ReelThoughts: June 09, 2008

"Film as Product"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

Over the years, Roger Ebert has maintained a position that he doesn't see any computer/video games as being "art." While I agree with him that I have yet to see a video game I would consider to be art, there are two points to consider: (1) I'm not willing to dismiss it as a future possibility, and (2) there's nothing wrong with a product being generated for entertainment without aspiring to be something more. And that brings me to movies. While there are still "artistic" movies out there, few of them are being made by the big studios.

The motion picture business has always been just that - a business. Yet, like sports, there has been more to it than mere dollars and cents. We have favorite movies - two hour excursions away from the mundane process of everyday living - just as we have favorite sports teams. And while no studio makes any movie to lose money, one likes to think that there's a little heart and soul in every spool of celluloid that ends up running through a projector. Romantic? Sure. But when you look at something like Casablanca or Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, it's hard not to succumb to romance.

But the times, they are a-changin'. It no longer seems that the big studios care one whit about heart and soul. Now, it's all about the bottom line. They care about "winning" the first weekend and amassing the biggest gross in the shortest time, then getting the damn thing onto DVD and Blu-Ray as soon as possible so they can get it to the growing group of middle-aged viewers who have sworn off multiplexes. In the end, it's a simple equation. When all the accounting has been done, if the film makes money, it's a success. If it doesn't, it's a failure. No other considerations apply.

There is one exception to the rule: late year releases. Hollywood still cares about the prestige of winning an Oscar. So there are still quality movies to be found in the fourth quarter. In the October-December period, it doesn't take sifting through cinematic debris and visits to out-of-the-way art houses in order to find something worth the escalating price of a ticket (plus the fuel cost of getting there). But three months of potential quality means nine months without it.

It has been a gradual shift, but the history is less important than where it has gotten us. Lest I sound too bleak, let me interject that I have never found big movies to be oppressive or objectionable. The problem isn't that they're thriving, but that they're doing so at the expense of studio-produced "serious" movies. Hey, I'm looking forward to Meryl Streep singing ABBA and Christian Bale putting on the Dark Knight suit again, but where's the meat to go with the dessert? Eat too much popcorn and cotton candy and you'll end up slumped over the toilet throwing up.

The emphasis on product means sequels/continuations, remakes, adaptations, familiar actors doing familiar shtick, and formula. You'd be hard pressed to find a big summer movie that doesn't satisfy one or more of those criteria. Iron Man -adaptation. Prince Caspian - adaptation/sequel. Indiana Jones - sequel. Sex and the City - continuation. And so on… Hollywood doesn't take risks. There's too much money at stake. Look at New Line Cinema. They took risks. Some, like The Lord of the Rings, paid off handsomely. But too many crashed and burned, and now New Line is no more.

From a purely fiscal point-of-view, playing it safe makes sense. There will still be failures, but not as many. Most movies will turn a profit. But there's a nagging question. What happens if audiences begin to tire of the same old thing? (After all, even the most comfortable shoes eventually wear out and have to be discarded.) Is this approach leading us in a direction where cinema as we know and love it - with great stories and wonderful characters - will become endangered or extinct? I don't lie awake at night wondering about this, but maybe I should…


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