Last night I opened up an article I had earmarked earlier in the day and watched That Moment, the amazingly candid and engaging 72 minute documentary included on the 2000 DVD release of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s 1999 epic Magnolia. And I was hit with a wave of nostalgia unlike anything I had felt in quite some time. It might be odd that I would find the fanfare that greeted the 25th anniversary of 1989’s Batman to be little more than noise, only to be almost overcome by a 14 year old DVD supplement. But that’s what happened.
Of course, it probably helps that I watched this doc obsessively upon its release. I was just starting to fall in love not only with film, but with the process of making it, and I must have sat down to watch this thing at least 20 times within my first year of owning the DVD. The nostalgia didn’t come as a fondess for that time in my life though. It came in the form of a bittersweet remembrance of how things used to be in Hollywood not all that long ago. Or, perhaps, as someone who didn’t even live in California at the time, a remembrance of the way I imagined things to be. Head below for more.
Before I go on, I want to stress that last line. I can only speak to an idea of the film industry in 1999 because I never experienced that “era”, just a perception of it colored a bit by youth and naiveté. Nor can I really speak with prescient authority regarding how films get made in 2014 (though I do know a little bit more than I did then). I don’t know if things are necessarily worse, but things are different.
Overall I’d say that 1999 was a great year for mainstream cinema. Not everything that was great became a hit, but the major studios were delivering riskier fare than they tend to today. David O. Russell‘s Warner Bros. film Three Kings was a highly political film outraged at the first Iraqi war with no allegory to hide behind. David Fincher‘s 20th Century Fox release Fight Club attacked consumer culture head on (while simultaneously negating its protagonists’ lunkheaded “solution” – something people today still miss). Even The Matrix was a bigger risk than a studio would be likely to take today. Magnolia was a 188 minute studio* movie that culminated in a cast singalong and a torrential rain of frogs. It platformed its way onto 1,086 theaters.
Today its very possible that Magnolia wouldn’t even have the same title; it’s possible that it would be a film distributed by Magnolia Pictures to 21 screens four weeks after opening on VOD; It’s possible that it would have a fraction of the budget. Paul Thomas Anderson was hot off Boogie Nights but he wasn’t yet “Paul Motherfucking Thomas Anderson.” Does that guy get to make a three hour movie about whatever he wants at a cost of $40 Million? What was a long shot back then (PTA was still a major exception to the rule) seems like a near impossibility now.
Why are things different now? I don’t know of any one reason. I’m sure there are many contributing factors. Studios used to be able to rely on the home video market to mitigate risks somewhat. That ancillary revenue stream is now a fraction of what it used to be (piracy, while not the sole cause of this, certainly doesn’t help). Vertical integration is also a factor. Studios are owned by corporations whose fiduciary responsibility is to minimize risk. Films have been considered product for a long time now, but the vice grip definition of that word keeps tightening. Reliance on foreign box office also changes things. Why pour money into something only one market will understand when you can strip it of many of its idiosyncrasies for wider cultural appeal. And, to be fair, if you look at that triad of Fight Club, Magnolia and Three Kings – none of them were major successes. Filmmakers change too. It can be hard fighting that fight. After the failure of I Heart Huckabees in 2005 and the debacle that was Nailed in 2008 can you really blame someone like O. Russell for going off in a more conventional direction?
There’s also this – things change. They always have. The pendulum swings back and forth but never lands in exactly the same place. Cinema changed radically in the 70’s as a revolt against the comparatively safe product that flooded out in the 60’s. The 80’s swung back towards the commercial side of things. People got more daring in the late 90’s. Hell, even as recently as 2007 you can recognize a banner year for film (There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Zodiac) before things swung back the other way again. Right now we’re in an era where even Steven Spielberg can have a hard time pushing a movie through. And when the pendulum finally swings back, we may have found that the studios have for the most part left these kinds of films to the indie world (or maybe not).
Great movies obviously still exist. 2013 had amazing stuff like Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska and 12 Years a Slave. It may even be on par with 2007 or 1999 in terms of quality. I expect the end of 2014 to be fantastic as well with films like Interstellar and PTA returning with Inherent Vice. But getting these made is different. Either you’re Christopher Nolan and a studio makes your passion projects as payback for billions of Batman dollars or you’re Martin Scorsese. Quentin Tarantino has the Weinsteins. PTA and Spike Jonze have done well with Annapurna (Megan Ellison’s company that, and I mean this as a compliment, seems to exist in a 1999 that never ended). The voices it’s hardest on are the newest ones. Rarely are they given studio leeway. Financing often has to be cobbled together piece by piece depending on the package. There’s less money to go around and a much shakier ancillary system if something fails to connect immediately. Great, risky movies still happen, but they happen differently and are harder to get through the system.
So sit back, relax and watch a then 28-year-old filmmaker talk about being given final cut on a $40 Million studio movie. Thanks to Slashfilm for sharing.
*New Line was still owned by Warner Bros. back then but operated with a higher degree of autonomy than they do now until 2008.