The Feature Film Isn’t Dying, But We Still Need to Save It

I wouldn't even be in the position to make a feature film today, if not for changes in technology.
A throwback to my first short. I wouldn’t even be in the position to make a feature film today, if not for changes in technology.

An interesting blog post appeared on Short of the Week yesterday, written by the site’s Founder Andrew S. Allen. The title: Fade to Black—Is the Feature Film Dying?

The main argument weighed by Andrew — who appropriately spends most of the post teasing out this question rather than attempting to hone on any one answer — seems to be that filmmakers in particular can’t ignore the question due to two prevailing arguments.

1. We’re in a Golden Age of TV.

Talent and money and eyeballs seem to be increasingly turning away from film — or rather, not returning to it, after the last several years of contraction in the industry — and towards television, in terms of long form moving image content. This is not a new observation but it continues to be an important one.

2. We’re still in a bit of a Wild West Age, in regards to how to deal with the proliferation and omnipresence of The Screen (as creators in particular).

Again, we all know this very well by now (or hopefully we do). But, as Andrew and other smart people have pointed out, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be thinking about how this affects the narratives we deliver (and that are delivered to us) via our many screens… daily, hourly, by the minute. It doesn’t mean we don’t also need to ponder how all this affects the creation of those narratives (and, consequently, our careers as well).

I enjoyed the post, agree with many of the points made, and, as a filmmaker who has put a very lot of thought into this question and others related — I think it’s the right thing to be asking, here and now.

But, for what it’s worth, I don’t think features are dying.

I think, like everything else — they’re changing. I think they’re changing in importance and effectiveness, if not in form. Perhaps they’re also facing diminished attention, on a percentage basis at least, and that’s what I want to talk about, for a moment.

While I don’t think features are dying, I do believe viewership data about how we watch and what we watch today has exposed some dangers, in terms of where we are and where we are headed.

The question, to me, isn’t whether or not features are dying. The novel didn’t die and neither did the stage play. But, sticking with these examples…sometimes, after reading a particularly great book or after watching a great play — I’m struck by melancholy. I wonder: why don’t I do this more often? Why do I continuously make the easier choice to turn on the TV?

To be honest, it’s the same with film, for me. Despite the fact that I love film — indie film in particular — I’m not a great supporter of it, at least in terms of contributing to box office results by putting my butt in a seat. This is also why I feel like I can talk about this, though, for better or worse.

I don’t go to the movies much because my lifestyle doesn’t afford the opportunity at present. I work to pay the bills and to enable me to pursue my passion.

There’s not much time and money left over, after these two things — at least right now, in my life — to stop everything and check out for two hours by sitting in the dark with some strangers and getting outside of my head, along with them, on the way to some magical place that is like our world but different.

And I think that’s where the melancholy comes from.

In his post, Andrew observes that going to see a feature used to be an event in our lives, whereas now it’s more often something we sometimes maybe sit down and do casually at home, via some VOD platform, when we aren’t watching a serial TV program.

He’s absolutely right. This has changed. He’s also right when he hints, indirectly, in another part of the post — that it’s mostly useless to fight this truth. Stories, narratives, are all around us, now. We can access them anywhere, anytime. And we do — often, as Andrew also notes, in smaller, more digestible forms. An episode of TV. A webisode online. I would take this further to include a Facebook post, a Tweet.

Here’s where, to me, the question of whether or not the feature film is dying becomes moot, and we are faced — from both the perspective of filmmakers and the audience — with an imperative.

We need to make sure we hold on to what separates features from TV and all other forms of media.

Especially — and the why of this will hopefully become clearer in a moment — independent filmmakers need to take this responsibility upon themselves.

At the same time, Andrew is right to warn prospective and/or self-proclaimed filmmakers in regards to their beliefs and career intentions/aspirations. So is Filmmaker Magazine Editor Scott Macaulay, in the quote Andrew chose to end his post.

We (filmmakers, artists) have to recognize that we can neither fight nor deny the clear changes that have occurred and will continue to affect filmmaking and moving picture narratives and arts of all forms.

