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Film Disruption, Top to Bottom

Woolly MammothIf you have even a passing interest in how the film business works, then you will probably have come across some rather game changing predictions by two of the industry’s heavy hitters recently, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. You can read the article in the Guardian yourself, but essentially what they are saying is this. The movie business is fast evolving into a very high ticket price occasion and the films you will get to see will be mega-budget, franchise, star driven vehicles and the more cerebral films like Speilberg’s own Lincoln will not get a look in and you’ll have to see that and films like it on TV from people like HBO. They also predict that this scenario will possibly come about with the box office failure of 3, 4 or half a dozen $250 million projects. The world has been changing since the dawn of time, so this is nothing more than a modern day equivalent of the fall of the Woolly Mammoth. Steven Soderbergh recently spoke about his concerns for cinema and while he may not have reached the same conclusion, he’s in no doubt that immense ground shifting is underway and it’ not to the advantage of filmmaking.

The first question is, are they right? Closely followed by this question. If they are right, then what is a small country on the western fringe of Europe and it’s film tax policies going to do in response to this.

Personally I believe their predictions are really not that far away. Already, we are in a time when it is inconceivable to expect to find the likes of Chinatown or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Apocalypse Now or Dog Day Afternoon at your local cineplex (funny, all 1970’s films when the blockbuster was spawned by Spielberg and Lucas). You then look at big budget flops and let’s confine that to recent years, you have John Carter budget $250m, A Thousand Words budget $40m, Judge Dredd budget $50m and Lucas’ own Red Tails budget $58m.

So apart from tax policies like section 481, one of the few remaining tax shelters, will this seismic shift bring about any policy changes in the Irish Film Board. When the giants of the industry have to fight to get a cinema release, should Irish film cinema releases be financially supported when, as far as I know, they never achieve a decent return at the box office. I say, as far as I know because, although tax payer money is used to develop, produce and release these films, the earnings are never made transparent.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were speaking at the University of Southern California.So what could be done. Well never wishing to be accused of carping from the sideline, here’s a couple of suggestions. Forget cinema, that’s right, I said forget cinema, at least in terms of releasing in the multi-plexs. No problem with the handful of art house screens dotted around the country and elsewhere. Secondly, go low budget, no I mean real low budget. Ed Burns is making his films in New York for $130,000 and that’s including post. Yes most participants are taking a slice of the back end in place of a pay check, but you do what you gotta do and that didn’t turn out too badly for Ethan Hawke’s 20 day’s shoot on “The Purge”. And lastly, embrace the low budget revolution that is underway and find ways of supporting it and becoming a part of it.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about and there really shouldn’t be that many of you, I’m talking about crowd funding and digital releasing. Disinter-mediation is happening right now on a grand scale, low budget filmmaking is bypassing not just the gate keepers but also producers. This new paradigm positively demands that filmmakers become their own producers. Today, if you hear a filmmaker say something like, “I really just want to make my films, I have no interest in the money raising part”, believe me, you won’t hear much from them. This year’s Oscars was the first time that crowd funded films found a nomination, 3 of them in fact, so we’re not exactly talking on the fringes stuff. The view could be taken that if the low budget indies are now doing it for themselves, well that’s great, we can now concentrate on “the other stuff”. One small problem with that, you lose the argument that you are in the business of supporting and nurturing new Irish talent which isn’t going to help when you sit down with the man with the check book. And once lost, they won’t be coming back.

So here’s what could happen. The Irish Film Board part finances low budget films, but to make an application, you have to reveal a credible crowd funding campaign strategy and digital release plan. The submission is less about your script and much more about your Klout, Kred or Peerindex rating. It becomes about your Facebook page “Likes”, your Twitter following, your crowd funding team and their Klout score and their experience in the field of digital marketing. Far from going wide with mass appeal, you will be compelled to niche down, so what does the Google Keyword Tool and Trends tell you about your audience. Those kinds of audiences are looking to hear singular voices with something to say in the moving image medium, the polar opposite of what the multi-plex offers today. I said it before elsewhere, when you’re a minnow in a big pond you’ve got to get smart and fast. Remember, before extinction caught up with the Woolly Mammoth, he was no match for the little guys with spears. Of course there’s always the other option, stick your fingers in your ears, go “la …la” until the threat of change goes away. Good luck with that. If you have an opinion, tell us about it.

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  1. Fiachra says:

    Yeah, yeah whatever? There are three things you can do about this: compete with the big budget movies which is impossible in Kilkenny; continue making TV movies which is what our Film Board mostly funds; or – don’t give a sh*t about the distribution system and make stuff no-one has seen before. Do this enough times and someone will take notice. The point is that most great filmmakers create their own cinema or marketplace. You can’t research an audience and then produce a movie backwards. You can, but it will be derivative rubbish and initial success will soon be forgotten. The problem in this little country is that we do what’s been done too many times already, and not very well. Another problem is that we make films for people who don’t like films much. How many features did Ozu, Bergman, or Fassbinder make before people sat up and realised they were world-class directors. The answer is over a dozen each. Ireland has no world-class filmmakers because they simply imitate other directors. There is nothing new or different in Irish cinema. Until we start doing something entirely new in cinema we will never achieve international success. Exploiting these new distribution opportunities with another Film Board TV movie or a crowd-surfing comedy featuring a cast and crew full of 20-year olds is a waste of time.

