I’m, as of time of writing, 41 years old with an emphasis on the old. When I was a kid, I was exposed to the American New Wave films of the 70’s via rented video tape and, as I moved into my teens, the Independent Cinema Movement of the 90’s via late night TV and DVD. Lucky me. Generation-X got a damn good deal. I miss these eras dearly but it’s time to move on and get real.
I find myself often conversing with people around my age and older about these bygone times and, more often than not, phrases like “what ever happened to films like that?” and “they don’t make ’em like they used to!” are exclaimed with a resentful frustration aimed directly toward modern cinema. It’s always great to meet people on our own wavelength and, on those nights in alone, I often find myself choosing to watch content from the 60’s up to the turn of the millennium. Even the smaller, lesser-appreciated indies from this era feel like a warm soothing bath of nostalgia and, while the concepts often feel smaller and the productions somewhat campy, there’s a grittiness and attitude that seems to have since been lost.
The reality is that I’m a cultural dinosaur just like the pretentious old film fans from my youth who once scorned colour film as a bastardisation of an art form and wanted me to appreciate something slower, more intellectually stimulating, and less commercial. You know how it goes, you aren’t listening to great music in your teens if you aren’t pissing off your parents. I’m not going to pretend I particularly enjoy or even understand most Marvel and DC films and fully admit that the Transformers movies give me motion sickness. I couldn’t even make it half way through 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman without getting exhausted and having to take nap.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this and I am heavily generalising. Just like there’s Gen-Z teens currently getting into Nirvana, there’s young film fans with a love for content old enough to be their parents. Likewise, there’s plenty of people middle-aged and above who are on the cusp of what’s hot and new with the kids. There is however an issue I keep seeing within the filmmaking world that does concern me.
Something I see a lot of with older screenwriters who long for the kind of films we don’t see getting blockbuster releases anymore is this angry demand for a revival. In fact, I suspect the word “revival” is probably the second most overused word within our circles after “industry”. It seems everyone is waiting for their own kind of resurgence which just so happens to align with their content and it seems some are even willing to delude themselves into thinking it’s already happening, often due to some saviour such as streaming. To a degree, there is some logic in this; after-all, drive-in theatres gave us the midnight movies that led to the auteur movement and video home rentals empowered the backlot rebels. But popular culture doesn’t develop in the way eager amateur screenwriters seem to hope it does and it’s time to accept that along with the fact the streaming revolution has already happened.
Look, I speak as a previous victim of this mindset as I write what effectively feel like pulpy mid-nineties spec scripts. That’s where my voice and passion lies. I’ve spent years wishing I could time-travel to LA during an era where I may see Tarantino and his manager rattle by in his old Chevy Nova before he pulls a shift in Video Archives and spends the weekend shooting My Best Friend’s Birthday on 16mm. Life would be so much easier, right? I’ve spent equal time dreaming that a new era is going to present itself as fashion goes full circle and that magic “revival” is going to happen because I genuinely believe there‘s an audience out there being underserved. This however is part fantasy and part reality on my part.
Is there an audience? Yes. Absolutely. I’m part of it. Does that audience represent a marketplace where millions can be spent on a movie targeting that demographic and easily recouped with significant profit? Umm… I’m not sure. How we consume movies and how those movies go on to make money is fascinating right now… or maybe a better word is terrifying. We have $300m thrill-ride blockbusters playing to young adults that make their money back domestically in a few weekends while everyone else streams endless content into their living room for less than $10pm and can give up on watching something within five seconds of hitting play. Talk about a tough and polarised marketplace.
The notion that things are going to u-turn and go backward to a simpler and more naive time is a fantasy at best and a delusion at worst. It’s time to accept some harsh truths. The original Jurassic Park is relatively small movie by today’s blockbuster standards. Back to the Future is pure camp in today’s culture. Jaws now feels as small and clunky as The Creature From the Black Lagoon did in 1975. Reservoir Dogs would get a limited theatrical release at best if it was touring the trade shows tomorrow. The Blair Witch Project would now be the kind of film friends suggest searching for on lesser known streaming platforms. The world has moved on and that innocence forever lost. Pretty Woman, number one in the box office in the year of its release and returning half a billion in theatres is what we’d regard as a Lifetime movie today. Lethal Weapon, for all its brilliance and big action would probably go straight to DVD if it was released tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, I love these movies dearly but the most profitable part of cinema is relentless in its need for bigger concepts and ever more spectacular production value. There’s good reason why the only kind of movies that can fill this space are superhero franchises — life doesn’t get much bigger than a super-humans saving the whole world or even the entire universe.
We can see it in the longer running franchises too; take Bladerunner and Mad Max as examples. Bladerunner: 2049 stayed very authentic to its predecessor and bombed in theatres while Mad Max: Fury Road became a comic book version of itself and took the world by storm. Both were excellent movies in their own regard but the latter better understood who’s buying the tickets.
