The Collapse of the Film Industry

Whoa, weighty topic huh?

This is in response to a post on John August's blog, reporting about a WGA panel addressing the state of screenwriting and tips for screenwriters.

It's not pretty. Even for an unashamedly commercial writer who'd kill to write Alien vs. Predator vs. Transformers 2, the present and future are not looking great.

More than ever, the marketing department determines which scripts get greenlighted. There's less money for production in general, so only the most commercial, most pre-sold (as in, based on a pre-existing property) projects get off the ground.

If the big boys (the majors) are tightening their belts like mad, where does that leave everyone else... you know, the alternatives like the supposed "indie scene"?

Okay, let me say it. I hope I'm wrong.

The American film industry is slowly collapsing.

Screenwriters are reporting that the market has gotten even more cutthroat in the last few years, but film quality has not noticeably improved. Movie attendance is up so far, but DVD is down and ticket prices are rising faster than the rate of inflation. Movies are more expensive than ever to make.

It's sort of an entertainment stagflation right now.

I believe that the industry is about where it was in 1964, when it was becoming clearer that Hollywood was leaving its transition stage (1948-1967) and about to blossom into its magnificent Silver Age, the fabled time of the American auteur, the time of 2001, M*A*S*H, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars...

But I'm having trouble seeing a New Silver age coming up.

The reason folks like Coppola and Spielberg got esteemed positions in the first place was because the powers-that-be hadn't a clue what the youth market wanted-- so they tried anything and everything to put bums in seats.

Allegedly the executives who got pitched Harold and Maude (1971) couldn't understand what the movie was about, let alone why anyone would want to see it. But with the suggestion of a hip soundtrack, it got the greenlight without reservations.

Marketing has evolved a lot since 1971, and now thanks to Facebook and Twitter a square old executive can (supposedly) figure out exactly what the kiddie's want, and then envision a movie with the intent of exploiting the latest "It".

Not a particuarly creative environment, huh?

Another difference is technology: enterprising young producers are turning to webcasts to deliver new media products. Of course, movies are designed to be projected on a screen [in film] in a dark room with other [attentive] people-- but this concept hasn't sat well with Generation Y and beyond, if the amount of talking and texting in multiplexes is a reliable indicator.

Okay, you say. So mass audiences are migrating away from the traditional notions of cinema. Can't it just evolve like live theater did after the "talkies": a smaller, specialized art form appealing to certain demographics?

My thought (and I hope this isn't the case) is no.

One point is economic. Films cost a freakin' lot of money. They take a freakin' lot of people to make happen. They take a freakin' long time to put together. Decreased interest and decreased capital availble means... decreased movies.

The other point is interest itself. I have been told that my generation is the most visually sophisticated ever.

But we also have as more entertainment options than ever before. And oddly enough, I don't think our generation's taste is any more sophisticated than the past.

Decades ago, there used to be campus film societies where geeks would sit around and talk about Ozu and John Ford and watch 16mm prints while the film-nerdiness would exude all over the screening room.

Some of that still exists online at IMDB and elsewhere. But as my Independent Cinema professor pointed out, that sort of subculture that fostered the nascent careers of the Movie Brats dried up with the introduction of VHS, and has gotten even more eviscerated since.

Few people of my generation want to be the next Welles, like Bogdonavich did. Or the next Lean, like Spielberg did.

I shudder to think of when wanting to be even the next Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) is considered a statement of one's artistic integrity.

Will the movies die? I don't think so. I think we're going to see a schism between extremely professional "slick" films (in Digital IMAX 3-D and so forth) and extremely lo-budget "grunge" films made for $20. Hopefully the two can co-exist for a while.

But I'd hate to lose the middle ground for good.

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