Thursday, 5 May 2011
After a crazy weekend that started with a big Royal wedding and ended with a major terrorist's funeral, it's no surprise that a movie about handsome but reckless car aficionados was the picture of choice for global moviegoers and earned more money than anything else so far this year.
Fast Five's successful run at the box-office signals it's this time of year that Hollywood studios unleash their largely brainless but efficient summer spectacles; movies that financially take the industry out of the red and put it back in the black. The summer blockbuster is a specialised type of beast, one that is defined by its lack of narrative complexity and celebrated for the sheer audaciousness of its special effects which seem to creatively improve year on year. The great thing about summer blockbusters is that they are systemic products, transcending both language and culture. Any kid in sat a cinema in Karachi will be as enthralled by the sight of giant transforming robots bashing each other over the head as any kid sat in a multiplex in Sacramento. These movies are reliable investments as they often make more money overseas than they do domestically (domestic denotes USA). Independent movies aren't like that, or so they tell you.
Last year international grosses for both American indie flicks Black Swan and Winter's Bone outpaced domestic results. This means that the independent film sector needs the international market more than ever in order to get movies made. Black Swan has earned $162 million overseas, dwarfing its $102 million domestic take. Likewise, Winter's Bone, which was hugely parochial, grossed $7.7 million abroad, passing its American gross of $6.5 million.
There is a danger to all this in that the once limited reach of indie features now has a wider grasp than originally envisioned. American indie pictures were probably the only genuine voice left in US cinema, telling stories about American characters for real American audiences. I feel pretty confident in thinking that when American producers financed films like Headwig and the Angry Itch, Garden State, Juno, Napoleon Dynamite or Little Miss Sunshine, they didn't necessarily invest in them thinking about how well they'd play in international territories.
The UK film market is little more than an independent cottage industry. Yet the biggest problem it faces is trying to make films that will play well internationally. The UK always has its eyes on international markets, especially the US where it's essential that British movies pander to the expectations of American audiences. This usually results in Britain making prestige period features concerning either royalty or aristocrats. The few times Britain makes a contemporary story; producers will enlist the services of a prominent American actor, usually an actress, and ask them to don a faux British accent that ultimately ends up convincing no one. Bridget Jones' Diary and the upcoming One Day are choice examples of this reality.
In fact, One Day is a perfect illustration of all that is wrong with the current face of independent cinema. Based on David Nicholls bestselling 2009 novel, One Day presents a high-concept conceit in which each chapter covers the lives of two characters called Dexter and Emma on the exact same day of the year for twenty years. It's an enjoyable read that taps into major historical British events of the period covered, as well as featuring subplots about the North/ South divide, social mobility and other distinctly hidebound elements. It was rather surprising that Focus Features cast American actress Anne Hathaway in the part of Emma Morley, a working-class Yorkshire girl (accent and all) who epitomises a very British mindset. From watching the new trailer (click here) it seems that this component of the story, probably the most interesting thing about the book, has been eschewed in order to get a bankable American actor to play the part. As a matter of fact, goodness knows what kind of affected accent Anne Hathaway is going for because it hardly sounds British let alone Northern. (I don't even want to talk about the bed-wetting OneRepublic song used on the trailer because that would deserve an entire post of its own.)
One Day is hardly Chaucer, so this isn't a defence of the novel or the sanctity of its characters. It is more to do with independent cinema becoming too worried about commercial elements and ruining stories in order to try and cultivate greater revenues. I believe that at the end of the day if a film has a good story then people will go and see it. Having Anne Hathaway in your indie film will provide greater exposure but so will the fact that it has a satisfying story and an interesting hook. Likewise, having an American voiceover artist talking over the trailer may put American audiences at ease but it will annoy the rest of us and make us feel inadequate about how comfortable our own industry is in telling stories that concern British experiences. At the end of the day a British indie film like Slumdog Millionaire made major bucks around the world without having to hire knowable American stars to play any of the parts. (Instead they hired a British Asian lad and made him talk with an affected Indian accent.)
This brings me back to American independent cinema chasing international dough. Winter's Bone and Black Swan may have performed well overseas but that may just be a one off and it might not be sustainable. Both of these films were essentially genre pictures which tend to travel better than other types of American indie films. Just look at the box-office results for The Fighter which earned $30 million in foreign totals, far short of its $95 million domestic accumulation. The Kids Are All Right tallied $12.6 million internationally versus $20 million domestically. Rabbit Hole took just $1.4 million in foreign coin so far against $2.2 million in domestic dollars.
It's sad to see independent cinema hungering after bigger profits. It's sad to see it adopt the worst aspects of commercial filmmaking and lose its sense of legitimacy. It's not entirely its fault because in order to get financing independent feature film producers need to raise funds by selling off foreign rights. As foreign markets become more important and global tastes turn out to be ever more unilateral, it is genre films and star-driven movies that will most likely acquire necessary funds. After all, it's not as if the costs of manufacturing prints for One Day will be much cheaper than that of Fast Five. There is also the additional problem to do with the expenses and difficulties in dubbing English language indie films that happen to be more dialogue driven than genre spectacles.
On a side note, it seems that films in general are increasingly becoming boring. This blog was set up to discus movies and there aren't enough interesting things happening in cinema to justify discussion. Cinema seems to have been lobotomised and the more beguiling subjects of now are things like stem cell research and social networking. Is cinema, even smart indie cinema, incapable of reflecting/ competing with the hugely fascinating times in which we exist?