Meet the Reader: A Few Brief Thoughts on the Death of Movies

There’s been a lot written lately on the decline of the movies as a relevant and vital entertainment medium and –like it or not — it looks like we are living in the last days of cinema as we have traditionally known it. There are three primary reasons for this:

The technology is dying: the last 35mm motion picture camera rolled off the assembly line in 2011; a bankrupt Kodak is reducing its production of celluloid; and many of the industry’s best-known equipment rental houses have begun selling off their film cameras and support gadgets and replacing them with their digital equivalent. Twentieth Century-Fox recently announced it will stop distributing physical celluloid prints of their films within two years, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the studios follow suit. The same thing goes for theaters: many of the big chains now project exclusively in digital and the rest will be soon enough. Within five years (at the outside) the production and distribution of recorded entertainment will be exclusively digital and a century of photochemical filmmaking will come to an end.

The creativity is dying: The last ten years have been rough ones for creativity in movie business. Due in part to the incredible costs of making and marketing feature films and in part to the demands of their corporate owners for guaranteed financial returns, most of the major studios are now only interested in producing sure things, which has led to a near-maniacal focus on pre-existing, allegedly pre-sold blockbuster properties and franchise material (ideas that can generate not just movies, but also books, TV shows, video games, and myriad other spin-off products), which in turn has led to the seemingly endless parade of sequels, remakes, and adaptations of “branded” material such as board games and comic books that has issued forth from Hollywood in the last decade. With many studio heads making it clear they no longer have any interest in producing original dramas or soft comedies or period stories — nothing really besides raunchy, hard “R” comedies and special effects-filled extravaganzas — this trend shows no signs of abating. The terrific costs of feature filmmaking has also prompted the studios to exercise more and more control over their productions, which has led to the insistence on using seemingly dozens of writers on each project, as well as the hiring of young, no-name (and therefore supposedly pliable) directors to helm them.

The result of all of this is a preponderance of bland, formulaic “product” that holds interest for almost no one beyond a few immediate thrills. Even independent films, traditionally a bastion of creativity and originality, have become increasingly rote and predictable (seriously – how many movies about quirky hipsters and dysfunctional families can there be before enough is enough?). Although audiences are starting to reject this flat material in greater and greater numbers (as evidenced by significantly decreased ticket sales across the board), it doesn’t look as if things are going to change anytime soon, and so the variety and freshness that are the lifeblood of success in every aspect of show business may soon be totally drained from the cinema.

The theatrical experience is dying: As every avid moviegoer knows, the experience of seeing a movie in a theater is becoming increasingly unpleasant. From sky high ticket prices and exorbitant 3D upcharges to inconsiderate audience members who won’t stop talking, texting, or chatting on their cell phones during the show to theater management and staff who are more interested in selling overpriced concessions and tschotskes than they are in policing the audience and presenting a bright, clearly focused image, the experience of going to movies has lost a lot of its luster. So, more and more folks are opting just to stay home and wait for the DVD, streaming, or on-demand window. Movie theater attendance is dropping precipitously and, as a result, the shared communal experience of seeing a film on a large screen in the company of like-minded others that has given movies so much of their magic and appeal may soon be a thing of the past.

I’m a big fan of the BBC sci-fi television series Doctor Who and as any loyal viewer of the show knows, whenever the titular character is mortally wounded, he “regenerates” by transforming into an entirely new person — his essence remains the same, but he gains an new body and a new personality (a convenient way of facilitating the multiple recastings of the lead actor that have been required to keep the show running for a half century). I think something similar will happen to the movies — the concept of sitting in an auditorium and watching something projected on a big screen probably won’t vanish completely, but it will transform into something very different than what it has been for the last century or so. Just what that something will be is hard to say, but if what has happened to Broadway theater over the last quarter century — as it transformed from an accessible creative forum for intelligent dramas, comedies, and original musicals that explored the human experience and captured the popular imagination into a showcase for big, flashy, superficial spectacles based on recycled (mostly from old movies and songbooks) material aimed solely at the tourist trade — it seems reasonable to assume the feature film will become rarer, more expensive, more spectacular (in terms of stunts and effects and flashiness rather than artistic achievement and emotional engagement), more formulaic and mechanical, less original, and less human.

Will it be better or worse? Again, hard to say–it depends on your taste and point of view, I suppose. All that one can say for sure is that it will be different.

So, what does all of this mean for screenwriters? In the immediate future, it will probably mean fewer jobs (since fewer films are going to made) and fewer possibilities of selling a spec (since there will be less interest in original material). The opportunities that remain will probably be a boon to those adept at adaptation, spectacle, and effect, and a bust for those interested primarily in character and “human” drama.

However, as history has shown, when one door closes, another one usually opens. So, while feature films may become a less fertile field for writers to plow, there is always going to be a desire among people for compelling dramatic storytelling in some form: television (especially cable) is already experiencing something of a second golden age of interesting, quality programming that is showcasing some truly spectacular and original writing. It is likely this brave new, multi-platform universe of ours will generate even more new forums and venues in which capable storytellers can thrive (many screenwriters are already working successfully in video games and on the web, so it’s easy to imagine writing scripts that will be produced for iPhones and iPads; for holograms; and even for those shows that will be beamed directly into our brains that everyone keeps promising).

In order to take advantage of these new opportunities, screenwriters are going to have to alert enough to suss out fresh arenas as (or even before) they are developed and fleet-footed enough to move in quickly to grab new chances as (or even before) they become available.

They’re going to have to be adaptable — the core principles of dramatic storytelling will never change, but forms and formats are bound to be plastic and infinite (screenwriters are going to have to learn to write everything from three hour, 3D, 120 f.p.s IMAX spectaculars to fifteen-minute webisodes to thirty-second phonisodes and beyond).

