Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Discussing TV vs. Movies with Adam Spector Part III

This is Part III of a series where my friend Adam  Spector and I debate the merits of movies verses television. Adam keeps a column on film here and leads a film discussion group in DC every month and has a highly impressive knowledge of films. Our discussion began here with my confession that I watch way more TV than films these days because TV has so many built-in advantages. In Part II, we discussed how TV had threatened films before but movies responded with innovation and considered the possibility that movies might not have as much in their bag of tricks.
Orrin -- Well, we've certainly had strong powers of persuasion over one another. Your first response made me reconsider strongly whether it was foolish to proclaim films in decline, and now you've changed your tune (I suppose Mark Harris' article also had something to do with it).

First off, I wouldn't entirely say that I'm averse to franchise films. I enjoyed Star Trek into Darkness and X-Men Days of Future Past as well as Iron Man 2 and, hey, I even spent $12.50 watching Horrible Bosses II last week. What all those films have in common is that I saw Part I. It wouldn't make sense to watch Captain America II or Kick Ass II or Wrath of the Titans when I didn't see Part I of those films and there are only so many Part Is I'm willing to see in a given year. In other words, the sequels and movies meant to launch sequels are overloading me at this point. Similarly, something like Guardians of the Galaxy which seems intended solely to have sequels is also a turn-off. My feeling of alienation when I check out what's playing at the movie theater and  see mostly Part IIs and Part IIIs to films I didn't see in the first place. 

I theorize that as long as there's a best picture race (and I wonder if expanding it from 5 to up to 10 pictures was Hollywood's saving grace) studios will care enough to try and get their products into those 5-10 slots. This year there are not just going to be 9-10 pictures but it seems like there's another 7 or 8 knocking on the door of a best picture nomination: Foxcatcher, Boyhood, Birdman, Gone Girl, Whiplash, Grand Budapest Hotel, Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, Unbroken, and Selma might be the ten if it gets filled out to maximum capacity with American Sniper, Wild, Mr Turner, A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, and Nightcrawler all having the potential to play spoiler. All of those films were clearly made with the intent of getting some awards attention and the result allowed art verse commerce to win. That's not even counting ambitious films that came out to mixed reviews like Homesman or Interstellar and films that could result in acting nominations like Still Alice, St Vincent, Snowpiercer, The Judge or Big Eyes.

In all, I just listed 25 films all somehow tied to the Oscar race in some way or another and I'm likely forgetting a few. I think the larger question is how these people are getting films made. It might be that the end of Hollywood as we know it hasn't arrived just yet, but we could be getting to the cusp. I could see someone like Tim Burton staying in the film game as some of his films like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland" have shown he can make money. Obviously Christopher Nolan isn't going anywhere. But what about Alejandro Inarritu, the promising J.C. Chandor (who directed Margin Call and All is Lost)  or Jean-Marc Vallee?

There's likely always good films out there that are falling below the radar as well of the independent variety. I used to hang out in a movie group (circa 2008-2009) that would see films I never even knew existed before I went to see them like Brideshead Revisited, Bottleshock, Towelhead, Gonzo, The Brothers Bloom, and "In the Loop" (this one ended up getting a lot of awards attention later on). Similar examples of recent films in that below the radar category might be "Bernie" "Safety Not Guaranteed" "Robot and Frank" or "No." It's hard to say whether these films were better or worse than (surely a few are) but they generally aren't part of the national conversation on movies and are generally not accessible. In some cases, it's a little less fun to view films that aren't in the national conversation. I couldn't really check my opinion on "Brideshead Revisited" against friends or people on IMDB because so few people had seen or heard of that film. If the film is good, one hopes for several reasons that it's part of the national conversation. There's also a question of whether those below-the-radar films are under threat.

But the bottom line is what would have to happen to affect change? The article suggests that this is simply the result of executives who are no longer interested in art. If I'm not mistaken, the Weinstein Brothers at Miramax were champions of ambition and funded many Oscar-calliber films and passion projects. Would it simply take a couple more executives like the Weinsteins to turn things around?

