Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Future of Film

As I discussed in the first three parts (here, here, and here) of this short series on the future of film, the landscape of movie and television entertainment is shifting beneath us. What does this mean for people who love movies (and who doesn’t?)?

Hollywood has taken a big hit in recent years from a floundering economy just like everyone else. Major-studio specialty divisions like Disney’s Miramax, which produced the kinds of movies we think of as “independent” but aren’t, have undergone near-extinction. Meanwhile the studios’ feature film business model seems to increasingly veer in two directions: highly profitable low-budget flicks such as the Paranormal Activity horror series, and massively-budgeted spectacles with franchise, merchandising, and even theme-park potential, “tentpole” pictures such as Harry Potter or Transformers.

By focusing on the tentpole pictures to the exclusion of the tent itself, Hollywood studios have gradually abandoned the middle ground of high-quality films with low-to-midrange budgets. This presents exciting opportunities for creative, truly independent production companies, outside the often stultifying studio system, to fill that void – if they can find the money, which is increasingly coming, when it comes at all, from overseas (and that introduces a whole other dynamic which I don’t have space to address here). Yes, the studios still have a vested interest in making Oscar-worthy fare to bolster their artistic prestige, but I predict the real wave of the future for quality movie entertainment will come from these true independents, as the studios cease being the gatekeepers to visionary new filmmakers.

This is not to say that big-budget entertainment can’t be of high artistic quality. Blockbusters aren’t all shallow spectacles – two last year were even rumored to have a shot at a Best Film Oscar: The Dark Knight Rises and the latest James Bond entry, Skyfall, already one of the most successful films of all time. They ended up falling short of a nomination, but I predict we will gradually see more and more such epic fare that is brilliant and crowd-pleasing on a massive scale.

There is also the question of the future of the filmmaking process itself, since directors are now moving away from celluloid to digital, which brings with it a new aesthetic. Some are trying to remain true to the film format while admitting they are fighting a losing battle against the rising digital tide. Django Unchained director Quentin Tarantino even hinted recently that he will retire soon, thanks to the digital revolution. “I hate that stuff,” he said. “I shoot film.”

As more filmmakers go digital and greater numbers of people watch TV and movies on smartphones and tablets rather than the big screen, what happens to the film-viewing experience itself? New Yorker critic David Denby writes in his book Do the Movies Have a Future? about his experience watching Pirates of the Caribbean on a video iPod with a 2-inch screen, propped up on his stomach:

On my belly, the Caribbean skeletons danced; their bones looked like pieces of string dipped in Elmer’s glue. With a groan, I tried to suppress memories of camels making their stately way across a seventy-foot-wide screen in Lawrence of Arabia. On the iPod the camels would traverse my thumb. Is this any way to see a movie?

Denby says that “the video iPod and other handheld devices are being sold as movie exhibition spaces, and they certainly will function that way for kids.” The problem is that “every kind of screen comes with its own aesthetic and imposes its own social experience on moviegoers… Kids who get hooked on watching movies on a portable handheld device will be settling for a lesser experience, even if they don’t know it yet.” This is bad news for generations of moviegoers who fell in love with the simultaneously intimate and communal immersion of the cinema experience.

The good, or at least hopeful, news is that regardless of the technological medium and how it shapes our viewing habits, humans are, above all, storytellers – and will remain so. Jonathan Gottschall makes a point in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human about the future of the novel that could apply equally to the feature film: “We will be creatures of story if sawed-off attention spans or technological advances ever render the novel obsolete. Story evolves.” And so will we as storytellers and audiences.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/24/13)