Sunday, April 28, 2024


To make your debut as a feature film director by declaring the death of the film industry is a trick that Jean-Luc Godard sadly missed.

For Jerry Seinfeld, the stand-up comedian whose eponymous sitcom didn’t set the UK on fire, this was a throwaway statement in an interview for “GQ” magazine promoting “Unfrosted”, a fictional retelling of the birth of Pop Tarts, depicting the clash between Kellogg’s and rival cereal makers Post like it was the Space Race.

Seinfeld talks about how, at age 69, directing a film was totally new: “I thought I had done some cool stuff, but it was nothing like the way these people work. They’re so dead serious! They don’t have any idea that the movie business is over. They have no idea.” Asked to elaborate, he confirmed he didn’t say this to his crew, but explained that film is no longer the pinnacle of culture: “When a movie came out, if it was good, we all went to see it. We all discussed it. We quoted lines and scenes we liked. Now we’re walking through a fire hose of water, just trying to see.” Asked what has taken film’s place, Seinfeld said (italics as printed), “Depression? Malaise? I would say confusion. Disorientation replaced the movie business. Everyone I know in show business, every day, is going, What’s going on? How do you do this? What are we supposed to do now?

My immediate thought upon reading this was “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING”, the refrain from scriptwriter William Goldman’s 1983 book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”. Having repeated it for emphasis, the writer of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, and future writer of “The Princess Bride”, adds “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows [Goldman’s emphasis] for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess – and if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

Goldman begins his book by placing it in the aftermath of “Heaven’s Gate”, Michael Cimino’s ruinously expensive film that symbolically ended the “New Hollywood” period of greater artistic freedom, through greater directorial control and more daring subject matter, that followed the death of the old Classical Hollywood studio system at the end of the 1960s. This itself followed a number of experiments in luring audiences away from their suburban houses and television sets, from large “roadshow films” in the 1960s like “The Sound of Music”, “Doctor Doolittle” and “Hello Dolly”, and 1950s innovations like stereo sound, Cinemascope and 3D. It was easier for the Hollywood studios to present their films before the 1950s, just as when they installed sound equipment in their cinemas from the end of the 1920s, but with their having been separated from these theatre chains over anti-competitive practices, studios would have to deal with that loss of control, just as the nascent Hollywood studios set themselves up in the 1910s to escape attempts to control the film industry in New York.

Just as the perceived success and productivity of industry could be measured in peaks and troughs, the film industry had enough of these by the time Goldman’s book was published to make you wonder how anyone got anything done. The following year, 1984, saw the lowest recorded cinema attendance figures in the UK, just as the film industry was adapting to the concept of home video, now largely replaced by online streaming, the studios themselves going from exploiting new content delivery systems to being reconfigured as the content delivery system, both through streaming new films and exploiting intellectual property – why make a new sitcom when one from a generation ago, like “Seinfeld”, will suffice? 

I have only not mentioned Netflix because its role in disrupting the film industry, from production to exhibition to home video, could be interpreted as the main reason for it being declared as “over”, rather than just the latest reason - that Jerry Seinfeld’s “Unfrosted” was made for Netflix is purely coincidental.

No comments:

Post a Comment