The Problem With Hollywood Today

I don’t like talking about "The Good Old Days." Things change, and in the cinematic art–so heavily dependent on technology and money–they change a lot. In some ways, things are always improving. In others, they’re inevitably getting worse.

But consider these films:

  • The Crowd
  • Citizen Kane
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Nashville
  • Taxi Driver
  • Annie Hall
  • Raging Bull
  • Brazil
  • Do the Right Thing
  • Goodfellas
  • Groundhog Day
  • Schindler’s List
  • Fight Club
  • LA Confidential

What do these have in common–aside from being really good? All of them were in some way or another cutting edge. In either content or technique (or both), each one pushed the boundaries of what was expected in an American commercial feature. None of them was based on a previous movie, a TV show, a major best-selling novel, or even a superhero comic book series. None had real franchise potential (although 2001 eventually generated a sequel).

And yet, every one of these films was financed and released by a major Hollywood studio. They were produced, at least in some degree, inside the system. And most of them made a profit for their investors.

That would be unthinkable today. The major studios simply aren’t interested in anything other than pre-sold, effects-heavy, extremely predictable, big-budget blockbusters. Today, films like the ones on my list  have to be financed and released outside of Hollywood. And the pool of money for doing that shrinks every year.

We’ve reached a point where Spike Lee–yes, Spike Lee–is trying to finance of film via KickStarter.

The studio heads who greenlit the films listed above were not patrons of the arts. They were businessmen. Their first priority was the bottom line. And yet they understood that financing truly creative work would, in the long run, help that bottom line. They also understood the value of making movies with reasonable budgets.

Today’s moguls don’t seem to understand that. And there lies the loss of art in Hollywood.

My Day at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spend Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I saw and what I thought about it:

New Movies Lab: Industry Panel

I started the day not with a movie, but with a panel discussion on how independent filmmakers can promote their films and get people to see them.  Much of it concentrated on digital presentation and promotion, the later involving social media.

Some highlights:

On promoting your film:

Filmmaker, Webby found, and panel moderator, Tiffany Shlain:  You have to spend 50% of your time and energy getting your film out. It’s mind-blowing how many filmmakers don’t think of this…When I do my budget, it’s half to make the film, and half to market it.

Producer Steven Menkin: There are literally dozens of tools for filmmakers where you can distribute your own films. Marketing should be part of every budget.

Milyoni founder and VP David Raycroft:  It’s never been easier to get going with art. You have Kickstarter for financing, and social media for marketing. When you start creating, you’re creating a community as well as [a work of] art. With more people being able to create, awareness is the hardest part. With The Invisible War, we attracted enough of an audience through community [social networks) to get it noticed.

[The panelists used the word community so often that they began to apologize for it and joke about it.]

On theatrical presentation vs. home viewing:

Pacific Film Resources Principal (and former Landmark executive) Jan Klingelhofer: I have an affinity for historic theaters. I’m determined that the form of watching content that matters to people is the community experience [of going to theaters]. I’d hate to have them [young people] see some of the beautiful art designed for a movie screen on their phone.

Shlain: A lot of theaters wouldn’t play it if it’s already on Netflix. They don’t like Day and Date [when the theatrical and other releases happen simultaneously]….I get distracted watching movies on Netflix. As a filmmaker, that’s not how you want people to see your movie. But you have to give up control, knowing that people will experience your film in different ways and being okay with that.

Menkin: Some filmmakers would rather have their films in theaters than make money. The challenge is: How do I get my film into a theater and how to I get people to show up? Many [independent] films that get theatrical releases now have a Q&A with the actors or directors..the concept of community.

Rights

Shlain: So many filmmakers just give them up. All you have is the rights to your films. Find someone who can help you [keep them].

Maelstrom

This was my first experience with a Rob Nillson film, and frankly, it will probably be my last. I’d give it a D.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a young, attractive, European couple staying in a lovely house in the woods (shot in Marin county). Their hosts are an aging but still fit athlete and his grown son. This is the sort of place where the bathtub and shower are both out of doors.image

So you have four characters: a woman, her lover, and two other men hitting on her. And she’s hitting back with heavy flirtation. And it’s all tied up with references to Greek mythology–specifically the story of Electra and Orestes.

The lack of story didn’t bother me, but the lack of motivation did. People did what they did–which was often pretty weird–for no apparent reason other than to have something to do in front of the camera.  Aside from the lovely setting and attractive-looking actors, I can think of no reason for anyone not related to the filmmakers to see this movie.

The film was followed by Q&A with Nillson, the cast, and key members of the crew. Some choice comments:

Nillson: We started with a room and the people who entered the room. The people then suggested things [to do].

The Editor: Editing is where a lot of magic gets unlocked. A big part of the Greek mythology part was added on [in post production]. You just have to kind of dance in the editing room.

The Cinematographer: Rob told me we were gonna go up to Marin. If we ever get a film out of this, that would be nice.

Ricky on Leacock

With collaborators such as Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers, and documentaries such as "Primary" and "Queen of Apollo," Richard Leacock helped invent cinema vérité. Now, one of Leacock’s protégées, Jane Weiner has created a documentary about him. I’m giving it a B+.

In theory, cinema vérité (truthful cinema) captures reality. The filmmaker follows the subject as unobtrusively as possible. The final film generally contains no narration, simply showing what was and allowing the audience to make their own conclusions.

Weiner presents Leacock’s work in roughly chronological order, giving us a full imageoverview of a very long career. She uses film clips, interviews with Leacock and some of his collaborators (but mostly of Leacock), and some–yes–cinema vérité-style footage. Weiner first started recording Leacock’s life and interviewing him in 1972, using a super8 camera of Leacock’s own design. She returned to that project in recent years, providing us with views of the filmmaker as a middle-aged and an old man. The result is entertaining and informative.

But her respect for her mentor gets in the way of her objectivity. The film never addresses the basic criticism–even the basic lie–behind cinema vérité. In making choices of what to film and how to edit it, the fimmaker inevitably creates a subjective work that isn’t necessarily truthful. Some vérité filmmakers have been known to stage scenes, although I don’t know if Leacock has done this.

Nevertheless, everyone interested in the history of documentaries should see this one.

After the screening, Weiner came up for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • I was asked to teach at Syracuse in 2003. The students all thought that Michael Moore invented documentaries.
  • [When asked if Leacock saw the film before he died in 2011] He did see a work in progress in 2010 at Telluride.
  • We can’t release [this film commercially] until we’ve paid for the rights. And there’s something like 87 clips in this film.

You get one more chance to see Ricky on Leacock. It plays tonight, at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre, at 9:15.

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