A trending blog post mentioned a comment by Martin Scorsese. His opinion was that words and images don’t mean anything anymore.
Born at the end of the modern era, it was still the 20th century when I was bit by the film bug. In the 70’s the world technically crossed over into the postmodern age, but everybody I knew in the first 23 years of my life was still living in the modern past. Maybe because “The Event” hadn’t happened yet…the thing that would serve as wake-up call to jolt us from our traditions of comfort and force us to recognize the world was changing…9/11. It was either that or the reality that modernism was all we knew. Whatever the reason, all that academic discourse I was exposed to in those last two years, concepts like postmodernism, the dialectic, and the promulgation of ideas across all western cultures didn’t really sink in. I guess, like everyone else, I was focused on the pop obsession of the time; the fear that the end was neigh because those in charge of our new world, a.k.a the computers, would all cough, sputter, cache their last bit of data, and bite the digital dust in a super-synchronized sub-millisecond. Another problem with not being able to absorb all that thinky mumbo-jumbo was that, unlike the theoretical ideology of the communications sciences (yes…it is a science), the film school (full disclosure: the degree is a bachelor of Science in communications) was fun which makes for a pretty handy distraction from all that real world stuff. This distinction was made even more potent by my background in the arts. As a youth, I dabbled in drawing and put in 5 solid years of piano and trombone. Even with that formal training starting at a very young age plus 4 years of fudging around with a guitar, I just couldn’t find a way to creatively plug in until I stumbled onto film. Thanks to my resurrected passion for the arts as an undergrad, I became hopelessly optimistic that I would graduate with a brilliant thesis film at the ready, receive acceptance letters to the top three festivals of my choice, get noticed by a slew of agents and studio execs and boom…T minus 10 to dream job (If you went to film school and you say your expectations were any different…”You Lie”). But no sooner than strapping into the cockpit and finalizing the pre-flight checklist did I realize…Houston, we have a problem.
At 22 years, we knew a lot about what we believed and a fair amount about our artistic voice. There was no short supply of vision. When I now read stuff that I wrote in college, I sometimes think, I was smarter then than I am now (other times I think I must have been smoking something illicit). Whatever I knew, it did not include a prescient dread caused by the impending collapse of the world we were building. We couldn’t predict how the independent film space was fixing to change, how indie festivals would be co-opted by major studios, and the 25% of total screen time dedicated to true independent (read- “unknown”) artists would be one of the fibers in the carpet being quietly and methodically yanked out from under us. This was a significant problem because we’re not establishment filmmakers. We don’t have relationships with studios. Many of us don’t live in L.A., nor do we have meaningful relationships with people that do. When you consider the size of the California film industry and their stranglehold on the traditional distribution mode of the business…the truth is, we’re industry “Outsiders”. Even with the new changes (predominately, freight distribution giving way to the internet), Los Angeles is still the core of the movie making apple. The new media distributors now dwarf “the majors” in size measured by operating capital, however the two largest players Netflix and Amazon just setup new facilities in the L.A. area. Even as late as the early 2000’s, I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Instead of taking pause to take inventory, we, the new generation of new wavers continued to endeavor in the tradition that we were raised with; feature length stories about people and their conflicts, with relatable themes done in the Greek drama tradition, using ideas that no one had ever heard of. Since distribution was largely controlled by big money, the indie festival experience/theatrical market was the only tool we had to get us launched. Losing the festivals and theatre screen space to the “majors” was a huge blow. Why? Aside from the obvious financial and PR ones, there’s the art of it all. In order for “Story” to have its intended impact it needs to be presented to large groups in one space; a stage or an amphitheater, on a silver screen, around a campfire…etc (replicated as many times as possible for greater inclusivity). This experience, had by all cultures for thousands of years, was a true dialogue that invited the audience to ruminate over relevant topics beginning with one or two perspectives distilled from experience by inspired writers and brought forth via the extraordinary talents of the bard and acting troupe (i.e. the Speakers) before a public audience (the listeners) that rightly exploits the opportunity to react in the presence of the so called experts, forcing their conversational counterparts to adapt and synthesize an acceptable rendition of truth with each new performance. As a guy with a degree in the science of communications, schooled in the history of the development of western culture, the concepts of market system design, rationality of man, plus my own history as a life-long Baptist (uh…I know what you’re thinking….Not that kind of Baptist), I can fully appreciate the social ramifications caused by the loss of “Voice”; voice of the People represented by public university art school alumni who collectively hail from far and wide across our great land. So, in that way, Mr. Scorsese, I can relate.
