Friday, February 20, 2009

The lack of buzz in The Biz

I have worked full-time in the Hollywood film industry now for over fifteen years. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how the business has changed in that time. The principal change, I suppose, has been economic, and not aesthetic, in nature, as might be expected (since Hollywood movie-making is essentially a business and not an art form). However, the economic changes have affected the aesthetics in important ways.

During the time I have worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, the studios, which once were largely independent entities, have been swallowed up by multi-national conglomerates, the chief commerce of which has nothing to do with film. For this reason, the film business is now controlled by people who neither know film culture or aesthetics (nor even much about film economics for that matter) and for whom the sole reality seems to be the bottom line. I do not begrudge this since the purpose of any business is to make a profit. Yet the fact is that the film divisions of these huge companies are invariably their least profitable sector, and this puts tremendous pressure on the studios.

What I do lament, however, is the effect this phenomenon has on the aesthetics of what once aspired to be, or was meant to be, an art form. It would be as if corporations had taken over painting, and their profit motives were allowed to dictate what colors, styles and subjects painters chose; or as if poetry had somehow become incorporated, so that poets had to account to stockholders and boards of directors for their choices of metaphors and imagery. Such painting and such poetry would doubtless resemble a capitalist version of the old unlamented Soviet Realism, which was the most fraudulent, cowardly and worthless form of art ever created. Yet it existed in order to satisfy the prevailing political and economic dictates. Something similar is happening in Hollywood, I fear.

In pursuit of profits for their corporate overlords, studio executives have, fairly quickly, altered the nature of the Hollywood film business, and not for the better. In my fifteen years of stewardship, I have seen mainstream films become shallower, sillier, less substantial. Serious production is now almost entirely the province of the independent film industry, yet two things have happened to mitigate even that.

First, the studios, while eschewing serious projects in favor of formulaic tentpoles, action-adventures and romantic comedies (which is about all they produce now), still wish to be taken seriously as makers of film, and to compete for prestige in the Oscar sweepstakes. And so, one by one, the studios have gobbled up the successful independent production companies. The problem here, of course, is that the independents then cease to be independent, and instead of being run by maverick risk-takers and visionaries, they become accountable to the mainstream business-think of the studio execs who are placed in charge of them.

Second, the current economic crisis in America has very rapidly dried up independent production money. Few financiers have the cash or credit now to invest in independent films, and fewer still have the willingness to take the risk which they represent. Thus, serious production is being squeezed from two directions: the studios which now control much of the independent market, and the financiers who have lost their ability or desire to invest in it. In both cases, the common element is unwillingness to risk capital on what has traditionally been the highest manifestation of American film production – the serious ‘art’ film, which tackles tough and controversial questions for the edification or enlightenment of the audience.

There are a few truly independent companies left, run usually by very wealthy individuals who retain a passion for films of merit and importance. But these crusaders are getting harder and harder to find. When a serious filmmaker does find such a one, he must, as Hamlet said, ‘Grapple him to (his) heart with hoops of steel.’ And this, more and more, we have done in our own little company.

What is the solution? I don’t see one. The mainstream business is not likely to change its course any time soon, especially given the state of the economy; and the independents are not suddenly going to become fabulously wealthy. And so, I believe, serious filmmaking in this country will go the way of poetry and ballet and the opera – an indulgence for the over-educated and over-endowed whose tastes occupy a shrinking niche of mainstream society.

I am aware that in some European countries, governments have begun to invest in film in order to preserve the independence of their serious filmmaking traditions. Organs such as France’s CNC provide substantial contributions to the cost of production, but such a governmental intrusion in this country would be as undesirable as it is unlikely. First, the government, which is now bailing out everybody else, simply does not have the funds to invest in filmmaking, and any effort to convince it to do so would be dismissed out of hand as frivolous. The U.S. Government has never been particularly interested or involved in the arts, and it should not be.

Second, imagine what the end product would look like of a production process accountable to a committee of Congress. The morbid, even macabre possibilities stagger the mind. Government bureaucracy intruding into film would only intensify the chaos, inefficieny and chronic absurdity that pervade the business as it is now. If I, as a screenwriter and producer, was told that I had to be answerable to government bureaucrats and be accountable for taxpayer money, I would simply quit the business.

But there is another factor to be considered by anyone naïve enough to advocate government involvement in film production: In an effort to justify the expenditure of tax money to make movies, even the European governments have tended to invest in larger and less risky films hoping to gain a return on their investments. In other words, they have begun behaving like the corporate-controlled studio system in this country. Again, risk dictates taste.

The simple fact is that economics have so come to dominate filmmaking that risk, which lies at the heart of all the arts (and any worthwhile human endeavor, for that matter), has gone out of fashion for reasons that have nothing to do with the nature of filmmaking or the role of film in society. And so as the studios and even some independents adhere more to formulae in an effort to minimize risk, the product in the theaters will continue to grow sillier and shallower. Sadly, if it still proves profitable, it will simply be an index of the declining tastes and discernment of the mainstream of the population. For mainstream film has long been a sort of IQ test for the popular culture.