Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Modest Proposal to Fix the U.S. Film Industry

[This essay was originally written in August, 2011]

Just one more month until Summer's over. We can soon call quits to the endless stream of remakes, reboots, sequels, sequels to sequels, and cartoons that pass themselves off as first-run film entertainment, not to mention the special effects "showcases" that usually involve some kind of cheap 3-D effect. Is it me, or are there more of these movies being made than ever before, and are they getting worse?

There are currently two seasons in American film making – Summer and Oscar. Put out your "prestige" stuff in the fall and winter, entice people to sit in a dark air-conditioned room for a few hours between Memorial and Labor Day. In one sense, it's a great system, especially if you're a major studio. Between box office receipts at home and abroad and the various ancillary receipts from rental markets and TV, the US film industry has never been more profitable. So from a Capitalist perspective there's nothing that needs fixing, outside of tracking down and punishing those pesky bootleggers.

Individual consumer choice has also never been better. Between cable, DVRs, NetFlix, Hulu, Amazon, and other outlets (legal and otherwise), no serious movie fan lacks the resources to see the classics from pretty much any genre or era.

But it's in the area of "classics" where the American movie industry DOES need fixing, and needs it desperately. Forty years from now, when people who have an interest in such things think about the area in films spanning the first two decades of the 21st century, what are they going to site as "classics," as worth going out of their way to see again? Avatar? Slumdog Millionaire? One of the Dark Knight movies (trust me, more are coming)?

Don't get me wrong, every year Hollywood manages to squeeze out a small collection of good, sometimes great, films. The concentrated burst of energy that has marked virtually every decade since movies were invented (usually brought on by the rise of new actors, directors, styles, or genres) is not present in 2011.

Technology and marketing have overtaken storytelling when it comes to making movies. Creativity always exists at the fringes, but the days when big companies made big creative movies seem to be over.

Movies have had tremendous value as social documents. In the extraordinary times we live in, those documents have been lacking as well. The motion picture (and its cousin television) is the most powerful form of communication mankind has ever invented, but films in the U.S.A. have been losing their power to express communicate ideas to a general audience.

The reason for this decline is that, especially over the last 20 years, the purpose of movies has skewed hard from making money while communicating ideas and making art to just making money. In the history of motion pictures, never before has the sole purpose of making a film been to maximize profit. The maverick pioneers who started the film industry wanted to make money, but they also weren't afraid to take risks. Individuals and companies that put money into making films today want a guaranteed profit. They do this by telling stories that have already been told, and maintaining an informal yet complete stranglehold on the film distribution process in theaters, television, and home video.

The only real creativity left in Hollywood is in financial structuring contracts and marketing. Unless you can promise a financier that your film is guaranteed to open in 500 screens, or that Angelina Jolie has signed a contract to play the lead, the chances of making a film that ever gets shown in a theater are pretty close to zero.

The basic problem is that movies are hideously expensive to make, and no one in power wants to take a risk that they may not get their money back. In a way, this is the triumph of pure capitalism in action. But while the major studios get richer, American culture gets poorer.

If one aggress that the current process needs fixing, there is one thing that the United States could do – form a U.S. Film Board. Other Western countries have maintained film boards for decades. Their general purpose is to provide financing to companies to make films that may not be immediately attractive to private investors. For example, the objective of the National Film Board of Canada is:

"…to produce and distribute audio-visual works which provoke discussion and debate on subjects of interest to Canadian audiences and foreign markets; which explore the creative potential of the audio-visual media; and which achieve recognition by Canadians and others for excellence, relevance and innovation."

A US Film Board’s purpose and goals would be similar to those of just about every other country. The US would give money to film makers, who would make films that generate profit and are then given back to the system. The funds could be provided to make the films or for completion funds or to buy the most expensive items in the film making process, such as equipment, film stock, and production insurance. This would not be an intuition where a rookie just out of film school can get easy cash to make his or her demo reel, but a viable option for professionals who need money to complete their work.

A U.S. Film Board could provide the money to independent film producers who are working on projects with a minimum budget of, for example, $5 million. And do not have access to the money available to major studios. The Board could also provide distribution networks for completed films. Part of the profits from successful films could go right back to the Board to fund additional projects. This kind of project can also create jobs for everyone from writers to electricians to production assistants. The benefits of a Board would also be cultural, as film goers would have access to more and better stories and perspectives, providing much needed competition to a film industry that has crowded out just about everything else to make room for the next episode of Pirates of the Caribbean.

It’s not hard to come up with objections to this kind of project. The main one is, of course, Why should the US waste money on movies? It all depends on what a country values. A nation that spends billions of dollars every year subsidizing corn, tobacco, military projects, and banks can surely spend some cash on films. $100 million could provide funding for a year’s worth of new releases that feature promising directors, innovative techniques, or stories that aren’t being told in Hollywood.

The U.S. government gives money to a multitude of industries – why not film making? If the US devoted $400 million (or 1/10th of 1% of the $432 billion given to banks for their TARP bailout) to film makers, that would put people to work and be a tremendous resource for American culture.

But aren’t there already ways for indie film makers to fund projects? I can tell you from personal experience how much time and effort it takes just to get someone’s to open their wallet for an even modestly-budgeted project. Film makers need a place they can go to seek financing in a structured, consistent way, so they can spend time making films instead of raising money. A film Board, far from being a waste of money, would be a sound investment in one of America’s major industries.

The current climate in Washington is not to spend money on anything except the military. Cultural efforts of all kinds are left to fend for themselves. In the long-term, this is a mistake. There are millions of stories that should be be told. The Government, which, as Barney Frank said, represents the collective efforts of its citizens, has a part to play in this.

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