Tic-Toc: Thinking About Generations & Opportunity (Pt. 1 of 3)
I graduated from high school in 1980, the year often associated with when the Hollywood Business fully became the Blockbuster Business. When I graduated I thought I had revolution to run (even if I wasn’t prepared to run it), but I didn’t get around to finding the film business for a few more years.
I was fortunate in the timing of my professional & artistic pursuits that I could benefit from the DIY aesthetic, the approach of the first wave of punk rock (circa 1977), and political events like the class antagonism of the Reagan Years, and the fear & consequences of the AIDS epidemic. Add to that the prevailing post-modern, multi-culti, deconstructionist sway of academia, the birth of a new distribution platform (VHS video), and Hollywood’s abandonment of the complex and personal. What could have been a more perfect storm for the coming wave of American Indies?
Circumstances gave me and my generation of filmmakers opportunity (even if some paid a high price). Has such an opportunity come again over the next thirty years? Did we miss it?
As fortunate as I have been, I think it does not compare to the opportunity appearing before us now.
The transformation away from an entertainment economy based upon control and scarcity to an Age Of Access And Surplus is seemingly too mind-blowing for most — other than the young — to even comprehend. In terms of the film business, it all gets to be reinvented right now (other than maybe, the blockbuster side of things).
We will go down wrong paths. Hell, we ARE already going down wrong paths. But so f’n what? We will find our way eventually, and those that get us there are going to get a nice long ride no matter where they sit (not that the twenty year ride I got wasn’t a sweet one too!).
But what has happened in between the time that me and my compatriots marched on to the field, and now, as the young rebels swarm across every nook and cranny? Where were the revolutionaries in between over the last decade? What were the transformations? What did I miss — despite it being presumably right before my eyes?
Decade? (Pt 2 of 3)
There wasn’t really ever a transfer of power in the film biz, was there? During the growth of AmerIndie, Hollywood remained a business of blockbusters. Yes, previously underserved audiences got full on banquets of offerings as the menu of filmed entertainments grew more diverse, but the clamoring hordes born from the niches didn’t climb the castle walls as some have claimed; the same power sat on the same throne as before. Fanboys & geeks were inevitably the masters once Hollywood embraced the logic of tent poles — so there is nothing surprising about their current reign. And yes, Hollywood’s current crop of top directors were born from that indie big bang of the nineties, but for those directors, Indie always seemed more like a training ground than sort of a manifesto. And the power in the Hollywood system, still rarely rests with the directors.
What is it that happened between Indie’s growth in the 1990’s and now? What did the last decade do to the hopes and dreams of The Indie Wave?
When Indie kicked into gear, I thought the Art Film was firmly grounded as one of the American genres. It sure has lost ground with fewer practitioners than I ever dreamed possible. Is that a function of market-based realities? Surely the drive and ambition that fuels Todd Haynes, Kelly Reichardt, and Ramin Bahrani must linger in others. So many still create without any audience/market in mind (7000 films/year in USA – a market that reasonably consumes 600), I don’t think I can blame neo-liberal/late capitalism for this one, alas.
Is the absence in the cultural mindscape of a new wave of Art Film a symptom or character trait of those that came of age in the last ten years? I refuse to think we are lacking in those that aim for art over success (not that those are incompatible…). Mumblecore and YouTube’s unadorned reality based creations certainly have their ambition, even if formal presentation is not generally one of them.
I have often felt that in the last ten years we became A Culture Of Distraction. Everything competes for our time and focus, and we get trained to shift rapidly from one attraction to the next (and you know what? We are damn good at it!). Navigating the onslaught, positioning ourselves to withstand the winds of everything that passes us by, becomes a necessary goal. We need to find our filters and our discovery tools. We need to stop skating on the surface, and learn to love to drill down deep. Now is not the time for simple sensation, but thoughtful understanding.
Slowly we build defenses and tools — make choices. It is this move from impulse to choice that I hope partially defines the present moment and the next. But I still wonder, what is the choice that most creative types make? Does survival (and financial well-being) dictate everything? If people knew they could have a different sort of cultural industry, would they change their behavior? Are they every really going to be ready to do what is truly needed to ensure a diverse and open culture?
