American Consequences - January 2018



It became a wiser and more prudent play to swing for the fences and strike out than make a decent pile of cash over a long period of time. There was a time that a relatively small, relatively realistic, even relatively downbeat movie could catch a cultural wave and become an object of intense discussion and interest. I think of late 1960s fare like Midnight Cowboy, or Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice , or Easy Rider . Each of these movies became a cultural sensation and, relatively speaking, made a huge amount of money. What each of these movies had in common was that they dipped into controversial subject matter and were made for adults. Controversy does nothing for a movie now. In fact, controversy probably hurts. And movies aren’t made for adults, because the ideal movie viewer is a kid between 12 and 30 who might be induced to see the thing again and again. Studios could make those smaller movies – indeed, mostly made those smaller movies – because if they failed they wouldn’t be too damaging. But in the corporate era, the opportunity costs of producing more modest works that will merely double their small investments have come to seem excessively risky to Hollywood’s present-day panjandra – the producers and executives who used to live only in terror of being ousted by a Machiavellian underling, but who are now in terror of being held to account for their many molestations. If you think about every movie as an individual start-up, you can see why. What’s better? To make the rounds of venture capitalists with an interesting app for which you only need $1 million in seed money, or to have a wildly ambitious product with

potential global appeal for which your number is $100 million? For one thing, if you can raise the $100 million, you can pay yourself a lot more and spread a lot more money around to your friends and others with whom you might be in business at a later date if the start-up fails. And people might take your bigger number more seriously than your smaller number. So the institutional and personal bias is toward huge projects that shower money all over the industry, because you make money while they’re being made and your company will make a huge amount of money if it hits big. And the big movies are the digital movies, the CGI movies, the movies that don’t tell you a story but take you on a ride. Truth to tell, if CGI and all the tools of digital filmmaking had been available as the motion picture became the dominant medium of the first half of the 20th century, realistic cinematic storytelling might never have evolved at all. The ability to thrill and captivate through the creation of alternate worlds and alternate realities is so seductive, both for audiences and moviemakers, that it would have been hard to resist. Indeed, the very earliest surviving films, by the French director Georges Méliès, are dominated not by story but by visual and cinematic tricks. They were made in the 1890s. Look. I’m 56. I’ve been going to the movies for 50 years now. And as for me, I don’t need a medium that has returned to its infancy, especially since there’s a chance I might be returned to my own infancy soon enough. I need a plot. (No, not a cemetery plot.)


January 2018

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