Monday, October 29, 2007

Mainstream independent filmmaking: the end of American cinema?

Traditionally, indepedent movies are a tough sell. That's what makes them independent. As little as 15 years ago, they were shopped by filmmakers at no-name film festivals with the hope of being picked up for even the smallest release. But in the 1990's, when the studio comedies, slasher movies, and R-rated action epics that were so popular in the 80's were beginning to slow down, independent filmmaking was on the rise. While independent filmmaking was huge, independent films weren't. Hundreds of indies a year seemed to slip into oblivion, as the box office market was populated by PG-13 actioners and epic dramas with adult actors. Independent releases certainly had an audience, but it was an audience that didn't seem to grow; one that occupied its own space in the film market as the "artistic alternative" to Hollywood.

But in the past several years, American movies seemed like they were in the midst of a transition, one that would see the rise of the independent film. Each year, more A-list actors are appearing in indie-like films, Oscar season is littered with movies that you rarely see advertised or hyped in mainstream media. International films have also received larger attention on the American market, with digital media offering a seemingly more diverse selection of films to see. With sites like Netflix and GreenCine, the consumer can see films from just about any country, films that, 15 years ago, would never seen an American release in any form. Moreover, on internet media such as blogs, readers can explore a variety of critical perspectives and styles that did not exist a few years ago. Rather than displacing newspaper and magazine criticism, the presence of digital media and a shifting sensibility in criticism and serious film culture in general has actually given journalistic criticism a shot in the arm, with publications like the New York Times, The LA Times, and various other news sources offering a variety of articles. All of these apparent shifts in film culture seem to have facilitated a changing market in film distribution. Suddenly, the "indie" has catapulted into the mainstream.

But hold on a minute. Before we champion this injection of diversity into American film culture and declare these new movements successful, let us look at more recent box office winners. Over the weekend, Saw IV dominated the box office, grossing more than $30 million. In three days, Saw IV has achieved what The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Darjeeling Limited, In the Valley of Elah, Gone Baby Gone, and Into the Wild have combined, with some of the above-mentioned films having been released back in September.

Perhaps all is not well in Indiewood. In last week's LA Times, Rachel Abromowitz writes that the low box office revenue generated by the more mainstream indie movies like Jesses James and Into the Wild is troubling for studio executives, who may now think twice before funding smaller projects, even if they star Brad Pitt or Owen Wilson. She writes:

"Hear the screaming? That's the cri de coeur coming out of Indiewood this fall as multiple films emerge to good critical reviews only to find scant audiences waiting for them.

After years of scooping up awards and having micro-budgeted films go on to mainstream success, the specialty divisions en masse are having a down cycle. So far, 2007 has not borne any breakouts like 'Little Miss Sunshine,' 'Brokeback Mountain' or 'The Queen.'

'We're all suffering. It's the entire business,' says Focus Features Chief Executive James Schamus. 'At least someone should be succeeding. It's as bad a fall as I've ever seen.'

Why haven't more people shown up to see 'A Mighty Heart,' 'In the Valley of Elah' or even the comedy 'Lars and the Real Girl'? Some films -- like Richard Gere's 'The Hunting Party,' Kenneth Branagh's 'Sleuth' or the Mark Ruffalo-Joaquin Phoenix film 'Reservation Road' -- haven't made even $1 million. And a crew of classy star vehicles from studios -- essentially art films with bigger budgets -- has been flailing at the box office. Despite George Clooney's tub-thumping, 'Michael Clayton' has earned only $21 million. Cate Blanchett's 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' has taken in $11 million, and the Brad Pitt western 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' has earned only $2 million, according to"

One of the more revealing aspects of the article is the concern by most studio executives who fear that they are overpopulating the market too many good films. Nevertheless, the most depressing bit about all of this is that many of these films received substantial marketing campaigns and have still massively underperformed. Meanwhile, assembly-line confections such as Saw IV, The Game Plan, and 30 Days of Night, easily dominate the box office, even during a time of year when prestige releases often flood the market. All it takes is a comedy or horror film aimed at children and teenagers to create a box office winner. Many of these films can barely be considered movies, in the opinion of some, and yet they effortlessly stride to box office glory while studios are seeing their marketing campaigns for their smallers films go to waste. Some pundits fear that studios may lose the incentive fronting serious filmmaking in their smaller divisions and opt instead to produce more audience-friendly "films."