Still I wonder though: was an opportunity for a truly free film culture missed in the decade that just slipped by? Audience changed, but our methods and work didn’t. The leaders never embraced the community, be it the creators or those that appreciate the work. The business never evolved beyond the “sell”. Instead of pushing the product through, we could have created a two-way flow. I saw my opportunity two decades ago, and despite that (or because of it) kept telling myself: I NEED TO PREPARE FOR THE NEXT WAVE.
But really I just rode it out instead, doing what I had been doing. Was it really ever going to be enough to deliver a good story well told for the right price? Was it ever right to focus on the product without much attention to the infrastructure that both delivered and dictated its substance. When we sold Good Machine at the end of 1990 I kept telling myself that now was the time, and I kept telling myself that every three years until we got to the Now.
I feel good about all the movies that I helped make this past decade, but I also feel the responsibility to help find a way to make more diverse and ambitious work a sustainable industry — and I know that THAT can not be driven by individuals. We have to build it better together.
Was the tornado of digital disruption too great to ever get a real focus on what that would be? Did the filmmakers that would have led the charge, simply go elsewhere in this expansive online universe? Or did the noise everyone was making simply just cancel each other out? Was there too much going on for anyone to get traction? It can’t be that we lacked the political impetus; surely the establishment of the greatest disparity in wealth since The Great Depression should have been enough to send the masses to the barricades.
But it wasn’t. What happened?
Indie Film? (Pt 3 of 3)
If we missed an opportunity over the last ten years, do you know what it was? We missed the opportunity to make indie film a sustainable culture and business. I earned a good living for over fifteen years, but I don’t expect to do that now or even going forward — if I am even going to stay in Indie Film, that is. It is going to take an awful lot of work from a great number of people to bring that squandered opportunity back. Are the people out there, who are willing to do that work?
Do you know why we missed that opportunity to make Indie Film a sustainable enterprise? Because we all were/are selfish, focused on own short-term success, chasing a hit, not devoted to the long term or the community. The filmmakers, the performers, the artists and the craftspeople all feel as if we’ve behaved as selfishly and as greedily as the bankers who have virtually destroyed this country. Yes, a great number of people give a great deal back, but that is not enough. Instead of building a system that works for a wide and diverse populace, we all went out and just got ours. We squandered a great opportunity.
7,000 films a year are purportedly made in this country annually — and generally all are made with the same lack of rigor or controls that the financial sector enjoyed and used to deliver us into this toilet of an economy. We don’t really try to make better films, just to make our films. We don’t try to communicate to audiences, we just try to get their butts into the seats. The film business does not know their audience, let alone try to nurture it into a community. We continue to do business based on anachronistic concepts of content scarcity and control instead of realities of surplus and access.
But perhaps that can be the old way, right? There still can be a new way. It is not too late for a real change. Isn’t that why you are reading now?
Does every new decade begin with the huge surge of hope that I now feel as this one’s second year dawns? Everyone once was wondering what the 00’s were going to be about. There seems to be no doubt now that digital connection & disruption were — and still are — the defining qualities of that decade gone by, but in terms of the art, the infrastructure, the individuals I am still wondering what, who & where it all was. What happened to that opportunity we had?
Am I bummed? Yes, but I am also again filled with hope as to the opportunity we have if we work together to make it better. I can see some Brave Thinkers, and I know there is tremendous room and opportunity for a hell of a lot more. I want to see the castle walls over run even if there are more doors open now than ever before.
This is your time. This is every one’s time. There is a brand new good machine (even better machine?) to be built that will deliver an exhilarating ride. Let’s not have the engine stall out for another ten years, please.
Ted Hope is a producer of 60+ films, blogger, film lover, and is an avid social media proselytizer, posting regularly on his HopeForFilm blog, home of Truly Free Film, which Variety has called a “fantastic resource.” He also co-founded HammerToNail.com, a film review site focused on Truly Independent Film. Ted has won numerous awards, made numerous television appearances, as well as serving on a variety of film juries and advisory boards.
Nominate HopeForFilm.com for the 2011 Total Film Movie Blog Awards…the battle to be best of the best of the blogs.
Catch up with Ted Hope on Twitter @tedhope.