Back in 2006, writer John August wrote (and presented) a really great talk called “Professionalism and the Rise of the Amateur.” It drew on his own experience as a writer, but it could be applied to other jobs — basically, anywhere where you’re trying to be “professional” — and what that word means, really.
I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed how much content seems to be slipping away from Netflix as more and more companies take their metaphorical Matchbox cars and go home. And by “home,” I mean “create their own streaming service.”
I mean, I understand they want to have some legitimacy, prestige, and a glowing reputation. I just want it to have over 10,000 titles. And, by gum, I want it to be an online streaming archive akin to the old Leonard Maltin Movie Guides. How about that, Turner Classic Movies (TCM)? How about you work on curating all that awesome content you do and just let Netflix distribute it. Change money as makes sense.
What’s that you say? TCM is part of Warner Brotheres which is part of AT&T and that’s doing it’s own streaming service so there’s no chance in Hell or Gotham that might idea of Netflix-as-distributor will come to pass?
I would say in answer to the articles title question “Can ‘Star Trek’ Chart a Way Forward?,” that Trek is in a similar position as it was when they were getting ready to launch Deep Space Nine. They have an audience for Trek, some Trek fans are unconvinced, and they want to expand the franchise. Unlike DS9, I think there’s a much more palpable sense of excitement vs. the “Sure, I guess we’ll check it out” attitude of that series launch. Picard has gone from “who’s that bald guy in the lycra uniform that’s not Kirk?” back in 1987 to a Trek legend in his own right (and deservedly so I might subjectively add). So here’s one last look at teasers before the Internet verdicts come tumbling in.
One of the notions you’ll see in the links above is the idea to just go ahead and do it. Carpe that diem, even if it annoys Latin scholars that you just mangled that phrase. Mister Keating has your back. Alea iacta est and maybe this time it’s a natural 20.
So, on the one hand, it’s nice to see an industry professional mirror some of those sentiments, which is what Christopher McQuarrie did on Twitter back in October. Not being a Twitter power user, I only picked up on it when someone posted No Film School’s recap recently in a writer group.
The main thrust of his tweet thread is that those asking him for where to find an agent, read their script, etc., are asking the wrong questions, because on one level, it’s about submitting to the status quo of “the lottery,” the often random way one finds success and builds a career in Hollywood.
That he notes he realized that he was asking the wrong question and after winning an academy award no less (surely winning the lottery), made me sit up and take notice. In fact, hearing some of the same notions from someone who is absolutely “in the system” and has “won the lottery” that I hear from indie folks encouraging each other was striking.
The whole thread is worth reading, but I wanted to highlight some parts. One is the overall implication that he has played –and won– the lottery, but all that gets you is the ability to play the lottery again. This squares entirely with repeated anecdotes I get from people that Hollywood is a very binary environment, where you can be a one or zero at any time as far as various people believe.
And another implication is that if you’re not making something, you never get to be a ‘one’ in anyone’s eyes. And sometimes that something is not seen hardly at all, or it is seen and judged lacking, yet you focus on the “execution and not the result.”
That’s what I liked about him going beyond the oft-repeated idea of “doing what you love” You have to execute and keep on executing until you there’s more people that find you to be a “one”
On the Wordplay site (where the “Never Wait” column comes from), they mention writing a script is like writing your own lottery ticket. But McQuarrie makes the point several times how making a film, making more than just a screenplay, is actually giving you more chances.
“And it’s infinitely harder to sell a screenplay than it is to sell one’s proven abilities.”
I love that he closes with the notion that the business isn’t something to be broken into so much as you are the business to be acquired, that the creative folks we might look up to like-as-not made their own luck, and many –if not all– of them failed spectacularly along the way.
People are always writing to ask me my opinion of the latest blockbuster movie release. I’ll save you the trouble: I probably haven’t seen it and might not for some time. Sometimes, that’s because nothing I know about the film attracts me to it. Sometimes, I’m just busy and going to see a movie is one of the few things I can postpone for a long time and then experience.
A big reason for this is an aspect of modern movie-watching he expands on. If I want to watch a movie, there is rarely a need to see it right now except for the worry of spoilers. For example, we planned to see Avengers: Endgame shortly after it opened. However, Kenneth Branagh’s take on Murder on the Orient Express? It was a couple years before we checked that out.
