Destroy All Monsters: 2013, A Year That Film Will Take To Its Grave

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: 2013, A Year That Film Will Take To Its Grave

2013 wasn't a particularly good year for film, and I began to realize it when the blockbusters started limping. I think about blockbusters a lot. I do this for the most part because they're the engine that runs the American film industry; no blockbusters, no film industry.

This is the part where people pipe in to remind me that film is an art, and that art isn't about money, and blah blah blah. Sorry, but that's wrong. Film is absolutely about money, because film - as an art form - is ungodly expensive. I'm not just talking about the $250M tentpole productions. Even at the very, very, very low end, film is an ungodly expensive art form in which to express oneself.

You tell me, "Well, El Mariachi only cost $7000!" True. I don't know about your day-to-day circumstances, though, but in my case, seven grand is still a hell of a lot of money. If seven grand dropped into my hands from a passing hot air balloon, it would make a vast and measurable difference in my financial year. (And El Mariachi was twenty years ago.)

Seven grand buys you, then as now, the very definition of a micro-budget feature film. Heading upwards from there, every line item on the spreadsheet of film-based creative expression in the calendar year 2013, from 12 Years a Slave to The Lone Ranger, costs the kind of money that wouldn't just make a difference in my financial year; it would make a difference in my financial life. And the lives of a few thousand other people.

Since no one is actually in a position to piss away that kind of capital just to get their particular ya-ya's out, film is absolutely about money. And in 2013, the spectrum of film - like Short Round being tugged between two mine cars on diverging, non-parallel tracks - started getting pulled fatally apart.

Two things happened simultaneously this summer: the summer blockbuster season bit the big one, creatively speaking, in a manner previously unseen in my lifetime; and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, former Editors in Chief of the Blockbuster Times, declared that the entire blockbuster model was about to implode anyway.

Martin Scorsese piped in on Monday with a letter to his teenage daughter about the future of film, where he put it far more charitably. He envisioned a dividing line between the next evolution of the blockbuster - he called them "audio-visual entertainment" - and the remains of what we currently call cinema:

"Audio-visual entertainment and what we know as cinema - moving pictures conceived by individuals - appear to be headed in different directions. In the future, you'll probably see less and less of what we recognize as cinema on multiplex screens and more and more of it in smaller theatres, online, and, I suppose, in spaces and circumstances that I can't predict."

Good analysis, that. Particularly, I like the "audio-visual entertainment" line. As blockbusters become larger and larger in budget and reach, becoming mega-franchised global product for the first time, the cultural peculiarities that drove the movies of Spielberg and Lucas (and Scorsese, although he never made a blockbuster) are being washed away in favour of simpler and simpler overall content.

Simpler can be packaged farther. Simpler works better on more, bigger screens. Simpler is better at absorbing new viewing technologies like 3-D and HFR. Simpler means transmuting what we used to know as movies into, essentially, light-and-sound phantasmagoria: stimulation and pleasure for the visual and aural nerves. Entertainment, not storytelling.

This notion supports the idea that people who had a problem with The Lone Ranger's aimless middle hour, Pacific Rim's near-total lack of a compelling human character, and Man of Steel's smash-and-kill superfistfight grand finale, were probably missing the point. Those movies might not be the tired tail end of a downward slope of storytelling bankruptcy in Hollywood; they might be the first volley of the next generation of moviegoing. The one where we go to the multiplexes to visit Pandora, not interrogate the internal demons of Jake Sully; the one where we fly the X-Wing, not Luke Skywalker. It won't be what I grew up on, sure; but it'll be something.

And on the other side of the Scorsese spectrum, among the items that he calls cinema, I also see a heartily dispiriting year. I look at the Top Ten lists for 2013 that flooded the internet last week and I see a lot of good movies; what I don't see, across the board, is innovation.

(For my colleagues' wide and varied opinions on the best of 2013, check out ScreenAnarchy's mega-list here.)

When I look at 2013, I don't see movies that play with the form. I don't see movies that are moving the needle on how the cinematic language can be spoken. I see competence, not creativity.

A credible exception might be the vivid pseudo-documentary, The Act of Killing; that movie is legitimately apprehending something I don't think the documentary form has contained before. It's pushing outward. Upstream Colour pushed outward, too, though nowhere near as harmoniously; if it was speaking a new language of cinema, it was doing so at a near-unintelligible whisper.

The Before trilogy is carving into a new area of cinematic potential with its long-term narrative strategy, but that strategy didn't come from 2013; I don't think it was arrived at when making the first film in 1995, either, but rather just before making the second, in 2004. My favourite film of 2013, Jeff Nichols' Mud, is a hell of a piece of filmmaking - but it is not doing a single thing new with either its content or its cinematic approach. The Oscar frontrunner, 12 Years a Slave, pushes buttons, but otherwise stands at an abstract distance from its observed subject. It watches. We watch it watch.

Scorsese's own entry in the 2013 canon, The Wolf of Wall Street, is so (charitably) dense or (uncharitably) cluttered in its execution that no one can quite work out what it's doing or how well it's doing it - and so we argue about it. Conversation about film is great, but as artistic achievements, these films are just marking time in the necropolis of filmmaking.

Perhaps this is all par for the course. If Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg are right, the film industry is no longer a single ecosystem; it's splitting into two new ones, which will have their own rules, engines, and systems of balance. In one, seventeen-year-old Francesca Scorsese will conceive, shoot and edit unimaginably personal epics on her smartphone and stream them to a waiting cinephilic hive mind. In the other, Transformers 8 will feature no humans whatsoever but the robot fists will literally reach out of the screen and punch random members of the audience, at $120 per ticket.

This sort of evolution takes time, and we're a long way from either system finding equilibrium. Scorsese says the future is bright. I put no such value judgments upon evolution. The future is merely the future.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.

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Corey PierceJanuary 8, 2014 10:43 AM

Chacun son gout, but I thought 2013 was as good as year as any, if not better. The menu is so huge that the year is what you make of it with your own choices.

Not accusing you per se though, but I think a lot of people get so hung up on one genre or a few big films, usually blockbusters or highly anticipated auteur films, that if they don't deliver the whole year becomes tainted. Some people see it as one bad christmas light that knocks the rest out, but I think it's just one bad christmas light.

Andrew JamesJanuary 8, 2014 11:19 AM

I sort of agree with the lack of "true creativity" this year - although there are a few titles that really came across as doing new things and put a lot of creativity on display: Spring Breakers, Gravity, Only God Forgives, Stoker. And frankly, I think Iron Man 3 really took the sub-genre to totally different places in the super hero world. I thought it really departed from most of the tropes for this type of film.

Nice thoughts on the year Matt!

Less Lee MooreJanuary 8, 2014 11:23 AM

Are you claiming that 2013 was the (gasp) year of the DEATH OF CINEMA?

Kidding aside, you make very good points. I do, however, wonder if there isn't some contradiction in your article. You talk about the death of the blockbuster and the rise of audio-visual entertainment, but then express disappointment in the rest of films not being innovative. Wouldn't you consider audio-visual entertainment a kind of innovation in itself?

What do you want from non-audio-visual entertainment cinema that you're not getting? Innovation, yes, but in what way? What meets your criteria of pushing the form? What do you expect from this new language? I'm genuinely curious.

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 11:36 AM

Great piece.

The only thing that, imo, stands a chance to mitigate the surge towards pure AVE on the studio side is if the money runs.

Used to be that the studios were privately held -- or stand-alone publicly traded companies -- and went to banks for slate funds. They would then spread risk across their slate by making various genres at various price-points. Some tentpoles would tank, but some smaller ones would hit bigger than planned. Balance+ was the order of the day and the profit margin, while slim, was enough to handsomely reward those few in charge at the top.

Now, the funding game is completely different. The combination in the 1970s of the VCR and STAR WARS' merchandising blitz (created, it should be pointed out, as a gamble by Lucas to re-make some of the money he gave back to 20th Fox to keep them from shutting him down when he blew his budget on the toys now, ironically, choking story creativity) created a whole new paradigm with multiple strands of financial exploitation and Wall Street wanted in.

When Gulf + Western owned Paramount, it was an outlier -- a strange company purchasing others outside of its industrial core (Stax Records??), Charlie Bludhorn a madman. Now, his madness is Wall Street's blueprint and, because of that, the studios no longer have to worry about THEIR margins and balance sheet, but the share price of the parent company. This leads to ever increasing attempts to remove risk in a risk-inherent industry. Creativity = risk. It's an unknown, something Boston Consulting Group cannot quantify. Solution? Make the same stuff over-and-over, tied together in a "master brand" strategy.

But, see, even now, the multi-nationals are hedging their OWN bets with slate funds from hedge funds and trust funds (witness Dune, Legendary, Skydance, etc). When the worm turns -- and it always does with matters based on the taste of the public -- the Spielberg/Lucas prophecy will crater a studio and these funds will cut bait.

The question at that point will be: has the developmental infrastructure -- the actually ability to help craft a good, mass-cinematic story -- been so depleted that the new model (read: the old model) cannot find its foot and the studios whither and die?

I don't know the answer, but I am -- for the first time -- afraid of the future. And anyone who thinks it doesn't matter because they only watch Dogma 95 films needs to remember, just as you pointed out, Matt: all independent cinema are fish feeding off the remnants of the shark.

