A Blade Runner Shows His Age

In the Hutong
Digesting Subway
1830 hrs.

Director Ridley Scott has in his career delivered a body of work that includes some of my all-time favorite movies (Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down) and some movies that I enjoy as occasional guilty pleasures (Black Rain, Gladiator, Matchstick Men). He is the unapologetic master of the high-end Guy Flick. (And let’s be honest – even his Thelma & Louise was just a gender-bent buddy movie.) And, of course, he directed the commercial that introduced the Apple Macintosh to the world.

So it is particularly disturbing to hear the aging auteur getting all medieval on people who watch movies on their mobile devices. In an article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Scott is quoted from the Venice Film Festival as saying that the shift to the small screen would kill cinema.

“I’m sure we’re on a losing wicket, but we’re fighting technology,” Scott, the force behind Alien, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator, said.
“While it has been wonderful in many aspects, it also has some big negative downsides.”

I’m Not In the Business. I Am The Business.

Now, filmmakers have been pulling their hair out over technology destroying cinema since the introduction of talkies, but here we are, eight decades after he introduction of sound, sixty years since the introduction of television, and thirty years since the first VCRs began landing in homes, and each one of these “horrible” developments with their big negative downsides has only brought more opportunities to filmmakers and more revenues to Hollywood.

The ugly fact is that the movie business is in grave danger, but to blame mobile phones is the reddest of herrings.

Because, you see, the problem is not technology. It is Scott and people like him, people who really like Things the Way They Are, because Things the Way They Are have made them rich and famous and lets them make expensive movies and take home little trophies. These folks do not particularly like technology (watch Scott’s movies – he hates tech), do not understand people who do, and are deep down in places they do not talk about at Malibu parties they are just plain scared of anything with a microchip.

They see all of this change happening and are smart enough to understand that it means The End of the World As They Know It. And they are terrified. Hence Ridley’s mobile device fixation.

The fact is, technology will save the motion picture industry.

Would you…like to be upgraded?

The movie business is beset with problems that could fill a library. Films have become too expensive to make. The industry is structured – from finance to production to distribution – to quash all but a small number of entrepreneurs carefully screened (pardon the pun) and selected at film festivals. The business is overwhelmingly American in an increasingly global/local culture. The cinema experience is outdated, overpriced, and of little or declining relevance in much of the world.

None of this is to suggest that movies are going away. Something is, however, very wrong when people (especially young people) are spending far more money and time on other forms of entertainment, and those alternatives are growing – and fast. Cinema is losing its share of our wallet, but equally important it is losing our attention. (Hell, I’m an old guy, but I’ve spent more on games for my Sony PSP this year than I have on movie tickets for my entire family.)

Technology, in its different forms, is getting set to bring about a cinematic renaissance. More people can make films, make them cheaper, and get them in front of audiences faster and easier today than anytime since Mayer, Zukor, Laemmle, Cohn, Fox, Warner, and Disney showed up in L.A. and started buying orange groves. Green screens, cheap gear, and powerful software means that you don’t have to spend $200 million to make an epic – you just need a script, a camera, and a Macintosh.

Starting to see what’s bugging Ridley?

I have the choice of watching movies in a theater, on my big-screen TV, on my desktop, my laptop, my PSP, my iPod, or my ROKR E6. I can buy a film from a store, order from Amazon, or download from iTunes, not to mention the illegal channels. In short, I’m in control of how I decide to experience a motion picture, not the National Association of Theater Owners.

The future of Hollywood is lean, streamlined, personal, and technology based, and there are dozens if not hundreds or thousands of filmmakers who are following this road. Today they may be uploading 5 minute clips to YouTube. Tomorrow?

Do you like our owl?

Nowhere does technology offer a greater opportunity to build the film industry than right here in China, if for no other reason than there is less legacy infrastructure to stand in the way. There are other reasons, of course.

Technology substitutes for mass in China the same way it does elsewhere. Despite being the most populated country on the planet, there is a dearth of talented people both in front of the camera and, more critically, behind it. Stars may get all of the attention, but a pool of talented craftspeople – from the director down to the make up girl – is essential to sustain a traditional movie industry, and China’s pool is frustratingly shallow. The good people are expensive, and their lack forms an artificial bottleneck. The technologies that substitute for talented and experienced crew are the only way forward in the near term.

Production finance is another constraint to the growth of China’s film business, and the value of technology as a substitute for cash cannot be overstated. As with Hollywood, big budget flicks might get the attention, but the future will come from people who make films with a small handful of people.

If technology is important for production, it is essential for distribution, because without those small screens, the movie will probably be seen by a tiny number of people – if at all.

China has one cinema screen for every 466,000 people. (By contrast, the U.S. has one screen for every 8,000 people.) There are around 300 movies released each year in China, meaning that these films are all fighting for screen time, not just audiences. Even at the current rate of production, the only way many of these movies is going to be seen is on the small screen.

Real estate prices and personal habits in China further inveigh against the movie theater experience becoming as common as it is in the US. In short, mobile phones aren’t going to kill movies in China: they – in combination with other “small screens” – are going to give them their only possible market.

A tortise lays on its back, belly baking in the sun….

Ridley Scott will celebrate his 70th birthday on November 30 of this year and look back on a 42 year career of achievement that is the envy of many others who have sat – or dreamed of sitting – in the director’s chair. As he celebrates his septuagenarian status with friends and loved ones, perhaps he will pause to consider that Louis B. Mayer, the founder and longtime steward of MGM studios, found himself sidelined by Hollywood days short of his own 69th birthday. Louis B, once the most powerful studio head in a day where the studios ran the show, couldn’t change fast enough when the change started happening.

Ridley won’t be going away soon. He’s got a film in the can and at least four projects in development. But the Hollywood that created him is going away, and if he is not prepared to accept the changes that are driving Hollywood and the world’s film industry, he’d better start planning a career change.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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