Scripters are going to have to be entrepreneurial — one of the great advantages of the digital revolution is the cameras, production equipment, and distribution formats are much more affordable than those involving film, which means there’s going to be a lot more opportunities for those writers with enough moxie to produce their work themselves.

Finally, screenwriters are going to have to be prepared — by learning their craft and practicing their craft and utilizing their craft to generate the steady stream of new material this brave new world is going to require and the stories audiences are always going to crave, no matter how those stories are delivered to them.

Will screenwriters be able to meet these challenges? Sure — we weathered the transition from shorts to features and silents to talkies, and we’ll survive the transition from cellulose screened in theaters to 0s and 1s screened everywhere.

Good luck to us all!

10 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: A Few Brief Thoughts on the Death of Movies

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  2. Doc Halister

    A thought-provoking essay. I’ve been dismayed at the poor quality of American films made over the past ten or more years, though some positive exceptions come to mind like Blue Valentine, 500 Days of Summer, and Match Point. (All of which were Indie productions). I can’t so easily blame it on “Corporate greed” as you do though. During the heyday of the big studios (1920s into early 1960s) movies were cranked out factory style, and moneymaking was the main objective. Most of them were mediocre or worse; yet enough of them were very good or even great as to legitimate “The Cinema” as an art form. I see no necessary conflict then between healthy box office receipts and artistic quality. When we come to the people who actually make the movies though, the Members of the Motion Picture Academy, they are more out of synch with the values of America than ever before. Just as one major example, consider the gratuitous, offensive promotion of the Gay Agenda in movies (like the Woody Harrelson character in Friends With Benefits). More generally, the promotion of the warped values of Hollywood is costing them an audience! A lot of people just don’t want to see that crap. Technology is mentioned in your essay–and I think that has become problematic: New methods are getting overused. Transformer-like special effects are expensive and though they dazzle immature minds, a lot of us avoid such movies. At my local multiplex, practically nobody attends but teenagers, because the movies they screen are geared to that mentality. Again, that costs Hollywood money! Why can’t they figure it out: Adults would still be willing to attend the movies if we had movies like Bridge On the River Kwai or When Harry Met Sally to go to! Okay, rant over for now–I’ll yield the field to others….

  3. Rodney Lee Rogers

    Very insightful, and though one can look at the state of affairs as depressing, you must also look at the opportunity the end of such a cycle brings. This is the part of the article that I think Mr. Morton presents very effectively and may get lost in the shuffle. Granted, we’re talking as much about the end of audience behavior as we are the tools of the trade, but certainly every advance in film has brought massive changes. From sound to color, these advances have changed the face of cinema. Humans need drama. It is part of our DNA. Mr. Morton effectively introduces the Theatre as a relevant parallel to the argument. Theatre by nature is a dying art. It is unscalable and lives and dies in an evening with no tangible record of its existence. Though complaints of its demise for preference of spectacle can be recorded from Roman times, Theatre still survives. Why? Our drama DNA. The regional Theatre movement is stronger than ever, and on any given evening throughout this country audiences participate in intimate productions of drama. Fame is acquired on the Great White Way, but drama is left for the streets. I think this understanding and love of drama is what the screenwriter must cultivate for survival and why television is thriving. The latter part of the article explores this well, and shouldn’t be lost in the fear of a changing world where our livelihoods and status is threatened. The ability to create drama on multiple platforms, with multiple collaborators, and with relative ease is unparalleled in human existence. It is truly the “Best of Times”.

  4. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

    John, I completely agree with your assessment. Intelligent films are lacking, being replaced by sequel after sequel as well as films of little depth. You’ve been an amazing contributor to Script over the years. Feel free to shoot me an email, and we can talk about getting your views on ScriptMag.com (jeanne.bowerman@fwmedia.com). Thanks for commenting!

  5. John Buchanan

    I’m an agented sceenwriter with one deal under my belt and I was also an every-issue writer for Script until it ceased print publication — which gave me the opportunity to talk to lots of producers, studio execs, agents, managers, writers and directors.
    And I think everything Ray Morton pointed out is true. The movie business as it has existed for more than 100 years is dying. The #1 factor in that is that while movies are getting more and more expensive to make, fewer and fewer people are going to the movies every year.
    In any business, fewer and fewer customers year to year means a dying market.
    But unlike almost all other markets, which manufacture and distribute multiple iterations of core products for different customers (colors, shapes and sizes), Hollywood no longer makes intelligent films for adult audiences who love great films — and have the money to see them once or twice a week if available.
    And I have no interest in paying to see comic books or board games made into movies.
    I’ve been a lifelong lover of film ( a former national magazine film critic from the 1980s) and am very saddened by the industry’s demise. But you’d have to be in denial to claim it ain’t happening.

  6. Rick

    Ray,

    Thank you for an intelligent and thoughtful summary of the the-world-as-it-is and the brave new world to come. It’s ironic that the films keep getting more expensive as the technology becomes cheaper and ubiquitous. For better or worse, the democratization of the arts will likely overwhelm the film industry just as it has publishing and music.

    While it could be depressing to consider, there is more opportunity to be excited about! Small bands of filmmakers may well create the next wave. Will I be ready to catch it?

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  8. Brian

    Spot on, Ray!

    We can’t really say “studios” anymore, because studios and producers don’t really make films. Corporations beholden to stockholders do.

    And taking chances on fresh ideas, or non-franchise ideas, could lead to … (GASP)… a drop in their quarterly profit! And we can’t have that.

    So listen up studio heads:

    You used to be artists and showmen and moguls, from a long proud tradition…

    …but now you’re just corporate monkeys, pulling levers.

    It’s been 5 minutes. Where’s my new sequel to Twilight?

    Brian

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