Sunday, July 22, 2007


It's an interesting point that filmmakers who watch too many films based their films on other films and not on life.

When I was in film school, I came into film as a photographer and artist, and wasn't very educated or aware of film history or how films were written or made by others. But, I really liked photography and adding the elements of motion and time to my photography was very exciting for me.

When people asked me what films I thought were great, my reply was that no great film had yet been made, and I was on a quest to prove that with my own work. But, that wasn't really true because I had always loved films and as a child stayed up late nights watching movies on TV. So, I was probably very influenced by them and didn't realize it.

To compare my work to other filmmakers back then seemed ludicrous to me. I was my own person and I did my own art and the whole thing about art is that it has to be from the individual and it has to be original above all else. To take the concept of originality to an extreme, you could say that any influence from any other existing work is a potential corruption of your originality. You should come from a place within and from real life, not from what you know about what others have done.

So, when a new writer asks if it's ok for a screenwriter to not watch other films, it makes a lot of sense and is a legitimate question, to which I would answer, absolutely not, you'd don't have to watch other films and doing so will undoubtedly impeded your originality.

On the other hand, you can learn a lot about craft, technique, and even ideas that other filmmakers use. But, note that there are so few original filmmakers, likely due to the fact that they all watch and love other films. This may sound strange. But, give it a minute to sink in. It's really very logical. If you haven't been exposed to all the stuff that's been done, it's less likely all that stuff will influence you and shape how you think films should be written.

But, I'm not an extremist. I'm not saying never watch another film. I'm just saying doing so can influence you and hinder originality. In fact, I watch films every day, probably at least three a day. But, that's not how I started out. I think to both write and watch films you have to separate your own works from others'. It's not so easy or obvious. Subconsciously, other films will influence you. Stories should be written from your imagination, your research, from real life; but not from other stories. I think you can develop a tough skin by consciously keeping aware of what you watch to keep it from influencing you subconsciously. But, you first have to come from a place of originality.

When I started in film, I had been into photography and art. I wasn't an avid film watcher at all. So, my first film was a visual experiment without actors. Later when I tried using actors my film resembled a forties film. I had been subconsciously influenced by all the Late Shows I watched as a kid.

David Lynch is one of the few truly original filmmakers, probably because he came into film as an artist looking to add motion to his paintings and knew nothing about filmmaking, as far as I know. Look at his work and this is so very apparent. I suspect as he got more into filmmaking his originality became more corrupted by other filmmakers' influences, and indoctrinated into Hollywood. I'm curious about what he'd have to say about this. If he did watch films before making his early short film, it wasn't at all apparent.

Great films always seem to have some strong original aspect to them. Tarantino used time line manipulation and emulation of past film genres, which is ironically original since he's redoing what's been done. But, to do that is part of what's original.

Then as technology progresses it adds more originality by making things possible that were not possible before. Those who exploit this alone are simply using gimmicks to sell their snake oil.

Now we have the industry paradigm of doing movies that have strong elements of stuff that has sold in the past, which is the exact opposite of being original, and what you end up with is a lot of crap films. The crap films sell to growing retarded audiences who love them. Meanwhile, good writers can't get their stuff sold, and so we have a market full of crappy screenwriters and gimmick filmmakers while the potentially great ones work their shitty day jobs, thinking they're no good because they can't get sold. I wonder if it's retarded audiences that are attracted to these films or the films that condition people into being retarded, since there's so little choice unless you get IFC or the Sundance Channel or live near a limited release art house type theater.

The film business is the business of selling art. Before you can sell art, you have to have art to sell. So, I put it to you that the first order of business is to make the best art that you can.

The Numbers

Here are some numbers

Out of 718 films screened in 2006 here are some gross figures:
Five made nothing or less
15 grossed less than $1000
118 grossed less than $10,000
280 grossed less than $100,000
about 440 grossed less than one million

That leaves 171 out of 716 that grossed 7 figures or more, and it's likely these were the only ones profitable by any worthy margin, since most films cost over a million to make. But, since getting or compiling a listing of the costs of these films is almost impossible, i can't be specific.

Anyway I think it's safe to assume about 23% were decently profitable. That leads me to believe that the business practices leave something to be desired. The industry gets by on the top few money makers and can then afford all the other failures.

What would be better would be to have more films making money than these 23%. I think to do that you have to hit the untapped markets, which I think are people who are largely turned off by the inane subject matter of the top selling movies. Not all of them but most. Notice many on top are kids films, leaving the adult market untapped.

It doesn't take an MBA to realize this model isn't working as well as it could be.

Here is a breakdown of the market in genres.

As you can see, they clearly are not getting much out of some genres, specifically, dark comedy, which I think has a huge untapped adult market, which execs are afraid to take risks with. But, it would make more sense, knowing that most good screenwriters write in that genre along with some others that are overlooked, to take that risk instead of pushing for more of the the genres that get the most play, comedy and drama.

The numbers I'd really like to see would be a list of movies made in a year, their budgets and their profits. Remember, distribution takes a big chunk of the gross. Now look again at that list, pick out the films made in 2006. Count how many would be considered profitable and compare that with the number 350, which is approximately how many movies are made in a year. Even if you only count the movies that are profitable, the ones making over 6 figures, you come up with only 171 out of the 350. That's just slightly less than half, even giving it the leeway and benefit of the doubt.

I'm not necessarily saying Hollywood is passing over diamonds in the rough, or that there are many un-produced great writers that aren't getting a shot. Though, that's probably true.

I'm just saying Hollywood's convention of looking for what makes money instead of looking for quality work and then using it to make money is the wrong way to go about doing business. It is a reactive stance to take. Finding quality work first is a proactive stance. As you know, an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The drive should be to find the best creative talents that can be found, let them and help them use their talent. Let them tell us what people want, regardless of what people have wanted in the past. Nurture their talent. then when they're ready for prime time, exploit them for money.

Whether these talents exist or not, or are passed over or not is an unknown until the industry actively seeks them out, instead of dictating what sells and what doesn't sell, how to structure stories, how to write in genres, what genres to write in, or how to be marketable. If no one in Hollywood knows anything as Goldman says, then obviously the business isn't working as well as it could. Why don't we wake up and decide to learn something about what people want, instead of trudging along like the blind leading the blind.

Artists have that vision to see into the future and write stories about things they know people will want in the future. Successful Hollywood writers even now do that. But, often in doing so they are going against the grain and fighting uphill battles with conventional wisdom.

The Music Analogy

Keeping with my state of mind in film school, I'd say even what we now consider classics will one day be looked upon as the crude beginnings of the medium. Look at music, which has been around for hundreds of years. Look at the the classics. When did music start and how long was it before the classic composers came on the scene, hundreds, maybe thousands of years?

Film has only been around for a hundred years or so. If filmmakers could just let go of convention, tradition and always thinking inside the box, we might see some break through into a higher state of art in movies. But, these things take time, lots of time, eras of time.

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