Adam – I’d like to think that I have not “changed my tune.”  There are very troubling signs about the future of movies but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up or that we can start giving cinema its last rites. 

That said, the numbers are not good.  Box office for 2014 dropped five percent from 2013 and the total number of tickets sold is the lowest since 1993 (   The major theater chains’ panicky retreat with The Interview opened the door wider for simultaneous theater and VOD releases, which the those same theater chains have fought bitterly.    

If Hollywood studios are scared, and they probably should be, then they are even more likely to play conservative and rely heavily on franchise films.  For every one person like yourself, who may not see a Part II because he hasn’t seen Part I, the studios are betting on many more people who have seen Part I feeling compelled to see Parts II, III and IV.

As I noted, I have no problem with franchise films, provided they are made intelligently.  Luckily many of them have been lately.  But one problem with having so many of them is that you lose the element of surprise.  Even if they are made well, to some degree you know what you are going to get.  Of course this predictability is what studios are banking on. 

For me though, one of cinema’s joys is discovery.  A few years ago I got off work early and had time to kill.  I walked to the Landmark E Street Theater and picked a film called Timecrimes purely on the basis of it starting soon and having not seen it before.   I walked into the theater not knowing anything about  Timecrimes  other than that it was a Spanish thriller.  I walked out exhilarated.   Timecrimes brilliantly deconstructed the idea of time travel by playing the same story through different angles.  It trusted the audience to follow the complex story and filling in the details as they are slowly revealed.  Films such as Timecrimes, or Boyhood more recently, give us that unique opportunity to see something on film that we have not seen before. 

With the franchise films, it’s not surprise or discovery but anticipation.  The studios want your overwhelming feeling upon leaving the theater to be not so much “What a great film!” but rather ‘I can’t wait until the next one!”  For us that feeling can be a little deflating.  First, the endless hype before a film can build up expectation so much that disappointment is almost inevitable.  Second, it can be more challenging to get into a film if you know it’s only getting you from point B to point C in a five part storyline. 

You made a good point about the Oscar race.  For as much as we may criticize the Oscars, the prestige of winning them may be the one remaining factor that gets more adult-oriented non-franchise films made.  I don’t believe that the filmmakers themselves set out to win an Oscar.  But the studios decision to make or even distribute these kinds of films could largely be awards driven.    

It may take more people like the Weinsteins to stem the tide we are in.  Thankfully the Weinsteins are still active and are distributing films such as The Imitation Game.  Some of the others helping are not distributors, but people with wealth and clout who have their own production companies.    Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Pictures helped finance Precious, The Butler, and most recently Selma.  Brad Pitt’s Plan B also supported Selma and last year supported 12 Years a Slave.  Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures financed Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Her, American Hustle and Foxcatcher.

It's people like Winfrey, Pitt and Ellison who still give me hope.  It’s also the fact that in the past year, I saw original and daring films from Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher, Steve James, and Michael Winterbottom.  This week I am going to see films by Clint Eastwood, Paul Thomas Anderson and Mike Leigh.  Angelina Jolie has proven that she’s a talented director.  So have emerging new voices Ava DuVernay, Damien Chazelle and Morten Tyldum.  

Closer to home, the Arclight just opened in Bethesda as has Ipic.  Between those, the Landmark theaters, the Angelika, and the AFI Silver, we in the DC area have plenty of choices that offer more than the traditional multiplex.  We have access to film festivals, independent cinema and documentaries here.   How much can I really complain?

We and others with similar access must take advantage of our opportunities.   We must also do our part to shape the conversation.  The franchise films will always have a disproportionately large share of the spotlight.  But those of us that love all kinds of films should use the Internet, social media, and even old-fashioned conversation to let people know about the smaller films, the ones that take chances.  I’m trying to do that in my own small way with the Cinema Lounge and my Adam’s Rib column.  You’ve been doing that in your many venues and through your blogs such as this one.  It’s been a privilege to be a part of your world.  Thank you, and I hope we can do it again.       


No comments: