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Whose Cinema Is Dying? Whose Industry Is Imploding? A Postcard From The Edge...

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act June 25, 2013 at 9:35PM

Unless I'm only now starting to take notice, it seems like we've been treated to more denunciations of American cinema - specifically Hollywood studio filmmaking - in the last 2 months, than we had in previous years, with a key difference here being that, unlike years past, these recent voices of, shall we say, anxiety over Hollywood's future, belong to those who have long gotten fat on their successes within the same studio system that they're essentially now condemning.
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Hmm

Unless I'm only now starting to take notice, it seems like we've been treated to more denunciations of American cinema - specifically Hollywood studio filmmaking - in the last 2 months, than we had in previous years, with a key difference here being that, unlike years past, these recent voices of, shall we say, anxiety over Hollywood's future, belong to those who have long gotten fat on their successes within the same studio system that they're essentially now condemning.

Maybe the most notable are the predictions made by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (that the business, as it is, will implode, in short), which seemed to shake the world at its core, given how much their panel discussion at University of Southern California's School for Cinematic Arts, traveled, and the reactions to the words of these 2 industry titans.

Apparently no one thought that they, in particular, would ever voice frustration for the way movies are made and distributed today, within the Hollywood studio system, or face any resistance from the executives who back their projects.

Not Spielberg and Lucas! No way!

Yes, way!

Just prior to Spielberg and Lucas' public pessimistic outlook, there was director Steven Soderbergh‘s “grenade-dropping” keynote speech at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival delivered in April, which also created its own share of waves. 

It was seemingly the talk of the town for days afterward, given how frank and hilarious it was. An insider's POV of how the industry works; his understanding of, or, at times, a lack there of, for the business; his frustrations, and more.

The transcript certainly was a fun read (the recorded video was even better). If it was intended to be Sodebergh's swan song (he's talked about retiring a number of times recently), it certainly would be a heck of a way to go out!

And most recently, John Travolta shared his own concerns for the future of Hollywood cinema, in an interview on stage at the BFI in London this evening, during which the actor said that he felt that adult, character-driven stories are essentially a thing of the past, and are being pushed aside by "gimmicks in cinema;" adding that he's not "a comic book guy:" 

"I am a little worried because the kind of films I’ve loved over the years are diminishing by this new wave of financing in films. I’m doing my best to make the kind of movies I respect and I’m going out of my way to target them. But the honest truth is… I think we’ll see more gimmick films. The heyday of humane stories and character driven stories are limited. It’s not that they’re over because good stories will always be told but they are becoming limited."

And there have been a few others...

I've been thinking about all of this lately, and while I certainly don't feel any pity for these white men who've long controlled the industry we call Hollywood cinema, and whose stories in all their glorious variety have long dominated what we see on our big and small screens, I did have a bit of a laugh when I realized that their laments are starting to echo those long-voiced by those of us who've been in the so-called *minority* since the medium was invented, watching on the sidelines, or from the outside.

So George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, John Travolta and others of their ilk, are no longer able to make the kinds of movies that they want to make, with as much ease as they feel that their white male privilege should afford them. 

Boo-hoo!

Welcome to *our* world fellas! Come on in, and have a seat. We've been frustrated with the industry for a century or so now, and continue to be. 

At least, you had some fun, right? You got the opportunity to knock out several box office hits, made a ton of money, won lots of awards, respect, etc, and lived in your high castles away from the rest of us, for much of your careers.

Some of you even helped (whether intentionally or not) create what the industry has become today.

You'll be just fine - while the struggle will continue for the rest of us; a struggle we've been fighting for decades. So maybe we're just more used to being disappointed than you are, and much of the frustrations with the industry that you've shared in recent months, just don't resonate all that much with us, because, well, again, we've been there for a while now. For us, it's long been the rule, not the exception.

It's all just been rather humorous to me that the complaints we've been making for years, are now their complaints too - well, somewhat.

Although, as noted earlier, it certainly isn't the first time that the future of American cinema specifically, has been questioned. You might recall the "cinema is dead" love song that was sung by many a few years ago, and that continues to be.

And while that wasn't specifically aimed at Hollywood studio cinema, Hollywood studio cinema is essentially cinema of the world, because it dominates screens almost everywhere. It's traveled very well, so much that some countries are taking measures to restrict the importing of American cinema, in a defensive move to grow and protect their own local industries.

But the death/destruction of cinema is something that was argued long before the current incarnation of Hollywood saw its early beginnings. 

For example, French New Wave pioneer, Jean-Luc Godard called it in the 1960s.

And even before that, in the 1940s/50s, the founder of Lettrism (the avant-garde movement, established in the 1940s), the Romanian-born Isidore Isou, stated:

"I believe firstly that the cinema is too rich. It is obese. It has reached its limits, its maximum. With the first movement of widening which it will outline, the cinema will burst! Under the blow of a congestion, this greased pig will tear into a thousand pieces. I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, of rupture, of this corpulent and bloated organization which calls itself film."

Prescient wouldn't you say? What better words to use to describe Hollywood studio filmmaking today, in 2013, than "obese," "reached its limits," a "greased pig" that's ready to burst, "corpulent," "bloated," etc.

Fast-forward to 2013, over 60 years later, to Steven Spielberg's own prediction, which, in an uncanny way, mirrors Isou's:

... There's eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm.

So maybe it's just business as usual. It's not the first time, nor will it be the last time voices of discontent or, some would say, paranoia, will call for the end of what we call cinema, or filmmaking as we know it, or for needed change. And the business will continue to thrive, whether in its current form, or, in some other mold, after the industry experiences some kind of a Year Zero - a destruction or implosion, creating a near-blank slate, that is then followed by the creation of a new paradigm, as Isou predicted 60 years ago, or as Spielberg, Lucas, Soderbergh, et al, did most recently, 

But these hard facts from The Economist earlier this year, might be worth taking into consideration:

Hollywood executives have long been paranoid and insecure. Now they have cause to be. “The business model within film is broken,” says Amir Malin of Qualia Capital, a private-equity firm. Between 2007 and 2011, pre-tax profits of the five studios controlled by large media conglomerates (Disney, Universal, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros) fell by around 40%, says Benjamin Swinburne of Morgan Stanley. He reckons the studios account for less than 10% of their parent companies’ profits today, and by 2020 their share will decline to only around 5%. That is because the “big six” studios (the other is Sony Pictures, owned by the eponymous electronics maker) are growing more slowly than TV.

However, as I already stated, we (those existing on the fringes - the various so-called *minority* groups who really haven't participated fully in the 100-year ride) don't really have a dog in this fight, because, well, we've always been fighting I suppose (fighting *them* while they fight each other), and we've never really had a sit at the coveted table where decisions on what makes it to our theater and TV screens are made; where the real power lies. The view has rarely changed for us. 

And, as has long been the case, our success continues to come from the *outside*, not from within - something that I think will become even more pronounced, as the gradual implosion or destruction or burst of the dominant cinema, comes to pass.

Horace Greeley's advise to "Go west, young man" isn't quite applicable here. To appropriate his quote to make a point, the American (cinema) expansion isn't westward, and has never really been for the rest of us. The Hollywood-lands have never been as fertile, nor have they been an ideal place for those of us of a darker hue, hoping to find the best opportunities to succeed.

Cinema isn't dying for us; specifically, what we call "black cinema" is still very much in its infancy. The industry isn't imploding for us, because it was never ours in the first place, and we've never really participated in it fully.

So while their world as they know it seemingly starts to crumble around them, ours should blossom.

A luta continua...

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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