Film and social consciousness
VAIL – Between “Munich,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” 2005-2006 has been a big year for what the industry calls “issue films.” It has also been a year of declining box office numbers and unprecedented growth for iTunes and social networking sites. Hollywood is currently struggling to figure out how the above factors are connected, and what they will mean for commercial moviemaking in the years to come.On April 1, some of the industry’s key players met in Vail for a panel on “Film and Social Consciousness in the Digital Age.” The panel included Laura Bickford, Oscar nominated producer of “Traffic,” and Owen Gleiberman, movie critic for Entertainment Weekly. The panel discussed why social activism has recently been so successfully parlayed into commercial entertainment, and how new digital media has influenced both Hollywood and home-based filmmaking. HeathCliff Rothman, founder of Film Your Issue, moderated.Rothman opened the panel by remarking on how prolific 2006 has been in terms of activist movies. Bickford replied that, from a commercial standpoint, the two driving forces behind the recent success of socially conscious films have been entertainment value and star power. “The most important thing about making films about social issues is to make them entertaining, not like medicine or a lecture,” Bickford said. “Audiences have this preconception that they’re coming to these movies to take their vitamins, but recent films have been good enough to prove them wrong.”Gleiberman agreed, mentioning that the last time moviemaking has been this socially conscious was in the 1970s. He pointed to an important shift in the audience’s interests. “The reason this is happening,” said Gleiberman, “is because now, post-9/11, people have a real stake in issues. I believe this will continue to be reflected in films, and socially conscious movies will grow as popular entertainment.”
Digital gives voice to just about anyoneRothman turned the discussion to the issue of technology, musing on the probable connection between improved technology and issue-based filmmaking. “Times are changing,” he said. “Due to technology, the 12-year-old in your basement can now make his own film.” With costs lowering as directors increasingly turn to digital media, home-based amateurs can now produce films as professional as Hollywood’s.Analisa Balares, who works for MSN in global consumer marketing, agreed about the importance of technological growth. “The digitalization of filmmaking allows anyone to give voice to issues they care about, and the Internet provides a free platform for these people to express their opinions,” she said. Plus, people are now spending more hours online than watching TV or movies, greatly changing the venue in which media is spread.Gleiberman, however, begged to differ about the Internet’s impact. “I’m cynical about the Internet,” he said. “I’m less optimistic. The main things people do online is look at porn and shop – both part of the numbness. The big problem is not lack of information, but lack of response. We’re drowning in diversion.”Gleiberman again pointed to the audience rather than the filmmakers.
“Movie audiences are tired of a nonstop diet of popcorn,” he said. “We have been lining up to see movies because they’ve been fantasy, because they’ve been unreal. Now there’s a real shift in the audience. I think it’s really beginning to happen.”The commercial and the consumer-createdThe panel may have disagreed about the role of the Internet, but they agreed that the world of film will increasingly consist of two different types of communities: the commercial and the consumer-created. Bickford expressed concern that this division will create a fragmented market, preventing commercial filmmakers from making the money necessary to get films produced. Balares suggested, in return, that online social networks could be used to help build buzz for movies in theaters. Gleiberman brought up the possibility of new, merged forms of distribution. He referred to Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble,” which was released in a handful of theaters, where it commercially failed, and was then released on DVD a week later, where it surpassed all expectations of sales.Hollywood can rest assured, however, that mainstream media will not be entirely obliterated. Rothman pointed out that mainstream media plays the role of “getting rid of clutter” by drawing attention to movies made with major stars or by major houses.Clark McCutchen, a lawyer and producer at The Weinstein Company, agreed that “a big part of why we see films is to see who’s in them, who made them.” The Internet may produce films with strong stories and pointed interests, but it won’t be able to access some of the basic features that make Hollywood thrive.
Big screen communityGleiberman also discussed the importance of seeing movies on the big screen. “Do we want people to lose the movie going experience and watch at home? Lose their sense of fellow feeling, of connectivity? Movies have always represented community, gathering in theaters and worshipping the light coming through that screen.”Whether that sense of community is fostered online or in the theater, there is an exciting sense that socially mindful moviemaking is just beginning to take off. It may inspire you to take action, or inspire you to meet people you would not have before, or just inspire you to rethink how you’ve been walking through the world. As Bickford said, “Social consciousness isn’t just about issues, but about seeing other points of view. It’s about your approach to humanity and how you see it.” On the big screen or small screen, there’s no bigger picture than that.Vail, Colorado