The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

The Feature Will Never Die

Posted in Development by Noah Harlan on February 9, 2009

There is a depression spreading like a virus in the indie film community and I don’t like it. People are watching the rise of new media and see the four horsemen on the horizon. I want to say to filmmakers out there who want to work in long-form narrative: do not despair! You have a future…

I acknowledge, and eagerly support and participate in, the emergence of new media in all its glory. Multi-threaded story telling, ARG’s, interactive media and the rest are fantastic but they are opening the door to a new cultural medium that we haven’t fully defined yet. These new media methods will have an interplay with the current narrative forms and we’ll see more variation in the classical notion of “film” as transmedia and cross-media approaches proliferate.

However, lately I’ve read a plethora of articles like this one averring the end of the feature film. As is typical of this style of shock-doctrine scare-mongering, Scott Brown declares:

Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of Story.

Well I’m here to say that he’s wrong. Why? Because cultural methods never die. They only rise and fall on the waves consumption trends through history. What’s important to understand is that technology evolves the means of cultural consumption but does not kill the underlying form.

What do I mean? Let me ask you a question. Name a method of cultural expression that has existed in history that no longer exists in a commercial form. I don’t know that you can. Yes, there are many that are at the fringes of society or have dropped in their importance and/or financial viability but dead? Hardly. Let’s take a look:

Books: We were told TV and film would kill the book but, despite it’s pain, the book industry still exists and thrives in many cases through its interaction with more contemporary media. Gossip Girl anyone?

Classical Music: It may not be at its height but check out the renovation of Lincoln Center.

Art: Before the financial crash galleries were flourishing in Chelsea (NYC) and Soho (London).

Dance: Alvin Ailey, the Bolshoi, even the Nutcracker Rated R.

And on, and on…

The heyday of the feature film may ultimately be seen to have just passed but it’s not a dead medium and won’t be so get out there and make some features.


12 Responses

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  1. eric escobar said, on February 10, 2009 at 3:42 am

    Scott Brown’s article, while playful and irreverent, is a great indicator of just how much ‘no one knows nothing’ right now about the direction story is taking. I think it’s interesting, and telling, that Hollywood’s models are in flux at the same time the American economy is getting a great big ‘time out’.

    Maybe it’s not a question of length, as much as it is a question about the role mainstream feature films have played in propping up philosophies that have gone so terribly wrong?

  2. Meeks said, on February 10, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Totally agree. Obviously my frame of reference is books, and while I absolutely support innovative and evolving new media and formats (, anyone?), I don’t believe that kindles, blogging, or other new media are ever going to replace curling up with a book at the beach or in bed or etc. I think it’s important for artists and other purveyors of media to embrace the new directions the industries seem to be taking so as to respond to new generations on their own level, and I feel quite certain that they (the new generation) will return the favor in kind. After all, as we know, going to the movies is an entirely different recreational experience than watching on a computer, and one which I’d wager most people aren’t willing to give up, even as they increasingly do watch at home or online in bigger and bigger numbers.

  3. William said, on February 10, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Just like they’ve said about rock’n’roll. How long have they been trying to hammer a nail into that coffin? It just keeps reinventing itself every year.

    Noah — dig the site. Keep it coming.

  4. nharlan said, on February 10, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Eric: I don’t know that I agree that films are on the decline because they have been supporting the established system. They were in decline while the bubble was still inflating. I think the desire to devote 1-1/2 hours to a single thing with no distractions is increasingly difficult. We consume in snippets and long form work, whether it’s opera, film, or novels suffers. It’s not the end of the world, just an era.

    Meeks: Here, Here! That’s what I’m saying: it will be satisfying for those who choose to partake and there will be many who choose to partake.

    William: Thanks for the encouragement! I agree about rock’n’roll however I think that functions more like genre than cultural method. It falls into the broad cultural method of popular music into which I would place pop, rock’n’roll, hip-hop, rap, etc… That being said, point taken!

  5. eric escobar said, on February 10, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    That’s assuming that an inflating bubble is an indicator of a healthy economy 😉

    The economy has been in a boom-bust death spiral, with emphasis on busts, since 1970, the year that real wages of American workers stopped increasing per annum (first time since 1850!).

    With a flattening of real wages, we started relying on credit cards, personal debt and more jobs to keep up with the rising costs of living. So yes, I agree that part of the decline in feature film watching has everything to do with the loss of free time for the average American worker.

    In this era mainstream television and film functioned as an temporary refuge from this new economic reality, as well as a means of perpetuating the myths of instant wealth & fame and individualism — the tropes of the day. In the 80’s Hollywood rewrote the Vietnam War as a “failure to win”, rather than the template of a failed foreign policy. Not to mention the torrent of fawning TV shows and movies about the lives of the rich and famous.

