Punching A Hole In The Dam

As a young man and an aspiring filmmaker, I had always thought that my talent (which has diminished with age) and hard work would naturally lead me to the heady life as a Hollywood based filmmaker. I of course was deluding myself and was more than naive. As I get older I have begun to realize that maybe that is not what I was truly seeking. Life happens, you fall in love, have children …your perspective and priorities change. I like making films, love watching movies, but as I mature (hopefully) I become increasingly repulsed by all that Hollywood has become.

I was a movie child of the eighties, a brilliant decade of cinematic innovation and discovery. It definitely was the salad days of the independent film movement. People still knew and talked about Bunuel, Bergman, Truffaut… brave films like Eraserhead played regularly at neighborhood art houses and the democracy that was VHS gripped the imaginations of young cinephiles. I viewed a steady diet of films like Night of The Comet, The Toxic Avenger, The Breakfast Club,The Evil Dead and Stripes. As a filmmaker there was an accessibility, a sense of the possible and that none of these films were technically inaccessible. To toil in cinematic fields seemed to be noble goal.

That has changed.

The promised democracy that digital technology was to provide did not occur. While 95% of all movie theatres are now equipped with state of the art digital projectors, devices such as virtual print fees have purposefully restricted access for independents to theatre screens. The vertical integration of cable companies who now own most of the movie studios further creates market inaccessibility. While digital technology has enabled more and more people to make films, every year 60% of features produced never see distribution. Maybe at best 5% reach any kind of mass market. One day people will fully realize the damage that the blockbusters of the late seventies and early eighties have done to the cinematic art. The perceived golden boys of this age, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have in reality a lot of answer for in this decline.

If you look back on the golden days of VHS and independent video stores, independent producers had a huge access to markets and almost any title was guaranteed to sell thousands of copies. I know from personal experience that a film that I made for no money sold over 6,000 copies at $49.95 a piece. Of course this title was to be found unceremoniously in Blockbuster dollar bins six month later. The film sold and people saw it.

I have always sought out different models on which to base a film industry. I was aware of the struggles and the roller coaster ride that is the British film Industry. I was aware of the output of the Bollywood/Indian industry with its doubling of any Hollywood output. The growing Nollywood/Nigerian industry is making a name for itself globally. Heck even Rwanda is heralding a cottage film industry, it goes by the catchy moniker, Hillywood. We in America have always been made to think that Hollywood produced movies, is the end all and be all of American film. Of course Jack Valenti and others want you to think that, but it’s not based on fact. People like Oscar Micheaux, Earl Owensby, William Girdler, Lloyd Kaufman all developed their own unique film industry. They develop ed distinct “cottage industries”.

In reality feature film making outside of the Hollywood juggernaut is a “cottage industry”. Filmmakers who work this way (because they truly love film) are in a constant struggle to make ends meet making generally low budget far removed from the real heart of the global film industry based in Hollywood. Over the years there have been various attempts to break out of this mindset but it has been proven to be near impossible. The vortex that is Hollywood insists that it be the center of the English Speaking Cinematic World. This narcissism and myopia has often been Hollywood’s undoing.
Hollywood is no longer capable or equipped to deal with smaller films. They are only truly interested in blockbusters. What is happening is that the weight of these gargantuan tent pole movies has drastically changed the culture and perspective of Hollywood. Hollywood has ceased to be able handle the smaller or mid range film. They do not comprehend the marketing or production of any film less than $40 million dollars. In fact they purposefully shy away from these films because they cannot attach a studio overhead fee or a development fee that they feel will be worth their while. The agencies which now package movies are driven to push for higher budgets since their income is based on a percentage. Movies that I reveled and now celebrate can no longer be made under the present Hollywood structure. It is a sad state of affairs.

There is hope though.

A television show produced in Norway was acquired by Netflix. In February of 2012 Netflix unleashed Lilyhammer and with it’s release forever change both the world of television and movies. Few realized it marked brand new era of filmed entertainment . It was the first time that Netflix offered exclusive content. The experiment worked, paving the way for hugely acclaimed shows like Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards and the long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development.
Netflix changed the content world and with the acquisition of a Norwegian produced television television began the erosion that Hollywood has long feared. For years large theatre chains feared the implementation of the terms day and date, releasing films on video on demand and theatrical the same day. Netflix in its innovation with Lillyhammer broke down market barriers, re-introduced the concept of an entertainment event and obliterated time shifting, re-runs and re-tooled the film economy. Google and Amazon are on a similar track.
What is key here is that cable TV is essentially a linear medium. New forms of digital distribution are by their nature non-linear and work best when presented in an Ala carte format. The studios, for the most part are owned by companies who have relied on linear programming. Time Warner, owns Warner Brothers , Comcast owns Universal, Viacom owns Paramount. The remainder, Disney, Fox and Sony have deep ties in to either linear programming streams or soon to be redundant consumer electronics.

The fact of the matter is that Hollywood has been eroding rapidly since 1997. Today, Disney is the only member of the Big Six whose parent entity is still located near Los Angeles (actually, on Disney’s studio lot). The five others report to conglomerates headquartered in New York City, Philadelphia, and Tokyo. Of the Big Six, Paramount is the only one still based in Hollywood but has rapidly reduced its production output. Hollywood in many ways has ceased to exist. Only 8% of major studio output was even filmed in the vicinity of the Hollywood sign.

The system is about to fall.

Within this erosion lies opportunity. With new HD enabled televisions coupled with internet enabled non-linear content providers like Netflix, we are going to be able to slowly transcend the barriers to market that have prevented access. With technologies like Roku and enabled distribution platforms we are going to find ourselves back to a time when producer/showmen could develop a credible market niche for themselves. My contention is that the 36,000 movies screens now dedicated to the theatrical exhibition of motion pictures will soon be redundant replaced by 50 million screens enabled by 5.1 sound and images which often surpass those offered in theatres. There is about to be a renaissance of viewership which will be diversified and will shack of the programming choices mandated by cable companies and linear networks. The smaller movies will become increasingly important as the appetite of an increasingly diverse audience makes itself known.

It is going to happen fast and the opportunity will be upon us sooner than later. It is the time of the “cottage film industry” a time to take back ownership of cinema as art, as a business and as a form of mass entertainment.

The bottom line…..I want the eighties back.