The recent news that Steven Spielberg was running into trouble in financing his long-coveted passion project biopic of Abraham Lincoln was greeted generally with a mix of worry and trepidation at the future of the film industry. The question raised was if Spielberg, the most bankable and commercially successful director in film history, was having trouble in securing financing for his work, how will this impact the wider industry?
Three answers to that question in my opinion. First, Spielberg is nowhere near the commercial and critical box-office force he once was. I’m by no means saying he has experienced a John Carpenter-esque fall from grace, but there is no doubting that the man who once made Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year has become a less reliable source of art, notably with the execrable if admirably set-designed The Terminal. It perhaps doesn’t quite ring true that Spielberg would have such trouble financing this project, especially given the recent documentaries series on PBS about Lincoln and the evocation of his spirit which many commentators have cited with regards to Barack Obama. This seems a tailor-made Oscar-bait movie and, with the long-rumoured and very likely casting of Liam Neeson in the lead role (and his recent renaissance with the public in Taken) this should be a commercial and Oscar bulldozer. But, as I say, even if it is by no means justified to write off the biggest money-making director in Hollywood history, his credit doesn’t go quite as far as it used to.
Secondly, this kind of constraint on money and financing, should it spread out through the industry, could force a rethink of certain trends currently prevalent in mainstream Hollywood. The most notable would be the use of CGI rather than practical effects, a genuine annoyance in so many movies because the tangible threat or feeling associated with seeing something real on the screen is destroyed when you know that you are not witness another world built by man, you are just watching a projection on a giant sound stage. The reason that so many critics will champion independent films is not a self-righteous need to seem better or more knowledgeable than everyone else (not entirely). We do this because independent films tend to have a sense of personal achievement to them, the directors will have had to fight to get them made in the first place and a piece of the creators will often reside inside the picture. They represent something Nick Hornby discusses in High Fidelity when talking about the The Beatles, a group he describes as being ‘my band’. Independent films have that sort of feel to them. They become yours because they provide moments of visceral reality which mainstream Hollywood is so reluctant to do. There is a sense that they desire greatly to dumb-down, or at least create more palatable versions of the stories they sell. Also with independent movies, commerce is part of the picture but rarely is it the driving force of the picture. These films are made because of a passion, a desire to tell a story or address a personal issue.
Perhaps, if Hollywood follows Wall Street and Detroit into the gutters, we will not only a new age of filmmakers birth into the industry, but maybe we will see more interest from people in watching films that having something to say, that have an agenda beyond making you part with the best part of an hour’s wages. Maybe the recession will bring with it the birth of another New Hollywood as people strive to be better on a budget and start beyond the normal fare. Here’s hoping anyway, probably in vein but still.