End Run

 

Gut check: does the film industry exist to tell great stories, or does it exist it employ a large number of artisans?

A little background. I’ve heard this question, or some version of it, many times:

What Alexis is asking—I think—is this: “how can we disrupt stuff but in a way that no one loses their job?”

(My apologies to Mr. Van Hurkman if I’ve mischaracterized his tweet. If so, let this stand in as a proxy for a commonly-raised objection.)

Not only am I sure that this goal impossible, I’m not so sure that it’s desirable. A vote to maintain the status quo below-the-line is an implicit vote to maintain the status quo above-the-line.

Any meaningful change will necessarily destroy some jobs. It also creates new ones. But more importantly, change creates new opportunities. It uncovers opportunity costs that we never realized we were paying. True disruption unleashes bottled-up creativity.

For example, we can probably agree that a wave of digital cameras—from the RED One to the GoPro—destroyed a lot of jobs at Kodak. But it also empowered hundreds of thousands of new filmmakers. And most of them would otherwise have never gotten started in the first place.

Was that trade-off worth it?

Do we want better stories, or do we all want to keep our jobs?

Not too long ago, 99% of the human race was dedicated full-time to cultivating food. Little House On The Prairie is an endless litany of churning butter, stringing onions, trapping animals, threshing wheat, and generally just trying very hard to not starve to death. And only 200 years ago, a single shirt cost $3500.

Today, a very small fraction of humans are capable of feeding the other 99.999% of us. Was that trade-off worth it?

Is it the job of the agricultural industry to employ as many farmers as possible? Or to feed humanity?

I build Endcrawl and work at HBO. Sometimes I'm wrong about things on the Internet. Feel free to point some of that out on Twitter, or down in the comments section.

  • Alexis Van Hurkman

    Thoughts on your thoughts, now that we’re freed from the 140 character limit of Twitter. Outside of my ordinary observation that equating “disruption” with “improvement” is pretty optimistic, here’s the heart of my reaction. It’s easy to infer from your comments on this that improving the quality of film and television stories requires an improvement of the process of filmmaking, which I believe misses the point entirely. Better cheaper digital cameras don’t get us better stories. Smaller crews doing more with less don’t get us better stories. Replacing actors with robots or set decorators with a holodeck-like insta-set or eliminating cinematography altogether using light-field cameras in which every single element can be digitally relit after the fact is not going to get us better stories. Those can certainly all engender improvements, don’t get me wrong. But judging what stories are being told by evaluating the offerings coming from major distributors is an incomplete view of what’s happening.

    Thousands upon thousands of unreleased, unseen, unknown movies and television pilots are made every year around the world. The “disruption” that’s already been happening, cheaper tools and cheaper post and more people getting into the game able to make watchable content, have flooded the film festivals internationally with content. Sure, there’s a lot of junk. But there are fantastic offerings out there going unseen. But backing up from even that, armies of writers, world wide, are generating mountains of scripts, and we’ll never know what gems exist out there that have never gotten anywhere because of lack of opportunity, opportunity but lack of financier interest, interest but lack of studio courage, courage but screwed up promotional logistics. You want better stories, but they’re out there, right now. The problem is not making film technology more accessible, or faster, or having even smaller crews (because people are the most expensive thing in film). The problem is creating a path for the work that is already being done. The problem is creating a path of distribution for challenging work to find it’s (probably) small and specific audience, in such a way and with such a revenue model that the artists can survive to “filmmake” another day.

    One can get a SAG-indie contract and convince some actors with the power of a well-written script and shoot a whole goddamn movie with an iPhone to shoot, another iPhone with a lav mic recording dialog, and a friend with a bounce card. Cut it on the NLE of your choice because they’re all cheap now and if you don’t like cheap the download Resolve because it’s free. Teach yourself color and then grade the hell out of it because the available light was dodgy, or find a friend who’s a color enthusiast. Get another friend who’s a closet superstar DJ amped up with synth software to make you a soundtrack, get another friend who’s renting Protools to mix it, or learn it all yourself. I may be misunderstanding you, but it sounds like you’re interested in disrupting the means of production. It’s disrupted, for anyone brave enough to dive into micro-production.

    Even on medium projects, crews are smaller where possible, labs have disappeared, post has gotten cheaper and rates have fallen. And yet there are minimums. Do you want to improve the story by having an editor of experience? Do you want the audio to be more audible by hiring a dialog editor and mixer of experience? Do you want to improve what’s on screen by getting the actor you want, not just the actor that’s willing to do something for peanuts. Do you have a hard-hitting drama about a young trans person confronting their community and you need a car crash because the plot hinges on that, you’ll need to deal with a minimum of logistics and cost and hassle that’s going to entail, if you’re going to be safe. No new technology is going to improve that. But again, I don’t see that as being the issue. Grips and Gaffers and audio recordists and PAs wanting to get paid is not, in my view, the problem that needs to be disrupted, unless you’re wanting to deploy an army of robots or do everything CG, in which case you’re just shifting your army of people to a software team (which is probably bigger). Without specifics, what exactly is proposed to disrupt, it’s hard to hear arguments about why people need to lose their jobs to create opportunities for other people doing some undefined thing to improve storytelling. When there is improved storytelling out there, right now, or better yet, there are artists who’ve either left the game or who are in it making drek who would love to be doing something more innovative, but it won’t get either financed or distributed.

    At the end of the day, that’s the thing that, in my view, requires disruption. Of the available inventory of films worldwide, doing a better job of connecting the movies that are already being made with the audiences that have appetite for them, niche to niche. And preferably in such a way that the artists making the films aren’t simply taking a financial loss in exchange for an audience, which I find to be a despicable version of corporate welfare currently practiced by the innovative batch of disruptive content aggregators we’re seeing now. What needs disruption, in my view, is the means of connecting film artists with financing and audiences in such a way that those artists can iterate, and improve, and grow, while paying their collaborators, and at least scraping by on their bills. As opposed to mortgaging their house, burning all their friends and relatives, to make one film that goes nowhere and then they’re simply broke and in debt, unable to proceed, even if they’ve been able to put the piece somewhere getting thousands or even hundreds of thousands of eyeballs.

    Crowdfunding is an amazing innovation, but it just a piece of the puzzle, and it doesn’t necessarily help distribution. I’m not suggesting any of this is easy, or even completely solvable. But the disruption I see being necessary ought not ride on the backs of the DPs and makeup artists and grips and gaffers and audio recordists and editors and colorists and assistant directors and continuity people and actors and musicians and writers and mixers and VFX artists who absolutely, positively make stories better. Innovation can improve their jobs and shave hours and even days off of the bill, but at the end of the day each one of these people has a clear function, and an associated cost. Before ditching a single one of those folks, I need to hear clear specifics about how that thing is going to be done better through technology.

    You want better stories? Improve distribution.

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