11 February 2010

Soderbergh’s Lament: A Little Whining + A Little History + A Possible Solution

by guest columnists Jessica King & Julie Keck.  Follow them on Twitter.

A recent article entitled “Do Movies Matter Anymore? Steven Soderbergh Doesn’t See Any Evidence They Do is stirring people up.  In it, Brad Brevet (of Rope of Silicon) focuses on sentiments shared by Soderbergh in a making-of documentary on the DVD/Blu ray sets for Che:

I can't sit here and tell you [making Che] was worth it. The time, the money — my own money — and the effect it had on people that worked on it. It also made me consider the issue of whether or not movies matter anymore… at all. I think there was a period where they did matter, culturally, but I don't think they do anymore. So that added to the sense of what was the point of eight years of work when movies, I think, have become so disposable… There aren't many opportunities for them to be taken seriously, the way they were in the late '60s and '70s here in the United States.

Some folks are undoubtedly saying, “No, Steven, don’t say that!  We love you. You’re a genius. Don’t ever stop making movies.”  We can imagine others responding with, “Oh, give me a break! You made a 4 1/2 hour movie about Che Guevara, and now you’re crying into your cowboy boots because no one wants to watch it?  Please... Go stuff a mattress with the money you made from Oceans Eleven, Oceans Twelve, and Oceans Thirteen and cry yourself to sleep.”  Whether you fall in either camp (or neither), Soderbergh is making some interesting points, and I think in order to understand his core frustration, you have to look back at how movies came to be the way they are.

Soderbergh was right: a lot of movie goers took movies seriously in the 1960s and 70s.  Or rather they were more open to a variety of film experiences.  Do you know why?  Because by the end of the 1950s people were tired of their steady diet of big studio musicals and historical epics.  Television was splitting their attention and whetting their appetite for more options.  Movie goers wanted something a little strange, something sexier, and it was out there in the form of European art films, Japanese cinema, and even Spaghetti Westerns.  Out with Cleopatra and Sound of Music!  American audiences were ready for their versions of Antonioni and Truffaut.

Hollywood was fine with chucking the expensive epics and musicals, but they had one big problem: they had no Antonionis, no Truffauts.  So they cleared house and plucked a fresh new crew of directors right out of film school.  You might recognize the names of some of the New Turks brought in to save the day: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese. They were young, they were eager, and they were given carte blanche to create, titillate, and win American audiences back.

And they did.  The new blood churned out dark, edgy, engaging movies that got people to turn off the boob tube and flock to theaters.  Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver.  These studio-funded gems resembled their foreign counterparts as well as stateside indies like Easy Rider.  They shared common themes about bucking authority and valuing individualism.  Audiences was at once stimulated and content.  Everyone seemed happy, studios and movie goers alike.  And then...a massive killer shark came and chomped them all to bits.

While Spielberg was making Jaws, he thought it was going to be a flop.  Who wanted to see a stupid movie about a stupid shark?  But, boy, was he wrong!  People lined up around the block to see Jaws, came back to see it multiple times, and brought all of their friends.  Jaws was the first official “blockbuster”, a term initially used to describe the hordes of people lined up around the block to see the movie.

Jaws broke box office records, and the studios took notice.  They were in the business of making money, so if bigger movies meant bigger bank, they were going to go with the flow.  Suddenly some of those dark edgy guys they’d brought in started churning out more Jaws-sized movies.   Star WarsIndiana JonesET.  Great big movies that were a marked shift from the “introspective everyman” movies that had been popular so recently.

What does this have to do with Soderbergh?  Well, the American public is still hooked on blockbusters, and Soderbergh is bemoaning a general lack of interest in movies that don’t involve explosions, disasters, or planet-saving robots that masquerade as SUVs.

Do you know why everyone went to see Avatar but not Moon?  Studio execs recognized that Avatar was bigger, louder, and more likely to bring in the dough, so they were willing to invest more money in marketing it.  The public was bombarded with messages about how unique and groundbreaking this movie was going to be months before it was released.  They were told it was good, it was great, it was a movie they needed to see because everyone else was going to see it.   So they did.  The movie-going public largely ignored Moon, because they didn’t know it was there.

(SIDENOTE: Despite being exactly the sort of big booming blockbuster the people love, do you know that there were complaints that Avatar was too long?  Those people who were feeling antsy at the end of Avatar...yeah, they’re not going to sit through the slow paced Moon or Soderbergh’s 4 1/2 hour Che biopic, especially when many of them don’t know Che Guevara from a hole in la pared.)

One thing indie filmmakers are up against is an audience that has been trained to watch and like blockbusters.  Further, many people simply don’t know that there is an alternative, like in the case of Moon.  When’s the last time you saw a film like Ink, New York Lately, or The Sensation of Sight plugged on your favorite mainstream news site or during your favorite television show?  Are there posters for these movies on the sides of the buses you ride?  Can you get an Ink drum (want one) in a Happy Meal or New York Lately-themed party invitations (need these) at Target?

