ON JANUARY 14, the Los Angeles Review of Books hosted FILM NOW, a roundtable on the state of the film industry and the films of 2016 at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles. Moderated by LARB film editor Anna Shechtman, the discussion brought together voices from film studies, film criticism, and Hollywood film production. The participants included J. D. Connor, visiting associate professor in Cinema and Media Studies at USC; Cathy Schulman, film producer and president of Women In Film; Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics association; and Justin Chang, film critic at the LA Times.
ANNA SHECHTMAN: I’d like to start by addressing the shared priorities and preoccupations of film critics, producers, and scholars. We’re all cinephiles here, but we don’t often talk across disciplines and professions like this.
J. D. CONNOR: So, speaking for all of Film Studies — no —
AS: Please, if you would.
JDC: Most academics work a little slow. We watch a movie when it comes out; we see it again when it comes out on DVD; it sits in the back of our heads for a year; maybe we get it together and we do a conference paper in that first year; a couple of years later, it’s showing up in print. And that’s a fine rhythm. And one of the things that it does is provide a sort of check on what is a job I certainly couldn’t do that I greatly admire: the daily grind of “you saw the movie once, you’ve got copy in 24 hours.” That said, my work is a little faster than maybe a typical academic.
One of the things I’ve been interested in in 2016 has been the ways in which various exceptional cases from previous years now start to look more like patterns or more like a mode. One of the cases that I wrote about for the LA Review of Books was Dope. Dope is obviously a small film, and you can always, if you’ve got enough wealthy friends, get a small film together, and these days it may be technologically easier to pull off. But it looked like a different kind of funding bank behind it: there was a lot of money from fashion; there was a lot of money from hip-hop, and now it’s starting to look like you might be able to do that again. Well, it happened again this year [with] Kicks. I think 2016 had a lot of those kinds of moments where a set of institutional patterns started to emerge, and that can be built upon.
CATHY SCHULMAN: But now that everything changed in this election directionally, where are we headed? Will these patterns be able to start to lock in, or are we going to be facing a whole different kind of a future? In the movie-making business, although we work really quickly every single day, it’s a long process. It takes two to three years to get movies up and running, and so you’re always questioning what’s going to be zeitgeist relevant a few years into the future, and right now we’re really questioning that because traditionally in moments of divisiveness and crisis — if we can call it that — we’ve had two different reactions from the standpoint of cinema. We’ve seen “let’s just entertain ourselves and have distraction,” and then there have been other periods, in our country and others, where it becomes “let’s talk about the issue and what is really happening.” Which way are artists going to go? And how do the economics and the industry of film intersect with this process?
AS: I want to follow up on that because J. D. talked a little bit about new streams of funding, but there are also new models for distribution, whether it’s Video On Demand or Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu. Do we see these changes in distribution changing film production? Can they increase the pace of production? Are they also changing access to the means of production?
CS: We know that we’re seeing trends of increased opportunity, which by nature helps with regards to diversity because it’s easier and less expensive to make content. There’s actually increased economics for the players themselves — in other words, good business for companies like Hulu and Amazon and Netflix and others — and there’s even good business for investors and financiers because the decrease in marketing costs increases income. However, let’s look at artists for a minute — writers, directors, actors. We’re seeing huge decreases in economics. Less so for actors, but producers, writers, and directors are heavily hit. There’s no backend — a little piece of a licensing fee, if anything. And if that feels confusing to anybody, the difference is that in the movie business, as the movie continues to make money and through its whole stream of ancillary release revenues, so do the profit participants, which will be those key players. This doesn’t happen with [new streaming technologies]. And certainly from a technological standpoint, obviously a lot of people are railing, and fairly so, that we have these beautiful ways to make movies that look incredible on big screens, and of course you can’t see any of it on small [devices]. But I guess the answer is, overall on a daily basis, I feel excited about it because I keep selling things and getting my movies made.
It’s exciting because [Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu] all want to make a lot of stuff and [they’re] not even that discerning and [they] kind of leave us alone. But I could also see that the companies that have the marketing abilities and that could bring things out are not necessarily getting that content; nor do they want it. In other words, if you’re a studio and you said, “All I’m going to do is serialize franchises for middle-aged white people and some boys,” are you going to shift what you’re going to do when Netflix and Hulu and Amazon can do all of it?
AS: Let’s talk about some of the films made for Netflix this year, whether it’s Ava DuVernay’s 13th or Divines, a great film coming out of France by Houda Benyamina. Do these films seem markedly different from films that would be released in theaters? Do they seem essentially tied to the economic base of Netflix in some way?