    • By all means make stuff no one has ever seen before, but I don’t think you can ever say “don’t give a sh*t about the distribution system”. It takes a lot of time and effort to make a film, why wouldn’t you care about the number of people that get to see it. I absolutely agree about making original films and not reverse engineering Hollywood successes to try to be relevant. And everything else in your comment I completely agree with. The depressing thing is, I have good reason to believe that our state funding body is embracing the cookie cutter approach like never before. Reading between the lines, these are the forces that I believe are at work. They have been cut severely in recent years and another 2 or 3 million cut will shut their doors. If they’ve been told the same thing that all other agencies have been told (up your game and get results or else), then festival plaudits and and laurel leaves are not going to cut it anymore. The stark reality they have to deal with is that Irish films command something in the region of 1% box office here. That, I’m afraid is luring them down the crowd pleasing dead end. So if they can’t neatly package your film, if it presents a challenge to the marketing people, you’ll be turned down in favour of fortune searching, lottery winning comedies – well after all, it worked for Waking Ned Devine, right.

      • Fiachra says:

        We’ve now had two decades of the Board. When someone looks back on the almost 200 features funded what do they observe? Lots of titles unavailable to view or just lost; lots of copycat titles of British/USA productions that are not as good; lots of well-made TV movies that should have been premiered on RTE/TV3; and about a dozen really good ones. What’s missing is a group of directors who each have their own individual style and have made several features. That’s where the marketing angle should come from. Selling these movies on the reputation of their directors. That’s when Irish cinema will take its place on the international stage. The problem here is we don’t have these people. Instead we have mostly skilled, jobbing directors doing everything ‘right’. People who are not artists but just another crew member.
        They get funding by the Film Board when they would be more suited to working in television.

  2. it’s usually the folks who are really good at funding and gathering the people who make crap, hell i make crap but some of us just can’t quit, so it’s a good point to get your funding savy hat on and make more crap. i wouldn’t say forget cinema, at least not in the true use of the word
    “The art or technique of making films or movies; filmmaking.” and don’t let two old guys try to scare the rest of us into thinking “too late for you” just like Faichra implies, we will see more crap from from more people who know how to crowd fund and end up on VIMEO, YOUTUBE, the filmmakers graveyard.

    • Hi Ray,
      Thanks for your comments. Far from too late for the rest of you, now is a time of more opportunity than ever before for filmmakers. It’s not about letting 2 old guys scare the rest of us and in fairness, I don’t think that was their objective. From where they sit, they do have a unique POV and I’m loving what’s happening at the low budget indie end of the spectrum with crowd funding and digital distribution. The “studios” have spent vast sums of money to control and monopolize the multi-plex. It will all be for nothing when people who love film find the films they want elsewhere. And that’s what I take from the 2 old guys and Soderbergh.

  3. Who cares about Lucas/Spielberg? Those guys would be better off making video games not movies. Soderbergh? Am I the only one who watched his Irish-made Haywire? Complete and utter rubbish. As for ‘nurturing new Irish talent’ – do we really need another smug middle-class, film school graduate directing another crap, soon-to-be-forgotten feature involving all the ‘right’ people? Our national cricket team has had more impact internationally than our Film Board! Also, who cares about the multiplexes? Their job is to sell snack food and the best movies for munching popcorn to is the blockbuster stuff. You might as complain about the lack of new Irish composers getting airplay on Lyric FM! 95% of all movies are terrible. The other 5% usually get screened at the film festivals. The best films rarely get wide distribution. Were our grandparents sitting in their local cinema back in the 1940s watching the latest Carl Dreyer film? The Irish Film Board don’t give a sh*t about these new funding schemes and neither should you. Crap comedies and horror movies badly made by 20-somethings that end up on Vimeo.

    • Thanks for your comments Fiachra.
      As I said to Ray above, it’s not about what you think of Spielberg, Lucas and Soderbergh, but rather have they a point about where cinema is going and can that inform what other filmmakers do, not I hasten to add, what kind of films they make, but how they interface with the business side of things. Unless ignorance is bliss, is it ever a bad thing to gain insight from others that can then facilitate our own efforts. The post was not making any comment on these guys as filmmakers, but is their view of the industry and the forces shaping it worth listening to?

      • Fiachra says:

        If you’re going to gain insight from others then surely the last people to pay attention to are the big names in Hollywood? Unless of course you want to be the next John Moore. We are in Europe, an Irish film will always be considered arthouse abroad no matter how commercial it is. Good movies are always difficult to see. Rubbish movies are available everywhere. If you’re worried about reaching the multiplexes then go to America and direct sequels. Here’s another point: there are dozens of directors who regularly get their movies released in Irish multiplexes. But no-one knows who they are because they make kids’ movies and silly comedies. Just because you get your stuff widely released doesn’t make you a talented filmmaker.

        • Fiachra, you are still missing the point. I’m not talking about gaining insight to the craft of filmmaking, but the big picture of what’s happening to the business of film. And I’m not talking about how to squeeze into the multiplex between countless franchise driven behemoths. I’m simply pointing out that everything is changing and that’s bound to throw up advantage and opportunity for all filmmakers, no make that smart filmmakers.

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