Cinema needs that quirky, indie feeling

Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Howard's End. Photo: Film 4

Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in Howard's End. Photo: Film 4 - Credit: Archant

Cinema used to thrive on originality. New films, entertaining stories, interesting characters but 25 years all that changed as the studios became fixated on formula and franchise. Arts editor Andrew Clarke argues that its time for a change and a return to smaller, one-off movies

Colin Firth in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. Photo: Film 4

Colin Firth in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. Photo: Film 4 - Credit: Archant

On the face of things 2017 has been something of a banner year for Hollywood blockbusters. Films like Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman and Baby Driver have kept the critics happy and have also attracted enthusiastic audiences but have they attracted enough?

It seems that Wall Street investors, the faceless boys in the backroom that keep the studios supplied with money, are getting nervous and this has been revealed by share-price wobbles.

Hollywood likes to portray itself as a creative industry populated by writers, actors and directors but it is the sharp-suited financiers living in New York, London and Hong Kong who really decide what gets made and what doesn’t.

Gemma Arterton as Tamara Drewe. Photo: BBC Films

Gemma Arterton as Tamara Drewe. Photo: BBC Films - Credit: Archant

Although there have been some critical hits this summer and some modest commercial winners there have been some major disasters too. It seems that the money men have forgotten Hollywood’s golden rule: “There’s no such thing as a sure-fire hit.”

However, this summer several ‘sure-fire hits’ have crashed and burned at the box office including Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Transformers: The Last Knight, Baywatch, King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, The Mummy, Kong: Skull Island. A quick look at the returns and you would think all these films did okay, until you factor in their huge budgets and marketing costs.

In the last 20-30 years, Hollywood has gone from a ‘spread-the-risk’ strategy, putting out a variety of films, appealing to a broad audience, to just betting big on one type of film: the big, expensive, glossy-looking, special-effects-filled blockbuster.

John Hurt as Dr Stephen Ward in Scandal, the story behind the Produmo Affair. Picture: MIRAMAX

John Hurt as Dr Stephen Ward in Scandal, the story behind the Produmo Affair. Picture: MIRAMAX - Credit: Archant

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It’s a risky strategy which caters to just one audience. Meanwhile, the mid-scale movie, the literary adaptation and the ambitious independent film have all but disappeared from the cinematic menu. The only time they make an appearance is during Oscar season, when they are deliberately commissioned for that purpose. Of course, if they don’t win any of the major prizes then promotion dries up very quickly and, regardless of their worth, they are left to wither and die on the vine.

Stars like Matt Damon and writer-directors like Steven Soderberg have complained in recent interviews that the films that allowed them to become famous just aren’t being made any more. Matt Damon came to prominence alongside his friend Ben Affleck when they wrote and starred in a small film called Good Will Hunting while Steven Soderberg dazzled the Cannes Film Festival with his modest character-driven drama Sex, Lies and Videotape. In Britain, the life-blood of our domestic industry was centred around the mid-budget movie, costing between £15-50 million. Films like Sense and Sensibility, My Beautiful Laundrette, Howards End, Remains of the Day, Educating Rita, The Madness of King George and Scandal formed the backbone of British cinema in the 1990s and early 2000s. Supported by companies like Film 4, Working Title, BBC Films, Palace and Miramax they produced a flow of well-written, entertaining dramas and comedies that not only served the UK market well but did well abroad.

They were consistently profitable, particularly when you took TV and video rights into account, but they never harvested the spectacular returns that a summer or Christmas blockbuster produced. Wall Street likes anything that looks spectacular and with a blockbuster you can also market toys, books, soundtracks, branded phone covers and games.

Daniel Day Lewis and Gordon Warnecke in My Beautiful Laundrette. Photo: Film 4

Daniel Day Lewis and Gordon Warnecke in My Beautiful Laundrette. Photo: Film 4 - Credit: Archant

This works even better if you can make your film into a franchise because it takes away the risk of coming up with a new story and new characters. This is why re-inventing nostalgia is currently so attractive to Hollywood.

This fixation on the blockbuster also sends out a subliminal message to audiences that Hollywood isn’t really interested in catering to anyone who wants to be surprised or challenged or perhaps enjoys something a little quirky or something they haven’t seen before. Hollywood is increasingly of the opinion that one size should fit all – but this summer has shown that perhaps that audiences do want something different. They have had enough of Captain Jack Sparrow, they don’t want another lame re-make of The Mummy.

Wouldn’t it be great if Hollywood started spreading the cost and the risk again by making lots of smaller, more interesting films where the winners would subsidise the losers. People like variety. At the moment it looks like all bets are off in Tinsel Town. Let’s hope Hollywood can rediscover its ability to tell an original story before audiences find something else to do with their money and their time.

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