What history can teach filmmakers

As is hinted at by the comments attached to my last post (Musings on the future of independent film distribution), all of us in the “indie” filmmaking arena are alert to the fact that everything is changing, and that this is especially the case at the distribution end of the pipeline.

A myriad of good ideas are being floated around (thanks to all who are joining the conversation), not the least of which is the need for all of us to continue sharing and discussing what we’re discovering as we march forward. I couldn’t agree more. In a very real sense what we’re all in the middle of is history repeating itself in the entertainment industry albeit in new and digital 21st Century terms. Let me explain.

Years ago, I spent the better part of my graduate school days (studying for my Ph.D in theatre and dramatic literature) researching what had happened to the American theatre industry economically when the film industry first came on the scene. I had earned a BA in economics so I was naturally drawn to taking a look at what happened to the major entertainment source (the theatre) when Hollywood began supplying feature-length films to the mass audience back in the teens of the last century.

Needless to say, the appearance of the movies rocked the theatre to its core. For hundred of years—both in America and Europe—the stage had been the chief if not only supplier of entertainment to the mass market—from dramas to comedies to melodramas to revues to vaudeville, you name it and it was out there cranking away. The “Road” business (plays touring the country) was immense and very profitable, not any more so than it was at the beginning of the 20th Century. Every city had its “legit” house or maybe two or three or many more.

All this changed with the advent of full-length movies. Silent as they were, feature films quickly eroded the national theatre business. And it happened practically overnight. The first commercial feature film successfully screened in America (at a major legit house in New York City) was “Queen Elizabeth” in 1912 starring the internationally renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt. This event touched off an explosion of growth over the rest of that decade so that by 1920 the motion picture industry, now firmly ensconced in southern California, had vastly surpassed every other branch of show business including the theatre.

Where the telling of this saga connects with filmmakers today is what happened once the theatre business had to turn in on itself and concentrate its production work in New York City, targeting a much more sophisticated audience instead of gearing plays to the mass market nationwide. The movies took over satisfying this insatiable national demand for entertainment and the theatre was able to finally mature into a serious art form. And at the heart of this transition were the playwrights—artists who cared deeply about their work and were thrilled to suddenly be able to write intelligent and artistically challenging plays for a more discerning audience.

What happened in the 1920s however, is that Hollywood (even before the advent of sound) started working itself into the financing of Broadway plays and with its huge bankroll threatened to take over and control theatre production in New York in its feverish search for properties that could be made into movies. And it quickly became clear to the playwrights that their newfound artistic freedom was about to disappear as movie studios began dictating what “product” they would be willing to finance on Broadway in exchange for the screen rights.

What happened? The playwrights got together—all of them—and formed a closed-shop artistic “union” called The Dramatists Guild, a powerful organization with international reach that still thrives today. They told the studios that they could no longer be involved with the financing of their plays and if they wanted the screen rights they’d have to wait to competitively bid on them after the plays opened on Broadway and had a chance to sink or swim on their own merits. In this way the playwrights protected the artistic integrity of their work and stood a much better chance of landing a lucrative screen sale if their plays were successful.

What can we as filmmakers learn from this historical reality drawn directly from our own industry? First, that in order for artists to control content we have to find some way to prevent Hollywood studios with all their power and influence from controlling the financing (and by association, the distribution) of our work so they don’t subtly (or not so subtly) dictate the kinds of films that will “sell.” And this financial control can take many forms, including quietly acquiring ownership of the very mechanisms originally established to support us and gatekeeping the new channels finally opening up for us to connect with our audience.

Second, there’s a good reason for all of us to stay in close touch with each other much like the playwrights did way back then as today our industry once again goes through its current version of what happened almost a hundred years ago—huge technological change and massive shifts in how content reaches audiences. This is especially true as the sleeping giants (the studios) begin to wake up and start moving into the new distribution channels as they are currently doing. We need to keep a watchful eye and constantly share what we find or the promise of a bright future for us as serious filmmaker/artists could quickly dim.

And finally, we need to continue working diligently to build a direct connect with our specific audience or audiences—today’s equivalent of that sophisticated New York City audience back in the 1920s that supported and encouraged the playwrights who were taking the art form to new heights in terms of story, social connectiveness, and other new artistic frontiers.

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  1. Luke James said,
    March 1, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

    Hey Buzz, another insightful and thoughtful post.

    There’s so much great content in this that I’m going to take the liberty of just discussing one part. This section:

    “This is especially true as the sleeping giants (the studios) begin to wake up and start moving into the new distribution channels as they are currently doing. We need to keep a watchful eye and constantly share what we find or the promise of a bright future for us as serious filmmaker/artists could quickly dim.”

    The first part is going to happen big time. It’s just common sense for them to do it. The second part is up to us. But I/we personally feel that placing all our eggs in one filmmaking basket is a bad idea.

    Having options and choices is crucial. If one approach isn’t working then quickly switch to plan B, C, right though to Z (and then start on the Greek alphabet).

    Social Media is a fluid medium, and things change in a short space of time. Not so long ago MySpace were the big kids on the block.. This all ties in with your central point about history. We’re in flux. History is a great teacher. Sitting back and expecting everything to be the same is a high risk approach. Where are the great empires of yesteryear? Just look at MGM’s financial situation.

    So, what’s tomorrow’s Twitter going to look like? There are SM systems for us to use in the future that haven’t even been developed yet. There are video encoding systems that we can’t even imagine. The iPad, just a short time ago, seemed inconceivable as a mainstream product.

    My view is that there’s no, one, concise and clear way to sell and market on SM either. From parchment to the Kindle, from flick-book animations to 3D graphics. Be prepared, be dynamic, and be flexible.

    The cool audiences are out there. There are so many people who want to feel connected and the ones who don’t think about this stuff haven’t been given the choice yet. Choice is crucial. People/viewers, want to feel connected to any product they’re buying or buying into. Their only way at the moment is via trashy celebrity media and mass-produced, high mark-up merchandising (with a high carbon footprint).

    Finally (sorry for going on) – big isn’t necessarily beautiful. The studios and others will be finding this out more and more. Small means quick and fast adaptability, low overheads, less unit sales to worry about. It’s an asset for many businesses, including film businesses.

    Looking forward to your next post.

    Best wishes.

  2. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    March 1, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    Hi Luke– Good thoughts. Fluidity is definitely necessary. Options/choices for audiences is essential. And the “big isn’t necessarily beautiful” is certainly our take on it as well The most important thing is that we stay awake at the wheel as we speed down this crazy road and are able to steer ourselves into a situation where we can retain control of content, have expanding direct access to our audiences, and begin to see substantial revenues flow directly back to us from our work (as opposed to having it land pretty much exclusively in the pockets of those who are “helping” us take our wares to market.

  3. Brian Umana said,
    March 4, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    insightful blog post — thanks for writing —