Before I go into this diatribe, please let me tell you that Steven Spielberg is and will always be one of my greatest inspirations as a storyteller. More so than a filmmaker. The Hollywood Reporter was present at the opening of the new USC School of Cinematic Arts building with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, where the two were using their clout to make predictions about the future of the film industry. One such bold prediction was when Mr. Spielberg touted that the film industry was going to implode.
Sorry Mr. Spielberg, but I think you meant to say the studio system, not the film industry, is going to implode. If not, are you blind?
History Repeats Itself
The notion that history repeats itself is common knowledge, so I’m disappointed Steven Spielberg or George Lucas don’t see the history being “rebooted” in the film industry today. Any film history nerd knows about the fall of the Studio System, but I’m going to assume I have a diverse audience – so let me give you a short history lesson.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, the old Studio System was when Hollywood was comprised of a small number of HUGE studios. MGM, RKO, Warner Bros, Fox, and Paramount controlled nearly 100% of production and distribution. This is what film history calls the Golden Age, but unfortunately it wasn’t so golden if you weren’t a business man at the top of one of these studios. Actors, directors, and whatnot were bound to their studios by contracts.
In the 1950s, the landscape of entertainment was changing rapidly. Television was taking a piece of the pie now, and the actors and unions were starting to form. The tipping point came when the big studios lost a landmark anti-trust case (United States v. Paramount Pictures), which sent ripples running through the industry. All of this paved the way for actors, directors, and other artist to choose the films they wanted to work on. It gave rise to art house films and the spread of international films to the United States. The latter brought us the likes of Truffaut and Fellini, the likes of who would give birth to the household names like Kubrick, Scorsese, and other greats in the 1970s.
When the dust settled, the studios lived to fight another day. After all, filmmakers still needed a middle man to handle their marketing and distribution.
Filmmakers Aren’t Too Fringe-y For Movies
The studios have almost always been run by suits. What’s a suit? It’s the opposite of a creative, or in this case a filmmaker. They’re in the business of making money, not movies. They just happen to make money from making movies. It’s a paradox. Since the collapse of the old Studio System, the suits have been turning the film industry into an industrial complex of rising profits by making movies bigger, with more special effects. Budgets were growing and growing. Then comes along the computer, which begins to do everything faster and better. (For God’s sake, George Lucas is the reason for this part – at least a little bit. Did he forget?) This starts to make VFX cheaper and faster. The playing field gets leveled and now they need to use marketing to convince you to see the latest film in IMAX, and now it’s 3D they think will reel you in.
Even before the rise of 3D, producers and studios have been making hand over fist – even if the film flops at the box office. This is the reason I defend overpaying actors and directors. They deserve a piece of that pie and letting the suits have all the dough was a thing of the old studio days. Well now the average studio film cost over $250 million dollars. Meaning, we now we have less movies per year, each with their equated, minimal risk.
When Spielberg says that young filmmakers are having a difficult time getting their work into theaters, he blames them for being “too fringe-y”. Too fringe-? Sorry, but young filmmakers aren’t lacking ideas that have a mass appeal. The problem is that studio profits have flatlined. They’ve developed a well-oiled machine that makes a profit, but at the cost of quality storytelling, which has taken a backseat to sure-to-be-successful comic book movies, reboots, sequels, and more. I mean, you can’t blame them really. The current top grossing films are mostly sequels. (There’s money in dem der hills!) This bland, boring, and predictable lineup of films is causing a slowdown in their cash flow and in turn makes it harder and harder for them to take a chance on an independent filmmaker. That was until the internet grew up.
The New Breed
What’s happening and will eventually consume the film industry is the rise of independent filmmakers, not the way we saw in the 70s and 90s though. A whole different breed of filmmaker is on the rise and the catalyst is the internet. Indie filmmakers in the 70s and 90s didn’t have a way to build awareness and market their films; they also didn’t have a distribution network. They needed the studios to advertise their films on TV, radio, and billboards. They needed studios to mass produce the reels of film for distribution to theaters. Well guess what? None of that shit is needed anymore. Marketing and advertising is at your fingertips online with Google Adwords and social marketing/content strategy. Theaters download their movies. They don’t get a heavy shipment of reels anymore. Even theaters aren’t as important as they once were, too. Look online where content producers are making a decent living by telling stories on YouTube. Sure it isn’t the same as a theater, but neither were the art houses in the 60s with rickety wooden chairs and crap concessions. They succeeded in their time.
So there you have it. While it might not be history repeating itself verbatim, it sure sounds like a song I recognize. The digital revolution has already disrupted other industries the same way and did so without the entire industry imploding. Only the useless middle man, in this case the studios, being left in the cold. If this all seems like hogwash to you, just take a look at the music and publishing industries. Each has prime examples of artists who’ve cut out the middleman and taken their 10% cut of the profits and turned it into 70%. Maybe Seth Godin or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis can give you some tips on how to do so.