JUSTIN CHANG: I don’t think that they’re markedly different, and I want to kind of throw in Amazon as well: this has been such a big coming-out year for them. Amazon bought Manchester by the Sea, for example, which paid off very handsomely and is still paying off for them. Woody Allen worked with Amazon for the first time on Café Society; Jim Jarmusch had two films. It’s not like they’re eclipsing the Sony Classics and the Searchlights of the world, but going back to Sundance, The Birth of a Nation — which is still very much in the conversation now having received a DGA [Directors Guild of America] Award nomination for director Nate Parker for the first time feature category — there was a bidding war between Fox Searchlight and Amazon, and don’t quote me on this, it could have gone either way, and it ended up going to Fox Searchlight.
I was at Variety at the time, so slightly more privy to kind of the behind-the-scenes machinations than I usually am. In the end, the filmmakers ended up going with Fox Searchlight, thinking it would do the more traditional kind of Oscar campaign.
CS: I bought Birth of a Nation for Mandalay when I was still there as the president. It was the last movie I bought there and then I moved on in my career. But yeah, I mean it was a movie that the industry said couldn’t get made because of 12 Years a Slave. Everybody said it was “already done,” and then look what happened. Sad that controversy had to take the moment away.
JC: But also sad is the mindset that we can only have one movie about slavery.
CS: I guess what I’m trying to say is, in terms of opportunity, look at how opportunity opens when buyers expand.
JDC: But also there’s a broader discourse. So 2016 starts with The Birth of a Nation winning Sundance and #OscarsSoWhite at the same time.
JDC: And one of the consoling things for an academy member who had been to Sundance had to be knowing that The Birth of a Nation was coming — that that was going to be, a year later, at least one answer to #OscarsSoWhite. And so they had pre-gamed, in effect, their “look, things did get better.” And then The Birth of a Nation has its collapse, or possible resuscitation, and fortunately for that discourse, for that part of the academy, Moonlight comes along and can occupy that same space. And that’s a really important moment — not because there should be a tradeoff between two movies, but because there’s enough quality work out there that if you —
CS: Well, and not to mention Hidden Figures comes in on the box office side.
JDC: Absolutely. Right.
CS: You know, and so that’s a nice sort of self-cure, too.
JDC: Right, so when you were talking about the timeline and having to predict a couple years out, at least one of the things that folks are good at is knowing that what they see at Sundance means something a year later and so on. And I think part of what’s happened is that the major players have announced vast slates going out five, 10 years [in advance]. Those huge slates take what was the usual process that was behind the scenes and puts it out there for all of us. And now we can look at it and say, “Wait a minute, you’ve got 10 movies in 10 years and none has a woman director? You’ve got 10 movies in 10 years and none has an African-American hero?” Those kinds of things have opened a channel for critique because now this behind-the-scenes has become sort of out there. The flip side of that is that now we can make — “we,” I don’t make movies —
— one can make fairly last-minute changes. I don’t know the details of the Rogue One changes, but if it turns out that there’s a Muslim registry and you have a way to put that into a movie in order to take advantage of that, you can do that fairly quickly, late in the process.
CS: You could. I think it’s going to fall more to the indies. Let’s enter the indies into the conversation, and I wanted to bring a few facts into the conversation: in 2016, the top grossers collectively made $11 billion. There were 1,000 independent films (a few more actually) last year. They made $550 million. So, that’s exactly five percent of $11 billion. Traditionally, in terms of production, the studios only do about 25 percent of the activity and the indies do about 75 percent — which may actually surprise people because everyone thinks that the studios make most of the movies. They make most of the money but not most of the movies. Now even more than 75 percent of the production is being done through the indies.
GIL ROBERTSON: But the focus of the studios is becoming increasingly more on the tent-poles.
CS: Well yeah, and frankly it’s even beyond tent-poles. We used to say tent-poles, which meant it’s a huge movie; we only make a few a year; it’s going to make a tremendous amount of money, especially on opening weekend. Now we’re talking about franchises, which is a different business — a serial business — and it’s more like TV. And why? Because when you’re marketing to people who know what they’re already coming to see, it’s way less expensive and way easier to get them.
GR: What’s interesting this year —
CS: — is that audiences are starting to reject that.
GR: A perfect example is Jason Bourne, where Universal must have been disappointed with the final tally there.
JC: This was also the year of the weirdly long-delayed sequel. We had Finding Dory, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, and Jason Bourne …
GR: And the audience participation wasn’t there.
