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.

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A Graduation Speech From Your Drunk, Crazy Uncle

I think about the future a lot. A lot. Some days, I worry about the end of the human race. That we’ll blow this whole place up before we find a way to get off the rock and find some other habitable planets to blow up. This does actually go through my head.

Other days, I scale it back a bit. I think about the near future — mine, as well as that of the coming generation of young adults. Perhaps I am thinking about them, particularly, because it’s graduation season. The time when young college graduates in particular exit the buffer that exists between life as a child and life as an adult. I worry for this group, because the adult world the majority of them face is nothing more than a tall wall of shit.

Look. I’m not being dramatic. I’m telling the truth.

When I try to think about the near-future, on a larger national level, I find it nearly impossible. Thinking about the future, for so many Americans, invariably results in being yanked back to the sad reality of the present and past. There is little to look forward to, in terms of the old narrative of The American Dream. For most Americans, there is only more of the same circumstances they have had to live with for decades.

You work. You go home. You get up tomorrow and you do it again. As this cycle repeats, you increasingly receive less in the way of compensation for your work, even as you are asked to give more. Prices go up, the cost of living increases, and wages go up insufficiently in proportion. You borrow, and you cut expenses. You make do. Then, for all purposes, it’s over.

Subsequent decades of life — if you’re lucky — will be represented by a trustworthy repetition of this pattern. Along the way, you will be lied to — more so via lies of omission or misdirection than direct deceit. It’s going to be fine, they’ll say. It’s necessary. Things will get better. You can still save. If you work hard enough, or if other non-workers stop weighing us all down, it will be all right.

But it won’t be all right. Not unless you — we — make it all right.

This is not the way it used to be; and it is definitely not the way it’s supposed to be. If we push forward despite the uncertainty, and think anyway about the future that the current generation of young professionals entering and/or floundering in the American work force face, it’s not even the worst scenario.

There’s been a lot of talk in the news and on the web this week, about surveillance. Spying. About the implications of the ability of the government to leverage corporate data to know who you are talking to and when, for how long. What you do online. Whatever.

It doesn’t bother me.

For a few minutes (and not much longer), I wondered why it didn’t bother me. This news seems like something that should bother all of us. But, do you know what I realized? It doesn’t matter.

What are they going to catch us doing? What do we do, other than acquiesce, daily, to this unjust, rigged system of indenture — wherein, in the supposed “land of the free” we live forever yoked to The Market?

Who among us, who isn’t at or near the “top” of society, does anything but quietly play along by all the rules, everyday — who can afford not to?

I have grown weary of the tired, lazy comparisons to the dystopian future forewarned in Orwell’s 1984. I found them wearying during the Bush years and I find them wearying again now that they’ve cropped back up in the news.

It’s a brilliant book — but it’s also just a book. It remains chained to the constraints of the page. By virtue of its medium, it remains beholden to the need, on the part of its author, to both suggest a chillingly possible future, and yet paint a picture of that future that is limited to the point of view of one main protagonist.

Winston, the protagonist of 1984, lives at one point in time, in a particular place. He experiences a limited set of mounting tragedies that, even if they are poetically drawn and made to approximate the universal, cannot ever encapsulate the breadth of what it is like for millions upon millions to suffer a similar fate at the hands of totalitarianism. Definitely it can’t measure up to the actual tragic fate that millions throughout history have suffered at the hands of totalitarianism. Ultimately, Winston’s world disappears from our immediate view when we turn the last page, even if its lesson lingers.

We do not live in a time that recalls the dystopia of 1984. Our time is in most ways much, much better; and in certain, albeit tamer ways — a little worse.

The students graduating today face a very different job market than the one I just barely squeaked into seven years ago. And I’m a pretty smart, hard-working guy — who graduated from one of the best colleges in the country. But I also used to be a naive guy. I used to believe the narrative, that these two qualities, with perhaps a few others appended to them, were enough to succeed, and be happy, in America.

Students graduating today? I’m sorry, but I’m here to play the role of your drunk uncle — the guy yelling the truth in some corner at your graduation party while everyone else pretends he’s the crazy one (in their defense, he should stop drinking).

Our latest crop of graduates should be proud of their accomplishments. Getting through college, for most of us at least, is not easy. It wasn’t for me, at any event. So, graduates — be proud. Celebrate. Rest a bit.

And then, once you have celebrated and rested, get on your feet and prepare for a fight.

Your country is not with you or for you. I’m sorry to have to say that. But at least right now, it is against you. Investment in the future is being withheld as a means of preserving the past. The present hardly exists. It too, withers in the grip of past. The last several years, for those holding all the power and money and influence, have been about little else but storming the walls of the fortress and drawing the ladders up behind.

This post started as the usual recap of What I Liked This Week, which as we all know by now, is just as often an ironic title than a genuine one. That’s been bothering me, lately. As much as I default to it at times, out of habit — I dislike irony. It does not fit our current plight. Like the Orwellian comparisons, it is lazy, and it misses the point. Irony fails as us much as acquiescence.

There is no reason to fear a future in which all lived cowed to an image or a character akin to Orwell’s Big Brother. As readers of the novel might recall, the character himself is but a symbol of oppression, wielded by a plutocracy of a few in order to exploit, keep down, and control — the many.

And so, I admit to playing a little loosely with the example to better serve my point. I know that 1984, like so many fine examples of science fiction, is meant as a warning. I know that it’s meant to be only a dramatized expression of the very real potential repercussions of a failure, on the part of those living in the present, to protect ourselves and the future from oppression and institutional control.

