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'Do The Movies Have A Future' in an increasingly digital world?

Cover of David Denby's book
Cover of David Denby's book "Do The Movies Have A Future?"

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It was a record breaking weekend at the box office over the Thanksgiving holiday thanks to blockbuster films like "Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 2" and the latest James Bond movie "Skyfall." In total, box offices throughout the U.S. brought in more than $290 million.

The big Hollywood studios may be faring well financially now, but what about five or 10 years from now?

New Yorker film critic David Denby is worried about the blockbuster films being made today and the effect they're having on American cinema. His new book is called "Do The Movies Have A Future?"

Interview Highlights:

What do you think is the biggest problem with the movie industry today?
“The companies are totally interested in revenue flow, they have lost any sense of the cultural value of movies, of the kind of unspoken contract they might have with America, to produce some sense of its life, of its streets, of its soul, of its social existence. And so first of all, we are getting all these enormous movies based on comic book material and games and young adult novels that are all digital spectacle, they are not set anywhere in particular, there are a lot of pixels contending in a dead digital space. Those movies cost anywhere from $150 to 250 million and if they fail they threaten to bring the company down… the system is not accommodating its best talents.”

You said the companies have broken their contract with the nation, what do you mean by that?
“Movies were always our national theatre, they always were a central part of our national culture. They no longer are. They have become so bent out of shape that they have become a very minor part of our culture. There are other things going on like the Internet and cable television but there is no reason that there can’t be more movies like the “Social Network” and “Lincoln” that deal with life that matters to us, that has some significance. It has become a very minor form of entertainment; it’s mainly for kids. They have given up on the older audience for about nine months of the year. There is a marvelous season that starts on October 1st where our IQ goes up by 40 points and ends on December 26 and the rest of the time the adults are treated like down trodden workers.”

If this is what makes them the most money, can you blame them?
“Yes, they are tying their survival to the birth rate, not to the entire population. They don’t have to make 250 million dollar movies that threaten to throw the administration down every time, there are two ways out of this box. They can make smaller winners, you know 15 million dollars and grow to 60 and make a whole slate of them every year. Or they can bring down initial costs, instead of letting agents rule the roost in this insane system and get 12 or 14 million dollars for their star clients, they can do what Soderbergh has done with George Clooney a couple time, pay up front a million dollars up front and at the back end as all the revenue comes in, you divide everything by fixed percentages. It would take longer to pay off and the agents wouldn’t like but they would get their cut too at the back end, but it would bring down initial costs by 30 to 40 percent. Soderbergh has done this but unfortunately he hasn’t had a hit so others haven’t seen the logic of this system.”

How does the fact that two-thirds of the audience comes from over seas exacerbate the problem?
“These movies are not for us anymore, they are as much for Mumbai as for Maine, two-thirds comes from over seas so that has led to the movies being defoliated of nuance and local color, of certain kinds of sophisticated dialogue, there is a lot of facetiousness and self mockery but that is about it. In the seventies in the golden age, movies were set in a particular time and place…these were commercial movies that made to make a profit, that was the way they can conceive that audience. There is as much talent as ever, if not more, it’s the business structure that is not rational.”

One section of your book deals with the genre mumblecore, what role do you see this genre playing in this economic climate?
“It means micro budget film making… it may be shot in Seattle or Portland or Chicago…it creates a kind of awkwardness, but it has its truth, but how much though do you want to watch that? Generally we want firmer action and characters than that. Out of this semi improvised quickly made movies we will eventually get something that’s startling. What startled me the most out of more traditional independent films was “Beast of the Southern Wild,” which is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. That was very carefully prepared, it only cost a million dollars but it was very carefully prepared, shot in the bayou of south west of New Orleans and it had a script that went through elaborate development. The problem with mumblecore is they don’t trust writing enough, they think that directing and acting can do everything. The John Cassavetes films from forty years ago is the model, you just have to have a general idea of where a scene is going to go and let the actors find their way. It is very low intensity that is at the moment is not going to draw a theatrical audience. It’s a home media… but the revolution will come sooner or later.”

Which of the most recent movies give you the most hope for the future of movies?
“Steven Spielberg after years of trying got to make his dream project, “Lincoln” with Daniel Day Lewis. It turned out marvelously well. There are great actors and it is a great triumph and I think it is a shoo-in for the Oscar at this point.”

Denby Excerpt for NPR