Yes, you can make a feature on your own. Yes, you can put it on the internet (an internet whose pipes are owned by these companies). But independent cinema relies on gaining new acolytes from those who are dissatisfied with what is being offered to the masses. Without that mass-offereing driving them to seek out an alternative, this new flow of converts trickles to a stop. Cinema then becomes a dying art preaching its sermon to a static -- and ever-dwindling -- flock.

gappmanJanuary 8, 2014 12:00 PM

Nice article, Matt, but I don't think 2013 was that bad of a year for cinema. I am genuinely interested in the spectacle of big cinema. I need that. I also need the movies that move my brain in weird directions and make cause for pause and reflection. I saw some of that in 2013. No regrets from me. I'm also genuinely interested in the technical aspects of how some of these films make it to screen. There are some real innovators out there like Cuaron and Cameron who continuously invent new ways to bring the experience to the audience. Maybe having my home setup like a real theater has something to do with this? :-)

Less Lee MooreJanuary 8, 2014 12:22 PM

Good analysis. I'm also curious as to what recent, not-yet-established indie filmmakers think of this. Are they worried? What are they doing to protect themselves and their movies?

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 12:37 PM

Glad you mention IRON MAN 3! Even though Shane revisited nearly all of his greatest hits (gun-chase through Christmas trees, an explosive hatred for modern architecture), when they took Iron Man OUT OF Iron Man and sent RDJ/Stark out as McGuyver/Bond, I thought "Wow. They really found something different to do in a Marvel film. Good for them!"

Shannon ShoffnerJanuary 8, 2014 12:47 PM

"cinema" has been dying for years. The last great period that I can remember in film was around 1999 - 2003 with Being John Malvich, American Beauty, Magnolia etc. I look at the films that are nominated for academy awards and frankly none of quite deserved it compared with past years. The money is in blockbusters and that's where it will probably stay for a while TV has become the new cinema and is far more compelling that most of what is available at my local theater

Andrew JamesJanuary 8, 2014 12:47 PM

Yeah no one was more surprised than me to find i really REALLY liked Iron Man 3. The twist with the villain was another creative left turn.

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 12:49 PM

I agree with Matt in that I didn't see a lot of groundbreaking in cinematic language this year - (though, to be fare, much like "porn", it's an "I know it when I see it" situation for me, so I couldn't tell you what I expected or would have wanted to see). Everyone I know seemed bowled over by the opening shot in GRAVITY, but to me it was an exercise in DP gymnastics that was nice but not world-changing.

The one thing I'm always hoping for from both studio and non-studio fare is competency -- a good story told visually well. From that standpoint, I actually thought there was a lot of good stuff in both spheres.

To me, the scary thing was the downtrend in studio profitability -- even discounting the stinkers like LONE RANGER, RIPD and 47 RONIN*, box office was broken but PROFITS were down. This is the cost/return trend that Lucas and Spielberg were referencing and, to me, it looks like it will only continue -- more and more spent for less and less returned.

(*imo, if more people at Universal do not lose their jobs, it's only because of the uncertainty caused by FAST 7 being delayed)

Less Lee MooreJanuary 8, 2014 12:52 PM

How much do you think the decline of home video sales plays into this? That's what I kept reading all year.

Mr. CavinJanuary 8, 2014 1:06 PM

This is kind of masturbatory, I know; but here's a bit of a rare film review I blogged back in the aughts that feels like it fits in here:

"By the time Lucas was faced with making this season finale, his ability
seems to have petrified. I think that it is instructive to pluck one
last example from the movie, a clue Lucas has dropped as he exited the
scene. In the middle of the film, patrons assemble in a theater where
they watch light play though enormous, glitteringly diaphanous air
bubbles. Occasionally the bubbles shudder as the hollow monotony of an
organ-like sound wave breaks upon them. The patrons spontaneously
applaud. Then it all happens again."

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 1:21 PM

Oh, boy, you asked me something. You only have yourself to blame, then, for my pontification...

How much? A lot, but not for the reasons most people ascribe.

The problem (as always, imo) isn't that, without the good ol' big numbers from DVD, the studios can't MAKE a big, profitable film that will recoup from a combination of theatrical and still-thriving ancillary channels -- foreign, TV, satellite, hotel, merchandising.

It's that they can't MARKET it anymore.

Hollywood has ALWAYS loved something with built-in brand awareness. DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were each made from the Edison era on! Books, radio serials, true life stories -- bread and butter to studios and a gift to the marketing departments.

The difference is, up until maybe 15 years ago, the process went like this:

Development developed projects, Production read one it wanted to make, green-lit it. The studio head went to marketing and said: this is coming out in two years - figure it out. Sometimes it was an easy sell, sometimes not. But the job to sell it WAS the job and marketing had to just do it.

Starting in the mid-90s, you saw a change: marketing being brought in at the head of the process and asked: "what do you think about this?" If it was a pre-sellable idea, it was "great!"; if it was a challenge, it was "Ugh". That's human nature. But once the camel got the nose in the tent, it kept pushing in until you end up with the situation we have today -- in almost all cases at all studios, marketing has to APPROVE an idea before the studio will green light it.

Now, marketing is still often the goat blamed when something doesn't take off (at least now, they deserve it a bit more than in the old days since they are a part of the decision process on top of their selling duties). So what's the difference, one asks?

Well, the difference is that the slates are almost all self-selling ideas of one sort or another (star package, pre-aware brand), so the need to THINK about a marketing strategy doesn't exist.

You come up with the one-sheets (they usually look like some piece of crap poster you saw last year), the trailer and the commercials and you start running TV 3-4 weeks out in ever-increasing slots ending with a road-block on the W/TH/F of opening weekend and you pray to the Lord above you make your opening numbers and blame production for making a crappy movie when the thing drops 67% the next weekend. And you can do this because you're opening on 3200 screens instead of 500 and growing -- that's for Oscar fare after the Golden Globes announce winners.

And now, here we are -- marketing SKILLS have atrophied to the point of needing hospice care. Development is right behind as producers now have to shoulder everything and bring a complete package to the studio for consideration -- ready script, director and/or talent and some off-set financing.

I can't think of an active VP at a studio who only has "development" in their title and, that means, you don't have any senior people thinking only about story. Just like you don't have anyone REALLY thinking about how to market/sell -- it's just rote now.

Soooo.... has the decline in DVD revenues affected the situation? Yes. Because you no longer have a giant cushion of money so you need to (A) tell a good story and (B) know how to sell it, two skills getting closer to extinction in the studio realm.

And you can combine all that with Wall Street's refusal to accept "We're just gonna make a little less profit" as reality, but that's another rant...

KurtJanuary 8, 2014 1:35 PM

I call that kind of cinema, what you put more evocatively as "Phantasmagoria" as "FIREWORK SHOWS," Michael Bay's Transformers series is a pretty good example of this.

KurtJanuary 8, 2014 1:44 PM

2013 had several serious 'FORM PUSHING' films on the festival and arthouse circuit:

Leviathan/Manakamana (that the Harvard Ethno-Sensory Lab even gets to put things out commercially is kind of a miracle). Gravity. UNDER THE SKIN. Her. UPSTREAM COLOR. Spring Breakers. MAGIC MAGIC. The Counselor. From this selection one might think that 'adult cinema' is kind of making a come back.

And then, Stoker, The Lone Ranger, Llewyn Davis, and The Broken Circle Breakdown were doing just fine in the complex, unconventional, well worth seeing to challenge you department. Hell Side Effects was a great 'straight genre piece' experiment in its own right.

In short, 2013 was as solid as any year for film, only that the Blockbusters were shitty, but insanely profitable.

KurtJanuary 8, 2014 1:48 PM

That scene is the best scene in the entire prequel trilogy, it's followed by the best line in the prequel trilogy, "This is how democracy thunderous applause."

Glad you brought that up.

Less Lee MooreJanuary 8, 2014 2:02 PM

Thanks for your reply! I haven't heard this perspective before but it makes a lot of sense. I am going to guess that you work in the industry in some capacity?

Andrew RobinsonJanuary 8, 2014 2:04 PM


How do I begin with wrongness here.

How about by first saying, "ya got a point there Mr. Brown".

You do. Money drives filmmaking. Blockbusters are what drives the industry. However, we still use the word art in a sense that doesn't quite fit dependent on the conversation we're having. If we're talking about the multi-billion dollar international business that is filmmaking and Hollywood then we're no longer discussing art but we're discussing business. And while it definitely is a LARGE part of the world of movies, the thing we love, it's not what we love about it (it may be what you love about it, but I'm using a much more general we than you and I).

The reason why we love movies is that unidentifiable thing that I'm not quite sure anyone (no Scorsese, Speilberg or Lucas) have been able to put into words perfectly. And I may be speaking out of my ass completely, because honestly I'm just the guy sitting the corner listening in to the big boys talk most times; but do I have a point?

I'm the one saying I don't know what it is. I'm the one willing to admit it.

You mention innovation, and you may be right. I also point to THE ACT OF KILLING as the obvious mark of possible innovation in 2013 filmmaking. But couldn't SPRING BREAKERS be lumped in there as well. Possibly the most interesting look at American Escapism brought to screen as it judges it's audience who looks at it confused as to why they didn't get to see Selena Gomez's tits? Or is that just me?

