Thursday, 19 January 2012

David Fincher: Some Thoughts

On Saturday Rob Beames and I will be recording one of our 'pantheon' podcasts, where we look at a director we both like and discuss their work. We chose Fincher to coincide with the release of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO but the homework took a bit longer than we expected. Rob watched a lot of his films for the first time and I revisited all of them.

In many ways, Fincher's film career started exactly like Ridley Scott's and James Cameron: taking on an ALIEN film for Fox while still being an unknown, untested. This experience, unlike Scott and Cameron, nearly destroyed his career and he still disowns the film. But you can see, even in that flawed feature, the seeds of his future career.

For me, Fincher is the master of two things: night time cinematography and unnerving tension. Like a goth version of Hitchcock, he builds uneasiness into his films, and at the end of a Fincher you feel unsettled, shaken. This atmosphere exists in all his work, even his lesser features (Benjamin Button, Alien 3) and is the foundation of his best films (Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club).

His technical know-how and narrative grip puts him in the camp of efficient manipulators in Hollywood, which starts with Hitchcock but also runs through Spielberg and De Palma. But apart from his capacity to grab you by the throat through the medium of cinema, he also betrays an ambition to say something. Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network are works of an artist struggling to break free from the 'head in the box' syndrome post-Se7en, a genre he has returned to again and again (Panic Room, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). Does he enjoy the down and dirty serial killers or is he paying the mortgage?

If we were looking for auterist signature preoccupations, the one that I find over and over again is his interest in research. From Morgan Freeman's long hours in the library to Daniel Craig's looking at pictures over and over again, his love of looking stuff up reached its zenith in Zodiac, a film that resembles more a puzzle than a movie.

I think that given the right material, Fincher could produce a series of masterpieces of the caliber of Zodiac - but his next project doesn't inspire confidence: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a big Disney property which will have to adhere to strict market rules.

In a relatively short career he has achieved quite a lot. Here's to a long and puzzled career.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Film Policy Review Notes

Here’s my take on the new Film Policy Review after having read it all. First of all, it strikes me as a mistake to include two heads of companies who benefit from the current disfunction. The CEOs of Sony Pictures UK and Vue Cinemas are part of the problem and can't be part of the solution.

As pointed out by Jim Barratt in Bigger Picture Research, this review treads upon previously debated points, initiatives and former reviews, like A Bigger Picture from 1998. That report led directly to the creation of the UKFC). So while the 56 recommendations contain lots of common sense ideas, there is nothing revolutionary about it.

What this writer would have liked to see is a radical approach to the lack of British success in cinemas like a quota system, or a tax on audiovisual product, or a network of publicly funded cinemas (or at least public support for companies like Picturehouses, who open cinemas in city centres across the country).

The report acknowledges the market failures presented by the film business but then recoils from presenting honest ways of dealing with them, i.e. government intervention and protectionism. Where in other sectors the government will happily protect medical research, automotive industry or agricultural exports, film is seen to have to live and die on its own feet.

At the same time, what little intervention is allowed is concentrated on the production end, with no attention to the other ends of the film value chain.

One dangerous statement: ‘ensuring filmmakers start with audiences” – anytime a government agency prescribes where and how filmmakers should operate it’s a slippery slope to committee-agreed films that are neither art nor commerce – just products.

If commercial success is what we want, then the current (not classic) US studio model is the best bet: pre-existing properties (TV shows, sequels, best-sellers, comic books) turned into generically made films that appeal to the widest international audience. This is how studios control international markets, combining the safest possible material with a carpet-bombing approach to marketing.

If we decide that this is the way forward, we have a lot of catching up to do – Hollywood has over 100 years of experience.

If, on the other hand, we look the the continent for inspiration (France for example) we find a successful industry, producing a wide variety of films, from small aueterist pieces to big blockbusters. How did they achieve it?

- With protectionist policies, like excluding culture as a commodity from the WTO negotiations, despite heavy pressure from the US. Allowing culture to be traded as freely as any other commodity would only further intensify the US’s grip on worldwide cinema culture and markets.
- Taxing all audiovisual products, creating a fund (the CNC) which helps all layers of the industry, from production to exhibition. This ensures a steady flow of capital to the industry.
- A quota system that applies to all cinemas, meaning there is a steady demand for French product.
- Intense film education throughout the whole educational system, which creates film-literate audiences who then becomes customers for homegrown cinema.