JC: Which is kind of emblematic of the studios’ ongoing belief that we’ll give the audience what we think they wanted 10 years ago.
CS: Which is why the conversation has to become, “How do we show the studios what they really want?”
JDC: But there’s a flip side to that. I mean, I’m much more sanguine about the state of film in December and January because all of the good films come out, but if you go back to July, not only were all of these sequel-fatigue movies, but that was when Warcraft came out. And every summer I teach a course on flops, and Warcraft is a movie that didn’t do enough business here in the United States; it had stars who are TV stars but not yet movie stars; and it paid exceptionally handsomely because it was an enormous hit in China. So, asking, “What do they want?” actually starts to pluralize this audience question. Because if you look at that top 10 global box office from last year, you see The Mermaid, which is a Chinese film that did basically zero business in the United States and basically all of its business there. And this is going to be a big shift going forward: are there going to be franchises that can connect better both in the United States and Europe and in China?
AS: We’ve been talking about how diffuse the filmmaking industry is in terms of production and distribution. When we talk about Hollywood, are we talking about studios? It’s awards season, is Hollywood just a self-congratulation machine? It’s a fairly abstract question — and I know that J. D. is primed to answer it — but what is Hollywood right now?
JC: I very much liked Meryl Streep’s answer to this at the Golden Globes: Hollywood is just a bunch of people from different places. It’s an optimistic vision of Hollywood, I suppose.
CS: I think what Meryl meant was that “creatives” are people from everywhere. And unfortunately that’s a bit of a separation from what the studios are. Some of you may have read Martha Lauzen’s San Diego study that came out two days ago. She’s looking at the participation of women and gender parity [in the industry], starting her research in 1998. What she measured was that when there are female directors and writers, she did see that on a case-by-case basis, there was a huge increase of women in the overall makeup of the filmmaking team. I think it was 69 percent compared to when they’re not it’s in the low 40 percent at best, and most of the time below. Women In Film has done a ton of additional research. We were able to identify essentially a triangle of problems affecting women, and although there were many, many details on each side of the triangle, I’ll just explain what those three sides are.
One, we have an enormous pipeline issue. Women are going into schools in filmmaking, and graduate schools, but coming out early. So something’s happening in those walls — and then all the way through. On the other side of the triangle, we have this enormous cultural bias issue going on with decision makers and content creators, and frankly, it doesn’t even really meet in the triangle because this side is so big that it would actually not hang together as a triangle. At the bottom, and most important to Hollywood, is the business scenario, which operates on a number of different levels. There is a whole issue of the cultural belief that women in charge don’t make money, and that content for women and girls doesn’t make money. And though we can point out examples [refuting that], there hasn’t been one comparative analysis that that takes in enough of the variables to really understand if you compare an apple to an apple, what it really means. We are doing that now.
What we do know is that if we don’t address these three sides of the triangle simultaneously, they’ll start to fall apart, and the angles don’t hold solid. And so what we are trying to do as an organization, and what we all need to do, wherever, is come up with programmatic ways to address the three sides.
JC: Some of my favorite films of this year were made by women: Toni Erdmann (directed by a woman writer-director, Maren Ade), American Honey (directed by Andrea Arnold), 13th (directed by Ava DuVernay), The Edge of Seventeen (directed by Kelly Fremon Craig).
CS: [Craig was] the only woman to get a DGA nomination this year.
JC: That’s right. And it’s a wonderful film. But as I’m kind of cataloging these, I keep thinking, can I catalog these as “Hollywood”? From a critical perspective, and maybe wrongly, I tend to compartmentalize things: this is Hollywood, these are indie and foreign … Having said that, I think that women are thriving in those [latter] spheres in a way that they aren’t in the studios.
GR: And television is really leading the way. You mentioned Ava DuVernay, and with her show Queen Sugar, this year she employed exclusively women as a mandate. And so hopefully that can be an example — the success of the show — it will hopefully be something that the studios copy.
JDC: But because of the TV bubble that we’re in, where there are just — I’m going to say it — too many scripted shows, one of the things that it’s allowed performers and other key talent to do is to maintain a place in the public eye. Take Mahershala Ali: Luke Cage is doing some of that backstopping. It’s putting him out there; it’s giving him a day job; it’s a great role. It’s not yet a one-for-them, one-for-me town for people who are on the edges of it. But if you have enough TV work, that can be your one for them and you can do Moonlight.
CS: He’s had an amazing year.
