Apr 9, 2014

Placing a Number on the Contemporary "Decay of Cinema" By Roger Mancusi

Writing in the New York Times in 1996, Susan Sontag couldn't help but notice the shift in filmmaking, and film watching, tendencies that came along with 1990's American cultural shifts. Looking at the film industry, she penned "The Decay of Cinema," underlining the increasing influence of capitalism, a "ubiquity of screens" in popular society, and the power of the industry's dollar conscious executives that, she believed, was leading to the death of cinephilia in American culture. If she could see the ubiquity of iPhone movie watching on the subways nowadays, her head might explode.

Speaking then, in 2013, Steven Soderbergh weighed in on this topic when delivering his speech "The State of Cinema" at the San Francisco Film Festival. The filmmaker, known for films of various sizes and scopes, used the podium to go beyond simply preaching about the days of yore when filmmaking was Filmmaking, and the dichotomy he makes between "cinema" (which is a process) and "movies" (which is "something you see") becomes more substantiated when he delivers the financial numbers to back up his theoretical claims.

To Soderbergh, the expanding economic expectations Sontag harped upon in '96 are now the dominating approach major film executives take to greenlighting projects. Soderbergh even boils it down to an algorithm, which he refers to as "running the numbers." Essentially, the point of entry for film distribution, he believes, is $30M. Therefore, film executives project production costs and add $30M to see what the starting price is domestically. Overseas distribution is another $30M, and with exhibitors taking 50% of box offices, studio executives are now looking at a $120M total box office just to make their money back on distribution. This number is staggering, and it keeps a lot of good films from ever leaving the starting gate.

Now, with unpredictable tracking technologies, under-educated executives, and an audience willing to attend films of lower artistic, but higher production, quality, this algorithm leans towards high budget, high octane, mass-marketed action, sci-fi, or travel films. Not the ambiguous, thematically exploratory films Soderbergh or Sontag had in mind when describing cinema or cinephilia. 

Finally, Soderbergh outlines the market share that is making it increasingly difficult for independent films to recoup their costs at the box office. According to Soderbergh's math, in 2003 there were 455 films released: 275 independent and 180 studio releases. In 2013: 677 films were released: 549 indie and 128 studio. However, even though there was a 28% decrease in studio films, they took home 76% of the box office revenues in 2013, compared to 69% in 2003. Clearly it is not only more difficult for independent filmmakers to finance the films they want to make, but audiences are less supportive of these efforts on top of that.

So as Susan Sontag noticed that cinephilia was dead, or dying, in 1996, Steven Soderbergh similarly realized that the trend in filmmaking and film watching is towards blockbusters and away from films that might confuse or upset viewers. Studio executives are wary, unimaginitve, and all too conscious of the bottom line for a wholly creative film medium to exist. To quote Sontag's closing lines: "If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too.. no matter how many movies, even very good ones, go on being made. If cinema can be resurrected, it will only be through the birth of a new kind of cine-love." She seems to be right, but Soderbergh, and the American pop-culture machine, is having a hard time deciding in which direction that cine-love will take us.

Watch Soderbergh's full speech here: http://vimeo.com/65060864

Susan Sontag's "The Decay of Cinema" here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/12/specials/sontag-cinema.html

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