“Hey Eckhart! Think about the future!”
It hit me the other day, after watching the decade-late quasi-sequel to The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, that we’re 10 years removed from 1999, the year the future of movies arrived. The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Blair Witch, a Star Wars for a new generation…. all these movie events pointed towards a change in the industry, a breakthrough. As the independent American cinema finally got a foothold in the mainstream, it was supposed to change the way movies were made. Even then, indie sensation Steven Soderburgh was readying his one-two populist/geopolitical Oscar punch, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. We were supposed to get a decade full of mainstream film, told through the lens of post-modern deconstructionist filmmakers, with the technology of the future.
But did the future ever actually happen?
It kind of feels like the machine gobbled up the rage, doesn’t it? I suppose artistic revolutions usually tend to yield a lot less interesting and cohesive work than the boring standards of discipline and consistency, but really, what came out of the indie pillaging of Hollywood? The information age trend of viral marketing, popularized by Blair Witch, sure came in handy, but what about the stories themselves? They got bigger and bigger, that’s for sure. It feels like the independent spirit has just been relegated to a market niche at this point. Throw enough dysfunction and awkward framing together, and you’ve got the modern American indie.
I suppose there’s an inherent flaw in looking at content, though. Maybe storytelling in the cinematic medium peaked by the 80’s? Even if that’s true, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with it… arguably, the novel form peaked with Moby Dick, and we still get great novels. I think what’s important to most revolutionaries is less the what, and more the how. That’s where the indie spirit resides, anyway: thriftiness. It’s the part of the 90’s indie movement that the machine has failed to consume.
A special case is this year’s District 9. When Peter Jackson’s pet producing project Halo fell through, he promised the refugee director of that project, Neil Blomkamp, $30 million to make whatever he wanted. So, utilizing the (relatively) inexpensive RED camera system, and the backing of the (2nd) hottest director on the planet, Blomkamp made an extremely profitable summer blockbuster. Say what you will about the WHAT of District 9, an okay sci-fi action movie, but what’s important to me is the HOW.
The question is, why didn’t this happen sooner, and will it happen again? Low cost digital cinema has been available for at least 5 years. The star system has been declared dead for as long. Yet, bloated productions have only accrued more and more overhead, necessitating safer decision-making, and increased branding. Does a Spider-Man movie need to cost $300 million? Maybe… Let’s go with a more down to earth example? Does a sequel to the $50 million* Raiders of the Lost Ark need to cost $150 million? What about a sequel to Die Hard? $110 million? Really? $230 million for Quantum of Solace? No aliens, no supernatural elements… and it costs more than two Lord of the Rings movies?
One is reminded of Tugg Speedman, in Tropic Thunder: Looking up after performing an emotional scene (armless), to see a director huddled over him, with about 500 crew members watching. Film production, like regular life, necessitates moderation and a proper handling of waste and over-expenditure. If not, fear of failure becomes a crippling motivation, no?
So what do you all think? Should we be optimistic that, instead of running for foreign money and sacrificing autonomy, Hollywood executives will sacrifice luxury, and shoot digital, write economically, and second-guess in pre-production rather than post? I think we can be more hopeful now, since we have a smash hit “real” movie (not a one-camera mockumentary) made with fiscal responsibility. It would seem that there, the independent artists can teach us all a lesson: Do what you can, with what you have, to create good work… rather than what you must, with what you lack, to impress the establishment. Will this next decade see the fruition of that idea? Will this recent “recession” play a part?
Maybe so. Then again, I hear a new Spider-Man is on the horizon. And boy, those giant Transformers movies keep making money… and you know how people still love playing Battleship…
(*Budget adjusted for inflation)