Cinema is at a crossroads. Many people are saying it's the death of cinema. And certainly, on many levels, that is true. But also, as has happened numerous times before, cinema, as an art form, is simply evolving and changing. I feel that looking through the correct lens, this could be one of the most exciting times for filmmakers.
A few years ago, in a passionate op-ed in the New York Times, Martin Scorsese lamented the current state of cinema, saying, "It's a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever." He goes on, "For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness."
Scorsese is, of course, correct. Multi-national corporations have reduced movies and the art of cinema to nothing more than audio-visual "content," filling up the ravenous time slots of streaming platforms. You can think about this by calling Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso "content" in the world's museums. It seems blasphemous on so many levels.
Most mainstream movies made and shown theatrically in cinemas today are often completely devoid of any individual artistic expression or point of view, instead relying on numerous committees' decisions and aggressively fueled by audience test scores.
Imagine cooking dinner for a party and asking the guests what they want to eat. Some want spicy food, others do not want spicy, they want sweet, and others have different opinions. The dinner ends up a watered-down, milquetoast version of a meal, being just passably acceptable to all and passionately orgasmic to none.
That is theatrical cinema today.
In a very insightful article in Variety, discussing the staggering twin twenty-million-dollar sales of two indie-feature films, Fair Play and Flora and Son, film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote, "it's more likely that both films won the battle for distribution but lost the war." What he means is that while both "movies both won the Sundance lottery… Neither one is going to get the big prize that independent filmmakers have sought since the beginning of the independent-film revolution. Both movies were picked up by streaming services, which means that, in all likelihood, they will never play in theaters."
Making this all the more dire, this year, Sundance received a staggering 16,000 entries for less than 175 coveted screening slots! For discussion, if we assume that 90% of the films submitted to Sundance were terrible, that still leaves 1,600 good to great movies that are not seen by the festival's audiences. It's a depressing statistic.
How does a visionary filmmaker navigate this daunting and "brutal and inhospitable" landscape?
The answer lies in looking at the past and discovering the silver lining.
Throughout cinema history, there have been periods of great upheaval in the making of movies and how audiences experience them. In the late 1920s, it was the arrival of sound. In the late 1930s, the appearance of color, in the 1950s, the arrival of home television, at the end of the 1960s, the demise of the old studio system, in the 1980s, the adoption of home VCR (the precursor to DVD and Blu-ray) and more recently the streaming services we know today. All of these events were seen as the end of cinema.
But film was simply growing and changing.
During each of these upheavals, filmmakers made some of the greatest works of cinema because the rules were in flux, and the old standards that existed no longer bound them to make movies in a certain way.
For instance, the end of the old-studio system of the 1960s gave birth to The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Graduate, and Easy Rider. The invention of television in the 1950s gave us wide-screen and such films as Vertigo, Rear Window, and Rebel Without A Cause. These lists are not exhaustive.
When new technology arrived on the scene, visionary filmmakers used that technology to make films in a new way.
One need look no further than the great films of the French New Wave made by Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Éric Rohmer, and François Truffaut. The invention of the portable magnetic tape recorder (the fabled Nagra) allowed filmmakers to work outside the artificial traditional sound stage because the sound recorder was suddenly easily portable. Moreover, it allowed their movies to be filmed on real streets in actual locations. Groundbreaking.
The point is that filmmakers, throughout history, have reacted to major upheavals in cinema with invention and creativity.
That spirit is needed today.
The idea that cinema is dead or dying isn't correct. Talking before Congress in 1982, MPAA head Jack Valenti said, predicting the end of movies, "the VCR [home video tape recorder] is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." It's just laughable.
So, the question before today's filmmakers is, how do you turn the current "brutal and inhospitable" landscape to your advantage? How do you use the new and evolving technology to better connect with your audience and make more individual and passionate films? Films that do not fit a rigid template but speak with an individual voice?
Sure, I love seeing movies in a movie theater on an immersive screen. I have seen more than 3,000 films this way, in some of the best screening rooms in the world. I can even argue that analog 35mm film is a better medium for film than the current digital cameras (however impressive they are).
But much of this crying for how it was, is like lamenting the coming of sound to movies in the late 1920s, claiming it's vulgar and has ruined the art form that is cinema. Sure, adding sound to film severely restricted camera movement for years – as recording the sound and microphone placement was the primary consideration. In contrast, the camera was locked away in a soundproof box. (See Damien Chazelle's Babylon or Singing in the Rain for accurate and humorous takes on this). The same criticism was leveled at the arrival of color film.
But those filmmakers pressed beyond that. Ultimately, today, we move the camera far more expansively than the best of the brilliant 1920s silent cinematographers. Color movies are subtle and nuanced, with the color enhancing the story and not as a garish carnival attraction.
Today's filmmakers need to look at the tools before them BOTH for making movies, AND connecting with an audience. And in so doing, making films that are individually and artistically suited to the times and the technology.
Cinema is not dying, it's being reborn!
Freedom For Film: an ongoing series about making the best cinema in today's world.