Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Cinema Revolution May Be Televised

Flicking through Empire movie magazine’s winter preview of upcoming films, one was struck by the regular theme of seasoned filmmakers lamenting on the current state of Hollywood cinema.  
Robert Zemickis, he who helmed myriad of late 20th century blockbusters and is releasing an extravagant 3-D adaptation of Frenchman Philipe Petit’s infamous 1974 high wire trek across New York’s World Trade Centre called The Walk, said: “[Back in 1985 you] could get a movie made like Back to the Future (one of his films) that was very wacky, and outside the box … films trying to do new things now seldom have the support of a huge distribution system behind them. They are made but no-one gets to see them.”

Speaking about his new 3-D survivalist drama Everest, an expensive film adaptation of a notorious 1996 mountain climbing accident that is historically one of the worst recorded, prolific producer Tim Bevan told the magazine that he felt an artistic responsibility to make the movie, arguing: “What’s important is to try to go places where not everyone else is going in cinema.” A few pages on actor Cillian Murphy discussed his new 19th century seafaring prestige yarn about a crew being terrorised by an insane sperm whale called In the Heart of the Sea, declaring “They don’t make movies like this anymore;” while a couple of articles later director Quentin Tarantino boasted about his new feature The Hateful Eight, a violent western shot on 70mm film stock, proclaiming that “[There is] definitely a kind of going back to my roots aspect about it.” 
In this era of nostalgia-driven sequels and remakes, and heavy aversion to original storytelling, one can deduce that established filmmakers are attempting to sell their wares by harking back to serious cinema, promising audiences that their films will tap into a celluloid energy that has long lain dormant. What they are essentially attempting to guarantee is a level of sophistication and intelligence that they realise serious film aficionados pine for, though it is apparent that all of the films mentioned above incorporate gimmicks like 3-D or IMAX or throwback aspect ratios to make them stand out from standard fare: to make them non-televisual. 
The bigger argument has to do with the existential crisis Hollywood cinema seems to be having. You get the sense that studio filmmaking exists in a quagmire where the scope of creative thinking dwindles as the loyalty of its audience shifts to alternative entertainment sources. 
To be honest, the reasons why established moviemakers have to adorn their new features with nifty gimmickry has more to do with television encroaching on its territory. And now there is the intangible reality that major television streaming services are competing with big studios to commission and acquire standalone movies for their burgeoning output requirements. 

Netflix’s $12 million acquisition for Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, an unrelenting drama about west African child soldiers and their brutal guerrilla commandant played by Idris Elba, may be the most potent benchmark in the game changing ways streaming services will be directly competing with studios for exclusive film content.  
Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos in a recent interview with Ramin Setoodeh for Variety talked about his company’s vision and their determination to do Fukunaga’s movie justice, saying: “It struck me, as we’re getting into the film business, we should be picking projects that are exceptional films, and otherwise difficult to distribute.” 
Beasts of No Nation was originally set up at Universal Pictures’ specialist subsidiary Focus Features, but was dropped because its commercial prospects looked questionable. With the project in turnaround hell, producers attempted to shop it to other studios. Fukunaga and his team eventually independently optioned the lapsed rights to Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel on which the film is adapted. The director acknowledges that the necessary brutality of his film was a huge obstacle, stating: “There were many questions asked early on from financiers about how I was going to execute the violence.” 
Beasts of No Nation is the type of film that worries Hollywood distribution systems: It features a black cast, is about the third world, has a social message, is bleak though purposefully savage, and is a resolute passion project. In that sense it has no place in the current climate of risk -averse moviemaking as it wears its provocation with pride. 
The film is a true labour of love, an important story made by filmmakers who put their own money and talent into a project that Hollywood didn’t have the nerve to carry through. After a production that can only be described as hellishly challenging, Fukunaga completed the movie and Focus Features contractually had first refusal, though they bailed. It was at this point that Netflix entered discussions and put down a bid worth more than double the movie’s production costs.

The difficult part about all this is the realisation that the nature of cinema is changing and that the traditional route of theatrical exhibition for quality films may no longer be a requirement. One supposes that those who discovered a love of movies through VHS ought to be accustomed to home viewing, but it still seems off-kilter. The disappointment is that Hollywood doesn’t want to produce intelligent cinema and mainstream exhibitors don’t want to show it. 
Netflix and its other subscription streaming competitors could reshape the way films are developed and distributed, meaning that if it’s successful then one assumes major movie studios may want to get in on the game, though this is pure supposition. After all, Ted Sarandos argues: “There’s no theatrical revenue expectation in our business model on any movie.” 
So we return to the need of creating the types of films they don’t make anymore, this insatiable requirement to see qualitative material absent of superficiality. Beasts of No Nation is a film that, in a theatrical arena, will live or die by the reviews it courts, but that is less vital as it will be greatly more accessible to Netflix’s 65 million (and growing) subscriber base. 
Netflix is adamant on ruffling Hollywood’s feathers, committing to an awards campaign for Beasts of No Nation that will include an all-out multimedia advertising campaign and limited theatrical run in cinemas favourable to the way they want to do things. Sarandos says: “I feel like it’s incumbent on us to make and distribute movies that are so good that theatre owners will want to book them,” adding that their scope won’t preclude the concept of producing exclusive blockbuster movies as Netflix has over $500 million to invest in original content and is already producing material on a tentpole scale.

In conclusion, those that want to create and not be curtailed by corporate control will naturally gravitate to environments where such conditions are facilitated. Ironically, Fukunaga was set to make his first Hollywood studio feature with New Line Cinema’s $32 million adaptation of Stephen King’s classic horror novel IT, though it fell through this summer as, according to the director: “It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience.” 
At Netflix, filmmakers are not subject to the artistic myopia and creative incontinence they seem to be exposed to in the Hollywood studio system. Therefore it seems almost inevitable that filmmaker-friendly enterprises like Netflix et al are the future of cinema. Depending on your film purity stance, that news will either please you or break your heart 

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