By Nathan Smith
Editor’s Note: I usually put a lot of pictures in my articles in an effort to break up a lot of the heavy text, but I decided that there weren’t many pictures that fit well with this post, so I decided to just let the words stand on their own. So there.
So Steven Spielberg and George Lucas just went and predicted the impending “implosion” of the American film studio system. Now not that I wouldn’t mind the extremely quick and graphic demise of a few major studios, but if you’ve been reading this blog for long enough you’ll know that when people say stuff like this, it usually gets me all pissy, for a couple reasons.
The first of reason is pretty obvious, but it’s one that doesn’t actually get talked about very much: people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Let me use a comparison. In rap, authenticity is very important. When Jay-Z was just a young sprite, he still had a pretty good connection to the streets he grew up on, so his music told the story of his background and upbringing in a way that people found relatable. But now that Jay-Z is a mogul, he can’t make music that is authentic. He has risen too high to go back to his roots, to really flow with the current. And so it goes with all artists. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have been at the top of the pack in their field for many years, and while both have caused tremendous innovations in entertainment in technology, they aren’t as in touch as they once were. They are still obviously movers and shakers in the industry, but their opinions are inhibited by the fact that they spend most of their time in an ivory tower, or in Lucas’ case, on a ranch.
But the thing that really gets under my skin about this kind of doomsday talk is how simply all these problems could be solved. I recognize that a complete transformation of the entire American film industry would be a massive undertaking, but the ideas behind it aren’t too complex. In the talk the two gave at USC, Lucas predicted that “You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing. … (The movies) will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the ‘movie’ business.” He also added that personal or quote-unquote “quirky” (ugh, that word) projects would make their way to the Internet and video-on-demand services, or what he deems “Internet television.” Since Lucas and Spielberg are pretty much the two figures most responsible for the current state of the studio system, they might actually want things to head in this direction. But I have to ask, is this a prediction that everyone is just readily accepting? Have we truly given up and resigned ourselves to this vision of the future? Is anyone willing to put forth an alternate theory? Does anybody care?
It’s quiet. The audience begins to rustle like palm leaves floating in a dangerous breeze on Hollywood Boulevard. Each man and woman and PalmPilot-toting child takes a look around the room, not wanting to make eye contact with one another but also each desperate for someone to give an answer in these solution-starved times. The anticipation rises. The moderator, 2013 Nathan Smith, lets out a heavy sigh. He’s giving up. He doesn’t know what to do. Finally, a sound breaks out in the back of the crowd and the spotlight moves to the doors, which burst open, revealing a sweaty messenger from an alternate future. It’s Nathan Smith from the year 2023, just having finished his 52nd TED Talk and hoping to bring a bit of enlightenment to an earlier and emptier incarnation of the planet Earth. The centurions of crap cinema, Michael Bay and Zac Snyder and Tom Hooper and the like, raise their smut-stained spears at him, but the holy light emanating from the wireless headset he stole from Bobby Brown on the set of the music video for “My Prerogative” burns out their eyeballs, rendering them blind, like the Stevie Wonders of cinema but with worse keytar skills. He makes a bold dash at the stage, stealing the spotlight from 2013 Nathan Smith and crying out “YES! I HAVE AN ANSWER!”
The audience looks at him with utter and adoring captivation, as if he had more charisma than the KISS song “Charisma,” off of their 1979 album Dynasty.
“But, but-” stutters 2013 Nathan, at an incredibly unusual loss for words.
“If you’re wondering how I got to the past, it was through a portal that opened up in the space-time continuum thanks to a cursed cassette copy of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Back in Time” that I popped into my-” Instantly, a thousand hungry screenwriters take out their tape recorders with the same feverish intensity that every white person ever has when taking out a lighter at a Dave Matthews concert and reminds themselves to steal this idea. “-radio.”
“But wait,” pipes up a kid somewhere near the front, “I thought that ‘Back in Time’ was a song by Pitbull from the soundtrack to the original motion picture Men in Black 3, directed by Barry Sonnenfield and starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones?”
2023 Nathan, as cool, calm, and self-controlled as he is, dismisses the comment and moves on. “Yes, I have a few solutions to the problems that have been brought up by Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas. And I’ve come to dispense them to you through a semi-fictional, author-guided narrative in a manner similar to that of Galileo and Dante, albeit with more pleasing font choices”
And so, ladies and gentlemen, it begins.
“Instead of spending 250 million dollars on, let’s say, the budget of the aforementioned Men in Black 3, we spend 10 million dollars on 25 films from a handful of talented directors comfortable working with lower budgets. Names like Benh Zietlin, Shane Carruth, and the Duplass Brothers, come to my mind. This system would require us to spend much less on each individual film, and since we would be getting many more films for the price of one, there would be a greater chance that each individual movie could make back its budget, especially since the budget would be much lower overall. We also need to go back to the old system, where films don’t open in every theater at once and instead slowly make their way across the country. That way word-of-mouth builds for films like 2012’s Wanderlust, which got fairly good reviews but did poorly in its first week and was immediately dumped. We then could show these movies for longer periods of time in movie theaters and reduce ticket prices. That way the theater, the distributor, and the studios all have time to make back their money. Since theaters would have twenty-five films to pick from instead of one, they could also play around with the possibility of rotating their weekly line-up, which would cause audiences to be more active and less apathetic about what they see. And since films would be playing theaters for longer overall, they wouldn’t have to charge outrageous fees for concessions. Since budgets are so high these days, almost all the money a film makes in its first few weeks goes to the studio, so theaters have to charge ridiculous concession prices to earn a profit. This whole system could lead to a variety of positive benefits: the potential of greater profits and less risk, greater audience engagement, and a more active and knowledgeable movie-going audience.”