So, this is the imperative, as I see it — in two steps:

  1. We need to protect and support feature films, because they may be our last form of poetry. There is one, brilliant exception to this statement — that gives me much hope — but I will end with a plea to make this imperative a goal for indie filmmakers.
  2. We need to always serve narrative first, by following our instincts — hopefully always tethered to reality in some way — and formatting stories appropriately to the best representation of their pure expression.

I know both imperatives need some unlocking. Working backwards…

Television, by its nature, has its finger more frequently on the pulse of the zeitgeist than feature films.

If a show doesn’t deliver a narrative that compels large numbers of people to watch — regardless of whether or not they “should” — it doesn’t last. Yes, some shows are able to force this issue by throwing money and spectacle at audaciously basic and manipulative narratives, but that doesn’t define most TV that gets distributed.

The result of this, in my opinion, is that TV enjoys a “leg up” over film, on average, in terms of narrative mobility.

The smaller, serial nature of the format, and the smaller increments in which it is produced — even the existence of pilots, for which there is no real match in the feature world — allows TV the opportunity to adapt more quickly and more easily to present circumstances than features.

There are flip sides to this advantage, however, and one is the pressure to keep producing more quality TV, once success has been found, in order to make more and more money, regardless of the narrative appropriateness of keeping the story going, until such time that the narrative purity of the series bends or breaks beyond the point of no return. This does perhaps also happen from film to film, within studios or production companies or during the career of filmmakers, but it’s not as palpably noticeable and it also leaves entire expression of narratives (standalone, pure, successful films) intact. Also — for the most part — this leaves TV dangerously beholden, in a complete way, to the present only. This stifles reflection on and dialogue about past and future, which isn’t good for any culture.

Okay — but what of the shows that Andrew justifiably identifies as “film killers”? The Sopranos. Breaking Bad. Mad Men.

They’re all beautiful exceptions, if you ask me.

The aforementioned are some of the best shows on TV, and, in fact, by nature, they are the best of TV and film combined.

These are poetic character studies that last hours and hours, and that span years. Here, I would add The Wire as an ultimate example. Joss Whedon, when he worked primarily in TV, as has been well-documented, did an equally interesting and novel thing, by mixing a monster of the week format with a long-running serial narrative, season by season, even as his main characters continued to grow and change over the course of the series, linking everything and keeping it all brilliantly tethered to overall thematic narratives. And look at the path his career has taken — he’s one of the hottest filmmakers working today.

I don’t think we’re necessarily seeing a Golden Age of TV.

We’re seeing some artists — in the form of show runners — elevating TV into something more like film. We’re also seeing them challenging prevailing norms and formats while respecting the purity of narrative.

It’s fucking fantastic that Breaking Bad ended on Vince Gilligan’s terms. It’s equally wonderful that Mad Men appears poised to do the same, on Matt Weiner’s. Louis C.K. is another auteur who is thriving right now because of what he’s doing on TV — he’s leading the way in many terms.

What we may actually be in right now is the beginnings of a new Golden Age for serving narrative. Formats are breaking down, as has been discussed, because of changes to The Screen. Hopefully more changes, cultural changes, will follow. I think that’s the point of what Gilligan, Weiner, C.K. and others are doing. It’s brilliant and it’s brilliantly inspiring.

So, that’s why I’m cool with the best of what’s out there right now on TV.

Again — Andrew and Scott are both right. We “filmmakers” should be thinking of ourselves as servants of narrative first. We should be open to whatever compels us on an instinctual level, and we should endeavor, as we also strive to build a sustainable career, to respect narrative purity at the same time. A story that should be on TV but is forced into a feature film or diluted into a web series may not work unless it is cultivated into a different thing. Whedon again becomes an example. Buffy The Movie ain’t Buffy The Show.

But.

There’s no denying that films, as they were, are becoming increasingly scarce. Technology has changed film, as we have discussed. It’s also changed filmmaking.

The trouble, to me, is that Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Louie and other shows — they are exceptions. The majority of the rest of what we watch is…it’s simply not very good or very helpful. Definitely most of TV is not good compared to some of the fine films being produced today.

