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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What I Liked This Week: 4/27/13 (aka Remember The Mission)

Furious Faithful. It’s been a long week. The script for Sophia The Great, as well as several supplemental materials about our general production plan, went out to several fellowships and contests and support programs over the last few days.

As some of you may have read on The Facebook or The Twitter, this was a surprisingly delightful experience for me. I wasn’t entirely prepared for that to happen. Again, I think partially it happened because I’m in a much better place this days, in terms of coping with (and channeling) The Fury, but I also think it’s also another indication that this project is The One.

I want to be able to temper my excitement so that I don’t become disappointed — but this assumes that I would become disappointed, say, if Sophia puts a goose egg on the scoreboard in terms of the aforementioned applications. I can’t say this wouldn’t happen, if a goose egg were to drop, but I also don’t think I would entirely care. Sophia is happening, whether we get major help from Deciders or not.

The last thing an independent filmmaker should do is wait for permission. Waiting doesn’t help make films. This isn’t to say it’s always a good idea to just vault ahead and produce something — which is why the next step is to draft a clear and clever, studied and concrete plan for producing Sophia soon and on the cheap — but it still feels good to know that all the “paperwork” I filled out this week…I filled out because I truly believe in what we’re doing, and am merely trying to convince a few influential deciders to help the cause.

Perhaps this is why it was so comparatively easy to fill out all the applications this time around. I’ve completed most of them a few times before, when I was similarly convinced I was ready to make The Leap, with other projects. I wasn’t.

I think I am now, and part of the reason why is because of all the previous work I’ve put in to past projects. But…it’s also…again…something about Sophia feels special. I believe I’ve earned her, but as some of you may know I am also a big believer in the mysticism of creativity, in the idea that a story is more a living thing that is born out of an intersection between circumstance and the labor of the creator…than something that is merely crafted. I said it in one of the applications — at this point, I feel like Sophia’s servant.

I don’t think this is at all a bad thing. In fact, as if this outpouring of words weren’t enough to convince you — this feeling is the first and biggest thing I liked this week.

I’ll keep the rest as short and as sweet as I can. Perhaps not always sweet. Life is sometimes very bitter — just ask David Simon:

  • I liked this blog post by David Simon, wherein The Wire creator condemns Your American Congress, following the failure of said Congress to pass new gun control legislation. Simon more eloquently and more expertly eviscerates our Reprehensible Representatives in his post than I did in mine (but you can still read mine).
  • Similarly, I liked this article by Josh Barro at Bloomberg News, illustrating a perfect example of the core injustice of our bifurcated society. The short of it: one particular symptom of the sequestration forced into existence by the inability of our Do-Nothing Congress to come to a compromise on all sorts of political and economic issues — because Republicans in Congress in particular refuse to compromise on anything, because they don’t give half a shit about anyone who isn’t rich — was dealt with swiftly and effectively this week. Congress did something! Do you know what they did? They passed legislation offsetting the effects sequestration had on aviation. Do you know why they did this? Because politicians (and other rich people) fly a lot, and so the flight delays caused by the forced budget cuts were having a negative impact on their lives. None of the cuts that affect those of us who aren’t rich — those of us whose lives are more seriously affected by such cuts — were addressed. And they won’t be. Because our government no longer operates for The People, at all.
  • On a lighter note, I liked Nametag Day, which is just what it sounds like. It’s a initiative based solely on the goal of putting name tags on as many New Yorkers as possible on June 1st. As I said on Twitter, I think this is a simple, actionable thing to do to help build community. Check out the site if you are an NYCer and volunteer to help if you can. Follow Nametag Day on Twitter here.
  • I like The 4-Hour Body. I had been interested in experimenting with Tim Ferriss’s “body re-composition” cookbook since listening to this episode of WTF with Marc Maron (which you can check out for free if you want to get an idea about what it’s all about). I finally got around to implementing a majority of the “small changes” in diet and behavior Ferriss advocates, after adopting only a few to great effect, initially. It works. I’ve lost weight (mostly fat), my energy level is up, and I feel great. Some of what The Four Hour Body suggests you do is a little strange, and/or seems tough (like cold showers!) but…again…it works.
  • I like the new original Netflix series Hemlock Grove. The first episode is very confusing, but engaging nonetheless. From there, the show gets better. It has a sort of Twin Peaks, B-movie vibe that it — importantly — embraces responsibly and smartly rather than resorting to irony or lazy homage to its numerous influences. The show has its imperfections, but it’s well-thought-out, and the storytelling is not lazy. The look and tone appear similarly cultivated (and contribute greatly to the success of the series), the writing is at many times extremely “fresh” — oftentimes adopting and exploiting established tropes before cleverly subverting them in pursuit of its own ends — and most of the performances are impressive. Rebecca and I had little knowledge of the show beforehand, and no expectations, but we’ve watched almost all of the first season by now and are enjoying it immensely.

