Ten Really Good Things in Film Biz 2014
Ted Hope is an influential figure in the film community who has served as inspiration and mentor to countless filmmakers. In 1990, Hope co-founded production and sales powerhouse Good Machine with writer/producer James Schamus and the company went on to produce such acclaimed and award winning films as American Splendor, The Ice Storm, In the Bedroom, and Happiness. He is currently the CEO of Fandor.
Some rituals help keep us focused throughout the year. This article marks the fourth time I have looked back at all the good things that occurred in the film biz and listed them for all of us—but the first time I am posting it in FILM COMMENT. Tracking them throughout the year keeps me from abandoning hope for film art, culture, and business. Sometimes they may just be the silver lining in the storm cloud, but nonetheless they keep me going and keep me convinced that we truly are building it better together. I hope these good things do something close to that for you. It’s been a good year, and I have many morsels to tempt you with. And of course the year’s not over yet, so perhaps you will have some things to add too. Try on these initial 10 for size!
1. We Finally Have the Capacity to Consider a Total Systems Rebuild for a Better Film Ecosystem.
Producing has always been about managing complexity. Until recently, the question of how to build a better world for film was just too immense even to study. There are so many stakeholders, so many interconnected processes. It is not getting smaller or less challenging, but we are growing more connected and have more or less documented many aspects of what a better future might look like. We can now consider the whole fully and work to build it better. Now the only question is “Will we?”, but we do know that if we do, it will be a joint activity, a community endeavor. We may never really get it right. But we can get it down; the facts are there. I have written over 125 steps myself—all of which I think are achievable. It is a process that needs an organization to manage it, though. Maybe one will step up. I am ready to get this party started.
2. Audiences Are Rebelling Against the Repetitive Menu Hollywood Has Been Serving.
At the end of the summer, The New York Times proclaimed: “American moviegoers sent a clear message to Hollywood over the summer: We are tired of more of the same.” Hopefully the telex was read full stop, and going forward, we will return to an era of diverse offerings, including many more films for adults. Okay, this is the optimistic spin on a declining box office, but people can dream, can’t they? After all, the two top films (The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy) both poke fun at our comic-book movie culture (even if they also revel in it) indicating the audiences see it ripe for ridicule. And of course if this is the case, audience will have no short supply of what to rebel against as Disney has 11 forthcoming installments of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), Warners has nine of its superhero world, Fox and Sony have plenty in Spidey and X-Men on the way, and Universal is unlocking its own Monster Universe. Woo-hoo. I just can’t wait.
3. It Is a Fantastic Time to Be a Storyteller.
The barriers to entry have dropped. The tools keep getting better and better. Funding is coming from more places than ever before. Opportunities abound. Freedom to experiment expands. We can take control of more parts of the process than ever before. To me it feels like we are on the hockey-stick part of the curve. We are skyrocketing toward a new future. Now if we can only find a better business model… but wait, what’s that?
4. A Better Business Model for Content Generation and Distribution Has Been Proven and Is Now Being Replicated Widely.
“Would Netflix become HBO or would HBO become Netflix?” was the question of last year. Now we see the answer is that they each take on the other’s best attributes. In one week or so, Netflix jumped heavily into the feature-film production business and HBO cut the cord. Meanwhile, a slew of others climbed on the SVOD bandwagon (HBO, CBS, Tribeca/Lionsgate, Univision, RLJ, even YouTube), even as some recognize that it ain’t so easy to build a subscriber base (Redbox Instant by Verizon). Vimeo, Starz, Sony, Showtime, and DirectTV are sure to soon follow. SVOD & OTT are now recognized as great business models. As I have said before, an aggregated audience—united by taste, engaged by context, demonstrating their preferences and desire, and incentivizing discovery—offers both predictable returns and forecastable results. And as HBO recognizes, nothing beats a digitally native relationship when it comes to data. It’s time to cut the cord and build a direct relationship with the fans. Not only is subscription a recurring predictable revenue stream, but a digital native experience also creates better data about what people want, when, and where. And the public wins big as they are no longer forced into absurdly priced cable bundles. Some may argue this is not in fact a new model but how content creators and their benefactors have always had to evolve, for after all it is still those that fund the creators that benefit most…
5. 2014 Started Off by Showing That Things Haven’t Really Gotten Any Worse Than the Year Before.