I'm curious though. Forgetting the art arguement or the innovation; why do we bother do talk about movies in the first place if they're nothing but business? Why don't we discuss them the same way me and my friends talk about the Samsung v. Apple court cases where we're almost rooting for teams on a baseball field and finding entertainment out of the ridiculous things that we can't relate since as you say, "$7000 would make a crazy change my financial life," much less the magical dollars they are playing with.

At this point in my comment I'm curious whether my comment itself is unfounded and is just barking up the wrong tree. As in, I'm bringing a whole other side to this conversation that I feel wasn't there and am losing myself in the process. More than that I'm curious, why is your goal always to reduce film into dollars and cents?

Nothing but love,
Andrew 'gman' Robinson.

PS. Haven't re-read this, so I may have made some logical jumps, that I'm sure I shall fix upon your rebuttal.

Matt BrownJanuary 8, 2014 2:09 PM

That's just about the best opening to a comment I've ever seen... ;)

Matt BrownJanuary 8, 2014 2:13 PM

Well, I do like to use the term "death of cinema" as a shorthand, but really "the evolution of cinema into something we will not recognize, in the long term, as cinema" would be more in line with my point.

Audio/visual entertainment definitely involves technical innovation, yes. I was referring more to narrative and creative innovation with respect to my argument, but I see your point.

Matt BrownJanuary 8, 2014 2:14 PM

Don't lump Bay's shit in with my phantasmagoria, Halfyard!!

(Nah, you're not wrong.)

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 2:32 PM

Forgot LEVIATHAN was this year - that was AWESOME. Waiting on my disc now, in fact!

One suggestion: try not to equate revenue with profit for the studios. The revenues were good this year -- and actually saw some small increase in tickets sold, not just dollars brought in -- but, on a slate basis, profits were down almost across the board and in some cases -- Disney and, especially, Universal -- write-downs put them into negative territory (in pure theatrical P&L) for the first time in a looooooong time.

You can see the reaction to the increasing loss of profit reflected best in Disney which, ironically, has probably the strongest parent company among the majors. They are shifting to almost a 100% pre-brand-only strategy which means, essentially, they are giving up on theatrical as an individual component. EVERYTHING now will be hyper cross-platform and tied into an existing franchise: Star Wars, Marvel, Indiana Jones, "Disney" and "Pixar". It is unlikely a Tim Burton will ever appear via Disney's machine again.

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 2:37 PM

I'm lucky in that I play more than work in the biz now (I invested well in a different industry and that allows me to work when I want, not when I need to now). But, yes, I started off as a suit and am still around that world a lot.

(That said, it does not mean I'm right about any of this -- just what I think based on what I see and hear...)

KurtJanuary 8, 2014 2:42 PM

In all fairness, Tim Burton appeared IN SPITE of Disney's machine originally back in the 1980s.

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 3:08 PM

I disagree. Even mired in post Don Bluth dreck, Disney was still looking to develop stand-alone, individual films: THE BLACK CAULDRON, TRON, THE BLACK HOLE, THE RESCUERS.

In that kind of environment, a singular talent like Burton can -- and DID -- get noticed and supported. As I understand it, VINCENT was made after-hours but with assistance from friends/mentors and facilities on the lot.

(One could argue, probably correctly, that he is SO singular, he would have stood out anywhere)

Compare that kind of environment to the pre-brand story-factory Disney is calcifying into and others are attempting to ape and I don't see how that environment will be conducive to creativity in any sense.

Pa Kent Says MaybeJanuary 8, 2014 3:20 PM

Absolutely wrong. The BUSINESS is about money. The business is selling film, not making it. Making it is about art. Hell, even the makers of FAST AND FURIOUS VS. TRANSFORMERS would argue that.

I know you're confused. It's confusing. You've been raised to believe Money is Everything. You'll never be convinced otherwise, and you will argue eggs and chickens for the rest of your life.

Blockbusters sprung a leak? THAT was the BEST thing about 2013.

Pa Kent Says MaybeJanuary 8, 2014 3:25 PM

Another thing...this "we all" bit.

If "we all" wanted to go to the movies for --- what did you call the crap? phantasma-whatzit? --- well then, we would, and you wouldn't be writing this article.

Fact is, there are fewer and fewer of "we all" every year. Hence, the "new technology" which serves nothing but-jack ups the prices that the businessmen can charge.

Or the chickens can charge.

Now, I'm confused.

Todd BrownJanuary 8, 2014 3:49 PM

When the product you're selling costs millions of dollars to make then the business is very much about making it, too. Fact of life. You want to make art free of commercial entanglements, write a poem.

Todd BrownJanuary 8, 2014 3:58 PM

Here's the thing about the 'art' argument: For the VAST majority of human history it simply did not exist. This idea that 'art' needs to be divorced from commerce, that a product made to order to suit the tastes of an audience cannot be 'art', or even that things need to be considered 'art' at all to have lasting cultural value simply did not exist until the last few generations.

ALL of the major artists more than, say, a hundred years old produced their work almost exclusively on a 'for hire' basis. The entire historical basis of EVERYTHING we consider art today is commerce, pure and simple. DaVinci, Michelangelo, Mozart, Beethoven, writers like Dickens and Doyle ... everything in every art discipline was produced to order, on commission, for the sole purpose of making a living for the artist.

I think the entire 'art' conversation is misguided at its core. What we have here is craft - a blend of technical ability, some sort of aesthetic sense with enough commerce blended in to keep the whole thing sustainable - which in those lucky cases where someone truly exceptional crafts something equally exceptional (or someone less exceptional happens to get lucky) we end up with something of lasting value that we term 'art' after the fact. But the roots of everything lie in craft and the commercial aspect of that craft does not at all need to be in conflict with the 'art'. In fact it's the opposite ... if the commercial aspects aren't tended to and taken seriously the entire thing falls apart and there's no opportunity for the 'art' to happen at all.

Todd BrownJanuary 8, 2014 4:05 PM

I agree that 'adult cinema' is on an upswing, and for a very simple reason: The audience now in their 30s and 40s has not widely adopted downloading and / or digital methods of distribution. They still go to the movies. The studios are cluing into this and realizing that if they make a smart film (or a super trashy comedy) that plays to this audience and make it in the $30 million range they can net a great ROI.

Todd BrownJanuary 8, 2014 4:08 PM

I have the sudden urge to recruit you to write editorials on the state of the industry now.

benuJanuary 8, 2014 4:10 PM

To anyone who read's Matt's column on a regular basis (and it seems many of you have), he's always constructed his conversation on cinema from an industry, and thus, tentpole, and thus, business point.

I totally disagree with his comment on 2013 being a bad year for cinema, but that's because I'm not framing my conversation and look into cinema the same way as he is. From the industry and tentpole perspective I can totally see how this statement would have some validity.

What strikes me here is that cinema (audio-visual entertainment or something else) is cinema. It's such an amorphous beast, constantly befuddling and beguiling and breathtaking merely because it still is, even among more immediate "transmedia" modes of communication, the thing that clues us all into each other on the biggest scale possible. I'm not really talking globally loved or big bank blockbusters, I'm talking about that pulse of humanity. When cinema taps into that, is reflective of where we are at in some collective sense (whether or not its a good movie based on some critical standard is kind of irrelevant), that's kind of well... beguiling and awesome.

I think even though Matt goes and digs around and makes some statements that not everyone is going to agree with, he closes with a line that reflects that constantly amorphous thing called cinema...

"The future is merely the future."

For me that means no "death of cinema". Evolution of art, of business, of culture, is weird and messy and hard to keep up with even if we are the ones driving.

jacklaughingJanuary 8, 2014 4:14 PM

Eh, but so what? Does this conceit go anywhere? Is the villain or his patsy really all that interesting once the reveal happens? Nope. Does McGuyStark beat the bad guy on his own terms? Nope. It ends as any Marvel movie does, with a big CGI-heavy fight against a fairly one-note super-powered glowey-eyed villain. I guess the big creative leap here is that they employ a dozen or so Iron Man suits, but in an entirely meaningless way.

jacklaughingJanuary 8, 2014 4:20 PM

You've got that wrong. Blockbusters didn't spring a leak in 2013 as far as Hollywood is concerned. Revenues overall were up for 2013, even if the margin is small. The top grossing films will include Iron Man 3, Gravity, Despicable Me 2, Hobbit 2, Fast and Furious 6, and Hunger Games 2. Only one of those is "original."

Hollywood has zero incentive to do anything different based on 2013.

Pa Kent Says MaybeJanuary 8, 2014 5:18 PM

And a third thing...What's with all the different rules? A Blockbuster succeeds if it makes a shit-load of money, but an example of "cinema" has to push boundaries and innovate? Fans of one thing are hive-minded? Fans of the other like being punched in the face and don't want to be bothered by characters and droopy second acts

Is all the science in on this yet, or are we just making it up as we go along?

Pa Kent Says MaybeJanuary 8, 2014 5:19 PM

Another chicken heard from. This is where you get eggs. It's a FACT OF LIFE.

Pa Kent Says MaybeJanuary 8, 2014 5:20 PM

I think the "small margin" denotes a leak. You know, some tires deflate slowly, but they still go flat.

