** Initially published in March 2016**
Our recent article addressed the diversity debate that erupted in Hollywood following the second successive year of all-white Oscar nominees in the four acting categories. We addressed this by taking the short film nominations into account, which showed great diversity. And while examining the roots of this issue, we found that the problem actually began at the development stage as studios decided which films would be given the green light for production and which actors were chosen to headline those films.
Coming to this conclusion raised a wider issue within the mainstream film industry, that there is not just an issue with ethnic and gender diversity but with the diversity of film itself. Our previous article stated that we need a studio with the sense to see and bravery to embrace what diversity has to offer, but does the answer lie in changing the attitudes of existing studios or in creating a brand new one? My interest in exploring this premise was peaked by a story that was both somewhat linked to the diversity discussion but oddly overlooked.
Nate Parker who starred in the Denzel Washington-directed ‘The Great Debators’ and George Lucas-produced ‘Red Tails’, was largely unknown to mainstream audiences. However he had done enough work and garnered enough support for him to invest his own money into his passion project ‘The Birth of a Nation’. Delightfully repurposing the title of one of the most racist films of all time, Parker starred in, co-wrote, produced and directed the story of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. The film created such a buzz at the Sundance film festival that it garnered very big offers from very big names. Netflix offered $20 million dollars for distribution rights to the film and in an unexpected move, Parker instead opted to take a lower offer of $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight, thus securing a theatrical release and a release date that ensures Academy Award eligibility in 2017. Incidentally, this is the largest sum ever paid for rights to a film at the Sundance film festival – and that’s after turning down $2.5 million more. So without really becoming a prominent voice in the diversity row, Nate Parker addressed it arguably in the most effective way. If the studios will not make the films that you know have an audience, the answer may well be to do it yourself.
Self-determination in film is something that happens almost exclusively in independent film and, of course, in short film. When we talk about short films, we are usually talking about a medium where someone conceived a story or came across an issue and thought ‘I want to bring this to the screen’. They obtained funding or self-funded their project and like so many other makers of short film, silently accepted that they would never see that money again. But it is worth it because they get to address their issues and tell their stories unfettered by financial influences or corporate agendas and maybe, as in the case of short documentary Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy [her film ‘A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness’ prompted action from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sherif to tackle honour killings in his country and following the Oscars has been screened for an audience from the United Nations], make a significant social difference in their society. When we start talking about feature films, the considerations start to differ somewhat. Yes, someone conceived a story and yes, someone came across an issue and thought ‘I want to bring this to the screen’, but unlike short films, they’re going to need a few more zeroes on the end of their budget. Enter, the studios.
When a Hollywood studio controls a movie, they do exactly that. Sure, they may give a lot of leeway to auteurs that they trust, but the key point is that it is their leeway to give. While the filmmaker retains ultimate control of their short film during the production process, a studio film has the responsibility of making money. That means that a studio has to consider the key factors that will encourage the general public to go and watch their movie. Those considerations tend to focus on the director and, of course, the star. For example, if an incredibly talented but unknown director is hired by Twentieth Century Fox to make a tentpole movie anchored by Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio and the director wants to hire an unknown actor named John Stevens from the local actors’ workshop (who may well be an incredible actor), who do you think is going to win that particular tug of war? If on the other hand that incredibly talented director grows in stature to the level of David Fincher or Christopher Nolan then the studio may become a little more flexible on the ‘John Stevens’ issue as they can still sell the movie based on the director’s name and previous success.
Short film does not have the commercial burdens of feature films and certainly not of Hollywood studio films. As a result, the variety of short films available is massively diverse in casting, in crew and in subject matter. Want boundary-pushing sci-fi? Director Sam Buntrock has you covered. Want a genuinely touching love story? Oscar winner Shawn Christensen has just what you need. Looking for a great found footage movie that isn’t contrived? Tyson Wade Johnston is your guy. Short film is producing work on a Hollywood level of artistic and technical professionalism and is doing so without the need for studio backing. So why are the superior resources of Hollywood failing at providing the depth of diverse stories coming out of the short film landscape?
The first and most obvious answer that one expects to hear is audience appeal. There simply are not enough moviegoers who would part with their hard earned cash to see such experimental work. Filmmaking is a high-risk commercial venture at the best of times, so it stands to reason that studios would want to do everything that they can to make sure they have a slam-dunk. Thus the prevailing wisdom is to simply make what made money last year.
An interesting info graphic from Geek Tyrant of the top 20 highest grossing movies of the year from 1980 to 2014 compiled from data collected by Box Office Mojo and Wikipedia shows a steady decline, not just in the amount of original films but also in the type of films being made. In 1984, 14 of the top 20 highest grossing films of the year were original and featured titles including ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘The Karate Kid’, ‘Splash’ and ‘Romancing The Stone’. By 1994 that number had dropped to 7 and held steady into 2004 and remained fairly varied. By 2014, that number had dropped to 3. Out of the remaining 17 films in the top 20, ten of them were sequels, three of them were reboots/reimaginings and four were adaptations, which included ‘Gone Girl’, ‘American Sniper’ and ‘Divergent’. Minimising risk by banking on properties that are already well known and have an in-built audience may be financially prudent and still gives us some great cinema, however this practice is inherently limiting when it comes to fresh ideas and sowing the seeds for the next ‘Annie Hall’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’.
Luckily for the film industry, the short film arena is bursting with skilled, talented and creatively courageous storytellers, who are able to explore the possibilities of the types of film that challenge and push boundaries but also have widespread appeal. Unluckily for the film industry, we are missing a robust organisation that is willing to capitalise on that.
