head, aka the last 70 minutes of Man of Steel. As a result, that's what the execs holding the purse strings of major studios have started exclusively catering to in the last few years.
And, for as much as we criticize them for kowtowing to the lowest common denominator, we are a part of that: Occasionally we feel terribly smart by ridiculing the Twilight franchise. Then we demand that The Dark Knight gets an Oscar and say The Avengers is the best movie of the year. Are you kidding me?
But all hope is not yet lost. The entertainment industry is cyclical, as are most huge systems and institutions in this world, and what is in vogue now will no longer be fashionable - and, more importantly to studios, profitable - five to ten years from now. In the meantime, directors are making their voices heard through the aforementioned alternative channels, and in doing so are expanding what's possible in filmmaking and storytelling.
Again, you might say: just look at Lincoln’s $182 million and stop whining.
I’d say - and feel quite pretentious and old saying this - Lincoln, and the Oscar class of 2012, might have been the adult moviegoer's Little Big Horn.
The moviegoer is very much the Indian in this equation.