If you know your film business history, you know that the modern marketplace has gradually eradicated the production slate as we knew it. Studio and prodcos cannot find sense in a model where a few alternative films are thrown into the mix in the hope they generate massive long-tail returns because they find a cult audience and shift DVDs. Those odds are no longer worth playing. That’s why you hear of such few spec sales in Hollywood while everything is instead focused on exploiting existing intellectual property. The studios don’t lack taste, they lack options.
So what is a screenwriter to do when they feel their true voice falls outside of the current zeitgeist? Well, we certainly know what won’t work and that’s sitting around hoping the world will change in our favour. Or worse than that, sitting around hoping the world will change in our favour while we become increasingly bitter and intolerable to be around. I see this a lot, often framed around comments like “why doesn’t Hollywood want to make good movies anymore?”. Innocent comment or not, that can come across as a huge red flag. Nobody likes to be around a Negative Nelly or a Debby Downer who can’t see the business landscape around them or appreciate the history that has led us here. Same goes for being positively deluded. No, sorry, streaming isn’t going to be the saviour of indie film, DVD isn’t coming back, and people don’t want to see older style movies en masse. It’s best to accept this sooner rather than plan for a more realistic future.
One option is to simply throw in the towel and give up which many do when they conclude the industry is done for and their genius will never be appreciated. This is a petulant and self-destructive response that will always be at the mercy of one critical factor — those born to write can’t stop.
Another option is to try and become the exception. I’m not so ignorant as to suggest films like Nightcrawler, Sicario, and Hell or High Water don’t exist. Smaller concept films that feel more like the big hits of the 20th century with budgets that do them justice. I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with aiming for that providing it isn’t the only thing we’re aiming for. I think what would be foolish is putting all our eggs in one basket. This is after-all a journey where we have to gather champions along the way. Having a portfolio full of spec scripts that require $10m, $15m, or even $30m budgets with limited audiences only limits our opportunities.
The smart thing to do has to be to adapt, not on a short-term tactical scale but on a long-term strategic one. We can write content that is more aligned with the core needs of the industry and feels more modern. The first script I ever wrote was effectively a Mad Max sequel of sorts and, for all its action and world building, it feels positively quaint and pretentious compared to epic scope and operatic drama of Fury Road. In fact, as touched upon earlier, those franchises really show what’s considered a blockbuster by today’s standards. Look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman vs Tim Burton’s Batman. Look at Jurassic World vs Jurassic Park. Look at The Fate of the Furious vs The Fast & Furious. Maybe it’s time to think big, really big, and ramp up the scale of our concepts accordingly. But what if rather than adapting our content, we adapt our approach? It seems to me there are two areas we need to take seriously; television and low budget indie film.
Television is where much of the grittiness and maturity of older film has moved to and that makes sense as it has simply followed the audience out of the cinemas and into their homes. The Wire proved that there was a need for something intellectual. Lost showed us that a big budget can net huge rewards. Breaking Bad demonstrated that anti-heroes can find a global audience. The golden age of TV has, in some ways, been the passing of the torch from independent cinema revolution, perhaps the most symbolic of which being Fargo which has literally made the transition from the big-screen to the flat-screen. This is where the streaming revolution has already happened as the biggest platforms pour the bulk of their funding into serialised content for their customers to binge watch. The thing is, there’s next to zero opportunity for any aspiring writer who doesn’t want to be on the writing team for someone else’s show. On top of that is the need to conceptualise an entire season’s content and think ahead to future seasons with well developed show bible. I personally think that all those screenwriters out there who believe TV is the easier option are nothing short of insane.
This leaves low budget indie film as the last bastion of the niche screenwriter, particularly the niche screenwriter trying to break in but we must adapt to indie film’s modern needs. With the death of long-tail DVD profits and extremely limited theatrical runs, indie film now needs to do two things to survive; cost less and sell globally. So yes, you get to pen your Pulp Fiction but it needs to cost more like $850k than $8.5m so no building your own Jack Rabbit Slims and taking a seven figure writer-director fee. Good luck getting that TV movie of the week deal with all that profanity and drugs too so straight to DVD and the lesser known streaming services with a press release and an instagram account for you, if you’re lucky. It’s tough, really tough. Indie film is becoming watered down to maximise appeal and make profit so the only way to get away with being edgy is having less need to make big money. This is where being able to pen something in a single location but highly entertaining such as Coherence, Clerks, or Buried is going to be a huge advantage. Low budget indie film is also were unknown and lesser known writers are most likely going to find collaborators, particularly collaborators willing to take a few risks. As someone who plays in this space as a writer-producer, I can tell you that it’s a lot of fun to double down on your voice and join a team on the same wavelength, even if it does mean helping pack the grip truck yourself and surviving each day as it comes on ramen noodles.
To conclude, waiting for things to go back to how they once were will mean waiting forever and giving up and turning our backs on our calling isn’t a realistic option. What we can do however is adapt and diversify our portfolio with a selection of scripts, some of which think bigger in terms of concept, some of which stick to our guns in terms of voice, and some of which appeal to the indie filmmaker in terms of budget. That way we are spreading our bets without compromising our values and maximising our chances of getting our retro feeling content out there to the audience who craves it.