The thesis for Steven Johnson’s recent feature story in The New York Times Magazine is straightforward: We thought the digital economy would destroy creativity and the careers that rely on it. But that hasn’t happened. According to Johnson, “creative careers are thriving,” albeit “in complicated and unexpected ways.”
Though Johnson concedes that “the record industry’s collapse is real and well documented,” he is more sanguine about the film business. He acknowledges that “the critics are right that big Hollywood studios have abandoned the production of artistically challenging films, part of a broader trend since the 1990s of producing fewer films over all.” But, using his own brand of creative mathematics, Johnson concludes there is no decline in the box office for smart, moderately budgeted films such as “Her,” “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle” “Nebraska” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“The 30 most highly rated midbudget films of 1999 to 2001 took in $1.5 billion at the domestic box office, adjusted for inflation; the class of 2011 to 2013 took in the exact same amount,” explains Johnson.
Johnson’s piece is more of an essay than a reported piece. In fact, one of his only quotations comes from an article from Jason Bailey at Flavorwire. “Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was possible to finance — either independently or via the studio system — midbudget films (anywhere from $5 million to $60 million) with an adult sensibility. But slowly, quietly, over roughly the decade and a half since the turn of the century, the paradigm shifted,” wrote Bailey in December 2014.
Bailey’s initial story lamented the fact that auteurs like David Lynch and John Waters would likely not be able to get their movies made in today’s Hollywood climate — and who knows how many potential artists never got the chance to create. “How many great movies — how many Blue Velvets and Hairsprays and Traffics and Do the Right Things and Godfathers — are they, thanks to the current myopic model, not making?” asked Bailey.
Bailey has now penned a response to Johnson’s piece in which he challenges his number-crunching and points to the fact that three of Johnson’s examples (“Her,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “American Hustle”) came from Annapurna Pictures, founded by Megan Ellison, heir to the Oracle fortune. Also, there’s no clear way to determine if it’s easier or harder to get films made nowadays because, as Bailey points out, “there is no accounting of films that don’t exist.”
The anecdotal evidence supports the theory that while the digital economy has helped lower the barrier of entry to filmmakers, it has also made it more difficult to support oneself as a filmmaker.
Around the time that Bailey’s initial story ran, Indiewire ran a filmmaker survey in which indie filmmakers were asked how they make a living and the short answer was that it’s not easy.
“Back in the day, you could make your indie film, it would do well at Sundance and you’d be offered a $3 million picture by a distributor. They’d acquire your film and they’d make your next film. If it did better than $9 million, you’d be given a $10 million. There was this idea that there was a system at the time and now there isn’t a system. Everyone seems to be scrambling,” said producer/director Chip Hourihan (“Mind the Gap,” “Frozen River,” “Amateur”).
Producer Laura Heberton, who works with low-budget filmmakers such as Robert Machoian (“God Bless the Child”) and Josephine Decker (“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”) asked, “Do you know how many critically-acclaimed filmmakers are truly struggling to get by, and how many have a hard time getting work making commercials — the closet thing to filmmaking as a day job? I would say the majority of them. And that deeply upsets me. It definitely upsets them even more.”
Machoian wondered whether films like “The Brothers McMullen” and “Clerks” would get as much attention now as they did when they were released in the 1990s. “When I look back on so many of the filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, I ask myself ‘could they exist in the world of filmmaking that we have now?’ Like if they were 20 right now, would the grow into who they are now 40 years from now? I have seen some of their short films, and a big part of me says ‘no way in Hell.'”
While we can’t account for the films not made, we can certainly point to a whole slew of low-budget indie films which are getting made and an entire crop of filmmakers forging interesting, productive careers including Joe Swanberg, Alex Ross Perry, Josephine Decker, the Duplass Brothers, David Robert Mitchell, Justin Simien, among others.
Still, while there might not have been a creative apocalypse, there has certainly been an earthquake and the ground is still rumbling.