Todd BrownJanuary 8, 2014 5:53 PM

Try another adult heard from, one who understands that when you spend millions of dollars of someone else's money it comes with strings attached. The more you spend, the more you cede control thus if what you want is freedom the key is to not spend.

Todd BrownJanuary 8, 2014 5:55 PM

Correct. Blockbusters have always been 'high risk, high reward'. If that skews to 'high risk, low reward' then the system crumbles. Look at MGM's recent history as an example. Or New Line - a major company destroyed by the massive failure of the Golden Compass.

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 5:57 PM

I won't talk you out of it!

Todd BrownJanuary 8, 2014 6:01 PM

If I could up vote this five times, I would. Refusing to draw boundaries between arthouse and genre / mainstream and indie / domestic and foreign has been a guiding principle at Twitch from day one. People can and are fans of multiple segments there. The business realities are very different, to be sure, but a film's a film's a film in my book.

Less Lee MooreJanuary 8, 2014 6:12 PM

Now I'm going to be thinking of/looking form movies that have this kind of innovation. Does it go beyond genre-blending? For me, one of my recent faves was Resolution because it was so "other." It wasn't horror, or sci fi, or comedy, or drama, but it was also all of those things. I'm not so hung up on amazing visuals as innovation anymore. I mean, yes, that impresses me, but interesting narrative structure is more impressive to me. Which is probably why I liked Hellaware more than Gravity.

Less Lee MooreJanuary 8, 2014 6:13 PM

Yes, I would read them!

Less Lee MooreJanuary 8, 2014 6:13 PM

But empirical knowledge counts for a lot, in my book.

Mr. CavinJanuary 8, 2014 7:37 PM

It always seemed very reflexive to me.

Andrew JamesJanuary 8, 2014 8:33 PM

Here's the thing though. Just speaking for myself, I'm really into choreography and color and composition. And then end sequence goes for broke in those departments. What's great about IM3 is that it departs from nearly all other blockbuster super hero movies (or big robot movies) in that in the end it isn't just a robot fighting a bigger version of itself (Pacific Rim, Transformers, Man of Steel, etc.). They just go for broke and make a spectacle - a spectacle that isn't just two creatures throwing themselves through buildings for 45 minutes. It's a big dance that is playfully worked out. I'm not sure what you mean by using the word "meaningless." It might not be "Dallas Buyers Club" level meaning but it has meaning on its own terms and its pretty damn fun.

**SPOILERS for IM3**

As for the villain reveal, is it interesting? Certainly, in a distancing themselves from a trope sort of way. I think having Kingsley playing a slack-jawed stoner for the betterment of an international terrorist ring is pretty damn interesting - or at the very least super fun. And funNY.

But basically you're missing the point if you focus on the big fight and the villain. This is a movie about a man finding himself and building a bond with a kid under an amazingly clever and funny script. No it's not "Mud" but it's not intended to be.

I guess all I can say is that I hate these types of movies (IM1 & 2 bore the shit out of me). I pretty much loathe every comic book super hero movie (almost) to come down the pike for the past... I don't know, many many years let's say. And IM3 went right into my top three of the year. I think that says a lot about what this movie had in mind and what it did creatively with the genre.

Andrew JamesJanuary 8, 2014 8:34 PM

Mostly that scene works because it has the only good performance in the entire trilogy. Ian McDiarmid is pretty damn good in that moment.

Andrew JamesJanuary 8, 2014 8:45 PM

Just to throw out some more anecdotal evidence, I just got home from Walter Mitty. This thing had some of the best marketing of the year in terms of creativity in its posters and trailers. People were going ga ga for this thing over the summer when the marketing started to pop up... for about two weeks. Then I never heard word one. No one ripping it, no one praising it. I don't think anyone even saw it.

And while I didn't love it, I really wanted to like it more than I did. Mostly for the sake of its visual and storytelling creativity. The pacing was a little clunky and I think some of its points were too squarely hitting us in the head (though I think it was totally aware of that fact), but it was a good ride and did a lot of things I hadn't seen before. By all accounts, this should have been a general audience wet dream over the holidays. What happened? Probably creativity. People didn't know what to make of it so they went to see The Hobbit - a brand they could trust. It's really unfortunate.

matthewfabbJanuary 8, 2014 9:33 PM

Well, within Disney you have Pixar who decided not to put out a movie in 2014 because the ones they were working on still needed work.

Meanwhile, Disney's latest film (together with other companies) is Saving Mr. Bank.

Meanwhile one of Disney's latest movies, on of their biggest animated movies in quite some time, Frozen is an original (based off an old fairy tale, bus so were many old Disney animated movies).

I do see what you are saying with Disney focusing on franchises, but I don't think it's all bad. Will there ever be another Tim Burton coming from Disney? I dunno, I think that type a personality would more work in tv on some quirky adult animated show. Not a comment of tv versus film, just how the animation industry has evolved, as animation is where Burton got his start.

matthewfabbJanuary 8, 2014 10:12 PM

Creatively, I personally didn't find that 2013 was that great of a year for movies. However, it wasn't that off of a year compared to other years. Blockbusters have always been hit and miss from year to year, some better than others.

I do see cinema changing, especially when it comes to pricing, but I don't see it completely eliminating the story just to focus on the audio & visual thrills. There's a few movies that are stupid and big action that do well, but with a few exceptions movies need to have decent stories to move the action to do well.

You mention that people are interested in visiting Pandora, not the internal demons of Jake Sully but that Avatar is only a few years old and no one has managed to sell the public on another Pandora-like experience without Jake Sully yet. Yes, because of the expenses behind movies, studios want more than ever "sure things" with built in audiences, but I don't think the system can survive going too far into the audio visual thrills with no story and still keep people coming.

Then again, I remember great Transformers comics with great stories a kid and believe that in the right hands they could make a wonderful Transformers movie with an interesting story without any humans in it. :)

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJanuary 8, 2014 10:43 PM

I'm not sure how the Burton thing, which was an off the cuff example of individual creative voice nurtured within an older studio matrix, has somehow become for people the crux of what I was saying.

My point was and is this: the days of anything even smelling slightly original at studios -- especially Disney -- are at an end for the foreseeable future.

I think your point about television being the current incubator of talent is valid -- in fact, it is interesting to note that in the last 5-10 years the standard script submission for getting staffed on shows has changed from a spec of either that show or another high profile show currently airing (to demonstrate one could write "in voice") has changed to a desire for original pilot specs (to show one has their "own voice").

Your points on the Disney slate this year are another matter: FROZEN -- while a decent movie -- can only be thought of as "original" in a very generous context. It is branded from one of the oldest sources for Hollywood, Hans Christian Andersen, and exists firmly within the narrow context of what Disney Animated is expected to do. Add to FROZEN the previous TANGLED, Pixar-inspired PLANES as well as the upcoming PLANES: FIRE & RESCUE from the animation studio, and I'm not sure who would try to make the claim that D.A. is a repository of original ideas.

Pixar is a source of good -- and original -- movies, but because of their mandate, you will never get very far beyond what is expected of a Pixar film (TOY STORY 3's version of SCHINDLER'S LIST not-withstanding). Not that they should, but Pixar would never be seen making a PLAGUE DOGS or even A CAT IN PARIS.

But they DID put a movie out this year -- another sequel, the charming-if-underwhelming MONSTERS UNIVERSITY.

As for Big Disney and SAVING MR. BANKS, most of the marketing pushed the songs from MARY POPPINS, not the story of PL Travers. And the tale of Bob Iger's reason for making it is well publicized: he felt -- probably rightly -- that if someone else made a movie about Walt Disney, P.L. Travers and MARY POPPINS, Disney would look like a bunch of yobs. The movie was a nice, little, Behind-The-Scenes-DVD-extra-turned-into-feature of a pre-existing Platinum Title in the Disney arsenal.

As for the other Disney releases, here's what you had: OZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL, IRON MAN 3, THE LONE RANGER and THOR: THE DARK WORLD. Two Marvel films and two films based on (by pop-culture standards) ancient properties.

What's in store for Disney in 2014?


Of everything on their slate, only TOMORROWLAND looks slightly original... and its (sort of) based on TOMORROWLAND!!

Again, I'm not saying Disney -- or any other studio -- will never again release any true "original" films. They'll use negative pick-ups to pad the slate and dilute their on-paper exposure. But the days of actually MAKING something because the studio loves it? That's almost done.

PatJanuary 8, 2014 11:18 PM

Wow! You just explained the whole "is it art" question in three paragraphs. I think my head is going to go Crononberg and explode!

Blind_Boy_Grunt_1235January 9, 2014 2:15 AM

The twist might have meant something had the "real" Mandarin not turned out to be such a stock bad guy himself. That charming faux mandarin scene doesn't make up for the paint-by-numbers Guy Pierce character, who was as rote as any villain ever seen on screen. Unfortunately, we spend a lot more time with him than we do with stoner Kingsley. The filmmakers applied wit and imagination everywhere but where it counted most.

davebaxterJanuary 9, 2014 5:46 AM

I don't think it's accurate to say that art didn't exist for the vast majority of human history - if humans were making anything at all, art was a part of that. Shelter, weapons, clay or stone utensils, anything of that nature also came with an artistic element to it. Those who could make them prettier, or more dynamic, or stronger or more durable or more effective were very much the early artists of their time. If certain people could make things better than others, their "things" would be valuable to others who could not make them so well. So in that sense, yes, commerce has always been an inseparable human element to art's existence. If it's recognizable as "art", this means it's recognized by others as "valuable". And "value" only exists int he sense of commerce and coveting.

