Seeking Cinematic Sustenance in a Saturated World

"Well, I would say that the Hollywood movies have become ever more formulaic," says J. Hoberman, allowing himself a brief phone break from the nearly 100 movies he watches on a monthly basis as veteran film critic at The Village Voice for 33 years and counting. "That's something that was already happening when I started," Hoberman continues, "but has certainly increased exponentially, I would say."

"In the late 80s, early 90s, independent movies began to function the way that B movies used to in the sense that they provided an alternative to most commercial films, not that they weren't necessarily commercial or genre, but that the filmmakers were freer to make more personal films, to experiment with things and introduce new content. Somebody like Quentin Tarantino is a perfect example of this. He certainly makes commercial movies, but he could never have gotten Pulp Fiction made at the studio. So, you know, I think that as money dries up it becomes harder for people to make movies. On the other hand, people can make movies less expensively. So, that may balance it out," Hoberman offers in stream-of-consciousness.

There certainly are more movies than ever to choose from nowadays. But the ability to produce a higher quantity doesn't always yield a higher quality. I have friends that like to a play a game "Film or Movie?" They distinguish between the two, and they're not referring to celluloid or what something was shot on, they are merely contrasting what they find to be tasteful, artful, or simply thought-provoking, versus what they might label pure saccharin entertainment, intravenous movie Slurpee.

"I think that it's a tough thing to do and it can be really thankless," Hoberman shares on the art of moviemaking. "It's just like any other creative endeavor. You have to have a lot of fortitude to do it. Nobody's asking you to make a movie unless you're Martin Scorsese or David Lynch."

"I think that it's not an either or thing," remarks Mike Maggiore, Programmer and Publicist at the Film Forum, located further downtown and west of The Village Voice. "You can probably watch films streaming on your computer, rare things you may not be able to find on a screen in New York, and you can go to Film Forum to see a rare Japanese film on the big screen on a big print, you can watch TCM (Turner Classic Movies) on cable, and you can watch something on your iPhone. I don't think these things cancel each other out. I think that there's room for all of that." Of course the 1 million angry subscribers that got angry at Netflix upping their prices and drawing a demarcation priceline between home movie mail delivery and streaming may no longer be the individuals Maggiore refers to as streaming... unless it's fury.

Maybe there is enough room and if so, the more the merrier, but how does the average consumer filter for quality and why is the struggle to get a film made not meeting the ease of access to the tools of filmmaking at least halfway? Why, if a consumer wants a mindless Friday night of commercial movie (purposefully playing my own game of "Film or Movie?" for a moment) fun, does he have to click disinterestedly through the listings on Fandango sometimes several weeks in a row because there's nothing appealing to an audience outside of the diversity of hormonal teenage boys or vampire mania? Why must the rest of the mainstream taste-making public also be subjugated to these singular choices?

I lived in Russia for a spell in graduate school, where American movies are broadcast on television and the Russians eagerly await and clap the last minutes of the film because they know it's going to be a Hollywood happy ending. (Their applause is for mockery, not for merit.) Doesn't a great story with heart and fully evolved characters still have the power to excite and to move a collective group of mutually captive individuals with eyeballs glued to a 40 foot wide screen? Why, when you read this and answer, "yes," is the proof of your affirmation only an occasional (often urban environment) exception and not the rule? Why is broadening the enlightenment on the spectrum as to what kinds of movies get funded, marketed, and distributed as challenging as getting Congress to abandon their middle school lunchroom tactics to accomplish anything of significance?

Maggiore weighs in on the saturation of the film diet in today's world. "Because of digital technology it's become easier for more different kinds of people to get their hands on cameras and make films, and I think that that is in large part a positive thing because you're hearing from more diverse voices than you might have 20 years ago when everybody had to go to film school to learn how to light and film through 16mm cameras. So there's more work... I think the downside of it is that there is more work, so there's more mediocre to bad work that you kind of have to wade through, and there's more festivals now," he says.

