Film = Art + Commerce

Yesterday I watched the documentary Great Directors (2009) on Netflix by Angela Ismailos, not just to satisfy my love-affair with Richard Linklater, but to get at the heart of what some filmmakers whose work I like feel about film. It’s hard to grapple with the logistics of being young wanting to work in a creative industry, because by nature of doing so, you risk forfeiture of your idealism for the convenience of cold hard terms like “per-screen averages” and “merchandising” and “residuals” (basically all the different terms that mean money). I came out to Los Angeles to be a television writer and I’m discovering that knowledge of the financials of the industry is necessary to be a part of the television conversation. (That and a resumé with seven internships on it.) But the thing about film and television is that the art does not come without the commerce and nor does the commerce come without the art. It’s important to remember that the two are connected, but if one wants to focus on one aspect of the film equation (which surely can stand for the equation of any other artistic medium) over the other, then one should, because failing at what one loves will provide more self-worth than succeeding at what one is unenthused by. 

In Great Directors, the conversation about commerce denotes it as an entity that works in mysterious ways. Stephen Frears talks about the difficulty he had with Margaret Thatcher. Old Margie was Reagan’s BBF in their “small government, big business” bookclub and thus restricted the political edge of the BBC, where Frears was working in favor of creating more creative sectors for business. Now Frears, a super political guy who loved the freedom the BBC to produce any kind of subversive work (they even broadcasted work that was an attack on themselves), felt stifled and worked his way to directing My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), a story about violent crime that was a direct result of Thatcherism. The movie was a success, which meant Frears was creating revenue for England, doing exactly what Thatcher wanted him to do.  The lesson to take from this is: money cares about no one but itself. It’s a greedy bastardo. 

In the documentary, Richard Linklater said he knew that he didn’t want to have a job where he’d have to tie a tie. I understand, mostly because it takes me 20 minutes to make sure the back part doesn’t stick out under the front, but also because there’s something uniform to commerce. If art is the exchange of ideas for feelings, then commerce would be the exchange of ideas for cash and feelings come in many different forms but cash can only come in a rectangle or circle (sometimes a octagon maybe?). The issue however, is not to forfeit commerce to live a life of artistic fulfillment. The issue is to place priorities. A film is always going to be made for the art and the commerce, and to hinge one’s frustrations on the necessities of the dualities is a waste of time. The level of importance one has over the other, however, varies. 

Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) is the fourth film in the Transformers film franchise. Each film has received less than favorable reviews, but because they’ve each made roughly five times their budget (a billion a pop), they continue to get produced. Now I understand the logic of give the people what they want, and it’s what films and business in general should be about. But do people really want to see the same big-budget movie of robots crashing into each other four times? With a fifth one underway? They satisfy our urge for epic story-telling, but the notion for what is “epic” for the most part remains unchallenged. Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) is similarly being called epic for its twelve-year filmmaking process, a feat that is something that hasn’t really been done yet in film on this scale. With 4 million dollars, Boyhood brought about something that sparks a new conversation about what is possible through movies. With 210 million dollars, Age of Extinction brought about a conversation that’s been had three times before.

David Lynch describes his approach to watching films as “getting lost in a world and having to feel-think my way through… and have these experiences that I know, I know that feeling, but I don’t know how to put in words. And it’s magical that cinema brought it out.” This is the feeling of watching a film that does not immediate convey its brand, market potential or even it’s politics, for it’s seeking to convey a mood and thought in the hopes that the viewer can connect. The idea of commerce, whether it’s the backer thinking how their money is going to be spent or the audience member reminding his or herself how much he or she paid for the ticket, has been suspended in animation, for it’s the art’s turn to move. This is the secret to film as both art and commerce, because this is what people pay to see. Once the film is over, one thinks back and ascertains will this make money, who will watch this, would I see it again. This is the magic David Lynch talks about.

Now, it’s important to see the perverse side to the magic.  Outside of the what equals film equation, there exists the what equals the function of film equation. For every Bertolucci at the helm of a camera, there’s a Riefenstahl. Stay tuned ’til next time, because I spent all day typing this and my fingers are about to fall off. 


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