It also isn't quite accurate to say that art requires commercial aspects - it doesn't, but the consumption of art does, because awareness and desire of any given work of art only occurs due to marketing and distribution. It has to be recognized, and it has to be available. Otherwise, it exists only to the artist.

tl;dr version -> art = craft, but craft does not necessarily = art. Art requires an act of creation, not just construction.

So as GhostOfGriffinMill mentions below, with how the ability to develop/create story or marketing strategy has deteriorated in H-wood, so has the "art" of movie making in the studios. When everything is assembed via a pre-made formula, art is not present, only craft. That's the reason we also use the term art as in "the art of marketing" or "art of diplomacy", etc. When it's inspired and creative, unique to the specific situation, it's art. When it's hitting beats, damn the specifics, it's just labor/craft.

Todd BrownJanuary 9, 2014 11:35 AM

I'm saying that the modern conception of 'art' and the inviolate nature of 'artists' didn't exist. Obviously people were making stuff. My point is that virtually ALL of the great works of art throughout history were created under the EXACT SAME CIRCUMSTANCES that people are decrying now as being somehow inherently anti-art. And, that being the case, that particular argument is obviously false.

davebaxterJanuary 9, 2014 3:49 PM

Sort of: not quite the "exact" same circumstances. It's about balance. It's about the ability for artists to be in fact creative to harmonize with the ability to sell it. One side should never completely trump the other, and criticism toward the business side is generally about people believing the balance is tilting out of whack. Again, to point to the example below about how marketing is now driving creative decisions (and this is now true in publishing as well as in film, marketing has to approve editorial acquisitions across the board), this is new, and unhealthy for the "art" side of the equation.

Business minded people will always criticize irresponsible artists that just want to spend, spend, spend to achieve risky creative visions. Creative folk will always criticize the business side as being stifling to creative expressions, etc. Both sides are generally always right. Both sides need to be continually reigned in and counter-balanced to keep the balance. The argument has always existed, artists throughout history has complained about the need for sponsors and the demands they make. Sponsors/investors have forever complained about lack of output, overly risky new creations, and the like. But that's as it should be. Only when we try to quash the voice of one side of the argument are we running into troubled territory.

Todd BrownJanuary 9, 2014 5:10 PM

You think Michelangelo had final word when painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel? You think Dickens didn't develop his entire wordy writing style because he got paid by the word? Yeah, it's the same circumstances. The question is who's gifted enough to still do interesting things while keeping the money people happy.

davebaxterJanuary 9, 2014 7:52 PM

You are weirdly antagonistic sometimes. By your model, whatever the money people want or expect can never be unreasonable or even self-destructive from an industry standpoint. Which is obviously untrue.

Michelangelo may or may not have had final say in anything he did, but in most cases he fought for whatever control he did maintain. Do you think he passively did whatever his money people wanted unquestioning? Do you think Dickens simply waited for orders from his editors and then did only that and begged for forgiveness if he did otherwise? I don't know why you think there's no give and take in this, but that's a brain dead belief. Keeping money people happy does not = complete happiness at all times, it means finding the balance that keeps them happy ENOUGH to keep them coming back. It's a constant tug of war and should be.

Todd BrownJanuary 9, 2014 11:03 PM

Asking questions is antagonistic? Funnily enough, I thought it was meant to encourage examination of multiple sides of an issue.

First of all, not everything I write is about you though I'm flattered you often seem to think it is. You have lovely eyes. Second of all, disagreeing with you in no way equates to disrespecting your opinions when that happens to be the case, as I've always thought you're quite well thought out. Third, I actually AGREE with you here. The people I disagree with are the hardcore 'There's no space for commerce in art' people. Art and commerce are not enemies and never have been. The push and pull between the two urges is where the most interesting stuff happens.

davebaxterJanuary 10, 2014 4:41 AM

Asking questions in particular ways can be construed as antagonistic, especially vs. alternate ways readily available. Starting any question with "You think" is a personal phrasing. You can say it "isn't about you [me]", but it would be nice if your chosen language backed that up.

I never think that your disagreeing with me is about respect or disrespect (and generally don't care either way, I'm not here to for respect issues). But I do think sometimes you come on in a weirdly antagonistic way when the antagonism, and even the disagreement, seems awfully tenuous or light. Hence the "weirdly" part. It's also weird to me, sometimes, when you fight to claim absolutes, which I don't even think you believe, but probably are just accustomed to speaking in.

Lastly, if you do agree with me here, which I'm not sure you actually do, why the heavily disagreeing responses? I'm pretty sure we aren't agreeing unless you don't actually hold to a lot of what you've already typed here.

Todd BrownJanuary 10, 2014 7:43 AM

The only part of what you've said that I factually disagree with is that commerce only factors in after creation. Commerce more often then not is a fundamental requirement of creation and is there, exercising it's influence, from inception. Particularly in the case of film, where the creators need someone to post millions of dollars for the 'artist' to make anything at all. Or in the case of the Sistine Chapel, where scores of workers were hired, commissioned, and put on payroll for years. Or in the case of Dickens, who shaped his writing style based on the fact he was paid by the word.

If you think I'm unbalanced in one direction it's because I think the VAST majority of people who enter into these conversations in these forums are unbalanced in the other and are woefully naive about how these things actually work. People often talk about how daring and bold and risky artists are. But really, what are they risking? What does PT Anderson personally risk making The Master, for example? Really, what? Absolutely nothing. The person bearing all the risk is actually Megan Ellison. And people are very dismissive of that. (I would use Von Trier as an example but his investors are more of a consortium of government and private sources. Same principal holds but there's no one face to point to.)

You make an awful lot of assumptions about other people's intent, Dave, particularly those you disagree with, and it leads you to take a lot of things personally that really aren't.

Todd BrownJanuary 10, 2014 9:27 AM

To put another angle on this, let's talk about development, more specifically the lack of it on the studio level. People talk about this all the time as a major contributor to the lack of original content in studio films. They are correct. It is. Where they are not correct is in talking about this as a creative problem. It's not. It's a business problem, rooted 100% solely in commerce and a short sighted business model.

Development is someone with deep pockets saying to themselves "If I invest x dollars in putting y number of people to work writing stories under the supervision of these other experienced people who can help shape, craft and otherwise mentor them into the best possible shape then I have a high probability of making z dollars back at some point down the road." The studios aren't doing this because they believe pre-existing brand awareness is a safer bet (which is their right) and the result is a bunch of people shrieking as loudly as they can about creative bankruptcy and the importance of art. And this accomplishes NOTHING. It has always accomplished NOTHING and it always will accomplish NOTHING. Because it's the wrong conversation to have.

People don't develop to support art so shouting at them about the need for originality means nothing to them. They develop as an investment, as commerce. If you want to actually make a difference then the way to do it is to shut up about creative bankruptcy - which just devolves into white noise which is dead simple to tune out - and make an argument based on cost-benefit. Demonstrate the commercial value. Respect the commerce and the 'art' will follow. Ellison understands this and is playing the long game. The more success she has in financial terms, the more others will follow her. But they'll do it to make money, not to make art.

davebaxterJanuary 10, 2014 5:05 PM

To clarify, I argued that commerce came second historically, not comes second perpetually, and in fact the core point was how creation, if shared, demands commerce to spontaneously emerge, making the two inseparable. That was me agreeing with you on the idea that business can never be separate from "art" (since "art" requires social sharing of the creation), while also arguing that the argument of "is it art" was nevertheless not as clean cut as you were/are laying it out.

First of all, creation does still take place minus business interests from an incipient standpoint. When the first rudimentary "films" were created, a business minded guy didn't come to an engineer and say "make me something that can capture photographs of real life but in motion" and then the engineer went to work. When the first film maker wanted to try to use this new technology to capture moving images like trains, it was an idea they came up with on their own, only later commodified when audience response to these images proved worthwhile. It's not that money wasn't needed for any early creation - it's different in any single case depending on the specifics, but often trailblazers fund their own early creations, or there's more of an interplay between creation and commerce - the idea is had, blueprints drawn, maybe a demo or prototype made, and then begging for additional money is needed. But it is not as simple as business first, creation second, any more than the reverse would be true.

Even trying to argue that in modern film it's business first in the vast majority of cases I don't think is accurate. If you've ever screened for film festivals, which you may have, you'd know that they vast, vast majority of all films made every year are virtual no-budgets with no real funding source to speak of, and vanity projects funded entirely by the core creator. Most of these films are never seen by audiences, but that goes to my point that the business side is more about distribution and marketing than it is about creation. It isn't necessary, strictly speaking, for creation, ever. Films CAN be made without much if any business acumen or support, and are every single year. But distribution and marketing are not. The most no-budget of films still have to hope to be supported by the right distributor and/or sales agent or festival, etc. or they're buried. And if they're lucky enough to get this support, it becomes all business: title changes, edits, rights contracts, royalties, MGs, term limits, etc.