    As an industry, feature filmmaking recycles the myth of the gifted, genius filmmaker who is rewarded after his brilliant first feature film — Orson Welles, PT Anderson. Rather than the reality of most filmmakers working diligently everyday in obscurity developing their craft. Another lottery ticket fantasy.

    And the countervailing force that was once independent cinema, has become an over inflated market looking for the next opening weekend winner. Are there really 45 million dollars worth of acquisitions on any given Sundance?

    Thanks so much for writing your blog, these are interesting times to be thinking and talking.

  6. William said, on February 10, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Very interesting and astute summation of the state of things. I always contemplate the way the stories are being told especially in these times when everyone is increasingly losing the ability to focus on slower more measured works. The push is for more flash and ham. Then something like Mad Men comes along which I fell for since the first episode. HBO passed on this beautifully written show by an HBO alum. Go figure? Another example, Ballast. Still and haunting and wonderful.

    There’s still hope people. There’s still hope.

  7. nharlan said, on February 10, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    William: Mad Men and Ballast are vastly different examples to cite. In one case you have a TV show that has proved to be successful beyond all expectation. In the other you have a film that is struggling financially. They dropped a deal with IFC because it would have ensured they lost money and set out on their own. The reality is that they will likely not make all the money back, or if they do it will take a very long time, however their goal is greater than the cash and Lance is using this to launch his next project and the rest of his career.

  8. William said, on February 11, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Different but that’s where we are at. Film influenced current television and vice versa. I don’t think I could watch 95% of pre-Sopranos television now. Definitely not network TV.

    Regardless of how the Ballast deal shakes out, I admire Lance Hammer’s approach. He just divorced himself from the machine and said this is my thing regardless of how it turns out. To his advantage it turned out well because of the accolades Ballast received and will prove to be a great launching pad for future works. Most first films don’t even get seen. That’s the reality.

  9. nharlan said, on February 11, 2009 at 10:27 am

    “Regardless of how the Ballast deal shakes out”

    But here’s the rub, that means we need to reevaluate how we view investing. Structurally at the moment we invest on a per-picture basis but if you are going to follow your idea here investors should really be taking equity in the filmmaker like a venture capital deal. They are saying: ‘hey, it’s okay to lose a bit at the beginning because it will mean more worth in the long run’. I’m ok with that idea but I think a lot of filmmakers won’t like the idea that they are selling part of potential future earnings in a deal to make their first film.

  10. Lorie said, on February 12, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Hi there, Noah. Happy to find your blog, and thanks for referencing mine on your blogroll!

    “…investors should really be taking equity in the filmmaker like a venture capital deal.”

    That’s why filmmakers need creative producers. I consider myself an artist and a business person — the two “hats” are not at cross-purposes for me; I find art in both of them. I absolutely believe that VCs should consider (and do! – think Michael London and Groundswell Productions) investing equity in the projects and the slates that creative producers put together. I want one. I really, reeaaally want one.

    I also think a lot of Creatives think money and art are mutually exhaustive. If money’s involved, it’ll mean a compromise of their artistic integrity. I don’t feel that, obviously. But, unlike Hollywood movies, I don’t need to have my films bring in the lottery to feel successful. I want them to earn their money back, and a 15%+ return on top of that would be super-fabulous-successful-yay!!! But, ultimately, the success is in the movie — did it speak to an audience? Did it represent a vision? Did the people who worked on it bring out the best in each other most of the time?

    Making movies is always herculean. Raising funds is always a scramble. New wrinkles come along every five years or so that make pundits ponder the End of Things As We Know Them — when I shot my first short in 2001, I struggled to determine whether to shoot it on film or the Galloping New Thing – DV. Film is dead! Movies are dead!

    I agree with you. The details change all the time, but the raw materials don’t. We adapt.

  11. nharlan said, on February 12, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Hi Lorie and welcome!

    I think your points are well taken, however I would say one thing. What I’m suggesting in the quote you pulled is that the filmmaker becomes an entity into which one invests and then has an ongoing financial stake. The real resistance to this idea is more likely to come from the filmmaker who feels: “well I don’t want to give up a piece of my future potential!” The old record labels would invest in the long term careers of their artists and many of the biggest successes were people who had made many albums first. Bruce Springsteen didn’t have commercial success until his third album, David Bowie recorded numerous singles (under numerous names) and didn’t hit until his second album, and the list can go on and on. It really connects to the old idea of an overnight success years in the making… The investors in those years of making could be making a long-term commitment and the artist would be giving up future revenue for the right to work and explore now.

    An interesting side note to this is that in 1997 David Bowie did a bond issue where he got revenue up front in exchange for forgoing future revenue from his royalties. A quick search on wikipedia shows that he raised $55 million in exchange for giving up 100% of his revenue for 10 years. A very creative deal and one which served him well.

  12. […] that video is more heavily searched than film). So, there are some stats. I still think the feature film is not dead though. Tagged with: charts, data, film, independent film, online film, streaming video, video […]

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