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April 20, 2006

Industry in Crisis

Picture this industry in crisis. New technologies have driven costs higher -- and developing for these competing technologies can be very expensive. The new technology has required new means of production, new specialized expertise and skills, and expensive new equipment. At the same time, producers have lost touch with what will connect to the mainstream and sell enough to justify the increased costs, relying increasingly on selling through formula and spectacle as a way to reach more customers. Finally, government censorship is waiting in the wings, looking for an opening to clean out the industry of undesirable elements. It's a crucial time, and it could conceivably go either way.

The game industry? Hell, no. I'm talking about Hollywood in the late 50s and early 60s.

In a lot of ways, that was a critical time for the American film industry. I was listening to the Game Developers' Rant at GDC a few weeks ago, and Chris Hecker drew a possible connection between games and either film or comic books. Comic books, of course, took a fairly limited approach for a long, long time, doing the same thing again and again, and it's only in the last fifteen years or so that it's started to branch out further in the mainstream aspect of the business¹. Chris was saying that we have a lot more tools in the toolbox than simple adolescent power fantasy. I agree with him. More on that later, let's get back to the film industry.

I've been taking a class in the history of narrative film, primarily addressing the post-war years and largely focusing on world cinema, rather than Hollywood. As an exercise, however, the professor had us pick an American film from a short list representing what was going on in the 1950s here in Hollywood -- I chose How to Marry a Millionaire, with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe², described as an exemplary comedy from the period.

Here's the crazy thing, though. It wasn't funny. Not really even a little bit.

Now, comedy is hard and maybe doesn't have a ton of longevity in a lot of cases as tastes change, but I was really struck by how singularly unfunny it was, with flat dialog and the sort of silly empty plot that makes Adam Sandler movies seem brilliant³
by comparison. Usually I can see what would have been funny, though, even if it's less funny now, and so I asked my professor about it. He said that what they were really selling was spectacle -- the idea of three single women sharing an apartment hunting for husbands, seeing Marilyn Monroe lying down on a bed, etc.

Selling spectacle over substance. That rings a little bit of a bell. So does taking a known quantity and trying to leverage it into some revenue with not a lot of extra work. Moving on.

The technology change I mentioned was really kind of two-fold: the move into color, but also the move into a wider format. There were several competing formats with their own strengths and weaknesses (most of which I can't remember off the top of my head), and each required different cameras for filming and different projectors in the theaters.

This certainly parallels the game industry quite a lot -- right now, we're looking at a transition for two systems going multicore, with greater storage capacities and a big push into HD display. Except now, it's not a couple of thousand theaters that need replacing, it's millions of TV sets that need to get the old heave-ho4, not to mention various new-wave DVD players and such. And the development costs grow substantially as well, trying to fill those new media, paralleling the similar increased camera costs and expertise required with the change to widescreen formats.

The other area where Hollywood was falling down was that it had no idea what was going to be a hit anymore. Sound of Music would be an enormous hit one year, and Dr. Dolittle a complete flop the next, despite a lot of similarities between those films in terms of form and genre. Even bankable stars weren't a guarantee -- Cleopatra nearly buried Twentieth Century Fox (much as New Line might have been buried if Peter Jackson's ship hadn't come in so well). Old formulas weren't guaranteed to work any more, lavish productions weren't enough to bring in the viewers, and Hollywood was stymied.

Folks who fail to note similarities with the game industry here should browse the bargain bins at their local game store a little more closely, or try to get their hands on the NPD stats every now and again.

I'm happy to note, however, that film survived all of this, even if Hollywood has been taking a bit of a hit in the last year or two, with ticket sales down5. One of the reasons film survived all of it, only to run into a crisis of another kind (maybe another post), was the growth of "non-Hollywood" films. There were two kinds of these.

The first were the films like Double Indemnity and other great noir films. These were originally shot as the B-reels -- the film you would stay and watch after the main feature was done -- and they often were written by embittered writers who had been blacklisted due to that government intervention I lightly touched upon above, HUAC and all that. These were groundbreaking films -- setting a visual look and almost auteurish feel in the sense of dealing grittily with particular themes (betrayal, lust, murder) that the mainstream pictures weren't touching with a ten foot pole.

The second were the international cinemas that were springing up all over after reconstruction from World War II, in Italy, France, Sweden, and Japan, to name a few. In some cases, these films were directly influenced by noir, particularly in France. It was the rise of the auteur, and of film's engagement with social (The Bicycle Thief) and philosophical (Rashomon, Bergman) questions.

What was great was that these films were successful, even finding an audience here in the States, an audience of literate filmgoers who were tired of feeling like they were being spoonfed movies by a committee somewhere. For example, France had an amazingly successful 1959, with The 400 Blows, Un Chien Andalou, and Breathless, which spawned an enormous investment of capital in France into filmmaking, since films in the New Wave style could be done much more cheaply than films in Hollywood. I won't say everything was a commercial success; but the French film industry wasn't a hit-driven business in the early 60s, it was a bastion of experimentation, lots of interesting films being made cheaply.

So, I guess all of this just makes me glad to see people trying to make in-roads with an indie aesthetic, or asking folks to consider making games that touch on the human condition, or trying to figure out how to draw in new markets, or to open up games to more player authorship. All of these were themes I heard this year at the GDC, alongside the mainline business.

The good news, is that it's a crisis that can be survived. We can conceive of moving away from a very hit-driven business, where lack of a hit for long enough will bury a company (Atari being just one recent example), and instead one which can identify markets and bring great product to them, even if those products have the interactive feel of "shaky-cam" to them, with lower production costs and perhaps shorter length. We can conceive of more of an auteur-driven business, with individuals trying to explore themes not typically seen in videogames, perhaps even touching on the human condition just a bit, as Jon Blow mentioned in his rant, and perhaps those will help us reach new markets and grab the center a little bit.

I'm so looking forward to what this industry can be if we become more like what happened with film, and less like what happened with comics.

¹There was, of course, a healthy underground comics movement before that, investigating other sorts of stories and approaches that could be taken with the medium, including R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar and certainlly lots of others. (back)
²I admit, I partially chose this movie because of Monroe. It was a little weird to have seen as many movies as I have and yet never have seen her in anything. I've since also seen The Seven-Year Itch which I liked somewhat more. I've been on a bit of a Billy Wilder kick lately, since seeing The Apartment (which I got because I had seen Double Indemnity in class). Since then I've also seen Irma La Douce and Sabrina and I have Some Like It Hot now. After that I'm probably done with Wilder for a while -- that seems to cover the greatest hits. Anyway.
³Okay, not that bad. But pretty damned bad. (back)
4Actually, I kind of wonder if there's a business or charitable effort in that; take the last gen's tech and TVs and distribute them to places that could use them, like kids' hospitals and stuff like that. You could hook up PS2s with the linux kit and have a nice little computer and display. But I digress. (back)
5This will likely make an updated format for theaters, such as digital projection, even harder to swallow. Good sales and marketing ("Having digital projection will bring in the marks!" or "You'll save on film costs!", both of which are probably bunk) may help with that, but it'll be interesting. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:34 PM | Comments (3)

April 18, 2006

New Post Coming Friday

Sorry, I've been busy with lots of personal details. But someone gave me a hard time today about not posting, and I promised him I'd have something up by Friday to keep him "entertained and informed".

The post is called Industry in Crisis, which sounds a little like flame bait, now, doesn't it? Check back on Friday.

Posted by Brett Douville at 01:46 PM | Comments (2)