With so many events and activities having little-to-no flexibility, this relatively newfound flexibility in film-watching has been welcome… even though I adore seeing a film in a theater (it is, after all, how I grew up and how I came to love movies so much). It also cuts down on how many new films get folded into my Favorite Film rankings.
In the meantime however, I am seeing a lot of films (and a whole lot more TV) on streaming services. And I’ve got a big backlog. I mean, I haven’t even finished Breaking Bad yet! So when I say “I haven’t seen [film],” know that there’s a queue.
I appreciate him taking the time to explain his viewpoint. He’s eloquent, passionate, and has an absolute love of film. If you’ve seen him in interviews and especially from some of his segments on Turner Classic Movies, this man loves cinema — all types of cinema — and I don’t think it’s at all controversial to opine that he’s contributed greatly to cinema through his films.
But while I agree with many of his observations, I don’t agree with the breadth of his conclusions.
Films are made more by committee these days. They are tested and –more likely than not– drained of anything that might be “controversial” as the studios continue to be risk averse in a way that really doesn’t avoid risk (see the box office disappointment of the latest Terminator film). Filmmakers who want to find a voice, tell a singular story, or otherwise be unexpected do find an uphill battle in the face of the studios near monolithic insistence on their vision. And I don’t doubt that the majority of filmmakers would love to make films for the sizable silver screen versus streaming.
But I feel Scorsese is conflating this studio stubbornness and corporate zeal to eliminate “art as risk” with its current method of promoting this blandness: superhero movies.
And there’s a lot of nuance in here, because he clearly understands and loves all sorts of movies. He identifies Hitchcock films as the thrill rides of his day, but I think he discounts the character, craft, and sheer enjoyment one finds in superhero movies. He’s entirely fine to say, as he does, that superhero movies are not to his taste — I just don’t think it’s fair to say superhero movies are in poor taste.
To give an example using the rough equivalent of the “superhero” film of his time growing up: imagine if Studios not only favored Westerns, but they insisted on franchises of Westerns and any new idea was met with, “But can it be a Western?” I can’t imagine Scorsese would enjoy this state of affairs any more than the state of affairs with superhero films — and he’d probably say some of the same things.
And you know what? He’d be right that the studios are too dismissive of anything done for art’s sake. He’d be right that many a Western is weighed down with hoary tropes and is more of a thrill ride that a film that engages you on all levels, but he would not be right that westerns are second-class films as a genre or type by virtue of being Westerns. Amid the slickly produced, forgettable ones, there’s early classics like “Stagecoach” and more meditative affairs like “High Noon,” character-driven action like “Winchester ’73,” and operatic takes like “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
Likewise, he’s missing all the character and nuance that you find in films like “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Black Panther.” Action sequences don’t take away from the tale of a man who dedicated his life to serve finding the institution he served has been betrayed from within. CGI armored rhinos don’t negate the nuance of a son coming to terms with things his father never told him as he tries to find a way to lead his people. I get that superhero films are thrill rides –the comics they’re based on have fight scenes and action sequences more often than not– but just like the Hitchcock films and Westerns of old, they’re not uniformly disposable trifles.
I suspect it’s hard not to conflate studio attitudes with superhero films because Scorsese is such a phenomenal, singular filmmaker. The studios are playing their superhero-franchise-over-everything-else card and that’s an impediment to precisely what Scorsese longs to do, (and what he’s done very well doing). He wants to make art. He understands that it’s show business, but he’s knows there’s art in the show and he’s presented with a bunch of drudges who feel showing art is bad.
And I bet if he was able to make all the films he pleased, he’d still be sad on behalf of the next generation of filmmakers.
For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.
Like I said above, this guy loves art. Think of his appearance as Van Gogh in Dreams: he’s a painter who wants you to paint. He implores you to paint for the sheer joy of painting. I think he’s just forgetting there’s other paintings that are artful, even when they’re paintings the studios are trying to mass produce.
Sigh. Much like Bugs Bunny, superhero films might not be considered “high art,” but they’re not going away anytime soon. Besides which, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already covered this: he’s not wrong, but he’s not right.
Toxic fans and risk-averse studios seem much better targets for umbrage — and finding ways to fund the types of films Coppola and Scorsese make without relying on the hell-bent-for-content motivation Netflix has? That just might be more worthwhile.