As a leading scriptwriter for hire and UK script consultant when I started out as a TV writer there were only five broadcast TV channels in the UK. If you wanted to see a new film, you needed to make a trip the cinema or wait 3-6 months for the film to appear on VHS in your local video shop (be it an independent video store – or later, Blockbuster).
There was no internet as such – and when the internet did get popular, initially it was so slow, that watching any kind of video was not really feasible (you often had to wait a few minutes for your emails to load).
During this period, DVDs got popular, and then faded away (along with BluRay) and in amongst this something called web2.0 started and suddenly we had faster internet speeds and YouTube.
Back in the 80s there was a huge battle between Sony’s Betamax Video Tapes and JVC’s VHS format – it was said that VHS won – because Pornographers choose VHS to distribute porn over Beta. Well, Web2.0 brought porn videos online, and with that the war was won – where Porn goes all else follows.
Netflix, Amazon – all these companies suddenly appeared – they weren’t TV channels – they weren’t BROADCAST they were NARROWCAST . Netflix and Amazon Prime channels have more in common with YouTube and Facebook than the BBC or NBC.
So, films, cinema and TV became an online thing – something viewable on your laptop, tablet, phone AS WELL AS your TV or in the cinema. Films premiered online – new TV series were commission by Amazon and Netflix – except this wasn’t TV as we knew it. It was narrowcast – it was online content – some find ‘content’ a dirty word.
Now stars generally help sell a film or TV show. It’s why the history of film is as much about the stars (actors) as it is about anything else. But, when it comes to narrowcast – films or TV – do stars really matter? Do actors who used to demand huge salaries even have an impact on whether a narrowcast show hits the mark or not? Listen to Matt Damon – here moaning that the system that launched him, and paid him millions is over. The game has changed. The business as we know it has gone.
Cinema as art and commerce is over 100 years old now. Over time, it’s become easier and cheaper not to just make films – but distribute them too. Stars, don’t have the power they used to (Damon is right) and films are closer to really becoming product or ‘content’ than any time before. They are there to be consumed – we’re all consumers now.
Tent pole films like Disney’s Star Wars or the awful Marvel Universe films – are more like loud, fairground rides, without character and designed mainly to attract audiences in China (the biggest market for Hollywood Franchise films – and a market that currently sustains what’s left of the Hollywood studios). Iron Man? It could be anyone in the suit – or it could just be an empty suit or a CGI actor? With Downey Jnr in the role Disney most likely own his image rights as the character – so that when he dies – they can continue to cast him in the role in perpetuality – so, even long after his death, Downey could still be Iron Man (would anyone be able to tell the difference?) This isn’t a joke – its good business sense from Disney (who were founded by a man who, if rumour is correct, wanted to be cryogenically frozen after his death – so he could be brought back in the future – the same is now happening to Downey Jnr before our very eyes – dead or alive – he’s Iron Man).
Phil Tippet is one of the great names in SFX movies – from Star Wars through RoboCop – to Jurassic Park, films that revolutionised what was possible before and after the arrival of the computer – this week, Phil’s MAD GOD is about to get released, a movie he’s made himself using old school SFX techniques – Phil says in Hollywood all he hears now is talk of ‘Content’ not movies and he says it’s a lot of hot air – he’s had enough! Computer effects have made ANYTHING possible – and none of it interesting – just because you can have 1000 werewolves running at the camera – it doesn’t mean you should. Mad God is all old school stop-motion with no CGI. Physical props and stop motion techniques have weight, CGI floats like a PC game graphic – not in the REAL world.
A few years ago Steven Spielberg, a man who alongside George Lucas changed the industry and created the summer ‘Blockbuster’ – the first of what would become ‘tent pole’ films was heard publically moaning the a film that premiered on Netflix shouldn’t be eligible for the Oscars and wasn’t in fact a ‘real’ film at all. Not a real film? Does where a film is seen decide what it is? Is art dependent on where the art is distributed? On how it is consumed or watched? That same Steven Spielberg recently signed a deal with Netflix to distribute his new films (and films by his production company) so maybe, he’s changed his mind, or maybe the business realities have hit home – if Steven wants to stay in the game – then Netflix and Amazon are now the only game in town…
Tom Cruise demands a huge amount of money per film, and he’s an earner – his films open big across the world – but that’s IF THEY OPEN – Top Gun 2 and other Mission Impossible films have sat on the shelf during the Covid Pandemic – those films need cinema openings to earn back their huge budgets. What if the cinema openings are delayed, or don’t happen? It means these big films, won’t return their big investments. And investors who lose money once – are wary about investing again, and Tom’s getting on now, and well, The Mummy made no money – he can’t afford to crap out too often now…
So, is Damon right? Is the ‘old’ film business as we know it over? Well, it looks like other actors aren’t happy either – actress Scarlett Johansson and her advisors are currently suing Disney because her film ‘Black Widow’ (Marvel Universe again!) didn’t stay in the cinemas long enough to earn her back-end points (Disney released it on VOD quickly after the initial cinema opening). Actors suing studios over release strategy? Scarlett and her advisors maybe right in making Disney stick to their original plan or compensate her financially. But really, the tide cannot be held back – these films are CONTENT – and content can be released however the makers wish. The idea that films need to open in the cinema is archaic now, especially these Marvel cartoons – they’re TV series anyway – each episode feature length?
So, where does this leave ‘Film’ as an art form? Well art house cinemas will keep showing art films where they can make it pay. And large chain cinemas will continue to show franchise films – a lot of these noisy FX films are better experienced in a cinema – like popcorn – no real nutritional value, but fun in the dark. But, the studios that made films like The Godfather, Chinatown, Goodfellas, The Deer Hunter, Sophie’s Choice, Pulp Fiction, Citizen Kane, Psycho – these places are lost now, and films like these might end up as TV shows – starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, in ten episodes on a much reduced fee – no back end Scarlett .
Is film / cinema dead? Probably not, the industry has changed and is changing, and the venue for great film might be your front room (or your mobile phone / tablet or laptop) we used to watch in the dark, and that time may have passed.
Matthew Cooper has been a scriptwriter for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.
His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham’ was released in 2020, his second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ will be released in 2021. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.
You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.