The movie business is melting down. The film theater is dying. It’s a terrible time to be a movie studio.
But it’s a great time to be a movie viewer.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, on a panel in June, predicted this is just the beginning. Soon there will be no more classy movies in theaters. Except for the most mega of blockbusters, we will watch everything on home screens. Film tickets soon will cost as much as a Broadway show, anywhere from $50 to $150.
Then last month, Spike Lee announced a Kickstarter campaign for his next film, an untitled gore-fest of some stripe. Lee’s $1.25 million crowdfund-raising enterprise quickly incited critics wondering why one of America’s more famous directors was going to fans for money. And a string of the most expensive films of this summer all flopped.
These were clearly apocalyptic signs. The end of traditional moviemaking, financing and viewing is under way.
But this future is something to celebrate rather than bemoan. For starters, consumers won’t need to go to sticky-floored, ad-laden multiplexes to watch films. Suddenly, a range of new distribution channels — neither television nor cable — are upon us. Spielberg championed streaming company Netflix as the true wave of the future of moviemaking. And it’s true that we can now count Netflix as a first-rate creator and distributor of content.
Consider Netflix’s new series "Orange Is the New Black," about inmates in a minimum-security prison. The 13-part series prominently features a very complex and honorable trans-female inmate, Sophia Burset, played by a real-life trans-woman, Laverne Cox, and a cast of predominantly black, Latino and gay female characters.
The show easily bested most independent films and cable television shows in both quality and political freshness. (And "House of Cards," while not as innovative, was as competent as any of the nasty "Usual Suspects"-era indie film that usually starred Kevin Spacey, anyway.)
As for bootstrapping, in the independent film world it makes total sense. In recent years money offers for films shown at festivals have hit new lows; at festivals some distribution companies don’t purchase anything. While a theatrical market for independent films still exists, it suffers, like the rest of the film market, from the rise of other kinds of technology: over the past decade, the specialty film divisions Picturehouse, Warner Independent Pictures and Paramount Vantage shuttered their offices or reduced their budgets to slivers.
For years independent filmmakers have struggled to raise their money from foundations and wealthy suckers — I mean friends. It’s just that in the past they weren’t audacious enough to ask the crowd for a million bucks, as Spike Lee did. Certainly, Lee’s Kickstarter campaign — to which Steven Soderbergh contributed $10,000 — may seem a little gauche. It begs the question: Who are these Goliaths in David-drag? But don’t write off the rest of the Kickstarter-ites and Indiegogos as the self-indulgent fallen famous or the useless bedroom auteurs.
Those using Kickstarter also include great independent filmmakers who have never had a large budget, directors like Andrew Bujalski. His most recent film is the deeply clever Computer Chess, set at an early-'80s chess competition that was shot with cameras of the period, a new kind of effect in a “history” film. (The Chilean film "No!" also proudly technologically primordial with its ugly imagery via old school video cameras, is another recent example).
Bujalski crowdsourced his funding: His friends were asked to help pay for a film set to start shooting a month after the request was sent out. They were offered tax deductions, “goofy prizes at different price breaks including, most relevantly, a DVD of the finished film.”
The result was something good and distinct, better than a film that would have depended on the green light of the old mini-major “indie” film studios like Miramax back in the 1990s.
“There’s not a lot of room in the mainstream for much I’d be interested in,” Bujalski told me when I interviewed him a few years ago, back when he was raising funds for the film. Bujalski had made three terrific films previously and is considered the founder and the most talented of the so-called Mumblecore film movement, a rough-hewn hipster-verite trend popular in the ’00s. Like most of the people I interviewed for Republic of Outsiders, Bujalski thinks of the established framework — in his case, Hollywood — as “a broken model.”
This has long been the refrain of the truly independent, of course. It’s just that Lucas and Spielberg, the ultimate insiders, now concur. According to Lucas, it’s goodbye DreamWorks: hello DreamControl. “The next step is to be able to control your dreams,” Lucas said at the end-of-cinema panel. “You’re going to put a hat on or plug into the computer and create your own world.”
First, we’ll watch flicks in kooky, immersive film environments (a giant padded cell of screens). Then, as Lucas predicts, our dreams will be invaded by film technology.
First, let’s stay true to the dream of fine, disruptive content.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Reuters. Alissa Quart's most recent book is Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels.