Monday, November 09, 2009

Is Cinema Dead?

The American Film Market is going on right now in Santa Monica... or maybe it’s *not* going on. If you have a film market and nobody comes, is it still a film market?

Is this the canary in the coal mine for cinema?


In case you don’t know what a Film Market is, it’s a market where they sell films. Obvious, huh? When a producer makes a film they still need to sell it to a distributor... actually, usually several distributors. Basically, these days a studio is really just a distributor and a bank... they fund a producer’s film in exchange for distribution rights. The producer makes a % of what the film makes after the studio subtracts distribution fees and overhead and the cost of making the film and the townhouse they keep in Marina Del Rey for the studio chief’s mistress to live in. But these days, even studios are looking for money from other sources, and often co-producing some film with some other studio in some other country, or just acting as a distrib for hire for films made in some other country.

Most studios either have long standing deals with foreign distribs or they have their own foreign distribution arm. At one point in time many of the majors shared a foreign distribution company, but I think those days are long gone - too much money in foreign distribution to share with the competition. But as more film finance money comes from outside the USA, in order to get the money a studio must often give up foreign distribution or at least share it.

But not every producer has a studio deal - some are independent and have no foreign distribution in place and sell their films to foreign distribs on a film-by-film basis. There are somewhere around 70 foreign territories that buy USA films for their country (or countries - some territories cover more than one country connected by a common language or geography). These independents go to markets - kind of like a trade show - and sell their films...

And USA indie distribs go to these markets to buy foreign films. Often the indie production company will buy the foreign films, take them back to the USA, and sell them to a USA distrib along with their own movies. Anyway - there’s this whole business of buying and selling films to overseas distribs, and the big markets are Cannes (the festival is the sideline, the market is what it’s really all about) and American Film Market. Now, the Hong Kong Market is taking hold, too. Used to be a marked in Milan, MIFED, but it’s gone.

The thing about these markets, and American Film Market is where it is most obvious, is that “Independent” covers a lot of ground - from all of those serious dramatic Oscar contenders to modern day grindhouse films. It’s not unusual to see some Merchant-Ivory style adaptation of some classic novel you read the Cliff Notes to in High School being sold across the hall from BLOOD OF THE NAKED MUTILATORS. Anything made outside the studio system is here...

Along with films you *think* are studio films but are really some sort of foreign coproduction starring Bruce Willis or Al Pacino or someone else who “likes to work”.


When I first began going to American Film Market it was held in Beverly Hills and *crowded* with buyers and sellers and a million cool movies. Those were the years where a small video company could still get films with B movie starts in cinemas - and you might see some Gary Busey action flick at your local multiplex, or one of those Canon Films with Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris or American Ninja Michael Dudikoff... and a year later the films would go to VHS where they probably belonged. But, as a guy working in a warehouse back then, those were the movies we all saw after work. Beers first, movie, then more beers. And sometimes these movies did some breakout business and became DIRTY DANCING (made by Vestron Video). That’s when cinema - and low budget cinema - was alive and kicking! (especially in the Chuck Norris movies)

A couple of years later AFM moved to Santa Monica, and was still going strong. The films were not getting that theatrical window anymore, but VHS was *hot* and had become a separate market with separate stars. It was strange because there were some stars who were huge in cinemas but when the films went to VHS they bombed... and other people who were nothing in cinemas but massive stars on VHS. And it seemed like the market was still *expanding* for independent films (both arthouse and grindhouse) - cable needed movies! DVD replaced VHS, and needed new movies. And then the studios began to realize that DVD was making so much money on non-theatricals that they jumped in making DVD originals... or, trying to. Studios always seem to have problems making movies on a budget, and are used to throwing money at a problem instead of creativity.

Well, a few years ago AFM began to contract instead of expand... though, they actually expanded geographically by taking over the hotel next door. For the first time there were fewer people at market than the year before, even though the PR firm the AFM hired kept trying to convince us there were more people.

But here’s the gauge - at Beverly Hills you could not get on an elevator. There were hundreds of people waiting for the elevator at any time of the day... so you had to climb the stairs. When they moved to Santa Monica - same exact thing. HUNDREDS of people waiting for the elevator... even on one of the slow days! You had to climb the stairs. By the end of AFM my legs were throbbing and jelly-like. But over the years the crowds at the elevators have gotten smaller, and my joke for the last couple of years is that you could actually get on an elevator right away if you didn’t mind being packed in there.

Saturday I’m at AFM, talking about how it isn’t crowded, and I mentioned the elevator thing, and looked over... and there was *no one* waiting for the elevator. No one. The elevator doors opened and *one person* walked out - no one else in the elevator.


Wednesday afternoon when I dropped by to pick up my badge and the catalogues, it was practically empty... but it’s a week day. Weekdays can be weak days. Never this slow before, but I was sure by Saturday and Sunday the place would be packed. Usually the weekend has a great show in the lobby - hundreds of undiscovered actresses wearing the legal minimum of clothing show up to pass out headshots (insert the obvious joke) and try to get a role in some movie being set up at the market. Also actors, composers, posers, directors, writers, and people who have business cards that say they are producers. They crowd the lobby, pouncing on anyone with a badge. I call them the Lobby Rats. After 6pm you might also see some B movie stars (or even an A movie star from one of the big budget films) in the bar, secretly looking for work. They are the center of attention and I’ll bet none of them even have to buy their own drinks. Just for fun, Troma often sends down some costumed superheroes to promote their films, and other companies or producers might have a team of hot women in T shirts with the film’s title or in costume from the film as promotion. It’s a circus, and fun to watch.