Richard Pena, Program Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Professor at Columbia University, and Co-host of Channel 13's weekly Reel 13, is gearing up for the New York Film Festival (NYFF), and agrees that there is a lot more content now than there was 20 years ago, as specifically evidenced by the ballooning numbers of film festivals. "A student of mine at Columbia a few years ago did a paper on film festivals in New York and came up with a figure of 63 film festivals in New York. When I was growing up 'The Festival' meant the New York Film Festival, and ideally I like to think that most people still think of us in that kind of special category. But the reality is there's a festival in New York every weekend. Sometimes there are two. Sometimes there are three. The sense of the specialness of the festival, I think, through no fault of our own, has just basically been dissipated a little bit because there are just so many more activities. Some festivals see 4,000 films to make their selection...Sundance sees 10,000 films to make their selection."

"There used to be fewer festivals," says Maggiore, "and those festivals would really be kind of the gatekeepers of films that eventually would come to either make it in a theatrical setting, or they would go straight to DVD. Things have changed in that there's more ancillary outlets for films that may not have a theatrical opening, but they may go straight to VOD, they might be streamed, or they might just go on to pay channels. I think the way it affects us is that the number of theatrical openings in New York seems to be getting higher and higher." A year ago in one of the final weeks of September 2010 there were 21 openings in New York City alone, which usually only has 15 or 16 per weekend. That's a lot of competition.

"I think the biggest challenge is always getting audiences," says Rose Kuo, Executive Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for the past 14 months. "In other words, nowadays, more and more people have access to so many things, plus people -- you go to their homes, and they have screens the size of that wall," she says, pointing across the conference room. "I mean they have fantastic systems and in a way, that's the competition. I mean, what are you offering that someone sitting in the comfort of his or her own living room, seeing an excellent presentation of whatever doesn't have? I like to think what we have is offering in person appearances by artists associated with the film, directors, actors, producers, or critics, or panel discussions, or all kinds of things like that."

The Film Society recently expanded and opened The Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center this past summer, which houses 2 theaters, an amphitheater, and a café. Very promising and brave of them to move forward with the expansion when facing not only this economy, but also the threat of a narrowing gap between theatrical release and VOD (video-on-demand) dates and the ever- present worldwide problem of piracy. Of course, The Film Society of Lincoln Center does have its own niche.

"VOD may kill certain business models," Kuo ruminates, "but it won't make the communal viewing (experience) of film go away. At the advent of television, the discussion was that everyone was going to stop going to movies, but more people go to the movie theatres now. But I do think the model may change. Meaning we may see a shift between independent theater owners and chain theater owners, with the advent of VOD, as in who can survive the VOD growth. It's going to be in those platforms. I think we'll continue to have people come to movie theaters because at the end of the day, people want to have the full experience -- to stop, to see a film, and to see friends afterwards and talk about that film, or have a drink or have a meal -- that's the part you're not able to do when you're at home. In a way, I think it's inevitable that in so many respects we are headed in the same direction as the music industry in which at a certain point it was just impossible to keep at bay the development of 99 cent downloads per music. They had to think of a different way of doing it. Artists are releasing music for free to drive concert and live performance sales, so the model really just shifted. We don't really know where we're going and clearly this is a problem that I don't think the cap has been taken off of it, so really, we're going to have to re-think distribution."

Not everyone lives in New York City and has a Film Society of Lincoln Center or Film Forum to support independent films from around the world and foster a dialogue about them. I think it's time consumers demand more content that accurately mirrors the population and the world in which we live. And these films can be publicized, marketed, and offered in tandem with movies at the same theaters. We should encourage the making of intelligent art that fuels our film diets in the way we've asked fast food joints to list the calories on their menu offerings; so we are forced to face the stark reality of what is contained within what we choose to shovel into our mouths. If you want to eat those French fries, fine, but you should understand what you are sacrificing and know that there are other alternatives vying for your taste buds. It's a personal choice. If it's all either Big Mac or Angus Deluxe, then you'll never know what you might be missing. What about that fruit and yogurt parfait? Ignorance may be bliss to some, but it certainly isn't very stimulating.

"There are cycles," Hoberman muses. "If anything makes money, the studios, and not just the studios, will keep trying it until it stops making money. If I had to review the big studio films week after week and that's what I was doing, I could never do this job. I'm optimistic; I'm always looking for interesting things to write about and to tell people about, but you know, you have to go out and look for them."

Maybe I'm just desperately seeking fair cinematic sustenance for all of our citizens. I want you to have a better menu from which to feast.