Indie film, no matter how good, is always hidden.  Sure, people can find them if they look hard, but who’s teaching them to look?  The American education system is overloaded with kids who have trouble reading; do you really expect schools to encourage appreciation of indie movies in addition to everything else that have to do?

So what’s the cure for this indie movie blindness?  The answer lies with the filmmakers.  Along with shaping our stories, filming our movies, designing our distribution strategies, and managing our careers, it’s essential that filmmakers take on the additional responsibility of educating the public in two specific ways:

First, we have to make the public aware of their options.  Yes, it will take lot of effort and money to compete with the studios, but isn’t this what we’ve all been talking about? It’s our responsibility to raise a ruckus, to find our audience, to make them aware that we have something they might like.  No one’s going to come looking for us if they don’t know we exist.  

Second, we need to inform people about how to watch and enjoy our films.  I’m not talking about teaching a class on film theory.  I’m not talking about being condescending.  I’m talking about letting people know what they’re getting for their money.  If they’re giving up fiery explosions, man-eating sharks, and cheap laughs, you have to replace them with something.  Unique stories, for example.  Complex characters that remind them of themselves.  Messed up situations that make them examine, question, or appreciate their own lives.  We recommend employing labels on your indie DVDs that give audiences a heads-up:

WARNING: Watching this movie with friends (or friendly strangers) is likely to result in truly enjoyable discussions, invigorating disagreements, and just plain fun post-movie conversations in which no one says, “Dude, I so knew she toast when she took off her top in the hot tub in the middle of nowhere.”

Thoughtful, unique indie movies, born off the Hollywood track, allow people to see themselves on the screen, then share what they’ve learned with others.  IF they’re so inclined.  If not, they can wait for Transformers 3 or the Hawaii 5-0 movie.  We’re not saying it has to be all indies or no indies.  We just want, you know, a little more room on the couch...

Jessica King and Julie Keck have been making films as King is a Fink for 10 years.  Their ultra low budget shorts focus on flawed characters, awkward interactions, and honest emotions.  Their short films Snow Bunny and Libidoland are currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit.  In addition to making shorts, King and Keck also write feature-length screenplays.  They're currently writing a dramatic thriller called TILT for Phil Holbrook and adapting a naughty memoir by Kevin Keck.  Find out more about TILT at http://tiltthemovie.com; information about other King is a Fink projects can be found at http://kingisafink.com.


Sheri C said...

hi girls, love the post. The scenario you laid out of what was happening in the '60s sounds vaguely familiar to me in a now kind of way. :)

I like what you are saying about education, but it is also one of the things I think people don't like about independent films. The feeling that you watch because it is a duty, like donating to the poor. Or because it is good for you, like taking medication. Is that how we want to be viewed, as beggars or an illness? No, how about innovators. So informing people how they should watch and enjoy OUR movies doesn't sit well with me.

Most people just want to be entertained by a good story. Now that doesn't mean we should all make dummied down films, Hollywood has the corner on that market. Being more in touch with audiences, soliciting feedback in a communicative way instead of just letting them vote by their dollars, those are things that indies can do that big studios and distributors won't do. Too innovative and labor intensive for them.

Developing and using online distribution methods that are easy for the audience to use will help as well. Those platforms are here or are developing, but they haven't quite caught on yet to the average user. They will, but not yet.But don't give it up. Don't base your distribution plan on the old model (theaters) because the new hasn't been proven to give a return. It will, in time and in not very long a time. That is something we can teach to people, where to find us easily and how to use the platform. You say this in the post, regarding informing the public of their options. Well said.

I think the outreach and the accessibility to filmmakers (and I mean writers/directors/producers/crew) sets indie apart. We are uniquely able to speak outside of a vacuum and really foster dialog with the audience, among ourselves and the community with each other and it is just recently that this has happened on a massive scale. It is only laziness or a misunderstanding of how the internet forms relationships that keeps filmmakers from using it to do this.

Much as I like some Soderbergh flix, he doesn't do this. And if he had asked me if I wanted to see a 4 1/2 hour epic on Che Guevara, I could have saved him the years and the money. Obviously, a lot of his audience could have too. Is he listening? Is he even asking? No, just make it and they will come. Familiar? Not saying he isn't talented, a unique storyteller. But maybe in a little bit of a studio vacuum. Money to burn and out of touch. And now who is getting burned?

I think the solution may be in voluntarily bringing indie film into our communities, on a grassroots level, not waiting for the local cinema to do it. There are untold amounts of spaces in every community where films could be shown. I am sure most people can find kindreds wherever they live who want to see alternative stories they are unaware existed. Take it upon yourself, you indie filmmaker, to bring those stories to your community. We all know many filmmakers who would love to have their films screened. Lets just set it up and share our experience of doing that and see what happens. Really, what is the worst that can happen? Can't be worse than not having them seen at all. It could be far more educational than just telling people about indie films.