So there’s the list for this week. Except for one last thing.

Again and as always, I liked you this week. The Furious Romantic Returns eclipsed 500 visits and 1,000 page views recently, at the same time that a small group of new readers wandered over from Twitter — and I’m sincerely grateful. It makes the fight easier to know that you’re out there with me, and it gives me hope for the future. We need hope as much as we need to “get angry and speak up” — we need to know that there are others who want more and better things for themselves and their neighbors than what we are currently getting from the here and now.

Have a good week, Furious Friends. This last one wasn’t the easiest for me, despite all of the above (it’s stressful emailing a snapshot of your soul to strangers), but it helps me remember the mission when I talk to all of you, and see that you’re reading.

So, yeah. Thanks.

What I Liked This Week: 2/2/13

Hello, folks. WILTW is (obviously, at this point) the only juicy little nugget you’re getting this week — apologies, all my spare time has gone into the new script, more on that later — so let’s just get into it and start fresh on Monday. Argh. Monday’s awful. Monday puts ketchup on spaghetti. I won’t be writing anything on Monday. Monday hates writing. And babies. And puppies wrapped in sunshine.

Anyway. Nearly everything I liked this week was nominally entertainment based.

  • The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Probably the best film I saw this year, if only because it accomplishes something that Django Unchained can’t  accomplish as fully, due to limitations of genre and other reasons I won’t get into now because I don’t feel like opening that can. What does Perks accomplish that many films these days, unfortunately, don’t? A few things. It exists in proximity to life-as-it-is. Even though it’s still “a movie.” How does Perks accomplish this? Through unfiltered, unflinching emotional honesty — regardless of costs of discomfort and sadness and pain (life is sometimes uncomfortable and sad and painful!) What else did I love about the flick? The central, crucial role that love, both communal and personal, played in the redemption of its damaged protagonist. Because a lot of us are damaged. We need love. Perks doesn’t dance around either this truth, or the necessity of facing it if you ever want to “feel better.”
  • This episode of WTF with Marc Maron, in which Marc interview Lucinda Williams. First, I just straight geeked out over this, because these are two of my favorite entertainers, talking to each other for an hour in a garage about life, music, personal demons and redemption. Also, as he is wont to do, Maron dug up some of the specific darkness in Lucinda’s backstory — which we all knew had to be there (such beautifully sad and soulful songs as she writes and performs don’t come out from nowhere), and it was enlightening and sobering to hear about some of her specific struggles. The best parts of Maron’s shows (not a secret) are when he and a guest bond, in “real time” in front of listeners, over the revelation of some painful memory or another. This is how part of how we climb back — by finding a place of empathy through mutual sharing of some of those things (no matter what they are, or how dramatic or “commonplace”) that personally haunt or drive us.
  • Treme. The wife and I are only on Season 2 of Treme at the moment (we don’t have cable), but it’s getting very good, and it’s a shame that so few people seem to be watching it outside of “The Wire Faithful.” David Simon is one of the most brilliant minds America has, and the messages he and his cohorts work hard to deliver through such carefully crafted docu-style narratives as The Wire and Treme are crucial ones that would serve us far better if more people paid attention to them and started talking. I go back and forth between feeling sad that more people (from all walks of life, everywhere in America) aren’t watching these shows and grateful that these sort of examples of “fringe popular culture” are at least out there. The thing is: this should be a more popular show. It shouldn’t be fringe (and I admittedly use the term loosely). Treme is a show that, much like The Wire, forces us to take a reasoned, compassionate look at the systemic injustices of the crumbling American bureaucracies that are failing and/or holding back entire communities of citizens — most often those most in need of more (reasoned and compassionate) help and support from the rest of us — even as those in power continue to view those same systems as ‘adequate’.
  • The feeling I had last night, after working for hours and hours to complete a hard-fought, new and better draft of a script that took me about three months to write (to date). Something about this one has me particularly excited. For better or worse, as I was telling my wonderful (and wonderfully supportive) wife-slash-partner-in-crime last night — this one, more than anything else I’ve written, feels like my best work. Even if nothing much changes, now that it’s “done for now,” the fact stands that I’ve changed as result of having written it.

And that’s why we do it. Have a good week.