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

by Ted Hope
July 20, 2011 4:00 AM
13 Comments
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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?

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13 Comments

  • filmerz.com | July 25, 2011 6:25 AMReply

    Even though, this is quite accurate to a degree. I would still argue the art plays a titanic role in the choices made by both film-makers and actors. The way I see it as they enter the industry to make art, realize in order to make art they have to have funding and mainstream success so begin to make choices based on getting and keeping the job, however, ultimately those choices are as a means to an end in order for them to return to the art that is their beginning fuel.

  • Michael R. Barnard | July 22, 2011 5:02 AMReply

    Excellent assessment of the ROI side of moviemaking, Ted. That includes all studio films, mini-studio films, and some indie films.

    Many people in the indie world, and many in the audience, cannot perceive what point you are making because they don't know a true industry exists for making movies. If you live in NYC or L.A. or a couple other places, you are surrounded by industry people and resources, unions and government entities, friends who bemoan working less than 1 week last month, etc. Most people, and this includes many in the "indie film" movement of today, think of movie making only as some gung-ho kid grabbing his parents' camcorder and a bunch of friends and making a movie during their spare time.

    I do not think that is any more innately artistic or creative than the best $100 million studio films. But, many disagree with me.

    I do not think seeking ROI for any film is a killer of creative expression. Many disagree with me.

    For the world you describe and live in, where people have always struggled, even in union jobs, to earn a decent middle class living making movies, you are absolutely correct. And as the economy tanks, the struggle gets worse, and the art loses out to survival.

    But I suspect it's always been this way at the professional level. That's why there has always been the delineation of ABOVE-THE-LINE and BELOW-THE-LINE. The above-the-line people are supposed to be consumed by passion and creativity for the particular movie project; the below-the-line people are supposed to be interchangeable workers who may or may not give a damn about the movie itself, they just want to do their jobs and get paid.

    As the production technology collapses the difference between those two divides (a filmmaker can now be a writer, director, cinematographer, and grip at once!), the problem you've describe seems to be getting more profound.

    Is it a pipe-dream, an unreasonable expectation, to have a full crew of passionate people driven to make a great movie?

    I have worked on studio films with crew. Often, it fell to me to distribute the script changes. I always thought, "what a waste of paper" as I'd hand out blue pages to people who never once even read the white pages and sure weren't going to read the goldenrod.

    As I pondered those issues, I came to this conclusion about this subject: GREAT MOVIES ARE MADE BY GREAT CREWS WHO FOLLOW THE PERSON WITH THE VISION.

    I now assume the propmakers will never read the script. But the difference is, do they respect and want to follow the vision of the key people? That is what I've seen that makes the difference. The attitude of support for the filmmaker is critical to success. It is not necessarily a creative vision on the part of the crew. But it goes either of two ways: either the crew is supportive of the filmmaker, or the crew is nasty and antagonistic toward the filmmaker (yes, that may seem odd, but crew people will take a job in order to have a job, even if they hate the filmmaker).

    So, how do we as filmmakers assemble supportive crews? That is, to me, the critical point. You can give paychecks to people who support you or who hate you. It *will* show up on the screen. IMHO

  • J. Warner | July 21, 2011 11:20 AMReply

    I'm sorry, but if it was first and foremost about employment, I could much easier look for that in some other arena.

    Call me naive or say that I just "don't get it," but for me, it is about the "art" first and the employment part would have to come second or be a tie.

  • Chris | July 21, 2011 11:19 AMReply

    Excellent article, thanks for posting this! Hopefully more of us will pay attention to what brought us here and try to tap into that from time to time.

  • Ron Merk | July 21, 2011 2:06 AMReply

    I've been in the business since 1968. There was a time when an executive could make one of two decisions: yes or no, and on that floated a film's future. But with the corporatization of the business, that changed to three possible decisions: yes, no or no decision. It's that last one that's changed things. Here's how it works: If someone say yes to a project and it bombs, they lose their job. If the same person says no, and then another company or studio turns the film into a huge success, the person who says no can lose their job. So, sadly, many decision-makers take the safest route. Avoiding decisions altogether is a "defensible" position, in that one can say, "it was really hard to determine if this show was a go or not." At the same time, "re-making" a winner is seen as a safer bet (it's like safer sex, in that one can still get sick or pregnant). The big risk-takers where the old studio heads and distribution executives. But sadly, they are no longer in the seats they used to hold, or worse, no longer with us on this mortal plain. There are a few risk-takers still out there, but they are getting harder and harder to find.