Taking your own example of PT Anderson and Megan Ellison, this is still overly simplistic. PT Anderson does risk something, he risks his career and viability as a commercial director every time he makes something. With expensive films being an investment game, it isn't true that anyone can squander money and simply go get more of it. It's not all-or-nothing, but careers do stall when the squandering is significant. Just like a dreamer with his/her own start-up, if the business fails, it won't be easy to get money for a new start-up. The investor may risk their money, and hence their ability to invest, but the creator risks their ability to create. There is some equivalence.

This also wraps us back to my point on balance: whatever the risk that Megan Ellison is taking, the question is how well she's hedging the risk. If she wants to get behind PT Anderson, if that strikes her as a wise business decision, then that would also assume a certain level (not total, but a certain level) of non-interference due to PT Anderson's track record, except where the creator might be overly ambitious and disregarding certain risks - it's something the business side has to balance, their own interests without crippling the creative side which has already proven successful, as that proven success is largely why they're working with the particular creative side at all. This wraps back to my point that business does not entirely come before all creation, business more often hunts down successful or potential-laden creation and then tries to benefit from it moving forward. Also this wraps back to the point that development used to occur as a harmonious part of the balance. Tentpole-wise, the balance has definitely tilted to the side of the business, with budgets ballooning and company after company whittling down their attempts to diversify and instead commit to 6 or 7 mega-budgets a year, which of course demand total business mindedness and zero creativity to stay sane while throwing that kind of money around.

Lastly, no, I don't make assumptions. I take your comments at face value, as text. If you write your thoughts out in a particular way, I'm not going to assume your intent, I'll just take in your words. It's why I often think you're "weirdly" antagonistic - just when I think we are finding common ground, you'll respond in a textual tone that seems like a complete about face. All I've got to go on is your chosen phraseology. That's the exact opposite of making assumptions.

davebaxterJanuary 10, 2014 5:13 PM

Yeah, this is basically what I just wrote above about business often sniffing out and pouncing upon proven or demonstrably potential-laden things vs. business always having to come first. I think when you constantly call this "commerce first" (respect the commerce, the "art" will follow) I still think that's the wrong order. We're saying the same thing but drawing distinctly opposing conclusions. Respecting the commerce first, is what the studios do, and no art follows from this. So it has to be accepted that it's more complicated that that. PT Anderson and Ellison is a fine example, but it should be noted that this is not "commerce first". This is the fluid interplay of art and commerce wherein the two become inseparable. If art is ever a part of the equation, business cannot simply come first. If business does come first, then there will never be any art element, a la the studios. That's why people decry the pure business first model, which they should.

Todd BrownJanuary 11, 2014 10:11 AM

See, you're making assumptions here based on your own position and not at all on what I actually said. I said you need to respect the commerce, not be a slave to it. Those aren't the same thing. If the creator takes a practical view of the economics of making a film what it does is set boundaries and limitations that they need to be aware of and function within but, provided they do that, they can be completely free to do whatever they want within those bounds. What the really exceptional directors do is NOT to flaunt the commercial aspect of what they're doing but learn to manipulate it to their own advantage.

Limitation is not antithetical to 'art'. Never has been. In fact many would argue that it's working within a certain structure that, in many cases, allows people to identify and appreciate the truly exceptional. That's the entire basis of the Dogme 95 movement. And haiku. And the auteurs that have risen out of the Japanese pinku scene. Different areas, obviously, but the principal is exactly the same.

What a good producer does - and I'm going to use Ellison as an example again here - is to look at a proposed project, work out what budget is required to make it, and then figure out what elements (often cast) need to be included to provide a firm financial footing for the project to recoup or hopefully turn some profit so that the director can go on to make more films.

Use Von Trier as an example here. With Antichrist - a film driven by commercial need - Von Trier respected the business side of things probably more than he ever has in his career. He kept the budget to appropriate levels, he included marketable cast, and he worked in a genre that is proven to be profitable. After ticking those boxes he was free to do more or less whatever he wanted and the results are one of the best films he's ever made, one that is purely and uniquely his own, and own that did exactly what they needed it to do financially. A success on all levels. With Nymphomaniac he disregarded the commercial demands entirely and spent 15 million dollars trying to make a five hour sex film that would not be commercially releasable in his version. Result? His own company took the film away from him and recut it without his approval.

Which of these is the better result?

Todd BrownJanuary 11, 2014 10:22 AM

Not only have I screened for film festivals - I've programmed somewhere around twenty or thirty in the last eight years - I've attended every major film sales market of the last eight years and am part of a production company that is actively out there financing and creating films. And what you're saying is factually wrong.

The VAST majority of indies are financed by investors who have an expectation of, at minimum, recouping their investment if not turning a profit. If they fail to do so they will never, ever invest in a film again and hat source of investment disappears. There's a commercial expectation, even in the indie scene. As there very much is in the international world, where films are heavily subsidized by heavily bureaucratic government institutions that have a high degree of control over what sort of content is backed and makes it to the big screen. The strings are different but there are just as many strings attached with the money that comes into indie and international film productions.

Further, you seem to be arguing from a position that says there is more 'art' and more 'quality' coming out of the independent and international world. Again, this is factually not correct and overlooks the fact that what audiences actually SEE from those worlds in North America is HEAVILY pre-selected for quality.

Take a festival like Sundance. They haven't announced this years submissions stats but they'll have looked at literally thousands of films while putting together the selection. Of those, if it's a good year, there will be three or four truly great films, perhaps another five or ten really good ones, and the rest will split audiences to varying degrees. So, as a ratio, you're looking at something like a 1% hit rate of high quality films.

It's the same in the international market ... distributors only by the good stuff, but going to the markets I watch hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of truly awful films. And those are only the ones judged good enough to garner representation and be taken out into the world, there are even more that don't make it that far.

The quality ratio in the independent and international world is NO BETTER than what comes out of Hollywood and is arguably actually worse. The only difference is that when Hollywood makes a dog they release it anyway to recoup whatever they can. When an indie fails it does so quietly, outside of the public eye.

And you're reading of 'tone' is absolutely an assumption. A very, very big one.

Ard VijnJanuary 11, 2014 11:03 AM

Oh, you've written reviews in the past? ;-)

davebaxterJanuary 11, 2014 8:24 PM

No, I'm not "making assumptions". I'm arguing about your very clearly stated belief in the absolute ORDER of commerce and only then art. Whether it's semantically a "respect" for commerce or slavery to it, you still said it came in that order, which I have from the beginning been arguing against as my core point and focus.

Also, your definition of making an assumption seems to be anyone who misconstrues your argument as it exists in your mind based on words that (again, in your mind) can't be misconstrued. All of which are assumptions of your own.

Let's even take your own ignoring of what I've already written: I've already argued that development is creation. Ellison can't look at "a proposed project" without - you guessed it - a proposed project. You can't draft a budget without a lot of the creative details being known. You can't cast until the characters and what they are and what they do and the size of their roles are largely locked. This is all part of the creative process. The current studio process ignores this, and in that way there is no creation before the commerce. This is generally a shitty idea. Godzilla started shooting without a script. This apparently happens a lot with tentpoles. It's a shitty idea.

Also, again, initially creators do not have experiences producers to do these things for them. The business element often comes only after creators have proven their worth through a combination of ingenuity, luck, and actual talent, making smaller films that gain great response. THEN businesses minded people zero in. Or investors will start to talk to the now more experienced producers, etc.

All of these examples you're giving here are from directors well within the commercial era of their careers. They're making the kind of films with the kind of talent that all demand a certain level of commerce to be involved, and so they do that. When they don't, then consequences follow, sure. But this isn't strictly necessary, or even available, for all films however. Commerce can and does come before film. But you're talking about a particular corner of the industry only when you say that commerce must come first. No, it musn't. If you disagree with that, then we flatly disagree. If you don't, then we don't.

Todd BrownJanuary 11, 2014 9:47 PM

That is very clearly, explicitly, and definitely NOT what I said, Dave. Read it again.

Here's the actual quote:

"I think the entire 'art' conversation is misguided at its core. What we have here is craft - a blend of technical ability, some sort of aesthetic sense with enough commerce blended in to keep the whole thing sustainable - which in those lucky cases where someone truly exceptional crafts something equally exceptional (or someone less exceptional happens to get lucky) we end up with something of lasting value that we term 'art' after the fact. But the roots of everything lie in craft and the commercial aspect of that craft does not at all need to be in conflict with the 'art'. In fact it's the opposite ... if the commercial aspects aren't tended to and taken seriously the entire thing falls apart and there's no opportunity for the 'art' to happen at all."

Either you have very poor reading skills or are letting your assumptions and pre-judgements cloud everything that has followed from this first statement. My entire position sums up like this: The vast majority of 'art' through history has been created on a for hire basis and if you don't take the commercial demands seriously you don't get to actually MAKE anything, art or not. Having an idea for a film is not making a film.

davebaxterJanuary 12, 2014 12:10 AM

Todd, it's ridiculously hypocritical to toss around the "assumption" card as much as you do. To claim that someone else is assuming anything - something you can never know - is itself an assumption. Either converse about a comment or don't, but don't intellectually cockblock from a self-made soapbox.

Also, I noticed you've been going back and adding a lot to previous comments after I've already read them. That's not a complaint, per se, just want you to know there's a lot of what you add later that I'm not reading because I don't know it's there.

