Friday, May 8, 2009

New Moguls

We are nostalgic for the old studio days, in which a paternal (or dictatorial) regime bought, sold and traded properties, actors, directors and screen counts to fill the theatres of the nation.

Many classics were made under this system, and many more low (and high) budget programmers, a "mode of production" which kicked in around the capital-intensive time of the 1920s and didn't really begin deteriorating until the Paramount decree in 1948 and came to resemble full nitrate-style deterioration by the '70s, with bankruptcies, mergers, selling off of ruby slippers, and Disney buying ESPN in an attempt to diversify out of the film business.

The studio system is dead, and independent production is now dying as well. Part of it is there's no loose money in the economy. Part of it is there's no audiences anymore willing to go out and take a change on art films, no culture to discuss and support marginal, original, challenging films; only the roller-coaster blockbusters.

Part of it is the "film experience" itself - it's changed for good.

I'm not just talking about people not going to theatres anymore (I did that here). I'm not talking about how everything seems to be bootlegged and online weeks or days after their expensive wide theatrical releases (I did that here). Making cinema itself has finally become decentralized. Less privileged. And finally democratic.

The avant-garde promise of 16mm in the late '50s and early '60s was hindered by the high barrier to distribution. The VHS and DVD revolution allowed home-filmmakers to get their product out to a public if they could reach them. Now with the Internet, the barrier to entry is near zero. If you have it, you can download it. Even if it isn't yours.

And it's therefore available... TO THE ENTIRE WORLD. The biggest theatre ever.

The second important part of the film equation that has become democratized is the equipment. Not just digital cameras, which at the high end (the Red which shot Soderbergh's Che and Sommer's upcoming G.I. Joe) now go for under $12,000, one-twentieth of what similar ones did 4 years ago, but also the abilities to edit, score, and of course upload it.

In 1970, an 80-minute film shot on black-and-white 16mm stock would cost $200,000 at least, in lab work and processing alone. And that was if you could borrow the equipment from your local film school. In 2009, an 80-minute film shot on digital doesn't have to cost more than $100.

The final part of the way cinema has moved away forever from the studios is the changing aesthetics of audiences. With quicktime streaming, bite-sized iPhone links, and portability valued over a ritualized community experience, it simply doesn't matter that your film isn't in the multiplex (or arthouse) down the street. You don't even have to burn a copy - you just upload to Rapidshare or YouSendIt and you're a film distributor.

The new Saturday night is pulling out a camera and capturing footage, miming to your reference copy of "There Will Be Blood," ripping music in, and uploading to your stealth site. It doesn't even have to go viral - those 12 hits back home in Kentucky mean more to you than any $30 million gross opening weekend - the studios didn't keep much of that anyway after the independent contractors get done with you.

The new film experience is at home, with your friends and less than $1000 in equipment. You can carry it around. You can be your own mogul, in charge from beginning to end.

You can imagine how much this panics Hollywood, who doesn't know how to crack this market. And even if it is a market.

And if your film is good, well then,... prepare to be co-opted by a young executive in Culver City, charged with trying to hold on for dear life to last year's model.

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