However, that’s the break point at which I can no longer espouse the virtues of the old way. Now that viewership in the digital age has fragmented to the point that even the majors have been forced to join the ranks of large conglomerates and re-format their entire organizational structure, I sometimes find myself at a loss trying to figure out where traditionally structured dialogue fits into a disassociated society (and, what the heck does that even mean? How can you have a disassociated society?). The paradox causes the OS in my head to crash but also gives birth to a revelation that the answer is largely subjective; because in order for the world to continue, it has to be. Society has to keep moving forward in spite of the fragmentation and disparate conversations going on simultaneously in different venues. More importantly, the mental blue screen of death forces another re-routing of electrical impulses through the smart switches that comprise the organic, carbon based network in my head (one might say the brain is the original internet…think about that invention Al Gore). This change of perspective illustrates how I reluctantly came to believe that success in that old tradition is damn near impossible if you’re an outsider. I won’t launch into tirade or attempt to proselytize my dissatisfaction with the industry by enumerating the litany of problems that pushed me towards a new frame of mind (but the list is long). Instead, I’ll generalize and say that I embrace the change. Hey… progress! In hindsight, I can say new attitude is priceless, but like most people raised with tradition, in the beginning, I cursed change. A) it’s different B) the old way felt more organic and really did force us to think and learn and master the craft C) the new digital equipment was then so expensive that only the likes of George Lucas could afford it.
As I worked as a sound mixer in film, a designer and account manager in the TV system integration business for the first seven or so years of this changeover, I watched the tech slowly improve in quality as well as price. The next seven I worked in TV systems engineering and from a distance watched a second round of reductions in price and an exponential increase in robustness and quality to the point that it could be legitimately called digital Cinema. Now, for $10,000, I can have what George Lucas would have paid $200,000 for 15 years ago. Not only that, but I can now say “So What” if the studios co-opted Sundance and Cinemark. I have You Tube and Vimeo. I also have access to Apple, Amazon and Netflix. And if that’s not good enough for you, there’s even a production company here in Austin that built their own proprietary distribution network which completely redefines the concept of self-distribution. These guys & gals are successful making lots of media for a loyal fan base with a fast growing slate and faster growing audience.
All this boils down to prosperity. We dreamed of it, had it ripped out of our hands by an oligopolistic industrial aristocracy, a power which has since been watered down restoring some of the balance lost. Courtesy of the benevolent market system tenet of atomism the balance is maintained by the social regulatory policy called network neutrality and this is a phenomenal shift which brings new possibilities for prosperity, that is, if the public’s viewing choices are not truncated by regulation or the lack thereof (depending on your definition of the word “regulation”). In western society, the problem that hampers true progress (like in screenwriting) is usually bad structure. In screenwriting it results in wasted time as a result of bad decision making, but in the world at large bad structure breaks society by inducing the toxic condition of market power. This problem is distinguished from the former example because individuals didn’t create it, nor do they have the power to fix it. I won’t go into a discussion on market system social structure, (that’s the other blog: www.homesteadprotection.wordpress.com), but the gist is that when economies of scale create barriers to entry for new business (I use the term business loosely since, we the artists are generally allergic to it. But, I do use it in spite of this fact because the new path to prosperity for artists is to employ brand building), then atomism is lost and prosperity suffers. Generally put, this is bad for the middle class. More specifically, as it relates to the art community, it ruins the lives and careers of those whose inner voice led them to their calling: work in a creative capacity. Since newborn tech has put the nails in the coffin of these centenarian barriers, I can actually look out and see a way to produce stories that people will watch. Not only that, but if I’m diligent and smart, I’ll actually make enough money to live.
So, while I agree that the loss of tradition is hard, particularly for insiders equipped to leverage all of the fine resources provided by the juggernaut called California film, the simple reality is that in a natural (unadulterated) market the following is true. Change: “It Is What It Is”. Besides, they had a good run enjoying uncontested power spanning one whole century. But now the tradition will change, the expanded world-wide industry will be heathier as a result, and it will be done in true western form.
P.S. – To Mr. President-elect Trump and family: I hope y’all consider this argument before you alter network neutrality.
P.P.S. – To Martin Scorsese: Thanks for making so many great movies. I cant wait to see Silence, another run of Mean Streets, and anything else you’ll crank out in the future.