Grab your victories where you can, right? Level is better than downward. When it was announced that Home Entertainment sales did not go down in 2013, it felt like a reason to pop the bubbly. In fact, digital and electronic sell-through improved significantly in 2013. Electronic sales jumped nearly 39 percent to $1.3 billion in 2013 and for the first time eclipsed the $1 billion mark. Total digital spending, including rental, SVOD such as Fandor and VOD, climbed 24.8 percent to $6.5 billion. Woo-hoo!
6. Hollywood Has Fully Abandoned Movies for Adults.
If it wasn’t for Megan Ellison and Fox Searchlight, there would be next to no intelligent films coming out of Tinseltown (see point #2 above). The reason we can rejoice at this is that it’s fertile ground to build an alternative enterprise on. The competition has gone away. They have abandoned the space. What better time to launch a new brand known for producing ambitious and diverse work. Good Machine Two anyone? You know someone is going to do it.
7. Studies Have Shown That Watching Movies and Talking About the Issues Raised Within Them Can Prevent Divorce and Separation.
I have long felt that movies can change the world; it’s nice to see they can at least save relationships. This past February The New York Times reported on the study that reinforced the idea. If you want to try yourself, the tools are here.
8. More and More Companies Are Funding “Content.”
Every day it seems another player announces funding for serialized programming—too bad it just ain’t the same for movies. That said, this means work for those who produce stories for a living, so it is a big reason to cheer. This year we saw Microsoft and Yahoo join their fellow tech partners over at Amazon and Netflix (and then, of course, Microsoft pulled back out just as fast). And Crackle’s in the game, too. AOL is playing with long-form, just not scripted yet. Only Google seems able to resist the call. The former print-media powerhouses like Condé Nast and The New York Times are all running a ton of “shows” too. Who will be next? Will any of it be any good? Will these companies all later regret this choice? At least there’s some work available…
9. The Effort to Build a Sustainable Investor Class for Independent Film Has Begun.
Make no mistake, this is the best sort of disruptive initiative there could be. Hollywood has only been in the business of dumb money previously, and did all they could to spend it as fast as possible on their preferred clients, eating it up, and spitting it out. Sundance is now building the fourth leg of the indie-film table—and with that firm support, many new enterprises may appear. Sundance is in its second year of Catalyst (which I heralded last year along with some other startups), which is essentially an investor training camp, committed to determining best practices for investors committed to ambitious and diverse film. This year, though, I could witness Catalyst firsthand. I cannot think of a better initiative for a film support organization to be involved in, and there’s plenty of room on the field for others still to play. If our industry banished “dumb money” and instead looked to keep capital at play longer and in more ways, we may actually be able to build a film ecosystem predicated on today’s realities, needs, and nuances.
10. A New Storytelling Medium Is Here and It Could Alter Everything.
As Carina Chocano observed so well in California Sunday Magazine, Virtual Reality and Oculus Rift collapse both time and space, inserting us into the narrative. Instead of suspending our disbelief, in entering the immersive virtual reality world, we have to remind ourselves not to believe. Of course, not everyone is so bullish that VR can ever be cinematic. And it has been a very long time since we were initially promised this particular jetpack, but it may have finally arrived (granted I have not been offered the opportunity to try it yet—hint, hint).
In the days ahead, I will continue building out this list, 10 virtues at a time, first on Keyframe and then with the complete list on HopeForFilm. We have a lot to be thankful and hopeful about. We are figuring it out, and it is getting better and better.