Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hollywood Is Killing Its Future

The era of film going is going through a major transformation, attendance is down and no matter how much studios keep price fixing their way into having ‘the biggest weekend ever’ or month or weekend or whatever people aren’t going to movies in record numbers anymore. Since the Blockbuster era began partially in the 70’s with Jaws and Star Wars and cemented in the 80’s with the Bruckheimer brand (Top Gun) the end was on the horizon. The modern golden era of filmmaking was in the seventies with highly individualistic character driven stories made by skilled craftspeople and starring some of the most uniquely talented actors. These are the movies that inspired.

It was uncanny how many normal yet compelling and interesting looking actors made up the DNA of that decade: Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Elliot Gould to name a few. The seventies is a gift that keeps on giving, the writers and directors were all unique. As a teenager in the 80’s and 90’s, I methodically hunted down all of these films. Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Chinatown, Easy Rider (1969), The Godfather, Joe, The Last Detail, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy (1969), Network, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Scarecrow, Straight Time, A Woman Under The Influence… the list could go on and on with the excellent foreign films of that decade as well.

It was dubbed New Hollywood and these inspiring figures spawned a new generation of filmmakers, actors, writers who aspired to make films. Some flocked to Schools and others immersed themselves in the act of just watching the movies which in my opinion is the way to learn.

Now, who would be inspired in 2011 by the current flock of releases? As noted in a few recent excellent articles (in GQ, LA Weekly and The Playlist) there is not a lot of original mainstream content, with over 30 sequels and remakes and a whole lot of films that are just plain derivative. One wonders when people will stop going to see this crap. Older people have more respect for film going as a ritual but what of the younger crowd? Hollywood make movies mostly for 13 year old boys but with a generation far more interested in smartphones, social networking and downloading content as opposed to a theatrical experience – who is Hollywood making these movies for?

What was the audience for a remake of Arthur? Who is clamoring to see Clash of the Titans 2, a sequel to an awful remake? How many young actors will be inspired by performances by Russell Brand or Sam Worthington? By constantly opting to do sequels remakes, reboots, adaptations, based on: a TV show, video game, amusement park ride, action figure, board game etc. Hollywood is cutting off it’s own future by creating a massive deficit of new classics.

And this is not to say there aren’t talented people around but the fact is the Independent studios (Miramax, New Line) were bought up a long time ago. And for the smaller budgeted films the source of financing dried up in recent years after the financial collapse of 2008, DVD sales slimming, the decline of video stores and many cable TV networks pulling the plug on co-financing productions. For micro budgets there is hope in the form of fundraising sites like kickstarter, but that has yet to produce a film like Easy Rider that is not only great but has the power to be a crossover hit. Is that even possible now?

In the 80’s there was a continuation of a 70’s vibe in the work that permeated the underground with a few notable breakouts. In the late 80’s there was the beginning of the next movement with Sex, Lies and Videotape the new Indie boom was born. For my money the revelatory film that summer was Drugstore Cowboy, which was a gritty road movie. Based on a true story of addicts who robbed drugstores in the 70’s it was entertaining despite it’s bleak subject matter and it had a marquee name, Matt Dillon who gave an excellent performance.

Now many actors take parts in Superhero films like The Hulk, which has been played by great actors, Eric Bana (Chopper), Edward Norton (American History X) and now Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me). Ruffalo even recently joked that playing the Hulk was like a modern Hamlet for actors today. Needless to say, I doubt the latest incarnation will be any less dull or silly than the past 2 films.

There was a point in time when Superhero films were fewer and some were actually well produced. 1978’s Superman is an excellent example because it had a good script, actors and director and I think it would be a great film even without the hero aspect. Visual effects should enhance a story, not replace it. CGI can be amazing and there are some incredible things they can do visually in modern movies but too much of a good thing can be overkill. Digital Intermediate is another tool that is overused, to tweak the color palate enriches some films but making many look the same and what was once a great advancement become stale and boring to look at.

There is nothing more uninteresting in modern movies than 3D, a flawed old technology that has been proven to be unhealthy for your eyes. Who wants a headache with their movie? The process actually tricks your eyes by constantly electronically flickering kind of like staring into a strobe light for over 2 hours. The most compelling elements of a good film are missing from “The 3D Experience” things like plot, characterization, scope, color, reality.

A terrible byproduct of all the 3D, CG, Superhero, Blockbusters is the absence of drama from American theaters. Once a staple of adult movie going, drama has become scarce. Especially if you don’t live in NY or LA, a drama film (usually an Indie) is nonexistent at the local multiplex. These used to be some of the most prestigious films and many were high grossing films that grew by word of mouth. There is little to offer the over 35 crowd who have fond memories of the days when they had more choices at the box office. There is so much going on in the world today and a lot has changed socially, technologically and especially economically. Our culture should reflect these rampant changes instead we get a perpetual 80’s remix that never went away, from the A Team to the Transformers our culture is stagnant.

