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It's NOT About Art: The Film Industry Is About People Keeping Their Jobs

By Ted Hope | Hope for Film July 20, 2011 at 4:00AM

Avenue Q reminded us: The internet is for downloading porn. Well, do you need me to remind you that the film industry is for keeping the few jobs in film development, production, sales, marketing & distribution that still remain?
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Avenue Q reminded us: The internet is for downloading porn. Well, do you need me to remind you that the film industry is for keeping the few jobs in film development, production, sales, marketing & distribution that still remain?

Don't forget that cats bark; they only meow when people are around. All creatures say what the people want to hear, and another thing when they think the coast is clear. I have a lot of meetings with people who tell me they want to make great films. When I am sitting next to them, it sounds like they are speaking the truth. It's taken me a long time to see that many of those in the "business" speak a secret language, or at least one the creative community will never understand. The decoder ring is that it is all about the job. Jobs are precious and few, and damned if someone is going to let a movie jeopardize that.

The core principal behind why most people do what they do in the film industry, is employment. Studio execs, agents, acquisition execs, and the like all must act so that they do not lose their jobs. They are not trying to make art; that's a luxury few can afford. They are not really trying to make money for their company; how is that going to benefit them? They are not dedicated to some higher principal; the daily grind eats any space that such lofty ambitions might foster.

It is risk mitigation and a concern to cover your ass that drives most of the behavior within the corporate structure of film. The logic of most corporately-employed professionals' actions is blatantly clear if you trace the motivation to this principal. I risk stating the obvious, because not only am I asked regularly, but I also have to remind myself: "why is it so hard to make good movies in this world?" A simple recognition won't make the pursuit of great work any easier, but it may help you endure the brutality of the struggle. If you base your actions around recognizing this motivating principal of others in our field, you will probably have an easier time.

Not so long ago, some folks recently expressed dismay at the number of sequels on Hollywood's slates, or the hope for the future of film, but it all makes sense if all anyone wants to do is keep their job. In Mark Harris' GQ article, "The Day The Movies Died", my former partner James Schamus points out: "Fear has descended, and nobody in Hollywood wants to be the person who green-lit a movie that not only crashes but about which you can't protect yourself by saying, 'But at least it was based on a comic book!' "

Harris states: "Give the people what they don't know they want yet is a recipe for more terror than Hollywood can accommodate."

I have always liked Alice In Wonderland's White Rabbit quote "I like what I get" for succinctly summing up most public tastes, but if you combine that with Cultural Gatekeepers fear of unemployment, what do we get? An industry that recycles last years ideas and a public that permits them to do so. It certainly doesn't create a culture that will live for ages. Sure we get an anomaly or two every year that manages to be truly original and wonderful, but that certainly doesn't justify the enterprise or the investment. What are we doing? There is another way, and it can generate both art and profits.

I reluctantly subscribe to the notion that change only occurs when the pain of the present exceeds the fear of the future. I also have read studies that show that neglect and the minor irritation can wreck greater havoc than pure trauma. If that is the case, we can't just let things continue on. We need to identify the symptoms of this job focused industry and reach higher. Since we don't have John Carpenter's magic TheyLiveEyewear, how do we spot the symptoms?

What is it that helps people stay employed:

Hire those that are like you.
Hire those that will yes you.
Yes those that hire you.
Do what others in your position will do.
Have a defensive position worked out in advance.
Base new work on other work that has somehow succeeded.
Don't trust your gut, trust the numbers.
Subscribe to the popular philosophy.
(I am sure you can add to this list. Please do.)

Now let's do something completely different from all that. Can we change our thinking to aspire towards great work above all else, even at the risk of losing our precious job? Wouldn't that blow your mind if a studio exec told you that they wanted to make a better movie even if it made less money? What if you didn't have to direct a successful Batman episode in order to create an original idea? What can we do to help both the creators and the audience demand originality and ambition from the entertainment industry? It's both a macro and a micro issue, political and personal: I know I have a problem meeting people that are considerably different than me, yet still hold common interests and principals. How do we break out of our small social & professional circles? Isn't that what the promise of the internet was, and still is? It can be done. I need to work harder. Do you?

This article is related to: Communication, Issues & Actions, Mentoring, Inspiration