The rise and fall of the old Hollywood.
The continued growth of the mega-movie.
The collapse of independent cinema.
The loss of general audiences.
It was Thomas Edison who built the first motion picture studio in New Jersey in 1896. He hired circus performers and dramatic actors to perform for the camera and distributed his moving pictures to vaudeville theatres and penny arcades. These early moving images quickly advanced from novelty into a large scale entertainment industry as filmmakers attracted by the availability of natural light headed to southern California with bigger dreams and more ambitious stories. Cinemas appeared everywhere and by 1910 Paramount, Columbia, and Warner Bros were establishing themselves in an area called Hollywood which has represented the motion picture industry of the United States until the present day. No one ever asked ‘How do we make an American film?’ the studios just chose the best talent, and the world came to California looking for work. This powerful ethnic mix that converged in one place created a legacy of outstanding movies that has surpassed all other film cultures, and because it has been abundant and consistent, Hollywood has managed to control screens around the world, proving again and again that trade follows film. The U.S. Treasury, which never invested a dime in it, enjoyed the one-way revenues of Hollywood movies from overseas, with sales of American goods heading around the world. But regardless of whether times were good or bad, whether or not the studios ceased to develop their own movies, one thing has been consistent from the outset: the major studios have always owned and controlled their product.
And for Hollywood, times have mostly been good. Until the 50s nearly everyone went to the cinema, and even though television began an erosion of that massive audience, it is only during the past thirty years that a crisis has been looming with Hollywood making bigger and bigger films for smaller and smaller audiences. Despite the gross returns, the number of successful movies are few and far between, leaving cinemas waiting for the next blockbuster. It seems that general audiences have been maxed out on computer-generated images and high-impact story situations often without much import, substance or meaning. Animation, special FX and 3D have not in themselves provided a solution. And doing more of the same thing with larger production budgets has accelerated audience apathy.
This demise can be traced from its blockbuster successes of STAR WARS (1977), and ET -THE EXTRA TERRESTIAL (1982) which laid the seeds of Hollywood’s all-empowering and growing obsession with the winner-takes-all dynamic that has created a bleak looking landscape for the movie goer. Later spurred on by AVATAR (2009), which cost $250m to make and grossed $2.78 billion within its first three months of release, mega-movies continue to make more and more money, with smaller and smaller audiences.
Although it has always been difficult for independent producers to get access to the majors, the studios themselves have in part recognized that their infrastructure and practices tend to produce formulaic, homogenous, top-heavy product, so have sought partnerships with independents. One such way was to contract production companies with a good track record (e.g. Focus Features to Universal Pictures) who would offer them a slice of talent and hopefully a few successful productions. In this way studios could put aside the laborious task of finding those very few unsolicited ‘brilliant screenplays’, which in recent years had become like finding a needle in a haystack.
The independent production industry has scarcely taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by the changing Hollywood business paradigm and the urgent need for good, original product. With very few exceptions, independents the world over have struggled to find strong source material too. But, unlike Hollywood, often produce films that instead of providing emotional situations every minute or so, or even a few laughs, provide none at all. And particularly in Canada, government subvention through tax dollars has not in itself helped in assisting the creation of films that are driven by a thirst to generate returns and succeed in the marketplace though this had always been hoped for. The trouble is, and BRE-X is a good example, that if you raise $3m to $6m from Canadian taxpayers, where might the remaining $15m come from? Certainly not Canadian film distributors. You can try going to the United States for the balance, or seek an international treaty co-production, but there are very few success stories.
Consequently there has been a dearth of engaging movies being made at a time when there has been an explosion of people making independent films. After twenty five years of consumers having their own screening facilities at home, and access to the very inexpensive production technology, auteur directors have been making a plethora of low-budget cinema length films, supported by their government’s tax dollars, as expressions of themselves and their national cultural values. And when left to their own devices come up with a product which is often more suited to an art house or a village hall craft fair than their domestic box-office. Buyers attending international film festivals - one for each day of the year – talk of ‘pollution of the market-place’, for few movies show-cased could ever hope to recover the cost of their production.
Nobody ever talked about ‘content’ until there was a shortage of it. Movies have been failing because almost nobody has been writing engaging screenplays. Robert McKee, the American script guru, described it as the ‘Crisis of Story’. Why has this happened? In the USA some of the best talent has gone to work for TV cable companies such as Home Box Office (HBO) where they have found that making quality TV series is more attractive than dealing with the unpredictability of Hollywood. In Canada the situation is different. Many writers appear to have an ‘aversion to confrontation’ in storytelling. But in any case there is no studio system for them to abandon, and nowhere to flee to – except south of the border.
Furthermore, if you asked people around the world to tell you their favourite Canadian movie, few would be able to recall a single film. This failure is not on account of the well-meaning intent of the Canadian distributors or Telefilm who select the best material available to them. In Quebec, the French speaking province in Canada, has an admirable knack of producing films that its francophone residents support and pay to see. What they do on a small scale, the rest of the world has largely failed to achieve.
Producers develop their own material, but with rare exceptions are only able to handle a few projects at a time. Many very capable producers are challenged by the vagaries and vicissitudes of the development process – they do it because they have to. Their success rate is poor and they have difficulty maintaining a steady production slate. Developing a screenplay that is compelling with excellent roles is daunting. In Canada, writers have no-one to turn to because there are scarcely any producers with a track record.
Writers are working (often alone) in an industry without structure. Outside of television few writers write anything that is screened or even produced. If a novice screenwriter works in isolation, the chances of them having chosen a compelling subject is about 1%. The chances of them developing a good story structure and the right genre is 1% of that. And the chance of them finding an engaging way to tell their story with appealing roles for actors is less than 1% of that. These have always been the odds. But working within a structure can immeasurably improve the odds. Not for all writers of course, but for those who are attracted to the collaborative process. And protected and nurtured under a studio umbrella, this is how writers have often achieved brilliant results.
This is our History.