JDC: I know, I’m sort of cheating. But to get back to that question of what Hollywood is, there’s this industry split between major and minor, and then there are these things that look like they’re thriving at the edges. In the wake of the Great Recession, where huge amounts of money from state-funders, combined with this global system of tax rebates and credits that’s really fairly extensive, everybody — whether you’re making a teeny tiny movie or a gigantoid movie — is doing it based on that same model of global capitalism. It’s the same process that allows Low [Taek] Jho to steal $1 billion from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund and underwrite The Wolf of Wall Street, assuming that the Department of Justice Complaint and allegations are true — I don’t want to get in trouble. That’s the system. The system is not different, in other words, [for indies and studio productions]. You have to be absolutely sophisticated about the global process of capital allocation. And I know nobody enjoys those endless pre-credits that are like “This presents…,” with the help of This, with the help of That, and then you stay till the end and there’s all the listing of various state actors. Yeah, the indies are hustling for $100,000 from the Belgian government and $50,000 for the musician’s union in the Czech Republic.
CS: But that’s good news.
JDC: Yeah, but that’s not very different from what the Marvel slate is doing in North Carolina.
CS: I know people complain, but I always say that every time I see another logo come up, I’m like, “Thank God.” The point being, each one of those logos means somebody leaned in with that money and created opportunities. But the fact that we have to do it the way we’re doing it, and Band-Aid it the way we’re Band-Aiding it, is really tricky.
AS: I have a final question that makes me a bit of a hypocrite because as a film editor, I have seen countless drafts of film reviews since early November that have concluded with a paragraph that tries to relate a certain film, or the state of film, or film-going itself to the election in some way. And it often winds up banal, at best, and self-indulgent, at worst. Having said that, I’m ending with a Trump question:
Do you think that Hollywood, as we have variously defined it, is guilty of some of the charges that have been levied against the media writ large since Trump’s election. For example, is it guilty of balkanizing culture in to discrete “bubbles” targeted at specific demographics? Is it guilty of privileging cultural diversity — or “identity politics” — over class consciousness? How do these charges against the media, whether we consider them legitimate or not, relate to film production?
JDC: There’s a fairly robust strand of — I don’t want to call it this — the Trump electorate filmmaking: Patriots Day, Deepwater Horizon, the Peter Berg–Mark Wahlberg oeuvre. I mean, I don’t think those movies are going to end up being the Anthony Mann–Jimmy Stewart Westerns of our time, but they can market in a certain way. So I do think there’s a kind of bubbling going on there.
CS: What we do know is that we have enormous bias issues within the studio system, and so we have this enormous chore to do to remove what’s now become commonly called “unconscious bias” in Hollywood. And by the way, Women In Film is very responsible for introducing that term in Hollywood, but I have some regrets because it seems to make everybody feel like there’s no actual bias. But the fact is, we’ve got bias and unconscious bias operating at such a large level.
GR: You know, Hidden Figures provides a great example because initially it was made to target and market to black women. And as we’ve seen, it was the number one film in the country. It broke through, and it’s attracting mainstream audiences.
CS: Why does everyone sound so shocked? I’m so sick of everyone being like, “Can you believe it? It happened again!” And I’m like, “It keeps happening!” Why can’t this stop looking like such an exception to everyone? Of course it works: it’s got giant stars, an amazingly good story with a feel-good ending. It’s got everything we look for in a Hollywood movie.
JDC: And it’s a valedictory to the Obama Era.
JC: We’re hopefully still seeing the fruits of the Obama Era. And it will take a while before we see the fruits — if that’s the word — of the Trump Era.
J. D. Connor is a visiting associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. His book on neoclassical Hollywood, The Studios After the Studios, was published in 2015 by Stanford.
Best Picture Academy Award®-winning producer, Cathy Schulman began her career in the movie industry in 1987 and has been a producer and film executive ever since. Most recently, she served as the head of production for STX Entertainment, Hollywood’s newest global media company. Prior to STX, Schulman was president of Mandalay Pictures. Since 2011, she has been the President of Women In Film, the leading organizing supporting women in the film industry, advocating to create 50-50 gender parity in Hollywood across all platforms, all opportunities, and all content.
Gil Robertson is one of the United States’s foremost authorities on African-American pop culture. He is a journalist, author, lecturer, media consultant, and the president and co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association, the leading body of Black American film critics.
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and a regular contributor to NPR’s Fresh Air Weekend and FilmWeek. Before joining the Times, he was chief film critic at Variety. He is the author of the book FilmCraft: Editing and serves as chair of the National Society of Film Critics and secretary of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.