Hollywood: Is the cinema dying?

There is a myth circulating in Hollywood and in the media that film is dying. True, box office revenues are down. The impact of flat screens in the home as well as DVD's and the Internet is changing the dynamics of viewership and audience. Yes, there are less people going to the cinema and the medium is changing because more people can now make films at home and then upload them to YouTube. There are many more venues in which films can be shown, which dilutes the power and the role of the majors. True, cinemas are closing and those that remain are deteriorating. Yes, there is more variety and many more choices available to people than ever before and this is highlighted by the strength of videogames.

BUT, the real reason that this is happening has much more to do with content, storytelling and the role of images in our society than with any substantial change in audiences. Hollywood has lost the ability to tell stories largely because it is so out of contact with the publics it tries to address. Much of the slack has been taken up by the independent cinema which in relative terms is thriving. Relative, because independent cinema needs to find small audiences and so can survive on less than the mainstream. I know that there are some people who will not be unhappy to see mainstream spectacle-oriented cinema decline, but I am not one of them. But, if the mainstream is to survive, it will have to reinvent itself, shed the marketing departments that dominate the selection of projects (when will producers realise that marketers have basically no understanding of audiences — which may explain why the vast majority of films fail) and develop new models of storytelling and narrative.

In my opinion, the cinema is not dying. The conventional approach to production and distribution is changing, but Hollywood producers still think that they are back in the 1970's. Examples abound. After many years of videogame production, audience building and the growth of production companies, Hollywood took notice and began to make films as if they were like games. The films failed of course because as related as the two media are, the activities of viewing are different. Videogames remain, in my opinion, locked into models of narrative that are as predictable and dry as Hollywood's have become, but at least some elements within the organization of a game allow for new strategies of audience involvement. The documentary cinema has risen in prominence over the last decade both because of reality television and the fact that there are so many stories out there that need telling. One of the few films that grasped this phenomena was "Good Night, and Good Luck" which used black and white film as a way of telling the important and often overlooked story of Edward R. Murrow in post-war America during the McCarthy era.

George Clooney's film took advantage of the strength of newsreels, combined that with close-up cinematography and then mixed in a soundtrack that not only evoked the era, but said something important about the media and their role as purveyors of information and opinion. Clooney didn't get much support from Hollywood for this film, but it succeeded nevertheless.

The cinema is not dying because audiences will always be hungry for stories and for new content that addresses their concerns or reveals experiences and worlds to them that they know nothing about. Ironically, a television series like Deadwood which is shot in the style of the cinema, has become a success largely because it manages to tell stories so well. The characters are powerful precisely as a consequence of the power of the FICTION. Here is David Milch, the brilliant creator of the series talking about his creative process. (From the HBO web site — producer of the show)

Executive producer David Milch warns that Deadwood is not a docu-drama about the famed outlaw town. "I want to make it clear," he says, "that I've had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate."

That said, Milch spent months immersing himself in the true stories of the people of 19th century Deadwood, absorbing not just the events, but also the subtle motivations behind them. "I like to read the primary materials; I love reading the Black Hills Pioneer, you know," he says. "I could read that all day. I'm interested in the personalities who were kind of the first prime movers in the community."

What has emerged is a picture of a place finding its own "order" without the benefit of laws. "Deadwood was a place created by a series of accidents. A kind of original sin — the appropriation of what belonged to one people by another people — was enacted with no pretense at all," he says. "You know, the people who landed in Manhattan, they paid 24 bucks. Well, maybe they got a bargain, but they still recognized the obligation to pay. In the Black Hills, the land had just been given to the Indians, to get 'em to move from another piece of land."
“I want to make it clear that I've had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate.

Somewhere between David Milch and George Clooney lies a middle ground for the new Hollywood. Go to the Ars Technica site for an interesting analysis on the future of videogames and why they may not be threatening Hollywood at all.