That Hollywood will dominate film culture for the foreseeable future is a given. The only thing countries that wish to preserve an industry, a culture and an identity can do is put in place defenses that will slightly tip the balance in the other direction. In France, American films still account for the majority of the market – but somewhere nearer 60%, not 90%, like the UK.

But what’s good about this report? There are some good ideas here:

- Reccomendation no. 3 is the best thing in the report “creating a UK-wide film network”. Too bad it’s not too specific.
- Recommendation no. 5 is more detailed, saying film socities and film clubs should receive more support. Absolutely.
- Recommendation no .7 is a small step towards doing what I say the French have been doing for decades…teach cinema in schools!
- Recommendation no. 13 identifies the problem with the current VPF model but offers no solution.
- Recommendation 32 – asking, then forcing, TV and cable providers to support British cinema is brilliant.

What’s outright awful?

- Recommendation no. 2 (and the heart of this review) – building a British ‘brand’ sounds like a bad idea. What is British? How do you identify it? Because the British brand that sells abroad is not one we want to be proud of internally. Also ‘British Film Week’ is gimmicky.
- Recommendation no. 24 – encouraging test screenings is a bad idea. They don’t even work in Hollywood.
- Recommendation no. 55 – why not encourage private investment and philanthropy in distribution and exhibition as well?

Of course the Government might choose to ignore all of these ideas. We’ll have to wait a couple of months to see what their response is….

Monday, 16 January 2012

Splendor Cinema Podcast 84

In a new tradition, I shall be posting here every time we record a podcast in order to create a stronger link between this blog and our podcast.

This week, Rob and I sat down and played catch up as we hadn't done a straight review show in some time. There's a lot of films out there right now, and we've seen a bunch of them. So we reviewed SHAME, THE IRON LADY, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 4, MARGIN CALL, CORIOLANUS and THE ARTIST.

The glut of 'quality' films is overwhelming this time of year and is a real distortion of the calendar created just to generate awards buzz. Come summer time and the Olympics we'll be craving adult dramas.

That said, you'll never guess from the list above which was our favorite of the list!

Listen on iTunes: Splendor Cinema
Or on the Picturehouse website: Splendor Cinema

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Cameron Vs Loach

Yesterday all hell broke loose as David Cameron made some remarks on the state and future of the film industry, remarking that support for more 'commercial' projects was needed. Ken Loach came on to the BBC to fly the flag for smaller, more niche films. This oversimplification played straight into the hands of the news media, who don't understand the film business, as the terrible Newsnight piece (which featured a smart statement by my boss Lyn Goleby) demonstrated.

The reality is neither Cameron nor Ed Vaizey (or Jeremy Hunt) have a clue what to do with the UK film industry. Labour didn't either but at least they threw some money at it, which, although mostly a failure, did help. The reality is that we have an industry completely controlled by US studios, and the language issue binds us tighter to Hollywood than our European counterparts. As early as the 1920s the UK government was struggling with this problem and established levies on ticket prices to support Pinewood. But the approach has always been production-centered, as if making a lot of movies would magically solve the problem.

The key to success are audiences, not filmmakers, and in that respect, Cameron's remarks are not far off. We obviously have a huge pool of incredible talent. What we're missing are audiences for anything that isn't a 'property' like Bond or Potter. How do you build audiences, you ask? Well, you'll be surprised to hear, as an exhibitor, it all starts with cinemas. No matter how brilliant you think THE KING'S SPEECH is, you need a cinema close to your customers in order to truly maximise its market share. Like any service industry, you need to be on the high street in order to deliver your product. Just ask Tesco, or Starbucks. If you build it, they WILL come. I am talking about interesting looking cinemas, in good looking buildings, staffed by knowledgable film lovers, with cafes and restaurants, not conveyor belts for teenagers. In other words, I am talking about Picturehouses. Why not fund a network of regional film theatres dedicated to interesting and challenging programming?

The French have been smart about this, not just with quotas, but also by having vertically integrated film companies that make, distribute and exhibit films - this has ring fenced their industry, creating a wide and diverse range of films, from big homegrown blockbusters to small arthouse films, with an audience at home and abroad.

I know it grinds British people but we do have so much to learn from the French in this respect. And we need to start re-opening and building new cinemas!

Image stolen from the GQ website.