The way we look at films has changed – most movie watching of even remotely independent work is done at home now, and audiences are strongly attracted to notions of added value (which is often simply translatable as extra time in the film world), in ways they can assimilate when they have time to.
The notion of a single version of a movie, made to a compact running time and designed to keep an audience interested in the world of the film by conforming to a set of generic rules is becoming outdated. The new, increasingly home-based viewer is interested in many kinds of extra possibilities, in “value” based notions of getting more from the film.
With this increased tendency of audiences to watch at home, in their own time, we lose some of the communal elements of cinema. But we gain something else – the ability to speak directly to the viewer in the singular sense.
Changing trends in film consumption back this up: Viewers across the board are interested in seeing things that are unique, that give them singular experiences.
In mainstream action cinema, they’re looking for an extremity of spectacle: 3D, the continuing vogue for increasingly complex effects, the creation of new worlds never before seen.
In genre cinema, audiences have shifted back to back to different extremities: extreme and sadistic gore, “torture porn”, hitherto unacceptable anti-social or morally more aggressive perspectives are in demand; things the mainstreams of genre films seemed to have taken away from audiences after the collapse of Italian genre cinema in the 80s (at the time, probably the world’s most extreme) made that world much more restrained.
In art films, after the 90s vogue for genre-style excesses of sex and violence largely returned to the newly revitalized international genre cinema, we see an increased interest in slow, oblique, complex work, combining realism with lateral understandings of the world, and increasingly, big chunks of “real”, often de-dramatized time. Directors like Apitchapong Weerasethakul, Jia Zhang-Ke and Carlos Reygadas are the new heroes of this movement.
And what’s most exciting about all these contrary elements, is that there is increasingly room for all of them to function. Film is increasingly coming down to its fundamental niche structure: There are enough people in each of these corners to sustain the work, if you can work out how to get it to them and can treat them with respect – and the internet, with its cross-boundary communities, gives you the tools to do so.
It does mean radical changes to how we fund, pitch and sell films – and requires the acknowledgement from those doing so that much of their thinking is possibly either out-dated or very niche-specific. Selling extreme genre films is very different to selling mainstream spectacle cinema is very different to slow art films.
For filmmakers within any of these niches, there are now interesting possibilities to stretch the paradigm, and lead the way to where things are possibly going, or rather could be going if someone takes the initiative. Normally, the pressures of film production would take an aggressively individual film and endeavour to batter it into an existing genre that could be seen as marketable.
A difficult, harshly realistic film about a relationship falling apart could be forcibly repackaged within one of these sellable notions: A thriller with highlighted and exploitative sexual content; an arthouse thriller with a twisting structure; a prestige-based “genre drama” with recognized actors and glossy production values; a black comedy; a romantic comedy.
The length would need to be 90-110 minutes, regardless of how it functioned at other lengths. The actors would be chosen for their marketability external to the content, rather than their ability to inhabit the roles fully. Even the toughest “visionary” director could use up most of their limited emotional and physical energies on battling to retain their vision on one of the above compromises – but very few “properly funded” films get made without reference to them.
And the “proper funding” usually goes into spurious and counter productive elements based around the marketing of the work – casting name actors and paying them disproportionate fees, spending money on “production values” that will more distract from the central meaning of the film.
I’d suggest that this industrial production methodology is an increasingly outdated notion, contemptuous of the needs of the audience, designed for the convenience of an industry that strives to view itself as making art, but that is usually intent on stifling any of the individualism that art requires.
The audience in today’s world – well, obviously some of it is comfortable being led round by the nose, still – but the parts of the audience that are interested in work that is not industrial in nature, are showing their requirements and voting for the new paradigms, by creating new pan-national communities of interest. The possibilities for sustainable niches are becoming larger and clearer, even though they are poorly served by the people supplying the product.
This sounds terrible, but in fact it’s a fantastic opportunity that may never occur again, to completely rewrite all the paradigms of how films are made, marketed and viewed.
Obvious the key thing here is still money: the key to sustainable film production outside the industrial model is developing systems of meaningful and unique film-making at the lowest possible budget. This is not necessarily a compromise, this is an opportunity to create a new path in making films.
In fact, developing a low budget aesthetic involves far less compromise than conforming to the industrial model – if the filmmaker/s are prepared to think laterally and develop aims that come from within their ideas, rather than from without, and from what they’re expected to do.
For my work, I find it most interesting to make films based around realism and characters. As such I focus on performers and real spaces, and become flexible about the secondary issues, like production gloss, crew size, story structure. I still make films that look good for their budgets (which vary), and that are strongly structured and dramatic, but those things are not the reason for making the film, so they are less important. With more money, I usually want to buy more time, time to shoot , to work with the actors, to work with the material, time to concentrate on the film rather than having to scrounge to live.
This means I don’t work with normal crew structures – I think a crew of 3 to 6 is optimal, I’ve never had a production designer or costume and make up – and I don’t work to a strict script, but rather a template of possibilities, and a spine to work around. This gives me room to create characters that grow as we develop them and that are allowed to effect the events of the film, and a chance to make full use of the abilities of the actors we work with.
This also means interesting issues with crews. A crew member with too much experience in the industrial system can struggle with this more lateral way of working, because it’s at odds with how films are usually made, and means they cannot apply their normal understanding of whether the film is going well or badly, or will be good or bad.
