Ambition & Filmmaking: Breaking through the clutter

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The world audience is so vast, yet today the reach and spread of media is available at such an incredible speed that an artist is often overwhelmed with just the sheer ambition and thought of this potential. The part that doesn’t hit us until after the euphoria, is that; as open and as readily as the platform can deliver, it isn’t exactly an empty ballroom you have all to yourself, which any singular sound can create an echo past the chandeliers. In fact, it’s more like the sound of a zoo bird house coupled with the monkey exhibit during mating season; you won’t be able to even hear yourself think due to the sheer volume of competing voices. So how does one break through the clutter and stand out? Well, let’s first just look briefly at film itself as a medium, and keep the art  aspect of it secondary for now.

In traditional times, upon the inception of the film industry and the days of Chaplin, things started from the product and worked backwards. The few production houses which had newly landed on this technology called the “moving picture” needed to present content to the audiences and built their establishment on the creation of movie stars. Humphrey Bogart had a conglomeracy over the much sought after ‘masculine and witty’ arch-type, and the industry saw that arch-type as a seat which if one person can suffice, why bother finding another? Audiences saw Bogart over and over again, and convinced themselves in each film of the role he was trying to play, but really they just liked seeing Bogart. The ballroom was empty, and there were few voices echoing over the masses and at the pacing of their choosing. Most content was decided on in the executive producer’s office, and most audiences were seeing film itself unravel for the first time. This luxury was afforded to the pioneers. Later genres developed, and we began sorting our film products by what they pertained to aesthetically. Let’s take a huge jump and fast forward to today, and you will find the behavior of Hollywood production houses still function the same way, only with a slightly even more bias towards prioritizing business over content. However a lot has happened in the middle, and because of it film is still evolving as a young art form and has become an internationally understood process as well.

Not too long ago the platform for any successful independent filmmaker was to break through a threshold towards attaining distribution from a formidable distributor with the highest of his/her expectations to have their work recognized, purchased, and launched into fame and notariety. This would entail first it entering the theatrical sector and later for purchase- maxing out the potential of every step before moving down the ladder. That was the ideal.  The lowest hope of a filmmaker’s expectations was to have their work at least available to the public, to be seen for what it is, and let the film’s merit carry it to whatever destiny it deserves – the naive yet intuitive notion that the success of films is dictated from the artist’s craft and moves forward. Keep in mind, both scenario’s would still require a distributor, and in the end the distributor holds the keys, which is why most serious distributors still don’t settle for anything less than the majority share of all profits from the hard-earned finished work of the filmmaker. Filmmaking was a game of endurance, and don’t think it has changed any in today’s modern world.

With the advent of increasing internet bandwith and video stores moving towards virtual stores and vending machines rather than brick and mortar store-fronts, came the idea of the open air market. Internet views and hits have become the gauge on what is successful and what is not. Films are still working from the product backwards, but you have to pay close attention or you will miss the shift that has occurred,  because it is not the same. The defining factor of successful work is now at the mercy of statistical demand, or verified interest more so than at the hands of the executive oracle in Beverly Hills and the projected interest. Which ultimately transfers over to a rudimentary business concept; if you can limit risk without it costing anything, it’s a no-brainer.

We now live in a world of Youtube tagsmithing, lewd/piercing film and video covers/icons, and eccentricity for the sake of eccentricity with one ultimate purpose; to break through the clutter and shock or deceive the audiences into giving you attention. Whether there is actual merit to your work or not is unimportant, your industry merit is based on how many beeps the front entrance bell makes into your store, and often have nothing to do with whether your products are worth it or not. Walking into a distribution fair today, you will find an overwhelming interest from distributors in horror films -be it corny, serious, or witty. Drama is the genre with the greatest obstacles, and the reason is simple: a horror film cover will always intrigue any given audience more than an independent take on The English Patient. The only reasonable way to get a drama in the circuit is to have a known face to slap on the cover. Oh yeah, actors are placed in categories, almost like slaves: A, B, C, D…  And here I was thinking the majority of students in my film school were bizarre for being horror-freaks. Whether they knew this reality or not back then, they were many steps ahead of me in the practical realm.

Success in the film realm has moved beyond merit or even craft, the concept is now clearly synonymous and consistent with the rest of the rational world, success = the ability to generate capital, nothing more and nothing less. So for an artist who lives and finds his/her energy from the irrational world, the quicker the realization/heart-break the more time you have to get in line with how the system works in order to prosper. And even then, if success here is a relative term, prosper would naturally be as well.  We won’t even get into what an artist naturally feels should be the impulse behind their work, or by what scale they should judge it by, as that is the last thing considered here, leaving out – it is also the most important. And that is a trajic book unto itself written collectively by all artists. Also, keep in mind that the film industry complex is no different than any industry today, where it was originally built on the back of the craftsman/expert, but somehow inevitably led to the industry overpowering and enslaving the craftsman. You will not only find this reoccurring theme within industries and even governments, but also with any successful filmmaker in the 20th century. We are not the first to land upon this dilemma, nor will we be the last. Legendary filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola’s life and writings are riddled more with commentaries on the disconnect between artist and businessman, than about the content of his projects. Many don’t know this, but he unfortunately put an end to his career primarily due to the insanity that was created from his realization; there exists a complete reversal of who should hold the keys and who should be the servant in the industry.

So how do we proceed knowing that our showmanship, craft, insight, and talent comes secondary in this realm of art we have chosen? Film is still considered Art isn’t it? I leave the answer to you as a filmmaker, as giving an answer to that question would be vanity. A creative mind will always be charged with the difficult-to-impossible task of finding a way for his/her expression to be manifested in our paradoxical world. I never promised that this article was meant to be an answer but rather a commentary in order for us to have a clearer picture of what jungle we have yet to maneuver. I can end with the best answer I was given to this question personally by Sir Ridley Scott himself – “Keep trying.” The benefit of taking that advice is that it serves both as a mental disposition and a pattern of action, which in the end can only give way to results. Don’t give up.