I was revisiting Steven Soderbergh’s widely-discussed “State of Cinema” address from the San Francisco International Film Festival when I came across today’s news that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas–speaking at an event at USC–stated that the Hollywood studio system would “implode.” Given that Spielberg and Lucas were speaking at the opening of USC’s Interactive Media Building (where students would theoretically be preparing themselves for careers in the entertainment industry), their comments seem even more ominous. Like Soderbergh, the two star directors describe a distribution culture that is both on the verge of collapse and closed off to innovative storytelling. But while this Hollywood narrative of collapse invites quite a bit of buzz–articles about Spielberg and Lucas’s talk have been circulating widely on Twitter and Facebook–it’s also a story with a number of holes in it.
First, Spielberg asserts that “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” Such claims are tempting, especially when looking at the tepid results of films like the Will Smith vehicle After Earth, but these box-office bombs are often balanced with low-risk successes such as The Purge, which has made $43 million so far on a budget of $3 million (not to mention all of the countless Paranormal Activity sequels). Thus, suggesting that studios “would rather” focus solely on making big-budget films misses the mark considerably.
Spielberg and Lucas, echoing Soderbergh’s earlier comments, imply that personal projects will now inevitable wind up being distributed online or on television. Soderbergh, who has in the past placed microbudgeted films on the big screen, reported that he released his HBO biopic, Behind the Candelabra, via HBO because it was seen as too much of a financial risk to distribute theatrically, while Spielberg similarly stated that Lincoln was “this close” (imagine thumb and index finger inches apart) to being distributed through the cable channel. Implicit in these comments is the idea that TV (or streaming) offers an inferior experience to film, even though both directors have worked in both media throughout their careers. There is something mournful in their comments (not unlike those from Soderbergh).
That said, in the post-DVD, on-demand era, such claims about theatrical distribution have been circulating for a while. Mark Gill was making similar warnings back in 2008. But even with Gill’s dire descriptions of indie distributors shutting down or paring back on buying new titles, what’s happening now is far from a collapse. Instead, what we are witnessing is what amounts to a realignment and reworking of traditional business models. Scott Macauley captures this in his report on the 2013 Cannes Film Market, where he points out the lack of consensus around today’s distribution marketplace. Most notably, he observes that VOD is working best in the United States, that China continues to be a “difficult” market, and that older audiences still hold tremendous appeal for the art-house circuit thanks to the success of films like Exotic Marigold Hotel.
But what’s most perplexing from my oint of view is the discussion of (1) the future of moviegoing and (2) the culture of videogames. In terms of moviegoing, Lucas makes what seems like a remarkably odd prediction, suggesting that movie theaters will morph into a Broadway model, where individual films will premiere with $50-100 tickets and will linger in theaters for over a year. Given some of the incentives for theatrical churn (more movies=more opportunities for ticket sales, big screen movies must quickly “compete with” pirated versions), this idea seems counterintuitive at best. While I can imagine event screenings, even of big budget releases (say, Iron Man 4, in which Robert Downey and the gang do a live Q&A with theaters across the globe), these event screenings depend on scarcity models, not on long-term access. Once the film has been in thousands of theaters for several weeks, scarcity is no longer a selling point.
Their points about video games are just as odd. Spielberg argued–somewhat oddly–that video games had failed to create any characters with which the player could feel “empathy.” Lucas echoed this claim by suggesting that the next revolutionary video game would be one aimed at girls and that would mix action with an “empathetic” character making it the “Titanic of video games.” While I’m not an avid gamer, empathy in games seems to be beside the point. That’s not to suggest that a game can’t be used to tell a powerful story, but their accounts of gaming seem to discount (or outright ignore) many of the pleasures–especially the social aspects of online, multiplayer games–of gaming. Games don’t have to offer a choice between “actual relationships” and “shooting people.”
There is little question that the industry is changing. Tentpole films do serve as a major focus for the studios. Although the theaters were showing art house projects by Polanski, Ozon, Kore-Eda, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, and Payne (among others), the mise-en-scene of Cannes itself was dominated by large banners promoting hollywood blockbusters. Entire hotel walls were covered by posters for The Lone Ranger, The Great Gatsby, and The Hunger Games. But it’s also clear that the festival’s Competition films still mattered. They drove the discussion at Cannes, and whether we encounter these movies on the big screen, on cable, or on our laptops, they will still generate conversation, and distinct artists will still work to ensure that their voices are heard.