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Digital Gap: Why Aren’t Moviemakers Learning Narrative From Videogames and the Web?

Analysis: In the decade since "The Matrix,"  film narratives have become more conventional and directors are more interested in mimicking classical cinema than charting film's future

From killing off film prints to designing fantastical CGI worlds, movies are going digital in every way except one — storytelling.

Unlike the eras when the advent of photography inspired the fine arts to embrace abstraction, or when the rise of mass-media pushed writers into modernist and eventually post-modern terrain, movies remain largely impervious to the narrative techniques employed across the internet.

Hollywood views videogames and the web as an existential threat, but instead of radically altering its approach, most movies unfold over the course of two hours in a linear fashion, just as they have done for a century. Over the course of its history the medium has had no problem embracing change in film as long as its technologically driven, hence the shift from silent movies to talkies, or black and white to color. It has remained more precious, however, about how it spins its celluloid fantasies.

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Today’s top directors are more interested in aping classical cinema than forging a new filmmaking vernacular. That’s in contrast to 10 years ago when movies like “The Matrix,” "Memento," or “Being John Malkovich” turned cinematic storytelling on its head, gleefully experimenting with an inter-textuality that mirrored our hyperlinked world.

With a few exceptions like Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina,” which re-imagined Leo Tolstoy’s tragedy as a series of intersecting operas, or Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths,” a bloody crime movie that is also a comment on the art of screenwriting, that flowering of experimentation is over.

“The films of early aughts engaged with virtuality in a way they don’t today,” Alissa Quart, a cultural critic and the author of the forthcoming "Republic of Outsiders," told TheWrap. “You had people like Steven Spielberg working on ‘Minority Report,’ now you have ‘Lincoln.’ Or Paul Thomas Anderson going from ‘Magnolia’ to ‘The Master.’

"Those movies engaged with multiplicity and technology and surveillance, and now those same filmmakers are looking at these huge commanding triumphal figures in stories set in the past that look antique.”

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Films like “The Master” or “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Django Unchained” are referential, but their influences lie in film’s history, mimicking the wide vistas favored by John Ford or the atmosphere of exquisite paranoia in 1970s thrillers like “All the President’s Men.” The directors gaze lingers in the past and rarely looks toward the future.

“A way to get serious as a filmmaker is to be very clearly dealing with your influences,” Kurt Anderson, host of the arts and culture program “Studio 360,” told TheWrap. “Now, I have no doubt that ‘Pulp Fiction’ was full of Quentin Tarantino’s influences, but at the time it seemed like a new way of telling stories. When you get to ‘Django,’ it becomes all about his cinematic influences.”

Even the methods that Hollywood has kicked up to convince teenagers to give up their game consoles and hit the multiplex are bizarrely retro. Souped-up theatrical exhibition offerings like 3D are a throwback to the 1950s, when Hollywood was facing a different, though no less grave incursion from television. Likewise, what is IMAX and its mammoth projections but a reincarnation of Cinerama, the colossal wide-screen format the flourished in the Eisenhower era?

In contrast, television shows like “Lost” or “Once Upon a Time,” which are set in fantasy worlds and tease out mysteries in episodic fashion, are more akin to what players expect from videogames.

That’s not to say there isn’t some cross-pollination. Flint Dille is a game designer on the likes of “Dead to Rights” and the screenwriter of movies like “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.” He says that both mediums steal from one another, claiming that the plot of 99 percent of videogames is derived from ‘80s action movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In turn, today’s action movies design their set pieces to appeal to audiences who grew up with  “Mass Effect” and “World of Warcraft.”

“When you look at ‘The Hobbit’ — that escape from the goblins' lair is a Nintendo game,” Dille said. “It’s like a videogame in its velocity. Or a movie like ‘Jack Reacher’ is like a game in that the main character arrives with no back story, and that’s something we’ve been conditioned to accept from playing games where the protagonist is a cipher.”

To be sure, studios have shown an appetite for persistent experimentation when it comes to using apps and viral marketing to generate excitement for tent pole films like "The Dark Knight" or "Star Trek Into Darkness." Yet the emphasis is on promotion, not narrative.

So why is it that, while computer technology has opened up brave new worlds in terms of special effects and advertising, it has not altered storytelling?

The culprit is a hodgepodge of commercial realities and artistic preferences.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering the question what is a modern film?” Howard Suber, professor of film history at UCLA, told TheWrap. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it is basically everything that was made after the 1960s — but that’s 50 years. The reason why that’s still modern is that not a hell of a lot has changed.”

Suber said that when he shows a movie in his class from earlier eras, his students are unable to deal with the slower pacing and editing, but they have a less difficult time adjusting to anything made after that date.

“The entire field of modern film is 50 years long, which is staggering when you compare it to any earlier age films," he said.  "The films of the ‘20s looked antique to audiences in the ‘30s, and the same was true with the way audiences in the ‘50s viewed films from 10 years earlier.”

Quart thinks that the kind of cultural permanence that Suber describes may be a conscious choice by artists who are looking to create spaces that are distinct from the fragmented world wrought by social media.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Quart argued that “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are popular in part because they allow viewers to take a break from Twitter, texts and other technologically enabled forms of multi-tasking.

She argues the same appeal underlies movies.

“My gut tells me that filmmakers are trying to give viewers respite from what the virtual world is offering,” Quart said. “It’s motivated by an esthetic defensiveness because we are inundated with all these modes of communication.”

It hasn’t helped that films that have exploded conventional approaches to storytelling sunk at the box office.

Sure, “The Matrix” was a worldwide blockbuster, grossing $463 million and spawning two sequels, but "Magnolia" ($48.4 million) and "Adaptation" ($32.8 million) were lucky to break even. More recent mind-bending films like “Anna Karenina” ($49 million globally),  and “Synecdoche, New York” ($4.3 million globally) continued the trend of hardly making a ripple at ticket counters. Studios' obsession with tentpole films that can cross language and cultural barriers to appeal to global audiences have likely made them less receptive to films that revel in narrative complexity.

That could change. If filmmakers like J.J. Abrams get their way, blockbuster films will seep off the screen and into other platforms, rivaling the sprawling nature of the web.

The big shake up could come with Transmedia — the notion that stories should be told over various mediums ranging from comic books to videogames. This approach to popular culture has been a buzz word for over a decade, but its adherents believe the film industry is poised to take a dramatic leap forward.

“They’re are a lot of film purists who believe their job is to get the script shot and make it beautiful,” Jeff Gomez, president of Starlight Runner Entertainment and a trans media consultant on films like “Avatar,” said. “But there’s also a growing number of young people, who were weaned on videogames and immersed in multiple media platforms, for whom these new kinds of storytelling are intuitive.”

Gomez notes that Joss Whedon’s decision to set his upcoming ABC show “S.H.I.E.L.D.” in the world of “The Avengers” films is a perfect example of a platform-agnostic approach.

It’s a boundary that could keep eroding when Abrams gets hold of the “Star Wars” franchise. The director already has experimented with transmedia in television shows like "Lost," but the saga of the Skywalkers and new owner Disney’s consumer products heft could open up whole new galaxies in terms of storytelling — ones that jet from games to toys to movies, creating a vast universe of narrative possibilities.

In 1977, “Star Wars” gave birth to the modern blockbuster. Nearly 40 years later when "Star Wars Episode 7" is scheduled to hit theaters, will it change the face of film again?