“But wouldn’t all those movies flood the market?” inquires one curious and storm-conscious gentlemen.
“That’s a good point. A single studio can inject well over a billion dollars into blockbuster-size films in just one year, so we’re talking about a lot of ten-million dollar films. But one thing this system allows that the current one doesn’t is greater flexibility. Making and producing movies now is a huge risk, both critically and commercially. Your movie has to make enormous profit to be a success, and if you’ve got John Carter on your hands, you’re basically screwed. But in this new system, you could very easily make back the money spent on one movie. Additionally you wouldn’t even have to use all of that billion dollars to make movies with. You could set aside $250 million to make 25 movies with, and then take the other $750 million to buy the distribution rights to foreign and independent films, or to invest in film schools, or even to put into film preservation through organizations like Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the National Archives.
Hollywood is infamous for not caring about its history. But if we want people to take this art form seriously again, we need to start taking it seriously ourselves, and that means caring about our past. We have a legacy to take care of and preserve. Imagine what good we could do if we got together to restore more old films, or discover lost ones, or develop new technologies. Imagine what could come out of this nation’s film industry if all the studios got together and put money into the American Film Institute and brought it to the level of its British counterpart. One thing the British government has that we don’t is financial support from the government, but if we raised the funds ourselves, we wouldn’t have to worry about government aid. We have the money. We have the technology.
Furthermore, we need to start a campaign to bring people back to the theaters. In their comments, Spielberg and Lucas look fondly on this future of self-distribution and video-on-demand, and while both have done wonders for cinephilia and independent film, there is a harsh danger: the isolation of the viewer. We risk losing the powerful group experience provided by the cinema when we stay at home to watch movies by ourselves, and I say this as an expert on the subject. In 2012, I watched 222 movies, most of which I saw on my own, so I know firsthand that there is little else more powerful than the experience we share with strangers at the cinema. Yes, it is easy to have unsatisfying experiences at the movies. But often I think that is because what is available at the movies is unsatisfying itself. Last week I watched E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and while I had seen the film many times before, it was one of the most intensely moving experiences I have ever had watching a movie. But you know what’s the one thing that would have made it better? If there had been others there who knew how I felt.
So much of the apathy and lack of emotion we feel toward our fellow man could be repaired if we started going to the cinema with him. And to make this happen, we need to not only repair what we see when we go to the movies, but repair where we go when go to the movies. So many theaters now are discouraging to the patron, filled with obnoxious colors, loud commercials, and an overall sense of stress. The theater needs to become more than a theater, it needs to become a community center, a place where one can to find refuge, truth, and fellow human beings. We need to create places with a pleasing atmosphere that causes people to care about the cinema. Front lobbies could become coffee shops where eager viewers grow deeper connections with one another by discussing the film they have just seen. A separate wing of the lobby could become a store containing videos and books about film, a place where we can further ignite artistic passions.
And theaters could show an even more interesting selection of films than they do now. As mentioned earlier, the greater number of releases would allow them to pick and choose what they show, sort-of how like cable providers can pick and choose between channels, but theaters could also use start-up services like Tugg and Gathr to allow audiences to directly choose what is available at the cinema from one week to the next. That way, it truly does become a community center, not just a corporate enterprise. In addition, it would also allow for the studio to benefit through screenings of its repertory films, making home video less essential to the eager viewer. Each theater could become unique and individual. Screenings should be special events, with short films or cartoons before and discussions or musical performances afterward. In the manner of my friends at Mise-En-Scenesters down in Chattanooga, we could create a theater people are actually invested in and care about. We can create a theater people actually want to go to, instead of creating a self-defeating drive for profits that only seeks to discourage audiences and send them retreating toward their homes. And I believe this can all be done in a way that is profitable.”
A shout comes from the stirring audience. “But what about home video?”
“That’s another difficult question. When I was a kid and there was a much longer period of time between the release of a film in theaters and its release on home video, both were an event. But now we’re so eager to shove things in front of people’s eyes that they aren’t truly interested in what they are watching. It just shows up, unannounced, uncalled for, unanticipated. I think we should slow the release of films to home video and try to bring people back to the movies themselves. Video-on-demand and Lucas’ so-called ‘internet television’ is still perfect for independent film. But by this I don’t mean “indie” independent film, or distributed by Disney by way of Harvey Weinstein independent, I mean real, honest-to-god, I-took-out-a-second-mortage-on-my-home-and-just-bought-this-camera-from-Best-Buy-which-I-will-promptly-return-in-thirty-days independent. But hopefully in the future these types of films would find backing and funding from studios more easily. Also in this scenario, I honestly don’t know what would happen with movie piracy. It might increase, but it could possibly decrease. I am truthfully not sure. But like I said, if we allowed for more repertory screenings, the viewer would be drawn less to home video and piracy might even be discouraged.
I have a few final thoughts to wrap this up with. If the cinema wants to survive through the next century, we have to stop looking at ourselves as an industry and start looking at ourselves as a community. To paraphrase Steven Soderbergh, you may know how to drive a car, but you wouldn’t sit down and tell an engineer to build one. We need to start promoting and teaching film history, sharing the joy we ourselves felt at the cinema to a new generation accustomed to slightly smaller screens. We have to remember the children. If we don’t do something soon, they will never know what we know. They will never feel what we have felt. Film is powerful. It can reach our souls and communicate truths in ways no other medium can, so it’s time we stopped recklessly wielding its power like a kid who has broken into his father’s gun cabinet. We don’t deal in plastic or some cheap product. We deal in dreams. And dreams are precious and have to be cared for. I don’t know about you, but my dream is that we can keep showing people their dreams, that we can keep moving souls, that we can keep transforming lives. But if we want to do that, things can’t keep going on their present course. We have to change. Everything has to change. I believe in the future of film. Do you?”