Some attribute this to the apparent transition, citing that the mere presence of a wider variety of films is encouraging enough. Indeed, indie filmmaking is becoming more mainstream, but not in the sense that we'd expect. In fact, "indie" is a term abused so commonly that its meaning seems to have faded away. Maybe, the transition we speak of so positively isn't very positive at all. Instead of Hollywood cinema becoming more daring, daring indepedent cinema is becoming more safe. And what concerns me most is that films that are successful tend not to be very good; Some of them are, but by and large, the Little Miss Sunshine's out there are just as mainstream as anything else. That people would consider them "independent" or a great stride in indepedent cinema is appalling. Meanhile, movies that are challenging and provocative go unrecognized, except for those who really care about good cinema. Unfortunately, when it comes to box office, those people (serious film lovers, mostly adults) don't matter. No amount of strengthened presence in awards season or at the multiplex seems to change the outcome. The simple fact is that movies with "hip, young stars" (translation: terrible movies) will continue to rule the box office and better movies are not just "smaller," but increasingly insignificant to the demographic who control the box office. That's not to say that "smaller" American cinema is becoming as superficial as the rest of it. Just because something is "indie in spirit" or expeirmental, does not make it better cinema by definition. In fact, these distinctions may partly explain why this problem continues to thrive at all.

I realize that these (mostly unsupported) claims are rather weighty. While I do not advocate such distinctions of indie or blockbusters, they are very real terms that influence how many film viewers perceive and interpret film advertisements and the films themselves. And in that sense, indie and mainstream filmmaking are undoubtedly coming together, and maybe not for the better. But I'm not about to declare the "death of cinema", as most sensationalist pundits are so inclined. I have had the wonderful opportunity to see a number of great movies that have come out over the years, and I am confident that I will see many, many more. The truth is that good filmmaking is alive and well today, no matter what the production cost. And I have no doubt that great cinema will continue to be made so long that there are artists, writers, and viewers who love the form. The difficulty is in accepting that much of the art and criticism that really is great and progressive will not ever be relevant to an ever-growing audience that simply doesn't care.


Ed Howard said...

I don't know, it's not really news to me that the great mass of people simply DO NOT CARE about art, in any form. It's not especially surprising that the true quality films out there don't make the massive amounts of money that the Saw franchise pulls in in a weekend. It's sad, but totally unsurprising, and despite slight fluctuations and periods of slightly greater prominence for "art films," it has pretty much always been this way. To the extent that the film industry as a whole cares at all about more artistic works, it's only in terms of dollars. There's been a brief flurry of speculation lately due to the belief that an independent film can make big money on small budgets (hello, Blair Witch Project), but it's not like the big studios are releasing smaller stuff alongside the blockbusters because they think it's good.

Ted Pigeon said...

I see your point, Ed. Perhaps I am making a mound out of a mole hill. But that realization for me is especially difficult given that many have championed the new directions in American cinema. What I see are the same trends repeating themselves, but in a far more intricate manner.

My main concern stems from what seems to be an increasingly advocated notion that things are "getting better" for American cinema. I have real trouble accepting this.

I guess what I was trying to articulate was an inquiry into the implications of currents filmmaking (and viewing) trends that seem to think that this supposed shift, i.e., Hollywood and Indiewood coming together, is going to be a good thing.

Were I to pursue this further, I think I would want to explore the contemporary aesthetics of American cinema. David Bordwell is our premiere scholar on this subject, but I think there is definitely room for analysys when it comes to filmmakers' and audiences' ideas of what constitutes good cinema and how such broad terms like "Hollywood cinema" and "independent cinema" influence and (to a large extent) shape our knowledge of contemporary aesthetics.

Ed Howard said...

I think we're in agreement that the much-hyped infusion of "indie" aesthetics into Hollywood is not necessarily all it's cracked up to be. Ultimately, I'm guessing all Hollywood could manage these days is some more Little Miss Sunshines, which was a fine comedy and a pretty good movie, but totally unable to sustain the tremendous weight of expectations placed on it. It's kind of sad that a film like that -- a smart, lightweight, quirky comedy of the kind Hollywood was once so good at -- is so rare nowadays that it's hyped like it's the Second Coming of cinema.

As I see it, the real problem with the movies these days, if there is one, is not the lack of strong indies -- independent artist making intelligent films are thankfully not in short supply -- but the decline in intelligence and depth in Hollywood itself. Where are the Hitchcocks or Anthony Manns or Fords or Hawks of today? The strong artists making well-constructed and smart entertainments seem to be in short supply (all exceptions duly noted), and the result is that the film market is divided between total crass commercialism on one end and niche art films on the other. The reason something like Little Miss Sunshine made such a splash is because it sat in the much neglected middle ground.

My own personal theory, developed with admittedly no real evidence, is that audiences en masse don't really want EITHER the crass commercialism or the arty films. I'd like to think that a modern Hitch, making great thrillers with some depth and intelligence behind them, would draw some audiences away from the total pablum like Saw. After all, audiences flocked to this stuff (mostly) back in the day; have we really become so much less sophisticated that we deserve the entertainment we get today?