If we were to question the audience appeal of films like Sam Buntrock’s ‘Recursion’, then we have to take on board the fact that this film has been viewed in excess of 52,000 times. To put it another way, if audiences paid average rates to view this film theatrically, it would have made over $452,000. ‘The Grey Matter’ from Luke and Peter McCoubrey has been viewed over 150,000 times, which would equate to over $1.3 million in theatrical receipts. Now while you can easily poke holes in the ticket sales comparison by arguing that people are more likely to watch a short film if they can just do it on a laptop or tablet for free rather than leaving their homes and parting with their money, you cannot ignore the fact that there is clearly an interest in short film within the general public. Moreover if you spend more then a few minutes looking at the variety of short films available, it becomes clear that more than enough room exists for a broad range of genres, themes, stories and more. Picking two very different short films out of the air and finding over 200,000 views between them means that we have a medium that audiences have already embraced. And if short films that vary in genre and theme so wildly can still expect to generate hits in the tens or hundreds of thousands without the use of a lavish promotional campaign, then that can only mean that audiences are finding these films, which in turn generate positive word of mouth. In short, audiences like what makers of short film are doing.
The ideas are there. The talent is there. The movies are there. The audience is there. The question is whether or not a studio capable of capitalising on this gift-wrapped scenario actually exists. Oddly, this question has been asked of Hollywood on more than one occasion and has been answered with some resounding success stories.
Those of you familiar with Marvel Studios and their list of films including ‘The Avengers’ – the sixth highest grossing movie of all time – may be aware that Marvel began its path to self-financing with a Merrill Lynch finance deal for $525 million for ten films over eight years. Unhappy with their projects being lost amongst the large production slates of the major studios, they opted to take matters into their own hands with the characters that they still had the rights to. Convinced that they had a winning formula on their hands, they would finance and produce their own movies and hand over distribution to Paramount Pictures. This is a method not too dissimilar from independent filmmaking, albeit with the advantage of a huge established following for their titles and co-production experience with Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia Pictures to whom they licensed some of their biggest characters. Once the films established themselves as popular and profitable, starting with ‘Iron Man’ in 2008 with a worldwide box office take of $585 million, the studio grew in scope and ambition until the release of ‘Avengers Assemble’ in 2012, which absolutely shattered any doubts about their risky plan, pulling in over $1.5 billion worldwide.
Steven Spielberg, Jeffery Katzenberg and David Geffen took a similar route when they founded DreamWorks SKG in 1994. Using their acquired experience, skill, contacts and by investing $33 million each along with a $500 million investment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, they established their own studio and in doing so created the power to greenlight the films that they wanted to make, while still working in conjunction with the existing studios. DreamWorks not only produced but also theatrically distributed their films until Viacom purchased them in 2006, at which point Paramount Pictures began distributing most DreamWorks films. Through the formation of this studio, audiences were given films like ‘Shrek’, ‘Amistad’ and ‘American Beauty’, which won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 72nd Academy Awards in 2000. Their co-productions with other studios include ‘Gladiator’, ‘Minority Report’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’.
Going back further still, virtually to the infancy of cinema, in 1919 Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin rallied against establishment control and founded United Artists. Each one of them contributed a 20 per cent stake to the fledgling company, with the remaining 20 per cent held by William Gibbs McAdoo, a lawyer and former campaign manager for then president Woodrow Wilson. Partnering with independent producers like Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznik and Walt Disney, not to mention the powerful asset of veteran producer Joseph Schenck who held the performance contracts of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, United Artists quickly became a powerful force in in the industry and continued to be so for decades. United Artists continued commitment to recognising and promoting talent outside of the system controlled by the bigger studios led to it releasing such classic films as ‘The African Queen’, ‘High Noon’, ‘In The Heat of the Night’, ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Rocky’. They also wisely backed a project by two British-based producers, Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli entitled ‘Dr. No’. It speaks volumes of the vision of such a studio that they were able to launch a film series that effectively outlived the studio itself.
With the diversity argument dying down but no less relevant and with the big studios releasing fewer films per year but putting all of their chips into event movies and established titles, perhaps the time has come for another industry revolution. With the explosion of online entertainment and VOD, not to mention the new golden age of television, cinema is running the risk of becoming culturally irrelevant, reduced only to spectacle and by-the-numbers entertainment. Cinema could use the writing abilities of Josh Tanner, the dry wit of The McCoubrey Brothers, the tension-building skill of Henry Dunham or the heart and cinematic eye of Evan Ari Kelman.
In a hypothetical world, could some of the prominent voices in the diversity debate, Will Smith, George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey (for example) raise the capital to start a new studio? It would be far from easy and certainly not risk-free, but would it be impossible? This studio could tell a broader range of stories, utilising the incredible pool of talent including those from the short film world who have already done the leg work of building their own followings. Such a studio could not only tackle issues of diversity, but could also provide an alternative to the worn out practice of relying on prequels, sequels and reboots and bring some much-needed creative originality back to the table. Here is a hypothetical studio that could demonstrate profitability and change the industry through being the change that it wants to see.
Short film is reaching untapped millions and is moving the needle on social issues. In Pakistan this year, an Oscar-winning short film may just change the law and save lives. This is the power of film. Makers of short film have already taken steps to seize this power and the movement towards mainstream recognition for short film is already in full swing. Those in Hollywood with an interest in correcting its failings would be well advised to capitalise on this. With no greater leadership from existing studios other than to give us what we have already been given, the future of cinema may well depend on someone with influence realising that not taking the risky road is far too risky.