3D is not new in fact it comes back every 30 years. The last time around was in the 80’s genre movies like Jaws 3D, Friday the 13th 3D and Amityville 3D. Hollywood was nervous about theater attendance declining due to the burgeoning home video market. Rental fees were only a few dollars and families could watch a film for much less to see feature films. The late Jack Valenti infamously referred to the VCR to the Boston Strangler, this was a ridiculous comment then but now history tells you different, the 80’s and 90’s were the most lucrative decades for the industry with a lot of the revenue coming from the home video market. In it’s inception in the 50’s, 3D came about due to studio heads being freaked out about television. It was a way to entice moviegoers to keep going to theaters along with 3D they also changed the aspect ratio of features from 1.33 to 2.35, which later led to 1.85 and other aspect ratios to look different in scope from television. It was a short lived fad with the only a few genre films and a Hitchcock film (Dial M for Murder) to it’s repertoire. This time around with massive illogical fear of the Internet (illegal downloads, Amazon Instant, Netflix streaming) weighing on their minds, there has been a glut of mediocre films with the 3D name attached.

The most well known 3D film now is James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation). It is this film that has given the 3D craze long legs. The film is a technical marvel, stunning VFX and the best 3D to date sadly saddled with a predictable (well intentioned) story, thinly drawn characters and wooden acting. I initially liked it a lot until the mesmerizing images wore off and once you start deconstructing the movie you wonder what you liked about it in the first place.

Critics are powerless against a 300 million dollar juggernaut released by one of the world largest corporations. Critics were once a deciding factor in people’s movie going choices now delegated to a tomato-meter percentile on Rotten Tomatoes. Newspapers around the country are cutting staff and the film critic or multiple critics are usually the first to go.

One great aspect of the Internet is the individual’s access to a larger stage in the form of user comments and review. The odd part is how uniform this opinion is. A hive mind where a hyped film is released and the fan boys go crazy for it instantaneously. This is how well produced action films like The Dark Knight and Inception reach a hysterical point of praise in their first few days of being released. The few remaining critics often heap praise on as well fearing being labeled out of touch with the mainstream (even though they are still perceived that way anyway).

One notable exception is contrarian Armond White, whose main function seems to be an antidote to the knee jerk praise that spreads like wildfire on the web. When the latest comic con approved fan favorite film is released he usually has a negative review ready and waiting. He strikes a nerve with people, sometimes fans debate the merits of a film in the comments at NY Press but some actually resort to sending him death threats. His critiques are inherently flawed though because of his contrarian nature he usually seeks to ignite tempers and nothing else, many of his points are steeped in his ideology. He is a narrow-minded right wing Christian and he will pan most films that are the antithesis of his agenda no matter what their merits are.

The most unnerving part of his repertoire is his personal attacks. Now while I can agree that Noah Baumbach’s movies suck, White goes beyond that and suggests that Baumbach’s mother should have aborted him. This in my opinion loses him more credibility than anything else.

At least Baumbach’s movies actually make it into movie theaters. Once a kiss of death now it’s just another mark of obscurity having a film dumped on DVD or worse VOD (Video on Demand). Recently a group of prominent producers and directors put out an opposition letter to the studios reducing the theatrical release window, giving way to a VOD subscription service. With video stores almost sadly extinct (I’m glad Blockbuster is going though) people look to Netflix to satisfy their renting needs. The service is great in a lot of ways but the ripple effect from decreased revenues is brutal for Indies. If the majority of people are watching your film for free or from a rental stream your film will not break even. How can films with moderate to low budgets turn a profit? The Netflix streaming library has an unbelievable selection with thousands of titles including many obscure titles like Up Tight (Jules Dassin) The Offence (Sidney Lumet), China Gate (Sam Fuller) and The Big Night (Joseph Losey) – I have a long list of these I will post periodically. Sadly this will probably change (or end) at some point because of mega corporations desperately want to control and/or dismantle it.

There is still no better way to watch a movie than going to a movie theater, though in 2011 this is a different proposition than it was in the past. Many theaters charge between 12 and 15 dollars a seat plus parking and for 3D shows up to 20. In Los Angeles, there are some great theaters in fact some of the best around including Mann’s Chinese Theater, Mann’s Village, The Cinerama Dome, The Vista and my personal favorite The Nuart. Often I’ll want to go to The Arclight or The Landmark because they have assigned seating.

I love the programming at the Laemmle theater chain because they are the most reliable for Indie, art house, foreign, and documentary fare. The Silent Movie Theater as curated by Cinefamily is very reliable as well among other excellent revival houses like The Egyptian, The Aero and The New Beverly (still in business thanks to Quentin Tarantino). These places are in business because of film fans like myself.

The good news is there more ways to see movies than ever before and it is easier to dip into the vaults and watch classics. The hope is that Hollywood will fail the way it did in the 60’s making bloated big budget epic flops that gave way to New Hollywood and reinvented the business. How that will work in the new millennium with decreased revenue streams for non-event films will be interesting to watch or sad if it doesn’t materialize and Hollywood continues to limit it’s future even more.