Monday, December 13, 2010

Hollywood vs. the Internet, and Inbred Geek-Culture Fantasies vs. Reality

One of the reasons I'm going to build a Twitter client is that if you block somebody, and someone you follow retweets them, Twitter doesn't block the RT. Consequently, I had the misfortune to read this today:

While some variant of this wish is inevitable, the wish itself is unlikely to see fulfillment, and as an actor I'm very glad. Although I appreciate the tech world's libertarianism in many ways, there are very good reasons that Hollywood is a strong union town. There's a time and a place for everything.

Consider one tech giant's foray into Hollywood.

On Tuesday, launched Amazon Studios, what they are calling “a new online business that invites filmmakers and screenwriters around the world to submit full-length movies and scripts to make money, get discovered and get their movie made”. might sound like an interesting idea and a project that aims to support aspiring filmmakers. But it’s not...

you give Amazon an exclusive 18-month option for your project without any pay. Meaning you can’t pitch or sell your idea to anyone else during that 18-month period. If Amazon decides to option it, you could get up to $200,000...

or as the rules also state, “or, if we determine appropriate, no award money at all”.

It gets worse. Because Amazon Studios doesn’t think their users will want to read full screenplays, they want filmmakers to submit “test movies”. What’s a test movie you ask? This is how Amazon describes it:

“An Amazon Studios test movie should be an inexpensive, full-length movie that tells the whole story of the script in a compelling way, has very good acting and sound, but that doesn’t necessarily have polished production values.” So Amazon wants you to produce a feature length film with no budget, but it must have excellent acting, music and sound...

Your other choice is to create a feature length (has to be at least 70 minutes) animatic or storyboard that shows people what your movie would look like. But remember it still needs to have great acting and sound. So basically you have to create a full-length animated film or a no budget live action test movie as your pitch. What a joke.

Oh and if they like your test movie and want to re-make it into a fully funded film, they can take your project to Hollywood and kick you out as the director. They say this on their site.

Going back to the Netflix idea, it's useful to remember that the hated robber barons of the 19th century were initially, to use Dick Cheney's term, "greeted as liberators." When they built the railroads, they transformed the country, opening up new opportunities for travel, adventure, and prosperity; it was only later, when they fully controlled the backbone of interstate commerce and began charging whatever rents they felt like for access to it, that they garnered so much animosity.

A robber baron could dream of nothing so wonderful as owning both the creation and the distribution of movies. That's almost what we have today, with the studios being closely tied to cable channels, and it's the reason so many movies suck. Hollywood doesn't produce endless remakes of 1970s TV shows because nobody in the entire town has any ideas. Los Angeles is overflowing with creativity.

I've seen this car driving around my neighborhood:

Its creator: a prolific artist who does work for the movies from time to time. Another such artist, a set designer, produces truly amazing Halloween scenes on his lawn:

These guys don't want to work on endless sequels to movies that weren't any good in the first place, but he who pays the piper calls the tune, and many of those paying the piper in Hollywood today are media executives who own both the creation and the distribution of entertainment. Endless remakes of boring horseshit is what they want, so endless remakes of boring horseshit is what the entire world gets. This combination does not result in more creative films; it results in fewer creative films.

If there's a way that technology can change Hollywood for the better, it is absolutely not by aggregating control over creation and distribution under one corporate roof. Not only is that a worsening form of change, it isn't really a form of change at all; it's the status quo, repositioned on a new pair of shoulders. If you want to see how the Internet is making Hollywood a better place, look at YouTube, and more specifically, look at teenage actor Lucas Cruikshank, who's parlayed a silly YouTube comedy channel he created into a three-picture deal and a six-figure income (which he had before the three-picture deal, and without Hollywood involvement).

(Yeah, it's ridiculous, but that's kind of the point.)

You'd think Cruikshank was an exception, but he's not: he's a new, emerging norm, insofar as any form of success in entertainment can be called normal. YouTube is making entertainment careers, at multiple levels. Justin Bieber was "discovered" on YouTube, Soulja Boy built his career with YouTube, Felicia Day both established a show for herself in The Guild and augmented her Hollywood career in the process, and the number of YouTube "celebrities" who also work in Hollywood as character actors is extraordinary.

The face at the very top left of the picture is mine

Consider Brandon Hardesty, whose acting career came about as a result of his YouTube re-enactments of scenes from classic movies.

Long story short, in his Netflix idea, Zed's barking up the wrong tree. Consolidating corporate power in the entertainment industry didn't work well before the Internet, isn't working that well in tandem with the Internet, and isn't something to perserve going forward. The win is in platforms which enable entirely independent publishing and broadcasting.