Friday, February 20, 2009

Put the money on the screen

It is a truism that we hear in the course of every production: We must put the money on the screen! Of course, it rarely happens. The money goes into the pockets of the usual vested interests, primarily the producers, the stars and the unions, especially the Teamsters, who seem to have the film industry by the reproductive organs. (In the budget for my own very modest little film, the Teamsters were projected to receive the single largest portion of the budget - for doing what? Driving the production around.)

But in a larger sense, with money for development and production dwindling as the economy squeezes itself shut, the money that is available for the screen is being funneled through the most cliched, conventional and non-creative channels. It may seem odd to you (it does to me) that Hollywood defines risk as any form of inventiveness. And so, more and more, the studios, and even the larger independents, are in desperate search of that which has worked before and, through some tortured logic, can therefore be expected to work again. The result is sequels, re-makes, more and more comic book adaptations, more murders, more explosions, more action-adventure, and more silly comedies written and re-written by legions of jokesters with no vision beyond the next punch line.

Thus, instead of facing the future, film executives are scouring the past for ideas and approaches that have done the only thing that matters to them - made money. And not even big money. Even a modest hit that can be recycled for a price will be resurrected in the hope that its profit margin will justify the investment. Rare now is the producer who will try something new, and rarer still, who has the money to do so.

It used to be that film makers strove to put the money on the screen in order to assure the highest quality of production. Now it is a simple trade-off: put the little money that is left on the screen in the hope of getting it back with some profit, any profit, at the box office. And the best way to assure that, the executives think in their own quaint way, is to buy up projects from the past or from the junkpile of popular culture, put them in newer, hipper clothes, and pedal them as quickly and cheaply to the public as possible.

This reminds me of the government's stimulus package. Take the conventional approach of pork-barrel spending and eschew the innovative and creative, simply because doing so will be easier to sell to the public and fellow politicos. At a moment of great risk, take no risks. Don't give the public what it needs but what you can persuade others that you think it wants. Because, after all, it wanted it in the past. Look backwards in order to move aggressively forwards. And above all remember that in times of crisis, perception is reality: it is far better to be seen doing something stupid and ineffectual than to be seen thinking rationally and creatively about the problem.