• “Let’s Just Stay Home – Part III” -

    Back in the late 70’s, Stephen King, not exactly an esoteric writer, allowed that comic book heroes could be acceptable paradigms for adolescents, but watch out if those same comic books became the primary source of entertainment for grown men and women.

    Hate to tell you, Steve, but it’s cooked and served. 

    Movie studios, once run by rebellious personalities with a high tolerance for risk, are now owned by multi-national corporations whose stock price determines which projects get financed. The corporate environment naturally discourages risk-taking decisions, unless a well-known producer, director or actor is attached. Maximum profit (translating to four-quadrant demographics) drives our popular aesthetics; films that appeal to a large swath of audience will inseminate the larger culture, possibly “educating” our citizenry in a similar fashion — a “least-common denominator” form of acculturation.  

    Indie films aren’t economically feasible any more. Marketing costs are soaring; foreign sales are down as spiraling competition for aggregating eyeballs exerts a downward pressure on global sales, along with the inconvenience, expense (and possibly, the rising risk) of going out to movie theaters.

    Even the large talent agencies are quietly shutting out the small indies. It will be a rare indie film that has “A” list actors in it, unless the director and/or writer are already established. So, basically there will be no “farm team” for developing new writers and directors.

    The transformation that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted a few years ago will be complete. If it ain’t four-quadrant, or Oscar bait, then it’s going to the small screen.

    What, you might ask, is wrong with “home cinema?” Speed. Director Michael Ritchie (THE CANDIDATE, DOWNHILL RACER, BAD NEWS BEARS) once suggested that anything that speeds up the process of making a film is detrimental to the art of making a film—this in response to my question of transitioning his editing process from a Movieola to an Avid.

    Now speed works very well for television. Massive amounts of content having to be processed and turned over in short periods of time. Should be great, right?

    Let’s discuss how the “virtue” of speed has changed my profession of casting. The technology that delivers content also causes a loss of connection among industry colleagues. For example, the “concept meetings”—in which writers and directors detail specifics and develop a consensus about character traits–are frequently lost in the rush of pre-production. (My recent experience with ALTERED CARBON has been a refreshing exception, even though production is based out of Vancouver.)

    In the “old days,” a skilled working actor would make choices based on his/her interpretation of the role, the scene and the specific director’s or show’s tone; a director or producer would watch that first take, in the room, and give adjustments to align the actor’s performance to a common vision. 

    But if today’s average working actor expects to read in person for the director or producer, he’s going to be disappointed. Actors mostly audition, on tape, for the Casting Director, or even sometimes a relatively inexperienced assistant or associate. Often, no one is in the room to give adjustments to align the actor’s approach with the director’s. That person, the writer(s), the producer(s)–1000 miles away–watch a tape (sometimes speeding through a take after watching a few moments) with one choice, assessing the actor’s appropriateness based on a very limited view. 

    Actors increasingly self-tape with virtually no input from anyone, not even the benefit of reading the full script (despite SAG rules that require access to scripts).

    It’s now normal for executives to make decisions that they simply dictate to their subordinates. Dialogue and debate have been expunged from the process, a stark contrast to pre-internet days, when an experienced casting director could provide valuable (often face-to-face) input to the director and producers before making their final choices. Now, we spend months working with one another without ever meeting, sometimes speaking on the phone only a handful of times. 

    Vigorous debate is not always a sign of conflict; it can provoke fresh ideas and innovative approaches to all kinds of activities, especially creative decisions like casting. 

    Ask a veteran casting director:  “(FILL IN ACTOR’S NAME HERE) would never have been cast as the young lead in (FILL IN FILM TITLE HERE)  if it hadn’t been for a friendly but energetic (vigorous)  debate between (FILL IN DIRECTOR’S NAME HERE) and (FILL IN CD’S NAME HERE).”

    But I digress…

    Our content becomes less diversified at the same time as our means of connecting with others becomes more mediated by technology. It’s that particular coincidence that is most troubling. Watch a film, TV show or play and make a note of how much screen time involves the use of cell phones and/or texting. Writers at least know to alternate these digital plot points with high-octane action sequences. We end up watching and being influenced by polarized, detached activity–machine-laden communications alternated with violent conflict. Because, by the way, it sells, especially when the big money attaches marketing campaigns that dwarf those of the smaller indies—a phenomenon that is now expressing itself on-line with high-end SEO campaigns that drive viewers to sites. What’s the value of our “democratizing” technology if large-expenditure “curating” ultimately leads to an even more Darwinian economic model?

    Now the question to ask yourself in all this is: have you invested in any real estate in Park City, Utah?  Because I’m curious to know what’s going to happen to film festivals like Sundance. Their budgets already strapped, and pressured to accept and screen films with audience-attracting celebrities, what will happen to the smaller indie films with young, talented unknowns? Good-bye Sundance, at least as a crucible for new talent. Good-bye South by Southwest. Good-bye Telluride…. 

    …Unless they start morphing into multi-media fests, like this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where, according to Rikaroo co-founder Kathleen Wilson reported to me about her recent attendance at a premiere event sponsored by the Festival. Was it a concert? A multi-media gala fund-raiser?  She was stumped; it certainly didn’t feel to her like a screening of an independent film. Or an independent film festival.

    But enough lamenting! Is there a path through this depressing maze? Unless you’re one of those cynics (shades of Ronald Reagan?) indifferent to pollution because you won’t be around when it destroys the planet, we will need to find ways to pass on the best parts of Sherry Turkle’s “conversation” to future generations if we don’t want to bequeath Forster’s dark vision in “The Machine Stops.”

    For one thing, we all have to behave more like adults—whether or not we have children. Put limits on our use of technology. Put the damn phone away. Turn off the television. Run silent, run deep. Pay attention to what the technology is doing to us on a daily basis. Rebel. Invent alternatives to the internet that increase human connection, conversation and direct face-to-face contact. Have dinner parties. Create no-phone zones.    

    We’re looking for suggestions.  Any other ideas?