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“Sometimes I think we have to rescue the business from the very people who own it.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship Keynote Speech

“Try to sell Kramer vs. Kramer today, which was a big hit [in 1979].You just can’t do it…I don’t know if there are executives that listen to this, but I believe that 15 years from now, 20 years from now I think there’s going to be some sort of semi-Nuremberg kind of trial where all the executives of today are going to be standing on a docket and someone like you is going to ‘Where were you when the art of movies just went down the sewer? When this uniquely American art form was completely sacrificed? What were you doing about that?’ And I don’t think any of them will have an answer. And that’s a sad thing…And the problem with [CGI-heavy] movies that are generated inside a computer is that when any image is possible, no image is that impressive anymore. And I think we are raising the bar for what it’s going to take to dazzle people to such a degree that eventually you’re just going to have a movie that’s just an hour and 20 minutes of explosions, because I don’t know what else you can do if it’s not going to be about character, story, and theme.”
Writer/director Billy Ray
Scriptnotes podcast interview with John August

Like a lot of feature writers, Ray has a reverence for great TV (Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men) and appreciates the Kramer vs. Kramer-like dramatic opportunities that can be found there these days. Just a few days ago his pilot for The Last Tycoon, which Ray wrote and directed and based on old Hollywoodbecame available on Amazon.  

“As I was writing the pilot I had a rule for myself which was if I had written a line that I didn’t think was good enough to be in a Mad Men episode I had to come up with another line.”
Billy Ray

Related posts:
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)
Is TV the Best Place to Tell Your Story?

Writer/director Robert Benton-related posts (He won two of his three Oscars for his work on Kramer vs. Kramer):
Filmmaking Quote #14 (Robert Benton)
Screenwriting Quote #104 (Robert Benton)
Joy vs. Agony = Fun Writing 

P.S. To modern Hollywood’s credit the just a handful of Kramer vs. Kramer-like dramatic films at the ’16 Oscars were Bridge of Spies, Room, Brooklyn, Carol and the Best Picture winner Spotlight. To paraphrase what David Mamet once said of theater in America—movies are always dying, and always being reborn.

Scott W. Smith

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Once upon a time in Hollywood…every film was shot on film. edited on film, and distributed on film. And once upon a time the studios that made the films also owned the theaters. It’s been a slow train coming but changes that began in the 50s & 60s are coming into fruition in our day.

When you break down the number of feature films that are released every year in the United States the number is actually fairly small. (Say between 400-600 films every year find their way to the theaters.) So it’s no surprise that there are only 40-60 distributors in North America.

This is the way Dov S-S Simens breaks that down in his book From Reel to Reel:

1) The major studios: These are the six or seven distributors (Universal, Fox, Paramount, Sony, etc) that make 20-30 movies a year at $10-$70 million (2005 numbers)
2) The mini-majors; The six or seven distributors (Miramax, New Line, Artisian, etc.) that make 5-20 movies a year at $5-$20 million budgets.
3) The independents; The 10-15 distributors (Fox Searchlight, Orion Classics, Samuel Goldwyn, Sony Classics, etc.) that male three to five movies a year at $1-$5 million budgets.
4) Exploitation. The 20-30 companies (Concorde, Crowe, Troma, Curb, Trident, etc.) that make 3-15 movies a year with words like “Blood,” “Zombie,” “Slime,” “nightmare,” or “Massacre” in the titles, at budgets under (well under) a million, and generate mostly foreign and video revenues.

And over the years there have be people like Warren Miller who have niche markets (like surf & ski films) and go from town to town renting auditoriums to show their movies. I have actually heard about a few independents who are doing a new version of this where they take their film into a town and then do a Q&A afterwards. I personally would love to see that model take off. Filmmaker as a traveling band.  While I could see doing one of those tours as fun, I don’t see that as a big money maker or a long term solution for most filmmakers.

I will say that young filmmakers today have an entrepreneur spirit today that was unheard of in the past. Perhaps it’s because the tools have changes. I have seen filmmakers not only make their own films, but design the posters and t-shirts, the DVDs, set up websites to distribute their films on top of the normal film festival route.  This stuff is changing quickly and has for at least the last 30 years.

In the 70s Betamax seemed like the future of distribution, until VHS dominated in the 80s. Mom and pop stores opened up to meet the new demand to watch movies at home until the giant stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video took over. Of course, DVD overtook VHS as the preferred way to view movies at home. (DVDs have held off Blu-Ray so far and now Blu-Rays machines can be found for under $100.) Meanwhile Netflix and Redbox have signaled the end of Blockbuster and Hollywood Videos as those two giants continue to close store after store.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how quickly this all evolves. The traditional way for films to be distributed is for the reels each film are shipped to each theater.  I imagine within a few years that will all switch over to some kind of digital delivery system.  One thing that slows this down is each theater has to switch over to expensive digital projectors. (This is not a good economy to do this.) Another concern is piracy. Imagine how easy it would be for people to steal & copy a high quality digital file of a feature film.

But just like the film editing process where almost all films are cut digitally, and how a growing number of films are shot digitally, and how feature films are starting to be digitally downloaded by Netflix and others, it’s just a matter of time before the theater distribution is totally digital.

Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed over the years is people still love movies. They still love stories. I hope that never changes.

So while there will be power shifts and jobs lost, there will be also new opportunities for creatives.

And the best news is it still all begins with a good solid script. (Well, at least it did until the success of the Paranormal Activities.) Happy Writing.

Scott W. Smith

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