This post was going to be about two news items, that I meant to include as follow-ups on previous items about the looming student debt crisis, the severe repercussions of rampant income inequality on the future, and the decision by members of the elite (Congress) to take food from the mouths of the poor in the name of reducing a budget deficit caused by the wealthy. Essentially, this post was going to be about pointing at the fortresses and disappearing ladders.

But I think I’m done with the news. And with screaming into the void.

There will be no more lists of links in this space, no more distractions from the real work of doing what is urgently needed, here and now, to help free ourselves and future generations from our (partially self-imposed) oppression. We must focus not on what has happened, but what must happen. We must take a look around us, catalog what is available, and begin working together to build new ladders. Beyond that, we should be thinking of what new fortresses need to be built — and how tall their walls should or shouldn’t be — as we consider what we as young Americans want this place to look like once it is finally ours.

We, the young, are almost completely on our own. We have each other, and we have new technologies and new paradigms of thought and collaboration to help us grow. It will not be easy to fix this mess, because we did not end up on our own by accident. We were — and are being — left behind. For the last several years, through no fault of our own, we young adults have been left to enter a world that has been wounded and picked clean by the greed and obliviousness and the cowardice of those who came before us, and who now refuse us entry to the future that is supposed to be ours.

Do not fear Big Brother, America. Fear yourselves, for you are unfortunately complicit. Fear your mothers and your fathers, no matter how painful that suggestion may be — no matter what you owe them. Any American parent who truly loves their children should be worried for them right now. Their intrinsic need to want to see their children safe, to see them thrive…if this need cannot subsist under the light of the truth — then it was never fully there to begin with.

Most of all, fear the aging lords and ladies scheming in the board rooms of your major cities. The government is not trying to control your life. It can’t. The government is a hostage. The fact that the government is spying is worrisome. The fact that it must ask permission from corporate interests, in order to do so, is more worrisome.

Fear the machinery that the lords and ladies wield against you. Fear Big Business. It’s oppression is not symbolized by a boot that stamps on a human face. The genius and the horror of its power is its omnipresence and omnipotence in your life as a consumer. Most of us, in one way or another, owe Big Business our food, our medicine, our debt, our homes and our livelihood. It used to be that your consumerism was desired. Then it was expected. Then assumed. Now it is demanded. 

This is what’s frightening about the future. I have made it a point to leave clear indications on this site that I am not anti-business. I am not even anti-corporation. A well-run corporation, with the right leaders and mission, can do amazing things. But banks that are too big to fail, and small groups of mega-corporations with few competitors, who together own entire billion-dollar industries like oil and agriculture, and thus wield incredible power over the direction of the country — well, let’s just say there’s a reason we had a historical precedent for not allowing organizations to grow to the levels they’re at now. When business gets too big, and too consolidated — and thus too influential — those in control become too far removed, from the lives their businesses affect, to be trusted.

From a high-level, social perspective, business is supposed to exist in order to provide us with a means of assuring a livelihood. We do not exist to ensure the continued livelihood of business.

If we really want a future for ourselves, a real future that is ours, we’d do well to think about the perversity of our current relationship with the world around us. We work, we go home, they give us less, they ask for more. In between, we spend. We do not invest, we do not create, because we have little opportunity or capital. We are the capital.

Nothing will change unless we change it. Future generations will continue to be fed into this increasingly vile system, if we do not work together to free ourselves and them from the shackles of debt, of living-to-work instead of working-to-live, of existing in unnatural opposition to our fundamental desire to be free. If we do not fight, do not scratch and claw and stand up for ourselves, while at the same time supporting and embracing new, community-based, disruptive ideas for building a new, open infrastructure of commerce based on fairness and equal opportunity — it will get worse.

The artistic world, as it often does, has begun to lead the way. The tools are out there, and (obviously) so is the need. It is just left for us to do the work. I’m not afraid — not anymore. Are you?

It’s okay to be afraid. But it’s okay to get angry too.

Have a good week, Furious Faithful. Thank you, forever, for reading.

What I Liked This Week: More Student Debt Shenanigans, Death By Austerity, Now Hiring: Young Radicals

Good evening, Furious Friends. Apologies for the lateness of this week’s round-up. I have been busy relaxing and thinking. And over-thinking, a little bit, if we’re being honest.

And, as many of you know, if we’re anything here, it’s honest.

Onto it.

I liked this dissection of the coming student debt crisis (Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream), from Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, appearing in The New York Times. I don’t actually like this. I also don’t like the fact that, AS USUAL, the Republican-led House of Representatives (hah) is working tirelessly to make this situation worse, rather than better, and is prepared AS USUAL, to do nothing about it as well — which will also have the effect of making the situation worse. As a reminder, this approach by the House is different from that of Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose nobler, more sensible efforts we discussed two weeks ago.

I also liked this Times article about “How Austerity Kills,” which details, among other things, the “excess deaths from suicide” that have occurred since the recession began in the United States. Hit the link for other fun facts from co-authors David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, who also mention at one point that: “As scholars of public health and political economy, we have watched aghast as politicians endlessly debate debts and deficits with little regard for the human costs of their decisions.” I don’t actually like this. This makes me want to cry and scream.

I liked this “Letter to ‘The Nation’ From A Young Radical” by Bhaskar Sunkara. Because Sunkara intelligently, coherently, passionately — and realistically — explains why contemporary social liberalism falls short in fulfilling its responsibility to advocate and secure progressive policies for The People, in our current society, here and now. It’s a much more eloquent, studied, more directly targeted variation on my “balls on the table” bit from the end of last week’s post. While intractable rich old white men are to blame for a majority of the problems we’re facing today — these guys may never change their mind. Someone else is going to have to get real, organize, and force change to happen.

(That would be us).

That’s it for today. The Furious Romantic has more work to do. Sophia The Great beckons.