It belongs to our common sense perception that distribution and production technologies develop more rapidly than the content they cover and that great competence in technologies is not equivalent to the mastery of creative content. Knowing grammar and vocabulary or different types of filters and lenses is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for creative output. Over the last few years in virtually all related film festival seminars there have been discussions about the new distribution platforms which for some observers will revive independent productions whereas others consider the sky already fallen for Indies. Spirited defenses of the internet as an answer to independent woes have subsided given the negligible financial impact the internet has been having, not to speak of the catastrophic unmooring of the music industry. Yet, whether or not the sky has fallen on film culture with the consequence of reducing the audience for independent productions and worse the quality of what is produced is a question rarely addressed. There appears to be a rarely analyzed generational shift in relating to films.
The 2010 Tribeca Film Festival is certainly unique since it also served as a distribution platform going beyond prior attempts by SXSW and Sundance. It premiered this year an on-line ‘Tribeca Film Festival Virtual’ with eight features and 18 shorts drawn from the festival. This was available for one week during the festival for a $45 charge. Tribeca Enterprise has set up a new branded division named Tribeca Films, a film distribution company, which will be involved in video on demand, as well as theatrical, DVD and cable distribution. Potentially 40 million cable homes from major cable networks could receive films from the festival fare. Tribeca Films will also serve hotels and stationary platforms and be available on ad-supported digital platforms.
Tribeca Enterprises is continuing its brand extension and presumably the independent film makers will profit if new audiences can be reached through an on-line festival experience, an expansion facilitated through American Express support. Thus, Tribeca seems to be moving away from the traditional Festival model, showcasing the work, bestowing awards, creating buzz, and enabling access to the market. Tribeca’s distribution approach implies a fluid film audience which is no longer split between indie and Hollywood segments. This audience takes to populist Tribeca film selections receiving awards, to sports, music, popular features and issue oriented films as distinct from difficult films aimed at the art house circuit which you will not find on your hotel box.
This shift packaged in Tribeca’s traditional (and effective) eclectic approach seems to correspond to the generational shift noted earlier and to the decline, but not a demise, of traditional film culture. When Geoff Gilmore raised the question of film culture during a festival panel neither the panelists nor the audience picked up the issue. Traditional film culture reflected literacy and informed discourse about films and the environment generating them. It assumed analytic abilities and the creative discovery of connections, the discernment of relations between elements of the film structure to the story, ties to prior films, to name but a few points.
The rise and decline of film culture has to be elucidated against the background of seismic shifts in US American culture. We need to begin with a data driven understanding. There has been a long term decline of time and funds spent by the average American on books, the printed word, and a dramatic increase of time and money spent on the consumption of visual media. In 2009 the average American spent 2088 hours consuming visual material but only 240 hours reading magazines and books. About 80% of media expenditures that year were devoted to visual media. Americans are surrounded by a giant supermarket of films and television programs, provided by hundreds of cable television programs, DBS providers, more than 25 000 Redbox video kiosks renting films for one dollar a piece, not to mention electronic platforms like cell phones. To assume that in this environment selection of a film follows reflection grounded in film culture may be an illusion, though it still holds for the few remaining filmerati. Rather the choice in most cases follows an impulsive buying decision. But there are other factors.
In virtually all comparative studies of post industrial societies, the US receives failing grades in language use and the sciences and demonstrating a catastrophic state, specifically in higher education. Audience preferences seem to gravitate towards action oriented, special effect laden movies as the current 3D (or 2.5D) craze indicates reflecting the industry quip ‘the higher the production value the lower the content’. There is the frequently articulated view that the new social media could generate an audience for films, a perspective difficult to base on facts since social science research shows a progressive isolation (privatization) of Americans and a shrinking of their interpersonal networks. Twittering, texting, digital listings in social media may create pseudo communities but they hardly serve to create literacy or film culture. Undoubtedly as many film festival directors will attest, there has been a dramatic increase in productions. Thousands of certified film makers each year leave institutions of higher education in the United States, since having a film or video production department has become a question of prestige for colleges. But it seems safe to assume that most of these graduates are film technicians rather than directors or writers generating creative content. After all, as noted before, it is easier to teach how to hold a camera or which lenses to use than to foster content creativity. And creativity is linked to non-linear reasoning, literacy, film culture and authentic experiences rather than restricted communicative abilities, linear technical skills, and second hand experience derived from the consumption of visual media.
Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent – firstname.lastname@example.org