Sometimes this creates a situation where they’re applying criteria that are inappropriate to this kind of film, because they’re not in a position where they’ve seen other work of this nature. Sometimes this is a failure to grasp the aesthetic, sometimes just a tendency to impose values that aren’t suitable to the work.
The films I make, even with ridiculous poverty of financial means, reach and affect an audience. They’re by no means liked or respected universally – and much of the most trenchant or aggressive criticism comes from people who also make films.
But for all the people who are gratified that they didn’t like them, there are similarly people who are shaken by the effect the work has on them despite its lack of conformity to the industrial models they’re used to. Even with opposition to the ways the films are made, and the expectations made on them, people find the work fascinating, hypnotic even. The primacy given to physical and emotional realism above spectacle and structure means people reach individual moments of recognition with elements of the film, and so every audience member has a complex and unique response and understanding of the characters and the events.
With my first film, Uncomfortable Comfortable, we thought we’d made a serious, difficult film, and maybe we had. But when we first screened it at the 1999 NZ Film Festival, we discovered we’d also made a comedy. But not a normal comedy – the way it worked was that audience members laughed at the moments they recognized, that they could relate to. There would be a few people laughing here, a few there, a couple over there. People would laugh – awkwardly, often – at things that weren’t very funny at all, because they’d been permitted to find them funny rather than just painful or sad, which they often were as well.
This became a central focus for my understanding of film making – everybody is watching a different film all the time, and everybody’s responses are interesting and different because of that (Except maybe the audience member who is simply dismissive because they can’t deal with their expectations of what a film should contain not being met).
Respect for learning from the audience is then appropriate. What is ironic, to me, is that I’m regarded as an uncompromising art film maker, who is by definition disinterested in meeting the audience’s needs. Really, I’m disinterested in what I’m expected to believe the audience wants, because this isn’t what I want as an audience member – and the response from the audience to the films I’ve made backs me up on this.
What I want is something that I haven’t seen before, something that reflects the world I live in at least in some way, something that doesn’t make me feel I’ve been expected to respond in a set fashion – something that allows me to determine my own response, something that reflects the complexity and multiplicity of the world. Sometimes the industrial model can do this – but I can’t see it as being the best way to do so. It’s certainly not the most economical.
As well, the rise of quality television primarily watched on DVD gives additional new understanding to how audiences are consuming work. A series like The Wire shows how much a genre based audience – traditionally often regarded contemptuously as a conservative or undiscerning audience- is interested in lengthy, complex, morally and physically ambiguous material – it is common for viewers nowadays to watch a series like this in one or two marathon bursts, to heighten the immersion into the world, and for extra material to be available, to soften the shock of leaving at the end.
Similarly, charting the responses to a legendarily long 70s cult film like Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli Ma Tangere (1971) is valuable. For many years an almost lost film, with a reputation that grew out of proportion to the number of people who got to see it, the only way to see the film was at sporadic film festival screenings.
Screened once on TV in Italy, and otherwise pretty much lost – and as such known as a Holy Grail of a kind of film making that seemed lost as well – the existence of a watchable version to be downloaded in the grey zone of the internet has brought the film to a new audience with an appetite and the means to appreciate it. The response to the 12 hour film on the (admittedly rarefied) world of hardcore film watchers has been nothing short of ecstatic, and if a legitimate version of the film was made available, it would seem readily be a profitable proposition.
As is the case with other superlative marathon cinema (Bela Tarr’s Satantango, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Sybergerg’s Hitler: A Film About Germany), the effect of a film which justifies extreme running time is disproportionately high. For me, Satantango was a critical experience in understanding and loving film – what starts out as a slow but compelling trek through a dark and distant world significantly forces you into the position of adjusting down to it’s rhythm. Once it has you there, it demonstrates possibilities of emotion, power, sustained tension that “normal” length films can’t begin to access.
Previously, finding even a way to get an audience to be able to engage with this extremity of cinema was difficult; the logistics of finding a screening venue, the need for the audience to be able to take the time out from their lives for such a significant rupture – and significantly, for recovery as well.
But with the increased consumption within the home forced by the process of accessing specific areas of cinema, it’s no longer financially irresponsible to try and make films that don’t fit the 80-120 minute feature format. A film idea that justifies an unusual length or a modular structure may actually provide a more rewarding long term experience – and in a time where audiences have for the first time ever responded to being encouraged to buy and keep films, a more complex and deeper relationship with the viewer can be encouraged.
We don’t need to fit everything into 90 minutes so people don’t get a sore arse in the cinema; we can make the film 4 hours long if its justified, or break it into different related films, or make different versions of the film presenting different perspectives, or force the film to mutate and present new perspectives to the viewer with each viewing.
Obviously, the material will need to justify the extra work to be put in by a viewer – and there is something to be said for presenting a standard length work as an entry point, and for viewing in an actual cinema. A new marketing question will increasingly become, what things extra to the film will justify an audience wanting to spend time in the film’s world?
For the next decade or so, there’s an amazing opportunity to redefine how films interact with their audience. It will become possible to make these films away from the rigid structures imposed by the mutual straitjackets of theatrical release and industrial production. Film makers, funders and distributors are in a position to allow the existence of newer, smarter, more complex and more individual film to reach an audience, and to become financially responsible in doing so.
28/3 edited… to remove being posted twice. Cw