The Laptop Theater

The health of Hollywood is not the same as the health of motion pictures.


The way people talk about the movie business these days, you might expect Hollywood itself to show up in the death montage at next year's Oscar ceremony. Heavily hyped films are fizzling. Online filesharing is cutting into box office receipts. The city's reliance on sequels and remakes has gotten so intense that it is now the conventional wisdom to say the studios are out of ideas.

The conventional wisdom is a little overwrought—surely it means something that one of the most critically and commercially popular films of the year, Toy Story 3, is not just a sequel but a sequel to a sequel—but the larger indictment isn't far off. Hollywood is undeniably in an unhealthy state. But the state of Hollywood should not be confused with the state of motion pictures, just as the state of the dominant record companies should not be confused with the state of American music, the state of the Big Three should not be confused with the state of automobile manufacturing, the state of newspapers should not be confused with the state of journalism, and the state of public schools should not be confused with the state of public knowledge. The last decade has seen movies breaking free of traditional Hollywood shackles and finding new creators, venues, and formats, some of which stretch the conventional conception of what a movie can be.

The number of films produced by U.S. companies has been sliding over the last few years, from 928 in 2006 down to 677 in 2009. The number of films released in American theaters actually increased slightly over part of that period, from 594 in 2006 to 633 in 2008, but in 2009 it descended to 558, the first decline since 2003. These drops are partly a reflection of the recession, and in part they reflect the effects of the Writers Guild strike.

At the same time, though, there was a surge in movies that never made it to standard American theaters at all. The Internet Movie Database reports that 9,591 features were created last year—a number that excludes documentaries, direct-to-video and made-for-TV movies, and a substantial number of the pictures that never got past the festival circuit. In 1999, by contrast, there were just 3,275. That isn't necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison, as small and foreign filmmakers today might be more likely to make an effort to get listed in the IMDb. But I doubt such a change in practices would be enough to account for a nearly threefold increase. Over the same time period, meanwhile, the number of documentaries more than doubled. Chris Hyams—chief operating officer of Slated, a New York-based company that does market research for movie producers and distributors—estimates that the number of new features playing at festivals worldwide last year was even higher than the IMDb allows, perhaps as many as 30,000.

And don't forget the movies that aren't feature length. The most important figure here may be the amount of footage uploaded to the Internet, which keeps climbing. YouTube, for example, revealed in March that 24 hours of content were being uploaded to the site every minute, up from 15 hours per minute in the middle of 2008 and six hours per minute in the middle of 2007. There are no reliable figures on how much of that is excerpted without alterations from commercial films or television and how much was created explicitly for the Web. But speaking anecdotally, there seems to have been a sharp increase in both kinds of content. Thanks to YouTube, Vimeo, and similar sites, there's a larger audience than ever before for independently produced motion pictures.

It's a safe bet that most of those movies are mediocre or worse. But as Brian Newman writes in The Wrap, "I never walk into the record store and think there are too many bands out there, too many albums to pick from. Instead, I value the diversity of artists available for my listening pleasure." When the cost of filmmaking falls and more people, in more places, from more social backgrounds, learn to shoot and edit, the results may include an increase in crap, but there will also be an increase in creativity, variety, and verve.

For decades, cineastes bemoaned the death of the short, a form exiled from mainstream theaters and abandoned to the marginal worlds of film schools and film festivals. Now there's a sudden increase not just in the production of shorts but in the size of their audience. Small, bizarre, formula-busting movies can actually become hits, though we don't call them hits; we say they've "gone viral." And if some of those hits involve nothing more profound than a dramatic chipmunk or a well-choreographed wedding march, that merely means the usual art-to-trivia ratio is still in place. At least this trivia is content to deliver its single joke and then end, which is more than can be said for the typical Saturday Night Live movie. (Or, for that matter, the typical Saturday Night Live sketch.)

Moving pictures aren't just getting shorter and simpler. They're getting longer and more complex. American television is arguably in its most creatively rich period ever, and one strand of that richness is the rise of tightly woven, season- or series-long story arcs. Such extended narratives were riskier undertakings in the past, back when it was easier to miss an episode altogether and impossible to hit "rewind" while you were watching. Those aren't problems anymore, thanks to DVDs, DVRs, and online streaming, so executives are willing to embrace more narrative complexity. And with smaller outfits such as HBO in the TV production business, those executives are ever more willing to serve niche audiences as well. Not every long-term story arc is actually good, of course, but that's true of traditional films and TV shows as well; the important point is that masterpieces like The Wire, a 60-hour megamovie released in weekly installments, are now possible at all.

It is also now possible to gorge on such shows in a handful of sittings, and to do so on the same devices we use to watch YouTube shorts and mainstream features. That's one of the reasons I'm comfortable discussing all three categories as though they represent the same art. They're all moving pictures; it's just that more and more of them aren't limited to the constraint of being "feature length."

One last thought about those sequels and remakes. Are they really more likely to be lousy than other movies? Most films are based on well-worn plot formulas and character types, even if they don't explicitly borrow a story or a character from an earlier picture. I suspect that sequels and remakes aren't worse than other releases so much as we're much more likely to resent them when they fail, lest they stain our memories of the originals.

But that resentment hasn't been a problem for online shorts, a great deal of which consist of remixes, mash-ups, parody trailers, and other reimaginings of well-known movies. No one mistakes the ASCII version of Star Wars for an official Star Wars product, so even if you dislike it the Star Wars brand name won't suffer any damage. (The prequels, on the other hand…) When it comes to making something new out of something old, the termite artists in the YouTube hive have a better track record than the studios that actually own the rights to the material.

"Film," Jean Cocteau once said, "will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper." I don't know if we'll ever literally reach that day, but if nothing else we've come to the point when the pencil-and-paper wing of filmmaking can make far more artful use of the same raw materials that fuel the established movie studios. If that's a sign of decline in Hollywood, it's also an indication that there's no shortage of creative energy in the culture at large.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).