Saturday, May 29, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #21: The Committee May Not Last Forever

Ever since they were invented, movies have been the most expensive artform to produce. As a result, as I discussed last time, movies have always been made by committee. The big question is: Can a committee create art? Well, sure. Good movies get made every year, but not enough. I think that American movies were much better under the old system (pre-1980 or so). Well, the average American movie probably isn’t any better today than it was fifty years ago, but back then the best movies were a lot better, at every level of production.

It’s not like they didn’t have committees back then—if anything, they had even more fingers in the pot than we do today. But each studio was making 50 or more movies a year, so some of those movies could be more daring. At the top of the industry, each studio would make a few “prestige” movies each year, which were intentionally allowed to be lose money in exchange for bragging rights. And then you had the bottom of the scale, where directors were allowed to do whatever they wanted because “B” movies didn’t have to sell their own tickets, they just piggybacked on “A” movies. These two extremes tended to produce the best movies at the time, and they’re still considered the greatest American movies ever made.

These days, movies are much more overcooked and bland because, in both Hollywood and independent filmmaking, every film now has independent producers, which makes each one a self-contained business venture, which means that someone’s personal pocketbook is at stake every time, and usually several people’s. It’s much harder for any film to take a risk since losses can no longer be amortized across a slate of less risky fare. So fewer gems get made. The golden age is long gone.

So what is to be done? Re-create the studio system? That’s not going to happen. The safety net can’t ever be stitched together again. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Francis Ford Coppola has a famous, rudely-stated quote in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, shot on the set of Apocalypse Now: “To me the great hope is that now these little video recorders are around and people who normally wouldn't make movies are going to be making them. And suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camcorder and for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever, and it will really become an art form.”

We’ve gotten much closer to realizing Coppola’s idle speculation today, but it’s shocking how far away we still are. HD home cameras can now look practically as good as film and YouTube has democratized distribution, so that girl in Ohio now has the tools she needs in a way that 1979 Coppola couldn’t have predicted. But we’re still waiting for her. I really can’t name a single scripted YouTube viral hit that doesn’t involve anyone speaking directly to the camera. But surely it must be coming.

And that’s what is finally going to liberate film from the committee. What if you could make a professional looking feature and distribute it for $1000? What if we filmmakers, like painters, could discard 25 canvasses before we ever tried to sell one? What happens when art-by-committee is no longer an economic necessity? We’re waiting to find out…


Anonymous said...

I don't know, I think we're already there. Have you seen PRIMER ($7,000) or INLAND EMPIRE or THE IDIOTS or 10? That fat girl in Ohio is a skinny guy in Texas or three artistic geniuses from all over the world who've already made great celluloid films.

Anonymous said...

Oh and I forgot PARANORMAL ACTIVITY which cost about $11,000 before it got picked up. All of these films are unique, personal and properly conceived for their budget so that cheapness becomes an essential aspect of the style and limitations are not a liability but a creative license.

Jim Endecott said...

Film Riot.

Steve Bird said...

This seems to have happened with comedy shorts, if not with drama. Look at Funny or Die, or the Onion News Network. Both of these represent something that would have required a network exec's go-ahead on a quirky, risky, or subversive comedy variety show a generation ago, and a much larger budget and heavier commitment from the creators. Now, you can distribute the stuff yourself, and produce as the material dictates. One thing keeping the brakes on things to some extent (and it would seem to be a greater drag on drama) is the fact that you still require investment on the part of the other creative talent -- actors, primarily.