A few comments on things I'm only now reading:
1) I definitely never said (go back and see) that there was more quality in the indie or "art" scene. Ratio wise it's far worse, which was my actual point - the sheer NUMBER of indie no-budgets that rely on self-financing or family/friends. Many of these films are not even in the 50-75K range, guaranteed. They're in the few thousand dollar range. If you think otherwise, you've simply been dealing with a different echelon for too long. Even those in the few tens of thousand range are self-financed (usually credit), government financed, or, again, family/friends. This is not entirely a non-commerce issue, but it is a different world than a investment from the professional finance world.

It also sounds like you haven't screened in a while, but rather programmed and/or produced. When you screen with the first round, you'll note the MAJORITY of films being beyond no-budget. Probably they wouldn't have a clue about deliverables if they ever got to that point, but that has nothing to do with creation.

2) Also, the issue of cost of delivery to sales agents or distributors goes back to my point that commerce has more to do with distribution and marketing than it does with creation.

3) Post costs are often avoided by who-you-know favors and/or film makers that can do it themselves and have access to the equipment. This is a cheat, in a way, but throughout history creators have found ways around costs, while maintaining surprising quality. Saying there is a bare minimum for any film is factually wrong. You only need money if you're paying people. Sometimes it is unavoidable. But sometimes it isn't.

4) I don't know why you think I'm arguing about quality between indie vs. Hollywood. I'm not. I'm not sure you've grasped my argument at all thus far, but I'll give it another go: I'm arguing the need to forever have the "art vs. commerce" struggle/question. I'm arguing it isn't misguided and that a lot of the absolutes you're laying out here are not absolute, which is key to understand why the question isn't misguided.

What you just quoted above IS what I'm arguing against. If you think we're agreeing, or I'm not arguing a stance you haven't taken, re-read our conversation. I'm am arguing with a great deal with what you've said. You can say I'm not, but that doesn't make it so.

With what you just quoted alone, I have argued 1) craft does not necessarily = art, they are NOT the same thing. 2) no, you can't just take care of the commerce and the art will happen, which either is or is uncomfortably close to what you inferred with "if the commercial aspects aren't tended to and taken seriously the
entire thing falls apart and there's no opportunity for the 'art' to
happen at all". The studio system is primo example of why this is not so simple. It's not untrue, but it's a simplification that I have since been trying to argue why it's more complex than this, and due to the complexity of actual reality vs. your axiom, arguments against commerce tipping the balance between itself and "art" is not misguided.

If you believe the opposing argument is "commerce should just step aside", that isn't' the argument, that sounds instead like your own dismissal based on assumptions that the least eloquent among us have defined the argument properly. I can show you the least eloquent babblings of ANY stance on ANY issue and it will always read or sound stupid and be easy to dismiss. These are never the actual (or at least not the full) argument.

The points that I continue to argue that you have yet to address, or else we do just agree to disagree are as follows:

1) The commerce/art system is not identical throughout history or from project to project. It has adapted and gone through revolutions consistently. I objected to your use of calling this "THE EXACT SAME" because it's a key distinction to understand why voices against commerce overtaking art are still important. The system is not exactly the same pretty much ever. It's always a constant struggle to keep the commerce side from eating its own dead, which it will if the art side is entirely passive. Because the system is constantly in flux, the tension between the two sides remains. Like social change, these things don't take care of themselves. You fight for what you believe in because that's the only way it'll ever happen.

You ever read Moorcock? Think of it as Chaos vs. Law. The system/universe IS the battle between these two forces. If the battle stopped, one side would overwhelm the other and everything dies. This would occur whether it was the commerce side or the art side that wins. Pure commerce will kill the industry as eventually as pure art would. You get what I'm getting at here? That the argument is essential, not misguided.

sitenoiseJanuary 12, 2014 1:06 AM

Todd, I think Dave is doing a reasonable job of exposing some of the implications of what you are saying. You have an incredibly good eye for recognizing TALENT, creativity, and originality (with the implication here being: Art, maybe not as much. But I'm not saying that).

Todd BrownJanuary 12, 2014 7:41 AM

I categorically do not believe that you can make the assessment on whether something is art in the moment of creation. That's an assessment that requires time and perspective. I think you need a gap of around ten years to have that conversation in any meaningful way as things that appear to be meaningful in the moment often prove to be utter fluff over time while things that are dismissed often prove to have immense importance. All you can do in the moment is pay attention to craft and talent.

Todd BrownJanuary 12, 2014 7:58 AM

Ah, yes, I'm cock blocking by pointing out I haven't said what you say I've said. Right.

1. XYZ Films - where I'm a partner - represents 20 to 30 American indie films on the domestic market every year. Most of which are of the micro budget variety, all of which we deal with the producers and directors on a day to day basis with. I'm intimately familiar with the circumstances under which they're made, thanks. And I stand by every word I've said on that matter. Your experience is what?

You also don't program without screening, Dave. I've programmed at least two major festivals every year for the last eight years. At my peak I programmed for five a year. As a direct part of the programming process I personally screen four to five hundred films a year. I see probably that many again for XYZ purposes.

2. This costs are necessary if anyone is ever to see the final product and I would say that engagement with an audience is a necessary prerequisite for something to be art. And the fact that there are further expenses required to reach that stage does not in any way negate the costs required in initial creation.

3. There are forms of commerce other than financial.

4. When what your making costs - at the absolute minimum - the equivalent of a year's salary either in cash or in kind / time investments then, yes, commerce will always be an intrinsic part of it. I've never said 'craft=art', I've said craft is the basis and in exceptional cases people rise above that. It's all craft but only some is art.

sitenoiseJanuary 12, 2014 10:15 AM

But if you gave the order that Santiago wasn't to be touched, and your orders are always followed. Then why would Santiago be in any danger?

Wait. Where am I? Sorry, I blacked out for a minute.

davebaxterJanuary 12, 2014 6:27 PM

Yes, you're cockblocking because you have said what you said, I clearly used your own quote and went back to point out what I'm arguing based on those words. What I'M arguing is not what you said, of course, because it's MY argument. That seems over your head though.

1) My experience with films is being part of planning and crews, usually as a result of being friends with the film makers and helping out, that have shot and wrapped for between a few hundred dollars to around 20K, all self-financed or raised through friends/family. Others have indeed been closer to 100K-250K (not self or family financed, naturally) and a few in the millions which opens up a whole 'nother angle to the story - when budgets of $10-$12M (I've been involved with two) have such extraordinary above the line costs that the film is made with an effective $3M production budget, and this is not rare. Above the line is not frivolous (producers, directors, etc. need to be compensated) but eating up 3/4 of a budget IS frivolous.

You can program without being in the first round of screening (you usually have to earn your keep for many years though, so I'm sure you've done this, but it's possible you haven't in a while). It's possible you've mostly been seeing those films that make it past the bottom of the barrel screeners. Especially with production values being more important these days than it used to be even at historically "indie" friendly festivals like Sundance, the films without a visibly decent budget now are shunned, regardless of other merits. I don't think this is a terrible thing, per se, but again, this is about distribution and marketing, not creation, and visibly low budget films (and I don't mean films that don't look like Hollywood, I mean films that look like there was NO budget) are not always poor entertainment or quality. There was a time when they thrived in the festival circuit more, I think the pendulum will swing that way again one day, but right now festivals themselves are too much in competition with each other (and in need on financing themselves) to raise up the no-budget tide the way they, at times in the past, have.

I have no idea what kind of deluge you get through XYZ, but again I'd suspect most come through festival circuits or word of mouth, and while odds are most are still not winners, this would still leave out the completely dismissed no-budgets that pay the entry fees and get watched by SOMEone at the lowest rung of the festival screeners, only to be rejected and never watched by anyone in the industry again.

2) Yes. This is precisely my point. Only we disagree that the costs involved in creation are somehow significant in all cases, or at least all cases that matter, which I don't agree with.

3) Not sure what the point of this one is.

4) Re: commerce always being a part of it, yes, I've said as much as well, we agree here. However the specific needs and precisely how significant commercial considerations are for any given project differs greatly depending on the specifics. All "commerce", if defined so broadly, does not demand the same position of importance nor places the same demands on the film maker or the film making.

Re: craft not ='ing art, yes, this is what you said and generally I agree with it, but I have tried to clarify/add to this the concept that art is still something beyond "exceptional craft". It's the difference between a carpenter and an architect. Craftsmen can do genius work, but to boil down artistic expression to really good craft is, I believe, not accurate, and is missing a key element: the vision and goals of an artist vs. that of a craftsman. Craft is the foundation, sure, but it isn't the source. And due to this, while craft rests easier with commerce, art often does not.

"I haven't addressed anything further on the history of the commercial
aspect of art because I don't think you've said anything significant
about it at all."

Lol. You're such a horse's ass.

"There's nothing more purely commercial than a work-for hire..."

Not true. It depends entirely on the strings attached. Artists have long been hired based on their reputation and their patrons gave them varying degrees of freedom, expecting "genius" or "art" or whatever to emerge. Sometimes this worked beautifully. Sometimes it was a disaster. Investment is high risk precisely because it isn't purely commercial - it's a bet. That makes it financial, but not necessarily commercial in all cases.

"...and yet working under that basis didn't stop Michelangelo, Mozart, Dickens etc from creating art."

