Sometimes you have to make a bold, declarative statement to get some attention, so here it is: Film is dead. The narrative form, a story told in a 90-120 minute filmed drama, utilizing photography, acting, pace, editing, production design, score and audio design, is finished.
Now, keep in mind, I love movies. My family, going back to my maternal grandmother, followed the business with rapt attention and curiosity. We know the stars going back 100 years and I know entirely too much about the people who built the American industry. This is a form I love so much, I had to eventually walk away from any aspiration to be directly involved in it to preserve that love. The business would have choked my passion away, just as it is now placing a pillow above the withered centenarian body of its own possible longevity.
Now, my opponent in this debate is not any one person or any one studio. It’s not favorite targets like Michael Bay or a random executive at 20th Century Fox. It’s a river of time, opinion and money as unchallengeable by a single person as the Colorado River. No one is to blame, but at the same time, we are all guilty of killing film. The chief executive at any production company will tell you we vote with dollars, but that voting is based on the market research that tells them where on the craps table to place their production budgets, but that research is in turn based on the faulty perception that the audience is dumb, sniveling and only interested in the robots that blowed up shit darn good.
No, sorry, I’m not blaming Michael Bay for this. He’s just a symptom of the rot moviegoers and movie makers let sit and fester.
So what did we let happen? We let the blockbuster become the only viable mode of production and distribution. A film must cost $100 million dollars or more to be taken seriously. It must be distributed to thousands of theaters and it must make a splashy opening weekend gross, otherwise the marketing budget dries up. Lost is the mid-budget, mid-level picture that could be marketed effectively and tell a more modest tale.
In the quest to expand the reach and profits for these mega-productions, the studios had to tailor the films to reach international markets like China and Russia to find real financial success. Consider the example of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film still trying to eke out a $200 million gross in the U.S., but easily cleared the $500 million mark worldwide in the same amount of time. That is key. It means the Hollywood studios just aren’t making movies for us anymore. They need to make these gigantic cartoons with little dialogue or identifiable characters. And this is despite the product’s intent as an export of American values to foreign lands.
And that’s probably the most identifiable problem: there are no more American movies. Between the major product made for overseas markets and the lack of independent channels not owned by the same corporations making the blockbusters, the voice of American cinema is stifled. If someone was making interesting movies, how would we ever see them? Asking around, many of my friends already feel they’re not seeing anything vital or interesting coming from film and I agree.
But there is hope. If one thing is abundantly clear in the harsh reality of the gravitational universe, death gives way to something else. The conversation never ends.
Television and the Internet offer openings for a broader range of stories, from a family man who becomes a drug dealer to a group of damaged people becoming a family via a parks and recreation department. But consider that those shows are long form. They are revealed over the course of many, many hours. Can these outlets offer a truly satisfying cinema experience? I suppose the good news is that we’ll always have quality drama at our fingertips, but it seems to have cost us the 90-minute-to-two-hour filmed story.
I suppose we’ll find out when those foreign markets begin making their own blockbusters and side-step American product entirely. At that point, the Hollywood studios will have to rediscover us or be buried entirely as their corporate owners find money is easier to make elsewhere.
That will be a sad day indeed.