Art without risk is business as usual

Below is my rambling rant trying to make sense of the current sad state of the film industry. What gives me the idea that I have the clout to comment upon the film industry? Nothing. But because I'm a movie fan who has seen a total of two good movies all year (and one of them was a documentary), I'm starting to feel like it's hopeless and that my affinity for critiquing the cinematic mirrors of the time is only worth the nostalgia factor. I realized yesterday that 1999 was the year of Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Insider, The Matrix, The Hurricane, and Magnolia. Unless there's an amazing Oscar nom final stretch this year, we'll look back on 2005 as the year of The Pacifier, Crash, Miss Congeniality 2, Batman Begins, Revenge of the Sith, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Sin City. If films are the reflectors of our time, they should at least deserve it, and right now, they have never deserved it less.


Ever wonder how two disappointing Matrix sequels were released in such close proximity? Perplexed as to the deep-shallow, peak-valley role selection of Nicholas Cage? Flabbergasted that Bill Murray and any self-respecting studio would get involved in converting a boring three-panel comic strip about a lazy cat into a full-length CGI disaster movie? Losing patience waiting for Zach Braff’s sophomore indie treasure, Michael Moore’s next political upheaval, and hey, as long as network news is still clinging on for dear life in a cable world, how about a “mad as hell” hack job update of Network, starring Jennifer Lopez and Jack Nicholson? And please, what’s with all the old TV show cinematic treatments when all we really want is Homer Simpson on the big screen?

Whatever your unsolved movie mysteries and unfulfilled film fantasies, these questions pile up right alongside the meaning of life, generating so much confusion, sometimes it’s difficult to just sit back, relax, and get Bewitched by the summer’s biggest blockbusters. If someone should be locked up for Herbie: Fully Loaded and The Fantastic 4, who’s guilty? Studios for relying on forgettable yet previously successful formulas? A-list actors for being overpaid, overrated, and frankly, a little overdone? Creatively devoid directors who wouldn’t know the term auteur from Bazin? The fact that special effects still think they’re so goddamn special? Movie critics for taking payola? Runaway Canuck production? The ghost of Harvey Weinstein? You and I for continuing to abide by the belief that, like the current state of American politics, all hope is not lost, and studio films can and will get better?

When the verdict is delivered, to a certain degree I have to charge everyone involved, especially myself, for not taking more risks, for what is art without risk, and what’s point of taking risks without an audience open to new and different films? Unfortunately for Hollywood, in this day and age, art without risk is business as usual. Movies have skewed to favor the selling objective to artistic purpose, profit over innovation. Increased focus on marketing has begun compromising creativity, and people are buying it. In order to dupe the target consumer, this business has become all about the investment in a product, and every movie product is developed with strategic rumors and negotiations. At the powerful epicenter of these rumors and negotiations is the Agency, where every potential risk is turned into a safe business transaction with a 10% commission. If I have to point the blame in one direction, I’d have to go with the 8000-9000 block of Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA, where such outfits as CAA, ICM, WMA, UTA work 12-hour days influencing the movie business in ways you never thought possible.

A classic case of the “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” quandary, the Agency is a hub of constantly exchanging information that has become intrinsic yet debilitating to the movie business. Since the inception of the Agent as Creative Representative back in the vaudeville days, many writers, directors, and other creative types have asked themselves why the sharks continue to sabotage the calm artistic waters on a daily basis. Also known as power brokers and savvy businessmen, they wheel and deal around town in Italian suits and German cars, splurging their bottomless expense accounts, dipping their shady little hands in every aspect of feature film development as they “represent” their clients and deceptively woo other agents’ clients.

The most ruthless agents thrive at the intersection of political lobbyist and conniving salesman, turning in flawless performances pretending to care about movies when all they really see in a dark theater is green. This motivational dollar mantra drives every decision as they make the deals, pitch the scripts, and work all the right post-Oscar parties, high on way too much power. For a realistic demonstration of the way this works, might I recommend watching Jeremy Piven’s superagent character work any episode of Mark Wahlberg’s pet TV project Entourage on HBO. But if you don’t have HBO, take it from me. I’ve been in the thick of it, headset on head, paralyzed by a surreal state of shock, politely telling one of my favorite adolescent film heroes that no, your agent is not available at the moment, and by the way, why did you have to turn out to be such an asshole in real life?

My first job out of college was an agent assistant position at a top Agency, and obviously, this experience turned me cynic right away, blowing my film school idealism right in my face. And while most film school idealists would rather watch What Dreams May Come forty times in a row on bad acid than set foot in the Agency, I’m glad I did my time there. Now that I know how the big people operate, it’s easy to see what the little people need to do. If the big films are getting worse, it’s high time that the little films get better, and better, and better, until blockbusters look like overlong and over-budgeted car commercials in comparison and studios have no choice but up the ante.

But risk and innovation can’t be contagious without an audience. While our best high culture snobbery could easily reduce much of the average American movie-going public to a bunch of idiotic sheep who wouldn’t know an effective camera angle from a good shot of Cameron Diaz’ breasts, such condescending assumptions underestimate the escapist power of cinema. Such films as The Godfather and Pulp Fiction were not blockbusters, but they reached a wide audience and gained iconic status without being a sequel or remake, without a brainwashing marketing campaign, and without an A-list actor on every cover of US magazine. Why? Because the filmmakers took us to places we hadn’t been before, telling us new and different stories that stayed with us years after leaving the theater, with intriguing, two-dimensional characters as our guides.

When studios are stuck in a great big rut of redundancy, when big budget movies can’t seem to venture anywhere new and unknown for fear of failure, there is no time like the present to escape, or to re-ignite the escapism we have lost. Now is the perfect time for the next great writers and directors to take some much-needed risks and fill this creatively barren vacuum before it sucks the energy out of us all. But risk won’t amount to anything without an audience to respond and support such innovation before it’s gone forever and we’re faced with the bleak reality of an agent-driven world of further sequels and remakes twenty years down the road.

So if you really love movies and genuinely want them to get better, quit complaining about the big bad blockbuster. Invest your attention in the smaller films that don't just view you as a consumer; they respect your capacity to think and feel. These movies are the real reflectors of our times. Who knows? With the force of audience, maybe true originality will make a triumphant comeback, it’ll spread to the studios, and what we’re seeing onscreen will be worthy of a merited discussion once again. The Agency may have turned me cynic, but I'm still a film school idealist at heart.


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