History loves repeating itself. A little over a year ago, Martin Scorsese gave the now infamous interview (here) where he had the audacity to express a view that comic book movies are not real cinema, but theme park attractions. This naturally led to immediate backlash on social media where hordes of rabid Marvel zealots frothed at their mouths for months on end and threatened to publicly burn copies of Taxi Driver. Or something equally dramatic.
And here we are now facing a re-run of this sad affair because another Film Twitter darling – David Fincher – seems to have poked the bear. Similarly to Scorsese who was promoting The Irishman at the time, Fincher is now ensconced in drumming up support for his own newest exploit, Mank, also a Netflix production, ahead of its premiere on December 4th. While answering a question regarding what he would do next and how he envisions his continuing relationship with Netflix, he offered his cynical view on the state of Hollywood, where he seems to no longer fit because the kinds of movies he is interested in making are difficult to finance within the traditional studio system. (here)
Naturally, this sent Marvel apologists into DEFCON1 yet again (mainly because Fincher used the word ‘spandex’ in an allegedly derogatory fashion) and sparked a discussion on Twitter on whether Fincher is right, or maybe if he should keep his pie-hole shut instead of trash-talking summer blockbusters whose box office revenue pays for financing more artistically-driven projects with awards appeal; and what does he know anyway.
This is an important point. Yes, traditionally big studios would use their tentpole releases to enable the likes of Scorsese, Fincher and everyone in between to make more high-brow movies in addition to picking up indie darling from festivals. However, this is scarcely the case these days. It used to be, but the world has changed. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why that is and at least part of the reason may be explained by the knock-on effect of the financial crash and the subsequent recession the world has suffered a little over a decade ago. When studios expect lower profits, riskier projects end up delayed or shelved. And when – as the record shows – their most bankable entities end up sweeping the floor, it doesn’t really take a genius to imagine that people in positions of authority might decide not to bother giving David Fincher fifty million dollars to make whatever he wants to make because his film might not make a profit at all.
As Newton’s third law suggests, every action is accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction so the vacuum left by big Hollywood studios ended up filled by the new kids on the block – Netflix and other streaming giants who have now picked up the slack. I don’t necessarily want to get into the nuance of how this has unfolded. Instead, I would like to draw your attention to the simple observation that, as a result, the film industry has split into camps where big studios decidedly veer towards recreating a business model of the Golden Age Hollywood, while streaming platforms lure high-profile filmmakers to make movies with them by offering them unparalleled freedom. They are sponsoring the renaissance of The New Hollywood.
I don’t suppose I am too far off the mark here, especially if we remember that David Fincher’s Mank isn’t a new project that just sprang out of nowhere. He had been trying to convince Hollywood producers to finance this film since the mid-90s and nobody cared because a period piece about the making of Citizen Kane was unlikely to make a large enough splash in its theatrical run. On the other hand, Netflix and Amazon don’t care about opening weekends and box office take in general because their business model assumes a steady stream of revenue coming from subscribers. What they want is exclusive content to keep their subscriber base from dropping and they are willing to risk giving filmmakers freedom to do what they please. This is quite frankly fascinating in its own right because Netflix is simply overflowing with critically-panned exploits coming from well-established filmmakers (e.g. Bright, Mute) that no sane studio would ever say yes to.
In essence, this accidentally inflammatory interview illuminated something that goes well beyond the culture wars on Twitter and the polarized tribalization which seeped into popular culture from the society at large. It almost seems unimportant in comparison that just like the ‘real world’ has shifted to extremes – the far-left vs the far right, the climate change deniers vs eco-terrorists etc. – popular culture has done the same. We have grown used to the fact the universe of film lovers is no longer granular but divided into echo chambers populated by cult-like factions. Therefore, it was almost expected that even a modicum of honesty regarding the status quo in the film industry would send someone up the wall.
What it should have precipitated instead is a conversation about potentially embracing this geopolitical division where studios continue making movies Martin Scorsese refuses to watch, while Netflix and Amazon throw money at artistic heavyweights and audacious young whippersnappers alike so that they could make the kind of art they feel they must make.
For a few years now I have been quietly waiting for the history to repeat itself because I felt it was inevitable that one day a string of blockbuster flops would bring about a paradigm shift in Hollywood. And we’d witness the birth of The New Hollywood 2.0 as a result. But this now seems unlikely to happen because of the way the industry has polarized and because they cater to different audiences at the same time. In effect, as this situation matures and evolves further, we will soon find ourselves in a world where we can go out to the cinema (assuming the pandemic is over) and see the latest big budget eye candy and then come back home and watch a new Paul Thomas Anderson film on Netflix because they would no longer be competing for the same ticket dollars. The era of ‘greatest films never made’ is effectively going to be over.