Certainly. And...? Has anyone argued art can't occur under commercial expectations?

"The ratio of art:crap may not be as high as we'd like but it still
happens and, surprisingly, the ratio under that system appears to be
significantly better than within the purely indie system which, I would
argue, is because the for-hire system places a higher premium on craft."

I would argue otherwise. If you don't agree that the formulas utilized by the studios can produce art, then it's literally something that never occurs. For many, art never happens via the current studio system, the ratio is straight up zero. Within the indie world, there's enough range for virtually everyone to find something the think is trail blazing. Within commercial formulas, you either dig it or you're shit out of luck across the board. The studio system produces a higher ratio of quality craft, but "art" is a more personal thing, and the lack of flexibility that occurs when formula becomes TOO commercial and inflexible, is precisely why it is forever at odds with art.

I know you have a hard time wrapping your oh-so-experienced head around this, but the argument is that the balance can shift too far toward commercial interests, and when it does, it isn't clear that art is just something that can adapt and keep coming without the commercial side stepping back a bit. The argument is about the commercial side being as dexterous as the art side. For them to figure out how to sell something new a la the studio model until fairly recent history, rather than letting pure commercialism call all the shots. TV is actually being this dexterous lately, taking (what looks from the commercial side to be) enormous risks on shows like True Detective, Wilbur, Breaking Bad, etc., and to great effect. The executives that took these risks all have come out and said yes, they were risks, they didn't know how audiences would respond, they didn't see the obvious marketing, they had to figure it out. But they did. They don't do this with every show, but they do it with some. That right there: balance. Studios right now: not balance, or so us nay sayers are nay sayin'.

Todd BrownJanuary 12, 2014 8:57 PM

And a round of applause to Dave for providing a sterling example of the ad hominem argument.

Of course you're arguing your position Dave, the issue is that you're deliberately skewing what I've actually said to claim I've taken a position that I've never actually taken so that you can attack that position. For example, in the comment above saying you're arguing against my position that art=craft, which was never my position at all, which you are interestingly now acknowledging.

Not making headway there, you went on to challenge my credentials to have certain opinions at all (questioning how many indies I actually see in a year) and when that doesn't work out so well retreating into sarcasm and insults.

Yes, Dave, I am more experienced than you in a broad variety of areas, though I'm really not sure what that's got to do with anything. You seem to be having a problem with it, though.

But, you know, well done. You sure are beating the crap out of the straw man that you constructed yourself for that exact purpose. Too bad it has little to nothing to do with what I've actually said which makes almost all of this just fatuous noise.

I will however address this bit at the end:
"I would argue otherwise. If you don't agree that the formulas utilized
by the studios can produce art, then it's literally something that never

So what you're saying here is that the studios literally never produce art. That there is never, ever, ever a work of art produced by mainstream Hollywood. They're all batting a big, fat zero and will continue to do so. Well, given that I can go out right now, head to a local multiplex and see new films by Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese, Spike Jonze, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, and Quentin Tarantino every one of which was directly financed by the Hollywood mainstream to a significant degree (Warner Brothers, Paramount put in most of the money with Leonardo DiCaprio's company producing, Warner Brothers and Sony put in most of the actual money with Annapurna producing, Fox, Columbia / Sony again with Annapurna producing, and The Weinstein Company / Sony respectively) that is a laughably simple position to drive a great big truck through. And that's only what's screening RIGHT NOW and only the ones where I know what stage the money came into play with (Inside Llewyn Davis also has significant Hollywood money in it, I'm just not sure what stage it came in). Broaden the net, expand the time frame and there are twenty or thirty such examples every year. Yes, my own position is that we won't have the necessary distance and context to judge which / if any of these have lasting value as 'art' but I'm reasonably confident at least a couple will merit that sort of label. As a healthy number of films made with the backing of mainstream Hollywood do every year. So, really, if that's what you've got as the basis of our argument then you really need to find a better basis. Because with a foundation as flimsy as that all it takes is a stiff breeze for the whole thing to come down.

And with that, I'm done with you. Despite the fancy dress you're really just arguing a position based in knee jerk dogma that has no connection with the real world. Plus you're petty and tedious and I've got better things to spend my time and energy on.

davebaxterJanuary 13, 2014 12:01 AM

"the issue is that you're deliberately skewing what I've actually said to
claim I've taken a position that I've never actually taken so that you
can attack that position."

No, I didn't. From the beginning I've been adding to your own statements, arguing that your statements are not ENOUGH on their own, and overly simplifying a complex issue. You say "X", I say "Well, not exactly, there's X but there's also Y and Z that changes the whole picture. To which you ignore Y and Z and say you already said X. No shit, sherlock.

"For example, in the comment above saying you're arguing against my position that art=craft, which was never my position at all, which you are interestingly now acknowledging."

I don't quite follow what was never your position at all and what I'm interestingly now acknowledging. Your position was that art was nothing more than craft only exceptional:

("What we have here is craft - a blend of technical ability, some sort of
aesthetic sense with enough commerce blended in to keep the whole thing
sustainable - which in those lucky cases where someone truly exceptional
crafts something equally exceptional")

My position is that this is too simplistic. Art is not exceptional craft, something can be crafted meticulously and still be artistically bankrupt. In my original tl;dr version there was the important piece of "Art requires an act of creation, not just construction."

"Not making headway there, you went on to challenge my credentials to have certain opinions at all"

Uh-huh You flatly called something I said factually untrue, but this "factually untrue" thing it's my factual real life experience. I don't have any explanation why you think it's untrue except a) you haven't had this experience yourself, b) you haven't had it in a long enough time to have forgotten it, or c) you're just being dismissive of certain areas of the industry. I acknowledged from the get go that you likely had the experience when I brought up my original example of the myriad of indie no budgets. You came back with a complete dismissal of the example. Now you tell me: what other recourse does anyone have when a real life experience is called "factually untrue"? All I could do was propose why you might think this way, but repeat and stand by my original assertion, because it IS true.

Plus, right from the get go, when you first called my statement factually untrue, you whipped out your credentials. I didn't ask for them, I did not in fact question them, though you obviously took my example to be a challenge rather than what it was. The entire original quote was: "If you've ever screened for film festivals, which you may have..." and then the example. That's it. That's neither a challenge nor a dismissal of your credentials, but an acknowledgment. You came back with a laundry list resume. Okay, fine, even then I didn't bite. I defended my own experience, which you were adamantly refusing to acknowledge at all, but that's it.

Then, my friend, YOU directly asked me what MY credentials were after once again repeating how awfully experienced you are, and directly stating that you were more experienced than me. All of this without me bringing up the topic at all. Yes, I'm certain you are most very likely more experienced than me. But I guarantee you I'm not as inexperienced as you think.

"Yes, Dave, I am more experienced than you in a broad variety of
areas, though I'm really not sure what that's got to do with anything."

Me either!

"You seem to be having a problem with it, though."

Nope. Feel free to stop inserting it into the conversation since, as you yourself just said, it doesn't have anything to do with anything.

"So what you're saying here is that the studios literally never produce art."

No. I'm saying that when and if studios stop practicing diversity and commercial dexterity, the ability to create art for any particular person becomes a simple equation: you either buy it or you don't. If you're one of the people who don't buy it, then you're shit out of luck, because the lack of diversity and dexterity means there won't be any other kind. Some people will be able to find studio style films art. But "art" is personal, and it's just as valid to find zero studio films as art. And IF the diversity winnows down as it has lately, it becomes a ratio far smaller than indies, as only those who can accept the small range of studio films as art will ever GET art out of it. It's the difference between having a wide field of art schools to sample from vs. having only one. Within the one school, if the style itself is something you can't enjoy as art, you simply never will. If someone doesn't like Norman Rockwell, it doesn't matter how many Norman Rockwell pieces they look at. Diversity is essential to having art for people beyond a single group.

This has all been about the theoretical need for the argument of art vs. commerce. Not a screed against the industry precisely as it exists this very moment (though there are some elements, such as the ascendency of marketing-as-development, that I think are good examples).

"Well done, sir. Well done. 'Well, of course I'm using YOUR words but it
doesn't matter if I actually really use them because now they're mine.'
Yes, sir, that's a champion way to have a discussion right there."

No, son, yet once again I will say: I. AM. Arguing. Against. What. YOU. Actually. Said. Full stop.

Then: My own argument is my own and is not your words. But it is an argument against and in addition to your words, yes. I only say this because you're continually denying that I'm arguing anything you said, but that's untrue.

I am neither putting words into your mouth or misinterpreting what you said. I have said from the beginning that what you say is overly simplistic and there's more to it. All the "more to it" parts are my own words. But this has caused you to say I'm not arguing what you said. I am: unless you can say that you agree with everything that I've said, then all those things you disagree with are the "in addition to/more to it" parts, and we're arguing them. Or I am, anyway. I think all these additional parts are important to add to what you originally said, and change the dynamic between commerce and art that you originally laid out. I've been saying this from the very, very beginning.

"And with that, I'm done with you. Despite the fancy dress you're really
just arguing a position based in knee jerk dogma that has no connection
with the real world. Plus you're petty and tedious and I've got better
things to spend my time and energy on."

Well, as long as we end it with name calling and superciliousness, I suppose it's all good."