There’s been a lot written lately on the decline of the movies as a relevant and vital entertainment medium and --like it or not -- it looks like we are living in the last days of cinema as we have traditionally known it. There are three primary reasons for this:
The technology is dying: the last 35mm motion picture camera rolled off the assembly line in 2011; a bankrupt Kodak is reducing its production of celluloid; and many of the industry’s best-known equipment rental houses have begun selling off their film cameras and support gadgets and replacing them with their digital equivalent. Twentieth Century-Fox recently announced it will stop distributing physical celluloid prints of their films within two years, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the studios follow suit. The same thing goes for theaters: many of the big chains now project exclusively in digital and the rest will be soon enough. Within five years (at the outside) the production and distribution of recorded entertainment will be exclusively digital and a century of photochemical filmmaking will come to an end.
The creativity is dying: The last ten years have been rough ones for creativity in movie business. Due in part to the incredible costs of making and marketing feature films and in part to the demands of their corporate owners for guaranteed financial returns, most of the major studios are now only interested in producing sure things, which has led to a near-maniacal focus on pre-existing, allegedly pre-sold blockbuster properties and franchise material (ideas that can generate not just movies, but also books, TV shows, video games, and myriad other spin-off products), which in turn has led to the seemingly endless parade of sequels, remakes, and adaptations of “branded” material such as board games and comic books that has issued forth from Hollywood in the last decade. With many studio heads making it clear they no longer have any interest in producing original dramas or soft comedies or period stories -- nothing really besides raunchy, hard “R” comedies and special effects-filled extravaganzas -- this trend shows no signs of abating. The terrific costs of feature filmmaking has also prompted the studios to exercise more and more control over their productions, which has led to the insistence on using seemingly dozens of writers on each project, as well as the hiring of young, no-name (and therefore supposedly pliable) directors to helm them.
The result of all of this is a preponderance of bland, formulaic “product” that holds interest for almost no one beyond a few immediate thrills. Even independent films, traditionally a bastion of creativity and originality, have become increasingly rote and predictable (seriously – how many movies about quirky hipsters and dysfunctional families can there be before enough is enough?). Although audiences are starting to reject this flat material in greater and greater numbers (as evidenced by significantly decreased ticket sales across the board), it doesn’t look as if things are going to change anytime soon, and so the variety and freshness that are the lifeblood of success in every aspect of show business may soon be totally drained from the cinema.
The theatrical experience is dying: As every avid moviegoer knows, the experience of seeing a movie in a theater is becoming increasingly unpleasant. From sky high ticket prices and exorbitant 3D upcharges to inconsiderate audience members who won’t stop talking, texting, or chatting on their cell phones during the show to theater management and staff who are more interested in selling overpriced concessions and tschotskes than they are in policing the audience and presenting a bright, clearly focused image, the experience of going to movies has lost a lot of its luster. So, more and more folks are opting just to stay home and wait for the DVD, streaming, or on-demand window. Movie theater attendance is dropping precipitously and, as a result, the shared communal experience of seeing a film on a large screen in the company of like-minded others that has given movies so much of their magic and appeal may soon be a thing of the past.
I’m a big fan of the BBC sci-fi television series Doctor Who and as any loyal viewer of the show knows, whenever the titular character is mortally wounded, he “regenerates” by transforming into an entirely new person -- his essence remains the same, but he gains an new body and a new personality (a convenient way of facilitating the multiple recastings of the lead actor that have been required to keep the show running for a half century). I think something similar will happen to the movies -- the concept of sitting in an auditorium and watching something projected on a big screen probably won’t vanish completely, but it will transform into something very different than what it has been for the last century or so. Just what that something will be is hard to say, but if what has happened to Broadway theater over the last quarter century — as it transformed from an accessible creative forum for intelligent dramas, comedies, and original musicals that explored the human experience and captured the popular imagination into a showcase for big, flashy, superficial spectacles based on recycled (mostly from old movies and songbooks) material aimed solely at the tourist trade -- it seems reasonable to assume the feature film will become rarer, more expensive, more spectacular (in terms of stunts and effects and flashiness rather than artistic achievement and emotional engagement), more formulaic and mechanical, less original, and less human.
Will it be better or worse? Again, hard to say--it depends on your taste and point of view, I suppose. All that one can say for sure is that it will be different.
So, what does all of this mean for screenwriters? In the immediate future, it will probably mean fewer jobs (since fewer films are going to made) and fewer possibilities of selling a spec (since there will be less interest in original material). The opportunities that remain will probably be a boon to those adept at adaptation, spectacle, and effect, and a bust for those interested primarily in character and “human” drama.
However, as history has shown, when one door closes, another one usually opens. So, while feature films may become a less fertile field for writers to plow, there is always going to be a desire among people for compelling dramatic storytelling in some form: television (especially cable) is already experiencing something of a second golden age of interesting, quality programming that is showcasing some truly spectacular and original writing. It is likely this brave new, multi-platform universe of ours will generate even more new forums and venues in which capable storytellers can thrive (many screenwriters are already working successfully in video games and on the web, so it’s easy to imagine writing scripts that will be produced for iPhones and iPads; for holograms; and even for those shows that will be beamed directly into our brains that everyone keeps promising).
In order to take advantage of these new opportunities, screenwriters are going to have to alert enough to suss out fresh arenas as (or even before) they are developed and fleet-footed enough to move in quickly to grab new chances as (or even before) they become available.
They’re going to have to be adaptable -- the core principles of dramatic storytelling will never change, but forms and formats are bound to be plastic and infinite (screenwriters are going to have to learn to write everything from three hour, 3D, 120 f.p.s IMAX spectaculars to fifteen-minute webisodes to thirty-second phonisodes and beyond).
Scripters are going to have to be entrepreneurial -- one of the great advantages of the digital revolution is the cameras, production equipment, and distribution formats are much more affordable than those involving film, which means there’s going to be a lot more opportunities for those writers with enough moxie to produce their work themselves.
Finally, screenwriters are going to have to be prepared -- by learning their craft and practicing their craft and utilizing their craft to generate the steady stream of new material this brave new world is going to require and the stories audiences are always going to crave, no matter how those stories are delivered to them.
Will screenwriters be able to meet these challenges? Sure — we weathered the transition from shorts to features and silents to talkies, and we’ll survive the transition from cellulose screened in theaters to 0s and 1s screened everywhere.
Good luck to us all!