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Hollywood's Bubble Is Bound To Burst

04/07/2011 20:11 | Updated 03 September 2011

The filmmakers of today are part of a broken system.

From Warner Brothers to 20th Century Fox, Hollywood's most iconic studios are little more than crumbling monuments to a forgotten era. Far from being a source of institutional creativity, the industry has always relied upon outsiders for its reinvention. Between the new age movement of the 70s and the back-lot rebels of the 90s, the last 40 years have seen Hollywood look upon change as an inevitable, unpleasant imposition to their inertia. Now another change is coming.

This time the threat isn't from insurgent directors like Scorsese and Fincher trying to break in, but from a galvanised group looking to break out and establish a new dichotomy. It's a crisis that has been precipitated by three key events.

With DVD sales three years past their peak and falling, Hollywood is more reliant than ever on established franchises to bridge the gap, and the trend towards animated features and tent-pole movies is no coincidence. With the blockbuster season running longer every year, there are now sparingly few opportunities for directors with original stories: when even Christopher Nolan - no stranger to generating billions of dollars in revenue - is said to have struggled with financing last year's Inception, it speaks to a systemic problem.

A counter inflection point has been the advent of cheap, high quality cameras. Traditionally, 35mm film stock has been a luxury many filmmakers could ill-afford, relying instead on lower quality video for their features. With the release of pro-consumer cameras such as the Canon 5D or the RED series, aspiring auteurs can now capture images indistinguishable from their Hollywood peers, at just a fraction of the cost. The ramifications for both industry and artist are profound.

For the first time, the power of cinema has been decoupled from the spiralling budgets responsible for Hollywoods retreat into spending more and more on fewer and safer properties. For the last decade or so, directors of provocative, thoughtful work have been marginalised in favour of established names who are seen as safe bets for the big opening weekends those budgets demanded. Increasingly, that is no longer the case.

Consider the career of Edward Burns, whose performances in Entourage and Saving Private Ryan have overshadowed compelling work as a writer-director of 11 films. His fourth, the well-regarded Sidewalks of New York, cost $1,000,000; Newlyweds, his latest, just $9,000. His is an example of the emerging phenomenon. Today, with a little ingenuity and a consumer level DSLR camera, a crew of four can emerge from the editing suite - itself little more than a laptop - not with a crudely shot amateur production, but a professional, mainstream film that can take the kind of chances denied those operating under budgets a thousand times larger.

The third development is a familiar one to over 200 million of us: the on-demand revolution. Just as cost has proven an obstacle to their even getting as far as the soundstage, so too has it prevented many smaller movies from finding nationwide distribution; a key driver in the word-of-mouth sales so crucial to the viability of independent film. Yet the growing success of LoveFilm, Netflix and iTunes is proving that cinema - and the major studios' stranglehold over it - isn't the gatekeeper to success it once was.

This spring, Sebastián Gutiérrez became the first director to release a film direct to YouTube, for free, to an audience of over half a million people. Kevin Smith, once the darling of the independent movement, was shunned - his behaviour likened to that of a 'meltdown' by some commentators - when he announced an unprecedented move towards self-distribution. Just a year later, his film Red State - with the help of neither traditional cinema nor home video - had more than made its money back with a roadshow that took the film directly to his fans. If that was possible on a budget of $4,000,000, imagine what you could achieve starting just $9,000 in the red.

There is some irony to all of this, of course. It wasn't so long ago that the likes of James Cameron were buying into the fallacy of a faux-third dimension saving the beleaguered movie business from ruin. Eighteen months on, and that bubble has burst. Technology has not only failed to halt the decline of their bloated and complacent industry, it has begun shaping an entirely new one in its place. The sustainable success needed lies not in stereoscopic lightshows, but in character and voice. You can't buy those things, and now you don't have to.

Art and commerce have always been uncomfortable bedfellows, with distributors and theatres colluding to shut out all but an anointed few from the process. For the longest time, Hollywood - home to the so-called 'creative' arts - has aspired to doing just enough for the audience not to leave, but an emerging world of cheap, accessible filmmaking and ubiquitous streaming is revealing that to be a wholly cynical, outmoded philosophy.

There will always be expensive blockbusters, just as a place will continue to be found for the more credible work so vital in courting Academy voters. I'm not so naive as to think the situation will change overnight, or that films such as Newlyweds will easily (or ever) supplant the likes of Transformers 3 at the box office. But a time is coming - if it isn't already here - when the bottom of the industry is going to fall out, and lying in wait are an enterprising band of visionaries with ambition and the means once denied them. Whether the studios like it or not, there is a tsunami coming and it's of their own making; headed straight for an industry that hoped - just as James Cameron did - that smoke and mirrors would keep you fooled.