Which is fine. It took me about seven years to understand this, but I know I can’t change the world with a blog post or one little indie film — or that it’s even wise to try.

Maybe I haven’t completely absorbed that last point :-)

I hope I never do. Anyway.

I’m going to shut up soon. But here’s my final point.

I was watching TV with my wife last night, and said on two separate occasions, after beginning two separate shows (that I genuinely like):

“Sometimes, this show really bothers me. Everyone is rich.”

TV, more so than movies, is where reality goes to die. More accurately, it’s where we willingly push reality over a cliff (or, rather, where it’s pushed off a cliff by those in control of the prevailing narratives of the day).

Everyone, on most of the most popular shows, is good looking and either wealthy or eerily able to get by easily despite their alleged lack of money. Reality TV is anything but that, as we’ve all know for a while — though we continue to play along. Representative diversity on TV, though unfortunately better than diversity in film, is lacking, when comparing what gets made and pushed and seen…with what this country actually looks like, demographically. Very little — at lease very little of what most people are watching —  looks anything like real life.

And now these fantasy narratives ride along in our pockets.

I’ve written about many of the dangers of all this before, and I won’t go into it all again. Here’s what I will say, though, about how important independent film has and will become, under these circumstances.

Quite simply: we (indie filmmakers) are the vanguard in the fight for a return to reality.

America in particular is dangerously out of touch with how things actually are in our country. Again, I’ve written plenty about this. And I don’t say that to suggest that I believe we’re doomed — or that the feature film is the only or best medium to engender change.

But it is the most dominant, after TV.

I believe in the redemptive power of the feature film. The poetry of it, as I have said.

Because…here’s the thing.

In the real world, we don’t experience narratives linearly or serially. That is one of the most interesting things about where we are now, in terms of our immediate and all-encompassing access to narratives of all forms, via our devices. We can and do not only watch TV, but talk about it, obsess over it, live and breathe it, sometimes while we watch.

That’s fine, in doses. But we also shouldn’t spend — and haven’t historically spent — all our time experiencing narratives.

Narrative is also here so that we can learn and reflect.

Sure, some people treat television and other media this way — as well they should, when appropriate to them and the examples that deserve this treatment. But a film, a feature film that respects reality in some pure way, even if it’s not a documentary or an indie character study, a feature film that bring a bunch of people together in the dark to sit down and abandon ourselves to a narrative formed with the intention of proposing just one idea, to ponder privately, or discuss or debate…that’s poetic.

We need poetry, in life.

It’s a way of understanding what we value and why, and of expressing the sheer unanswerable question of what it means to be human. This is not a shocking or new observation, but I do worry about how much or how often we seem to have forgotten it’s lesson.

Television, web media, these are moving-image formats that may just have the ability to divorce us, finally, on an overall level, from the poetry we’ve been drifting away from for years and years as the page does continue to die and The Screen multiplies and multiplies.

There’s room for optimism, though.

Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, the web series format that isn’t quite TV (perhaps in a good way) that Andrew Allen also discusses in his own post, the extension of a single narrative beyond a single experience — these are things that are new which arose as answers to problems, even if we don’t yet understand, on a macro level, what problems, or why they’re important.

As such, I believe these tools and formats can be employed and experimented with, carefully, as corrective measures to the understandably indiscriminate damage caused by changing technologies as well as the willful exploits of those in power to keep things the same, so that they may remain in control.

That is part of it, too. Let’s stop pretending it’s not. The owners of television benefit from us watching television as a stand in to experiencing actual wealth and The American Dream.

But, back to the optimism.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, to remind myself as well, because I sometimes need to be reminded of it. All of this is about change. And real change is, for the most part, usually good.

There’s never been a better time to be creating — whatever that may mean to you or to me.

Like my style? Subscribe to my list for advanced/exclusive (and free!) access to new (creative) content produced by yours truly. I send one email per month. Sometimes, they’re even funny. At least, I hope they’re funny.

 

michaeldibiasio

Writer and Filmmaker

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *