Variety put out an article recently that struck a cord with me. It covered the fact that superhero movies (and television) are tying up all the A-listers, making it difficult for independent Producers to secure a shiny star in order to get their deals sealed at the Cannes Festival. The headline read that “superhero movies” are “causing headaches” at Cannes. They’re accurate in their observations. These flicks are causing problems for indies, but the reasoning why doesn’t go deep enough down the rabbit hole for me.
As we continue to develop our current feature film, lessons learnt along the way are not only invaluable now, but also key for our future projects. That said, these days the film industry is in a constant state of flux for all sorts of reasons, and one can’t swing an 8K camera without hitting a contrasting opinion on which route will lead a project to glory. One thing everyone does agree on however (and are not afraid to share) is that to get an indie film made the project needs a “star”, and it has been the most prevalent piece of advice we’ve received to date. It is of course not the only way to get a film made but, according to the most seasoned among us, it’s the surest.
A few years back there was a British advertising campaign that addressed film piracy. Daniel Craig took us on a tour of the Quantum Solace set and showed us all the swathes of hard working people behind-the-scenes that make the magic of film possible. All these people’s livelihoods were threatened because of the devastating effects piracy had on the industry, he told us. The bit he left out was the fact that what threatened their jobs on an even more fundamental level was the absence of a recognizable name at the festivals.
Why are so many funding strategies built on the premise of nabbing a big name? After all, A New Hope didn’t need a Dustin Hoffman or Robert Redford to make it the highest grossing film of 1977, in the same way that Johnny Depp couldn’t redeem Lone Ranger. It’s simply the fact that business loves, along with the shortest route to success, an algorithm that proves its validity. Throwing money at a tried and tested solution of securing a star is a lot easier than taking a chance on great content.
Storytelling at its fundamental core is at odds with the business of economics. Storytelling is good for the soul; it inspires and captivates the imagination, all the while telling us something about where we have come from, and where we are going. George Steiner articulated some discerning truths when he suggested that the business community had pillaged mathematics and the sciences for their qualities of “exactitude” and “predictability”, and the business community are not afraid to use those disciplines to kill any story that might stand in the way of international sales or beyond.
Domestic market returns are not enough for studios, persistent box office troubles means heavier and heavier reliance on sales outside the US, and familiar faces sell in any language. But in creating broadly appealing content, we’ve lost genuinely engaging narrative that explores subjects and characters that are significant to us on a personal level. The arts have always been about reflecting the state of our societies back at us, and film is no different. When you are trying to appeal to absolutely everyone, any true cultural significance is lost.
Meanwhile, Studies have shown that minorities in the US, for example, yearn to see themselves represented on screen. Yet diversity on-screen is significantly lacking with often ridiculous results. The movies we watch do not reflect our numbers. The irony is that greater diversity in film would boost box office numbers, and not just domestically. The studios, who are not yet taking this kind of data in to serious consideration, are giving indie productions a massive gift; the opportunity to take up the reins where studios cannot (or will not) and tell the intimate stories of the people. Yes, celebrities will have a role to play in pop culture for the foreseeable future, but they don’t have to be the only way to make a film sucessful. The sooner our industry takes this on board, the sooner we can make ‘story’ the star of the show again.
At a Women’s industry event recently, Jody Foster lamented, “[Film is] where art and commerce come together, and commerce is winning”. For now, that’s true.