The Future of Film

19 July 2016

It is from a disposition of utter despair that I contemplate the future of film. Having just written 8,000 words worth of assignments in two weeks, I feel a strange affinity with Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist in The Revenant, hawking down a sizeable hunk of meat off a bear carcass. I felt a deep, primal urge to butcher something and laugh at its remains, preferably something fluffy and innocent. Boy, has it been a tough exam period.

Yet, Leo brutalising innocent fauna may not just be emblematic of my post-exam emotional state but of the future of the film and television industries themselves. In a BBC article entitled, ‘Why The Revenant is the Future of Film,’ film critic Owen Gleiberman suggests that Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s marathon suffer-fest is exactly the kind of film that is likely to succeed in future, due to its stoking of online discussion and hype through carefully constructing the illusion of spectacle. Through gestures toward high art, video-game camera techniques and, of course, a healthy dose of blood and gore, The Revenant positions itself as grandly poetic and culturally significant, despite having the narrative arch and character development of, in Gleiberman’s words, a “B-movie”.

Such attempts to stand out from the crowd are hardly surprising in a global film industry which appears to be tanking. With a proliferation of alternative mediums consuming people’s leisure time, less movies are being watched in cinemas (where they are most profitable). The typical American now purchases four movie tickets per year, as opposed to 20-30 tickets in the 1980s-90s. Consequently, less films are being produced and the films which are produced are under more pressure to succeed at the box office. Hence Hollywood’s obsession with franchises and sequels which have a guaranteed audience base. The downside is that fewer original films are being produced. Then again, I’ve heard that Fast & Furious 13.0 is going to push a lot of creative boundaries and heavily critique the pervasive consumerism and patriarchal cultural milieu of western society. It’s going to be the thinking man’s car film™.

The minimal dialogue of The Revenant reflects another cinematic trend – the industry is going global. According to The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, US and Canadian box office takings are “large but flat” and “the future of ticket growth is overseas”. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s approach has not been to create films uniquely tailored to a diverse range of specific cultures or to universalise films in innovative ways, but to dumb-down movies to focus on the visually spectacular at the expense of dialogue and plot. As Thompson puts it, “explosions translate easier than wit”.

Adjacent to this dumbing-down of the film industry is, to use a term entirely befitting of my University of Melbourne Arts degree, the smarting-up of the television industry. Many critics suggest that we are currently experiencing the golden age of television drama. Alternative business models conducive to the creation of niche-market or artistically adventurous content, such as, Netflix and HBO, have culminated in a plethora of high quality television programs, including Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, not to mention earlier programs such as Twin Peaks and The Wire. Such programming is possible because consumers are buying access not to an individual product, but to platforms which rely on a reputation of high quality and cultural worth. Since Netflix has predominantly invested in the creation of new television series and less in new films, filmmakers must still chase meagre investment offerings like seagulls to chips.

So is the future of film necessarily as bleak as the frosty, barren hills upon which Leo chows down on a hunk of dead bear? Not necessarily. Whilst the demand for a diverse range of films has contracted, the task of filmmakers to take an idea from script to screen has eased due to rapid technological advancement. Veteran director Martin Scorsese has suggested in an open letter to his daughter that “the future is so bright… because for the very first time in the history of the art form, movies really can be made for very little money”. The price of cameras, recording gear and editing software has dramatically decreased in the past two decades, whilst their quality has drastically increased, which Scorsese suggests improves the agency and creative palette of filmmakers to a point of almost bewildering potential. “In the past, because making movies was so expensive, we had to protect against exhaustion and compromise,” Scorsese says. “In the future, you’ll have to steel yourself against something else: the temptation to go with the flow and allow the movie to drift and float away.”

The extent to which technology is aiding the filmmaking process was evident in Tangerine, the breakout hit from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The film, which followed two transgender prostitutes working in Hollywood, was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S using an $8 app called Filmic Pro. Indie filmmaker Sean Baker, who previously played Ziggy Sobotka on The Wire, shot the film on his iPhone with the aid of a Steadicam holding device and a set of anamorphic adapter lenses, and the film underwent post-production editing on Baker’s computer to adjust the colouring. The result was a gritty film which examines society’s margins from a unique perspective, hopefully a sign of what is to come in a world where the accessibility of filmmaking is democratised and more stories may be told.

Steven Spielberg hopes that technology will help film become more immersive. “I believe we need to get rid of the proscenium,” he said. “We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square… We’ve got to put the player inside the experience.” Such immersion is currently in its infancy but is tipped to take off in various forms. Virtual reality software, such as, Oculus Rift headsets now offer the ability for filmmakers to translate their film into a 360-degree experience. Furthermore, cinemas are fighting lower ticket sales with ‘event cinema,’ whereby different shared experiences are offered to entice moviegoers through open-air viewings and sing-a-longs. For instance, UK company Secret Cinema screen films, such as Back to the Future and Star Wars: The Force Awakens in reconstructed movie sets which the audience can interact with.

Veteran director Francis Ford Coppola suggests that the next frontier in film might be “Live Cinema”. Coppola suggests that filmmakers can learn much from sports broadcasters in the sense that they execute complex camera shots and in-the-moment editing to bring their respective games to air. Filmmakers could expand the cinematic lexicon by allowing for the spontaneity of live drama, similar to the staging of live theatre productions. Coppola suggests that, in the era of viewers watching everything on Netflix in their own time, compelling an audience to watch a live event could be a successful, and interesting, cinematic venture. In my mind, the idea of live filmmaking would be much more effective for the documentary and comedy genres than for dramas or art films. Real-time coverage of breaking news and the spontaneity of stand-up comedy could enrich such programs; however, the careful construction of plot, characters and themes required in drama and art films would be unconducive to live broadcast.

There are few certainties in the notoriously volatile creative industries, but some facts remain. In the future, they will produce at least another twelve Fast & Furious films, thirty four entirely unfunny Adam Sandler films and several Ice Age sequels, even after the ice has well and truly melted. There will be several iterations of the Batman, Spiderman and Superman franchises, with varying degrees of awesomeness. And in the words of Titanic director James Cameron, “there will be movies and movie thea­ters in 1,000 years. People want the group experience, the sense of going out and participating in a film together. People have been predicting the demise of movie theaters since I started in the business.”Cameron did start a long time ago, back when Leonardo DiCaprio was a baby-faced charmer, not yet jaded by his lack of Academy Award recognition enough to acquiesce to crawling inside a horse carcass. If there is one thing for certain, humans will be watching films and Leo will go to murderous lengths for critical recognition for many years to come.

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