This year - no circus. I was there Friday, and the lobby was almost empty. After hours, Fred Williamson showed up, but the place was still mostly empty. Let me put it this way - there are maybe a half dozen tables in the bar area of the lobby, and usually you can’t get near one. This year, I could have sat at the one behind Fred... it was empty!

Saturday? The same. I saw Corbin Bernsen walk past, but no Al Pacino or Val Kilmer or any of the other guys who I’ve seen before. And the lobby was mostly empty - not even the costumed Troma people. Not even the undiscovered actresses. The place was dead!

The hallways were empty. The elevators were empty. The lobby was mostly empty.


One of the strange things this year was the exploitation companies selling those Oscar movies. It seems that when they closed down the studio indie labels and the independent art house labels began going out of business, there was no one left to sell art house movies to the foreign market except those grindhouse companies. The latest Polish Brothers quirky arthouse movie starring Billy Bob Thornton was being sold by the company best know for flicks like the Steve Guttenberg thriller FATAL RESCUE. I know you've seen that one - it stars the Gutt! There just aren’t any arthouse places left! They closed Miramax!

And that’s the thing that’s scary. The studios say they are hurting now that DVD sales are off due to the economy and need to find ways to cut their film budgets. The studios have stopped making indie films and don't make many prestige films. Those larger budget indie films with stars are not being made, and when they are, they end up being sold by some grindhouse company because they are still in business. But even the grindhouse companies are in trouble, because that middle has fallen out of low budget. There are still films made for under a million (many well under) and still films made for over $10 million that will get a theatrical release from some studio... but nothing in between.

Over the years I’ve seen big companies die and those scrappy little guys who had offices in the basement of the hotel start to climb floors until their offices were in prime real estate. I’m sure I have mentioned Brain Damage Films before - I’ve talked to the guy who runs it in the past (seems like a nice guy) and they specialize in no-budget horror films people shoot in their back yards for PARANORMAL ACTIVITY budgets (around $10k-$15k)... and they are not only still in business, when a movie is made that cheap, it’s hard not to make money. A baby step higher is The Asylum, who make all of those really bad films you see on SyFy and those knockoffs you see on the Blockbuster shelves with titles like I AM OMEGA and SNAKES ON A TRAIN. These guys used to make films for $100k... with a name in the cast! Now their budgets are a little bit higher (not much) and they have a couple of names... but we are still well below half a million bucks. Again, hard not to make money off a film made for so little. But the problem is - the budgets are getting smaller and smaller and there’s not enough money in the budget to make a living writing something like that... or directing... or anything else.

The canary in the coal mine is falling off its perch.



With studios aiming at some Hasbro toy tentpole crap, and the indie world decimated, and the grindhouse world being $10K wonders and $200k mockbusters, where is the business going? I’m having trouble seeing the future. I was talking to Bill from Pulp 2.0 about the market, and joked that the Mayans got it wrong - cinema is dead *today*. I was talking to Bill by phone, because I skipped AFM completely on Sunday - wasn’t worth driving out there. Bill did drive out there, and said it wasn’t worth it.

I think the Hasbo thing, as much as I hate it, is the future of cinema. Instead of making a movie, we will be making something that can sell as a video game, comic book, webisodes, toys, online entity, and maybe a DVD - but the deal will have to encompass all of those things in order to get the financing to make them. The world of selling ancillary rights to movies is over - the *movie* is the ancillary product, now. Marvel and Hasbro run Hollywood. And as the indie films just die, and the grindhouse films get smaller and smaller, the only future I can see for genre movies is if they evolve the same way studio films are evolving and become part of some larger product... We will look back on Uwe Boll and consider him the cutting edge genius who could see the future - he’s already making bad video game movies.

There is no more cinema, there is only the film version of toys and the film version of comic books.

Welcome to Hollywood. The new Hollywood.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Characters ARE Relationships - and ALIENS meets BLACKHAWK DOWN.
Yesterday's Dinner: Grilled Ham & Swiss on Rye at home.
Bicycle: No... but should have.
Pages: Um, do these count?
London Blog Entries: 42,000 words = 168 typewritten pages. Crap! I should have written a script instead! Or *two*!


wcdixon said...

Yup. Sigh.

Rusty James said...

Check out MUSE ENTERTAINMENT from Montreal Quebec; they were THIS close to being a reputable Studio... one flop later (THE DEAL) and they're producing made for tv genre shit in Romania, on video!

But as far as Cinema being dead, I would only diagnose 'Hollywood' as being such.

The kids nowadays have the technological tools and cinematic knowledge to pool their resources (Directors, writers, editors, actors, make-up, practical effects and CGI artists) and make half-decent movies.

The future is in digital storytelling, not cross-platform selling... unless you're still trying to do it the 'Hollywood way'.

P.S. I like the sub-headings.

Anonymous said...

maybe TV will be the only area for writers -- if you can break into that arena

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DawkAngel said...

One man's nemesis is another man's best friend.

I find the current state of affairs exciting. I've developed a web series that will do double duty as a TV series (independent networks in US), go to TV in Europe, go to DVD and will spawn a graphic novel.

When Hollywood cut out the middle, it gave them license to make their own way. We've done it before, we can do it again. Just ask Troma.

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