Jessica said...

Unfortunately, education gets a bad rap. We are not proposing that indie film be portrayed as either a duty or a public good. And it isn’t about how people “should” watch films, it is about how people “could” watch films and what films they could be watching.

I am primarily concerned with the ability of people to access art outside of their comfort zone.

In order to do that, people do need to know what they’re going to get out of it. They need to know that there is more to film than severed limbs and women running in bikinis. Films can have substance and accessing substance can be both pleasurable and entertaining. Further, having to think about a film, having a film resonate with you is immensely pleasurable.

We’re not advocating a didactic approach: Hollywood is mono-logic enough. I think these ideas can come out in interactions with audiences, which is very much a part of what you are advocating and living.

Gabriel Novo said...

I love film, I always have. Stories told in a visual medium are not only incredibly accessible, but sometimes the only way a particular tale can be shared. What I've never understood is the defining of camps. This is "indie", this is "cult", this is "foreign", etc. They are all STORIES and the movie going public has lost sight of that. They hear one label or another and instantly determine their association to the film, regardless if they'd like it or not.

"Oh I heard that's some pretentious art house film, I won't like it"

"That's a studio blockbuster only the sheep will check it out"

In making these snap judgments, based on little more than hot air, we're cutting from our lives experiences that could challenge us, make us think or move our hearts.

Audiences are different, but treating them like people that must be changed is a doomed course of action. Like any good relationship, you must accept them for who they are, not try to fit them into your own mold. Talk to any Cuban in Miami and they would have told Soderbergh to shove "Che" up his ass sideways and that's only because they know who he is. The rest of America sees him as that guy on the posters/t-shirts. Either way he created in a vacuum and expect the audience to CHANGE in order to accommodate his vision. Big mistake.

The movie blindness most of the public has is not based out of anything more than escapism. Like the blood and bread of the Roman arenas, the American public wants to forget the pains of their lives. If movies are presented to them as lessons that must be learned they'll spit it out as quick as a toddler taking medicine. You tell them they'll have an entertaining experience (but slip in the lessons) and they will be none the wiser.

Habits eventually change and people grow, but we're in the midst of a wave that can't be fought. We'll tire ourselves out and drown. Instead we should swim with the current until we reach the shore. Giving them what they want (to an extent) while hiding the meaning inside is how we will slowly grow the audiences we need to appreciate the art being made.

It's all about information, spreading the word far and wide. Eventually the signal will be heard and those receptive to its frequency will lead the charge toward better things.

Oli Lewington said...

Great post and great comments.

My feeling is that in these times of ever-more-afforable production costs like great-value HDDSLRs that shoot beautiful footage we as filmmakers need to educate the film-going public away from indie-as-amateur.

Too often now dodgy, home-shot flicks are thrown up on YouTube by novices & amateurs hailing themselves as the "next big thing" in Indie filmmaking. And indeed, some of them quite probably are. But what we need to achieve is to convince the populace that Indie film is just as good, as pretty and as professional as Studio movies, but working outside the system.

As you say in the post, and which is echoed in the comments, people think of Indies as either "amateur" films or "worthy" movies - they're the things that stars do when they've been criticised for doing too many rom-coms or action epics and want to regain their credibility.

We need to show them that Indies are something else entirely - great stories, well-told but by people you may not have heard of with actors you may not recognise. Once the public start to see the value of Indies ALONGSIDE the Studios, only then will the Indie movement really return to the kind of respect and audiences of the 60's & 70's.

King is a Fink said...

Some thoughts about this post from our kind friend Tim Toner (via Facebook):

"Great, great commentary. In reading Soderbergh's comments juxtaposed with your analysis, I can see something deeply ironic in Soderbergh's whinge. As you point out, what he's REALLY saying is that people aren't willing to be challenged right out of the gate. Thus, they're more willing to go to a 2 1/2 hour sfx extravaganza than a 4 1/2 hour biopic about the guy on all those t-shirts. It seems to me, though, that Soderbergh wants his acclaim NOWNOWNOW!!! He doesn't seem to understand that the most powerful force in marketing is not the 30-second Superbowl commercial but rather word-of-mouth. And in a world where 'time shifting' of entertainment is possible, people with hectic schedules can opt to appreciate later. It took years (and heavy rotation on TNT and TBS) for The Shawshank Redemption to enter the Zeitgeist. Where were those people when the film first came out? I think Soderbergh is just as bad as the audience he berates.

Of course, the other reason why we're all doomed is The Focus Group, whose underlying psychology is utterly demolished in a rather clever experiment that's described by Malcolm Gladwell here: http://rosspruden.blogspot.com/2008/12/perils-of-introspection.html"

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