“Yes, the sky really is falling!”

June 28th, 2008 by

Blog participant Chris Gist from all way ‘down under’ in New Zealand tipped me off to this insightful first person opinion piece about the state of independent and specialty movies from Mark Gill, producer and former president of Miramax Films. The venue for Gill’s remarks was the L.A. Film Festival. He starts off with a bleak analysis of the current entertainment marketplace as it relates to “independent films,” noting the startling downturn in specialty movie divisions, increased costs for production and marketing, and all in all just lots of bad news. However, Gill ends on an up note — and I think his comments about the need for “good” stories are well worth reading:

As simple as it sounds, it all comes down to a good story, well told. And that’s a lot harder to do than it is to say. But not as hard as Hollywood would have you believe now–in an era where until very recently aiming high was considered an effete eccentricity. Or where, as the New York Times recently put it, “quality is considered a genre.”

It’s a show business cliche that “it all starts with the script.” This is usually uttered by some semi-literate, mouth-breathing, prada-wearing, 24-year-old hipster poseur who wouldn’t know a good story if it hit him in the head.

We could spend an hour or two just on the topic of what makes a good script. But not today.

In the most reductionist fashion: there’s the holy trinity of structure, character and dialogue, of course; the crucial if more ephemeral notions of authenticity, voice, theme, and tone; and the imperative for originality of utterance and perception.

In the end, all of this has to add up (seamlessly if possible) to something that moves us– to the quality of the emotional content. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about thrills, laughs, tears, or an adrenaline rush. What matters is that we are engaged and, ideally, emotionally transformed and satisfied.

In a world increasingly dominated by numbers–financial, technological and most importantly the finite number of hours in a day, our very human desire for contact, meaning and emotional transformation isn’t going away. It’s growing. Those who remember that will survive and most probably win.

Of course, what he says is not really news as the need for great stories has always been present in Hollywood. However, I think Gill zeroes in on something that is incredibly important that is often overlooked — the emotional component of the equation.

What I crave most when I read a script, along with great writing and a strong story concept, is to feel something during the read. The same goes for a movie — I want to come away from that experience knowing that I’ve been affected emotionally. Just like Mark Gill says, “What matters is that we’re engaged and, ideally, emotionally transformed and satisfied.”

That’s it really, isn’t it? Which is why, more and more, the advice I give students is write stories with which they have a strong emotional connection. That alone increases the chances some of the writer’s passion for the material and connection to the characters will come through in the script’s pages.

By the way, the Mark Gill article is from a great web news source called IndieWire.com and you can subscribe to a daily email newsletter. Great resource.

UPDATE: It appears Gill’s comments have caused quite a stir per this IndieWire article, following up on the speech.

UPDATE #2: One of my favorite movie columnists is Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times. Here’s a piece he did earlier this week, the title of which pretty much says it all: “How bad can the movies get?” and it dovetails into Mark Gill’s speech and Tom’s comments. Goldstein considers the possible SAG strike, totes up all the major movies that would be affected, and doesn’t quite like what he sees:

My point is only this: A strike would be a bad thing for the working class of Hollywood, who need a studio paycheck. But for those of us in the audience, I can’t say I’d shed a tear. Most of the indie film productions have waiver deals that allow them to keep shooting, strike or not. Imagine the possibilities. Having a year where indie films could dominate the marketplace would be a year where it might be safe to go to the multiplexes again.

And so it goes — art vs. commerce, now part of the permutation in trying to figure out whether to support a strike or not.

4 thoughts on ““Yes, the sky really is falling!”

  1. Tom says:

    The speech by Gill was fantastic. And frankly, it doesn’t strike me as a dour future. As someone who is aiming to sell one of those scripts, I suppose I should be discouraged by the reduced number of films being produced. But on the contrary, as a film-lover, a world of fewer films of higher quality is a world I eagerly await. And regardless, every effort at writing is to achieve — fingers crossed — great writing with “quality emotional content” with an audience in mind. Where’s the satisfaction with anything else?

    And maybe someday films can overtake chicken as consumers’ perceived number one bang for the buck.

  2. Scott says:

    As a consumer and film lover, I couldn’t agree more with your point re “fewer films of higher quality.” However, for people who work for a living in the entertainment industry, the guiding instinct has to be — MORE, MORE, MORE! Job opportunities for anyone involved in filmmaking, above and below the line, are a zero sum game — we all take a slice from the pie. If the pie’s size is reduced, that translates into fewer slices to go around.

    This where “art” and “commerce” smash up against each other. Or as, I believe, Charlton Heston said, “The problem with movie as art is that it’s a business.”

    The funny thing is to have this art vs. commerce discussion about independent movies. Hollywood had zero interest in them until indie movies started to have breakout B.O. numbers. In a way, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) is to independent movies what Jaws (1975) is to mainstream commercial movies. Once Hollywood realized they could make money on indie movies, they created or bought their own ‘specialty’ divisions (e.g., Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, Focus Films). Now that seems to be all roiled up, witness Mark Gill’s comments.

  3. Tom says:

    Any guesses what the landscape will look like after this all shakes out?

  4. Scott says:

    Tom, your guess is as good as mine and probably any Hollywood mogul to boot! Everything goes in cycles. During the recent run-up of speciality movies, conventional wisdom was that movies with budgets less than $10M had the best prospects at seeing profits, and that any movie between $10 – 25M was already DOA. Now along with the demise of some of the specialty divisions, like Picturehouse, there is an emergence of mini-major companies like Mandate Pictures and Overture Pictures, companies, along with Lionsgate, which are actually focusing on movies with budgets up to $25M — that suggests that we’re definitely in a different cycle.

    From a screenwriter’s POV, the one constant is that a great script will always find a home.

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