Risk Taking Wanes

When I was in high school, I took a class in film.  It was taught by two English teachers, John Mostacci and Ralph Amelio.  They used film in the same way other English teachers might use a great Henry James novel to teach themes, writing and the other finer points of English.  They also taught us how directors use cameras to evoke different emotions and themes inside the film.  When I went to college, I took another film class where we studied directors.  My term paper was on Robert Altman.  Altman had a certain style to his films that was very, very unique.

I haven’t gone to the movies a lot lately because there just hasn’t been anything worth seeing.  I will see “Rouge One”, but “Rouge One” proves the point I am about to make.  Think about it for a second. What are the best movies that still resonate inside you that you have seen in the last five years?  I can think of a couple and that’s it.

I hate to sound like an old man with black socks and sandals (“Get off my lawn!”) but back in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s you could count on seeing at least 3-4 films a year that would stick with you.   Jason Heltzer is a VC at Origin Ventures here in Chicago.  He has a list of movies that you should see.  One very cool thing about making a movie is how entrepreneurial it is.  Virtually everyone that works on the film is independent.  Yet, they all know what to do and when to do it.  They move together like a great orchestra.  When it comes together it’s really something special.

I was reading about Martin Scorcese.  Scorcese is one of my favorite filmmakers.  But, that’s not saying much since he is a favorite filmmaker of a lot of people.  I could watch films that are edgy like “Taxi Driver” over and over.  I saw an article about him where he said, “Cinema is gone”.  I dispute that the election of Donald Trump is going to inspire some throwback cinema.  Trump might inspire a lot of different emotions in different people, but he isn’t going to cause great movies to be made.  I agree with Scorcese that cinema is gone and it’s been gone for some time now.

People are raving about “Rogue One”.  But I bet in the Hollywood system today, a movie like the original “Star Wars” couldn’t get made.

Here is the passage in the article that worries me.

It wasn’t easy. Scorsese, 74, may be among the most revered directors in Hollywood, but “Silence” is almost the antithesis of today’s studio film. To make it Scorsese had to drum up foreign money in Cannes and ultimately made the film for about $46 million. Everyone, including himself, worked for scale.

Few in Hollywood take risks.  I went to the film Hacksaw Ridge“.  The previews were basically a B roll of Marvel comic book pictures and prequels/sequels of other movies from long ago.  You should go see “Hacksaw Ridge” by the way.  It’s a compelling film with a great story and will make you think.

This is part of a broader point in American society.  People are starting less businesses.  Even though the tools are cheaper and capital is more abundant, less businesses are being started today than even 10 years ago.  When all the GIs came home from fighting and winning WW2, 49% of them started their own business.  We need the swashbuckling American entrepreneur to make a comeback.

This statement resonated with me too:  ‘‘He’s just tired of slam-bam-crash. Telling the audience what to think is what he really hates.” I remember seeing the movie “Grand Canyon” when it came out.  “Grand Canyon” didn’t tell you how to feel at the end.  It left you hanging emotionally.  You had to talk to someone about it.  Great movies, like great books invite discussion.  They draw you in.  They have a point of view, but they don’t whack you over the head with it.

TV is short form.  It has to whack you over the head.  Social media is even shorter form.  All it does is whack you over the head.

Making movies has gotten expensive.  The overhead on studios is very high.  They have become streamlined corporate, plain vanilla.  They know exactly which audiences to target and how much they will pay to see something. They also make a lot of sequels and re-make older popular movies.  Yawn.  What scares me is that a director with the track record and gravitas of Scorcese couldn’t get a film made.  In the old days, they’d have taken a risk on him.  The appetite for risk is gone.

What does it say about other industries?  Food, insurance, banking, autos, etc.

Is it better this way? Or is it better to have a lot of loose ends?  Does every story need an ending?  Or, is it better to leave things undone so people can talk about it and draw their own conclusions?

One concept for sure that threads itself through every industry.  If you follow the herd, you eventually get slaughtered.  It’s only separating yourself that creates true innovation and moves the needle.  In my opinion, Hollywood needs to do enough films that cover their fixed costs, but then do a lot of films that can move the needle.  That means taking more risk on directors and new projects that are way out of the mainstream.

People like to look at “emerging” things.  But, few people really back them.  They are so worried about CYA they don’t get out of the box they desperately want to get out of.  Instead, they reinforce the sides of the box.

Some of it is the corporatization of Hollywood, and some of it is political correctness.  Roger Simon has written about how hard it is to get certain sorts of projects done in Hollywood if you don’t toe the politically correct line.  But, life isn’t politically correct.  It’s messy.  Movies should reflect that.

The other thing that I miss is the sensory experience of seeing a really great story played out on a big screen.  Television is great but it’s just not the movie theatre.  I can build a really cool theatre in my home.  It’s not the same communal experience of going to a show and experiencing it with people I don’t know.  Movies envelope you.

I would disagree with people who say attention spans are gone and the internet is filling the void.  Movies are long form.  People will pay attention to long form if it’s done well.  Done well isn’t being 100% obvious about what is going on.  People are smarter than that and I don’t think the movie studios give them credit for it.  I also think at the core of humanity, people want to connect with other people.  Great movies can be the glue that helps form that connection.




  • TedC2

    I would add one factor to consider: the price of tickets. If I’m paying more than $10 per ticket, I want something worth going to a theater to see. That usually means lots of booms. Like you, I grew up a film fan, but it’s a lot harder to justify the expense to see “My Dinner with Andre” rather than “Rogue One.”

  • I had a similar thought about Movies the other night while trying to find something to watch on Netflix. I found this link on Reddit, it seems like there are movies worth watching but discovery is a challenge.

    “Worthwhile 2016 Movies You May Have (Actually) Missed” – http://imgur.com/a/gAaWB