Filmism.net Dispatch August 14, 2021

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I've written before about the age of the producer as creative steward, especially in these times where studios rise and fall on blockbuster franchises. The most visible expressions of the new business model are LucasFilm's Kathy Kennedy and Marvel's Kevin Fiege. Kennedy is soft spoken and amiable in interviews but evidently exerts an iron grip of control over every creative facet of the Star Wars universe (and will one day do so over further Indiana Jones movies), proven by how many very powerful Hollywood names she's had the clout to fire.

And as I mused about in another Filmism.net Dispatch, a hidden and very telling detail buried in a profile about Fiege in Variety Magazine revealed how many meetings and decisions he had to make about very small details in Marvel flicks, everything from costumes to colour grading. One supposes Fiege never designs a costume or fires up Adobe Premiere himself, but the story seemed to suggest he approves every single element in the MCU.

I'm not going to make the same argument again, about how uber-producers now occupy the position directors used to in the global-market filmmaking landscape and call the creative shots with a eye on the future far beyond the current film.

But I got thinking about a related argument. There's moment in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs where Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), incensed yet again by Jobs' refusal to acknowledge the work past engineers have done to make the company such a success, snaps.

As he tells Jobs (Michael Fassbender) ; "You can't write code, you're not an engineer, you're not a designer, you can't put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board, the graphical interface was stolen from Xerox PARC, Jef Raskin was the leader of the Mac team before you threw him off his own project. Everything. Someone else designed the box! So how come ten times in a day' I read 'Steve jobs is a genius.' What do you do?"

Jobs counters with effortless self-belief with what he does, saying 'I play the orchestra'. Whether you're a storytelling or directing purist or a studio or marketing executive might determine whether you agree with Woz or Jobs, but it recently struck me that's exactly what the modern producer at the big end of town is. If you want, you can be reductive and boil it down to simply saying they don't do anything, they just approve everything other people do, but it's more nuanced than that.

Just like the job of a producer has changed, the mandate of Hollywood film studios have changed too. They've never not been about making money at the box office, but they used to do so by having a producer get a director, script, a few stars and a launch date together and delivering a product they could sell to the punters.

You can argue the death knell of that business model rang in April 2008 when Iron Man came out, the artefact that would be the beachhead for a new way of making and marketing movies (though nobody, not even Marvel, realised how much so at the time). Or you could say it's happened steadily over the last five years, particularly during 2020 when so much of the world found itself locked at home because of COVID.

Netflix couldn't have ordered or made a whole swag of new shows specifically in time to coincide with the global lockdown, the shuttering of cinemas and the corresponding explosion of streaming; real world movie production takes much longer no matter who's doing it. But they had an enormous library anyway and they were already on a spending spree that was set to capitalise on the conditions of the media industry.

Whatever precipitated the change, the Netflixes and Amazons of the world are now in the business of one-off dramas for adults Hollywood used to do in the pre- Star Wars era, and now that Hollywood's backed away from that form even more completely it gives Marvel, LucasFilm et al even more real estate to play with.

Now a director, even a big name one, is just another technician told what to do (for want of a better way of putting it) by a creative figurehead who's looking five or ten years down the line for how the decisions made in the current movie are going to affect the cohesion of a whole franchise.

That's more than an assumption, by the way. If you ask me, we got proof recently when Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel was in the running to direct Scarlett Johansson's standalone origin tale in Black Widow and but passed when Marvel higher ups told her not to worry about action scenes – Marvel would take care of them itself.

That was always the way TV saw directors, one-off guns for hire when writers and producers had all the real power. It was only cinema that installed the director as the creative arbiter on whom the success of failure of a project falls entirely.

Now, just like in TV, the creative figurehead of movies is the producer. It's just interesting that they have so much more (creative) power without having to pick up a camera, turn on a computer or saw a piece of plywood in half to build a set themselves.

Put it this way. If you ever find yourself standing in front of Kevin Fiege, would it be out of line to ask him; 'you don't write a script, you don't sew a costume, you don't turn on a camera... what do you do?'

On screens recently... absolutely nothing. There's hasn't been a streaming release in the last month or so that's floated my boat at all.

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