State of the Art
By Film Comment
Taking the pulse of cinema in 2013
The Wolf of Wall Street
When young people dream of making films, what filmmaker do they dream of becoming? What are the images in their heads? For some, Tarantino; for others, Fincher. For some, Scorsese; for others, Spielberg or Godard, or Cassavetes or Kubrick.
Worthy images all. And how will these young men and women protect the essences of their inspirations when they come of age in the filmmaking landscape of 2028? Will we be in the midst of another renaissance of artistically serious medium-budget films? It’s certainly possible—after all, the conditions of 2013 are as similar to those of 1998 as Judd Apatow is to Erich von Stroheim—but highly unlikely. It is more likely that what we know as cinema will no longer have much of anything to do with the enormously expensive audiovisual entertainments that will be playing at the multiplexes or their future mutations. Few would disagree. So where does that leave the filmmakers of tomorrow?
Francis Ford Coppola predicted that cinema would really and truly become an art form only when the tools for making films had become as cheap and readily available as notebooks and pens. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re close enough. So close that we now have several models for extremely low-to-no-budget filmmaking. And here is a question that remains unanswered: in what spirit will filmmakers recalibrate their inspirations according to their understanding of what is possible (the ability to shoot unlimited footage at any time of day or night, either catch-as-catch-can over long periods or within extremely compressed time frames) and what is difficult-to-impossible (period pieces, the visual consistency of production design, multiple locations)—will they do so with disappointed resignation or with visionary fervor? Will they find a way to think big and ecstatically, and not just small and pragmatically? I respect Ted Hope’s predictions for the future, but I am wary of the image of the young filmmaker-as-self-sufficient-entrepreneur. When the subject of movies arises, we need to stop spending so much time talking about money and more time talking about beauty. How can you inspire a generation with sound business models?—Kent Jones
The Great Migration
In 1984, during the fourth annual conference of the IFP/West (now Film Independent), Mark Rosenberg, then President of Theatrical Production at Warners, envisioned a near-future “media explosion of almost infinite possibilities,” where, he elaborated, communities would have their own cable channels, for which filmmakers would be able to create grassroots films. Studios would also produce for television, he said, but—and here’s the kicker—“it will be more difficult to find studio backing for independent theatrical films, because the theatrical market will need only the kinds of films that audiences can’t get in their own homes.” He then accused the IFP audience of “having a prejudice for theatrical release films that is infantile and counterproductive.”
Exchange “grassroots cable television” for multiple VOD digital platforms and you have a painfully accurate prophecy of today’s landscape of moviemaking. It is becoming next to impossible for established filmmakers to finance mid-level ($30 million to $80 million movies) for theatrical release—witness Steven Soderbergh’s exit from feature filmmaking, or the ever-mounting pressure on directors like Scorsese and Fincher to make what the studios consider audience-friendly pictures, as their hopes of getting their “personal” projects financed fade into the distance. On the low-to-no budget end of the spectrum, as digitally produced movies proliferate (this year Sundance had over 6,000 applications), it is becoming almost impossible for individual filmmakers to distinguish themselves from the VOD pack. Which is why they still crave (pace Rosenberg) theatrical releases.
Enter Ted Hope’s “15 Predictions for the Future of Indie Film,” which arrived as an e-mail alert five minutes after I typed “1984.” Hope’s blog-post manifesto replicates Rosenberg’s key points, down to the vision of filmmakers building communities in places not yet associated with the movie business. What will make it the talk of Sundance is his specific analysis of the state of VOD, with a prophecy that “some unknown filmmaker is going to get rich via direct distribution” by virtue not of stars, but “fresh original storytelling.” (I bet he knows who it is.) He also has a great suggestion for “day and date” distributors: pay a percentage of VOD returns to the theaters that open their movies, since the attention paid to theatrical release benefits VOD. (The New York Times reviews every movie that opens theatrically in New York, but it will never do the same for VOD.) On the other hand, Hope dismisses an age-old survival model that indie filmmakers are now borrowing from the avant-garde—teach full-time and make your films during “vacations.” Cheap tools and the proliferation of information on the Web, not to mention the possibility of studying, via VOD, the movies that made you want to make your own, will eventually make film schools obsolete. Which raises the subject that all the talk of distribution and community ignores: what is it about the movies that impels one to make them?—Amy Taubin
A Piece of the Action
The plot of David O. Russell’s American Hustle revolves around a decades-old FBI sting operation, but watching the small-time scam artists played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams grift their victims a few thousand bucks at a time, it was hard not to think about the similar confidence games today’s most interesting American directors (including Russell) have to play in order to get their movies financed—at least those looking to make movies that require more resources than a digital camera and a few of your closest aspiring-actor friends. Indeed, while Russell has been on a veritable roll, with three non-sequel, non-tentpole movies in four years, most of his generational contemporaries haven’t been nearly so lucky.
And while the gaps between projects grow longer, so too do the lists of credited producers, executive producers, and co-executive producers required to get any “unconventional” project (by Hollywood standards) off the ground. One of the year’s major indie success stories, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, grossed more than $150 million worldwide, but was reportedly so difficult to finance that the late producer Laura Ziskin spent her dying days cold-calling potential investors to secure the $30 million budget. (Final producer tally: 41.) Talking of the $50 million Lone Survivor—another fitting double entendre of a title—where the producer count reached a mere 27, director Peter Berg commented in a recent interview about the constant parade of new investors escorted to the set by the film’s primary money man, Randall Emmett, a former assistant to Mark Wahlberg who has reinvented himself as a producer willing to take chances. (Among his upcoming projects: Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating Silence.)
While such lauded 2013 releases as American Hustle, Her, and The Wolf of Wall Street all bore the imprimatur of major studios, none were actually financed by them, with the money coming from a handful of other enterprising mavericks, including the heroic Megan Ellison, who partly or fully backed American Hustle, Her, and Spring Breakers. The line at her door must be very long, but even a billionaire heiress’s pockets only go so deep.—Scott Foundas