The State of the Industry at the Mill Valley Film Festival

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival closed Sunday. My last event happened Saturday, and it wasn’t even a movie. It was a panel discussion on the State of the Industry.

The question of the day was “Can anything beyond blockbusters succeed in theaters?” If you care about the theatrical experience, that’s important. Sure, I watch a lot of movies on my TV (but never on my phone), but nothing compares with a big screen and hundreds of strangers traveling the same emotional journey.

Variety editor Malina Saval moderated the discussion. The panel included two auteurs, Brad Bird of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and documentarian Dawn Porter of Gideon’s Army and Trapped. John Sloss of Cinetic Media and Bob Berney of Picturehouse represented the business end.

The following highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity.

  • Bird: There’s plenty of blame to spread around. The industry is dying of a thousand paper cuts. No single one of them would do much harm.
  • Bird on trailers: People used to go to the movies and see trailers for all sorts of films – musicals, thrillers, melodramas. Now, if you go to see a horror movie, you see trailers for five horror movies. You’re beaten over the head with one genre.
  • Porter: This is the golden age for documentaries. People want them. But real is hard and expensive. They want you to deliver a film in one year that should take three years to make.
  • We’re making movies for the big screen. I want you to sit in the dark and not leave until it’s over.
  • Bird on marketing Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: I insisted they play it only in Imax for a week (the studio only gave him three days). We lost the big first week gross. But the first paying customers saw it on a screen the size of Cleveland, and they raved about it on social media.
  • Theaters used to have architectural integrity. In this theater [the Rafael), every auditorium looks different. And they’re all great.
  • We grew up with theaters and we a nostalgia for them that younger people don’t have.
  • You must make the theatrical experience special. Try something like Alamo Drafthouse.
  • We have to show that it’s not only the movie; it’s the experience.
  • On documentary subjects: The environment isn’t a movie. Greta Thunberg is a movie.
  • You can’t get the entire effect on the small screen. we’re tapping into dreams.
  • No big studio would have done Roma.
  • We must consider the huge Chinese market, which involves a lot of censorship. Don’t talk about freedom.
  • There’s a Sophie’s choice that every filmmaker makes: either artistic control with only streaming or the theatrical experience with less control.

I intended to see a film Sunday at the Sequoia, but I was not allowed in because my backpack was too large, and since I didn’t have my car with me, I had no place to put it.