  • Seth Estrada | July 20, 2011 11:11 AMReply

    This is precisely the reason I am attempting to rally the efforts of indie filmmakers to get started in producing 3-D media. The latest 3-D renaissance has thus far brought us the Hollywood attitude you've described, multiplied by a thousand: use a new gimmick to create a few new jobs, and secure old ones for people like me, who 'yes' me, etc. Same old story.

    What if I told you that most of these studios haven't got the faintest clue how to use 3-D, even as a tool, let alone an art form or medium? It's obviously true, as evidenced by how many $100M+ 3-D features have fallen flat on their faces with audiences and critics.

    Right now is the time to seize an opportunity that hasn't existed since the advent of 16mm: learn the latest tool faster than the established pros who are mired in old ways of thinking and working, then tell stories that matter. [DV sort of did that too, except DV didn't catch up to film in terms of universal watchability until affordable HD tools hit the market a few years ago. It came of age slowly enough that Hollywood pros were able to catch on] Content is still king, and channels for 3-D are popping up all over with NO CONTENT WHATEVER. ESPN 3-D shows an average of less than one program per day. Sky3D has little-to-no serial content. Peru has just opened a new 3-D channel, with even less Spanish language 3-D content than the English speaking players. Germany has a 3-D channel which opens up a market who is much more open to thought-provoking and culturally enriching content than any North American market [Germany's top 40 lists still have opera songs in them]

    I love that you've posted this. I hope that 3-D can provide a proper medium for aspiring filmmakers to both truly find new depths of expression [pun intended] AND monetize their efforts.

  • Marty Lang | July 20, 2011 10:56 AMReply

    So true ... and as those film jobs become more precious and few, those still in them will probably stick to those principles more and more. Kind of a depressing thought.

    Coppola said recently that now, you need to make your money somewhere else before getting into film ... I don't want to believe he's right ... but is he?

  • Cotty Chubb | July 20, 2011 10:25 AMReply

    A friend once pointed out, long ago, that since most movies fail, if an executive wants to keep his or her job, the thing to support is a defensible failure. Makes sense, except the game is different if your goal is failure.

  • Jon Dieringer | July 20, 2011 10:11 AMReply

    Whoa! Thanks Ted! One suggestion: I think it would benefit cinema if more industry people got out to a real, honest movie theater, or at least a sweatbox crammed with folding chairs that's doing its best to be one. (There are a lot of those in NYC if you know where to look...) One could easily go to a private, preview or press screening every night of the week or tour festivals and not really understand the average moviegoer. Not to mention staying home and watching screeners. I think this applies to not just production/exec folks, but journalists as well. The influence of professional and social pressures in such conditions I think frequently distorts one's perspective of the work at hand. Obviously, everyone is very busy, but it's nice to step outside of the same old insular circles. And beyond the obvious venues, Microscope, The Spectacle and UnionDocs are three NYC venues that regularly show quality, new work by filmmakers working totally outside the studio or big indie system—a lot of people from the artworld, musicians and personal filmmakers who are all enraptured by the moving image. I think seeing their work in an intimate setting is very inspiring.

    And, of course, there are a whole lot of other things besides movies...

  • ekim namwen | July 20, 2011 9:33 AMReply

    nicely stated. sadly, the only way to change it is to get rid of the assholes in charge. good luck with that...or say 'fuck the system' and create an entirely new system that operates on the ideals that you have mentioned.

    what have you done to break out of your little circle? now, that's a question every gatekeeper and tastemaker should have to ask themselves every day.

  • Jason Victor Everett | July 20, 2011 9:20 AMReply

    Well said.

  • Karl Shefelman | July 20, 2011 7:23 AMReply

    Unfortunately, all I can do right now is agree.

  • Nayan | July 20, 2011 6:42 AMReply

    So true, and sad at the same time... Its not about making film or movies. It's about "product", thus the cycle of CYA...

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