Filmism.net Dispatch August 17, 2016

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First off, a shout-out to my man Emmanuel, who told me in person how much he enjoyed the Filmism.net Dispatch. This regular newsletter goes into a virtual black hole, I rarely get any response on whether people enjoy or even read it, so it's always nice to hear when someone does.

And now, to business. Literally. One of the most interesting things about Hollywood has always been the company machinations behind the scenes, and one of the oldest and most pervasive narratives around has always been the death of creativity because of risk-averse big corporations. In fact, legendary critic Gene Siskel complained about the endless sequels and remakes way back in 1975.

I was reminded again of the standard 'death of creativity' narrative recently while reading an article by studio boss-turned movie reporter Peter Bart, who was using the oft-trod idea to highlight the troubles Paramount's senior leadership is going through right now.

And it got me thinking; are movies really that bad and unoriginal as a whole? If you only ever go to the multiplex, of course they are. It's probably always been that way, which prompted such an eminent industry watcher like Siskel to say so over 40 years ago.

But look at some of the cinematic voices and visions that have emerged in the last 15 years or so. Whiplash, Sexy Beast, Saw, Shaun of the Dead, Donnie Darko, Drive, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Gravity, Memento, Children of Men, City of God, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gerry, Waking Life, Wall.E, Zodiac, The New World. You might hate or love several movies in the above list, but you can't argue their originality. Is cinema really down the toilet?

No, and I have an idea it's thanks to a mechanism in the business that's almost biological in its evolution.

At the Marvel, Disney, Star Wars and Jurassic World end of the industry, movies certainly are increasingly risk averse and the corporations that stump up the hundreds of millions of dollars to make them certainly do stifle art in favour of return. When you've spent half a billion dollars making and marketing a tentpole movie you better pray it a) plays big in China, b) doesn't offend anyone with its political or social outlook and c) blankets the cultural conversation prior to release.

They're all constraints that reflexively squeeze originality, difficult content, adult themes, controversy, lots of blood or sex and a hundred other hallmarks of edgier movies out, and they do it more so the bigger the movie (and risk).

Now, none of that's news. But the films listed above all came from somewhere, and I bet you recognise those titles much better than the names Blumhouse, Flower Films, Hanway Films, Epsilon, Focus, Searchlight, Newmarket, FilmDistrict or New Line, but they're just some of the companies who bet on movies that stand out while the logo-heavy studios like Fox, Warner Bros and Universal have to dive ever-deeper into superheroes, cartoons and sequels to maintain their profit margins.

Now, here's what I think happens. Every now and again those small, nimble, risk-friendly production companies make a movie that pays off in a big way and leads to awards and filled coffers. What's the way forward from there? Same as in any industry; growth.

It might come through some more lucky hits, the odds of which are worse all the time as the audience and other media further fragment. It might come through a big company purchase, a way for those logo-ey studios to get their hands on the rights to hot properties ripe for commercial exploitation.

Either way, the pressures to pay staff and lease premises only increases, and one way or another smaller, edgier names are elevated (or is it plummeted?) to the domains of the bigger names, which means superheroes, cartoons, sequels, etc.

It's happening to one formerly edgy production company as we speak. After critical hits and original, auteur visions like 99 Homes and The Neon Demon bombed, Broad Green Pictures is said to be moving away from its traditional catalogue toward 'commercially-oriented fare', a slippery slope that inevitably leads to superheroes, cartoons, sequels, etc.

But as companies like Broad Green lose their arthouse and indie origins and turn into more risk-averse mini-studios (see Lionsgate), there's always another wealthy movie lover (or one who convinces other wealthy people to throw their lot in with him or her) ready to start a small, cool production stable in order to invest in the kind of films everyone says they want to see more of (Whiplash, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Donnie Darko, etc).

One is A24, the name behind Ex Machina, Spring Breakers, The End of the Tour, The Witch and Room. The New York based company has had its share of bombs (Kevin Smith's Tusk) but for now it's managing to keep its cooler-than-everyone else exterior. Another is ShankarFilm, previously 1984 Private Defense Contractors, the company behind the bootlegs of The Punisher and The Power Rangers that seemed like red flags inviting bigger companies to sue.

Now, I've interviewed Adi Shankar a couple of times (here and and here) and he seems far less interested in selling out than in making cool movies.

But movies cost money, investors with their credit lines and film funds want returns, and these days the returns are in superheroes, cartoons, sequels, etc. The commercial imperative drags small, edgy names inexorably upwards away from original movies with visionary directors, but the death of creativity and originality in movies is not by any means as total as the pervasive narrative would have you believe.

It just morphs. The mantle is passed to newer, younger, hipper players who really do care about movies more than money. They'll grow and be subsumed by the insatiable maw of the Hollywood beast like edgy names before them (New Line Cinema, anyone?), but there'll always be others. If you want proof cinema actually isn't getting worse as a whole, that's the bleeding edge where you should be looking.

On screens now is the one movie this year that calls attention to the spectacularly wide gulf between quality and marketing when it comes to making hits, Suicide Squad. I've been looking forward to it like no other film this year, and boy was I disappointed. Every awful thing you've heard about it is right.

In fact it's been a disappointing year all round, with Independence Day: Resurgence, The Legend of Tarzan and Ghostbusters all making a hash of it.

The only good film I've seen recently was Nic Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, and after the dour, impenetrable and frankly boring Only God Forgives, nobody was more surprised than I was.

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