Think you’ve got problems getting your films financed and seen by audiences? Well, you are in shockingly good company. In recent weeks, everyone from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to Steven Soderbergh, John Travolta, Mike Figgis, David Lynch and Lynda Obst have all bemoaned the near-impossibility of getting their own pet projects onto the big screen. Taken together, their published comments are a scathing indictment of a film establishment that is only obsessed with pre-assembled projects that pander to the planet’s widest common denominators. Such is the obsession that original scripts and pitches are no longer being bought by Hollywood studios on spec. Even by the standards of an industry prone to pessimism, this amounts to one gloomy requiem for the grown-up cinema we once knew. But is it fair to just keep blaming "the money people" for this creative malaise and industrial self implosion?
Talk to individual film financiers - as opposed to the brokers, managers, analysts and other intermediaries who collectively dictate Hollywood’s risk-mitigating strategies – and the surprise is how open so many are to backing even the most idiosyncratic visions. They are fully prepared to take creative risks and would happily entertain the prospect of working with many of the same talents now feeling marginalized - so long as they enjoyed equal access to projects at a stage when it makes most sense to invest. In this regard, the film industry may well be its own worst enemy.
The hottest projects, those that involve bankable talents in surprising storylines, tend to be ones that involve so many contingent interests they are simply not conducive to open access. Just like laws and sausages, to paraphrase Bismarck, the less you know what goes into their making, the better. They have so many complicating shades of grey that they require a level of negotiating finesse best left to the hands of a discreet few.
A case in point might be a small-budget labor of love where big reputations are at stake: the star doesn’t want word to get out that he is juggling several projects at once or is attached to one that might never get made; the producer is wary of undermining her carefully-honed brand by associating publicly herself with a different genre; the director can’t be seen hawking a project for fear of appearing too desperate. As trivial or exaggerated as these concerns might appear to the uninitiated, it is easy to appreciate how they might get in the way of investor access. Far safer to keep projects behind closed doors, where nuances can be ironed out among a trusted coterie of interested parties, than to invite outside financiers in and jeopardize industry standings.
All this backroom maneuvering might help protect the industry’s delicate caste system, but the knock-on effects of this self-preservation society are now being felt. There are too many projects that never make it past those early gates simply because they were never exposed to a wider circle of potential investors. As for those projects that make it through and onto the open marketplace, they are already of diminishing interest to outside investors. The most desirable ones will have been snapped up already or have gathered so much industry heat that the cost of entry for investors is prohibitively high, making a return nearly impossible. Anything that is left on the table is niche, or heavily shopped. This is no way to grow a new class of film financier, one that would help provide a viable alternative to the studio system becoming so anathema to bold new ideas.