Monday, July 24, 2017

Movie Studios Won't Make Many More Films Like 'Dunkirk'

Or, maybe they will.

Perhaps the astonishing Christopher Nolan epic convinces producers to invest in more magisterial movies such as this.

But see Megan McArdle, at Bloomberg, "'Dunkirk' and the Great Films That Won't Be Made":

Studios' big productions are so expensive that they are rarely risky. Or interesting.

I was perhaps unreasonably excited to see "Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan’s new movie about the evacuation of British forces from a French beach during World War II. The historical event on which it is based is astonishing: unable to get enough warships close to the beach to load their fleeing troops, the British government mobilized a flotilla of small private craft, which ultimately helped evacuate more than 330,000 soldiers ahead of the German army. I was eager to see what one of my favorite directors would do with the story.

He did not disappoint. This nearly flawless film put me on the edge of my seat for two hours. It is the best thing I’ve seen about war since the stunning opening of "Saving Private Ryan" -- and Nolan, bless him, is not prey to Steven Spielberg’s compulsion to mar his creations by slopping them over with speechy goo.

As with all of Nolan’s films, it’s emotionally distant from its characters. Cillian Murphy plays an officer credited only as “Shivering Soldier,” and none of the characters have much in the way of backstory or goals, other than survival. Matt Zoller Seitz calls it an “Ant Farm Picture,” a portrait of society in which individuals are almost incidental. That’s rather the point.

A lesser director would have given in to the temptation to make this a story about the righteous crusade against the Germans, men fighting other men, but Nolan shows us a world in which the enemy is a plane, a torpedo, the water and the flying bullets, and men are reduced to little more than their rage to live.

The result is less a war film than a disaster movie. An exquisite disaster movie. I didn’t expect such a vivid and visceral illustration of how quickly a ship can sink, or just how difficult it is to hit a target in the sky. I left the theater almost too overwhelmed to talk.

Having recovered, I began to wonder why we can’t have more pictures like "Dunkirk." The easy answer is, of course, that there is only one Christopher Nolan, and only so many people willing to give him $150 million to spend putting thousands of extras and some World War II-era ordnance onto a French beach. But the easy answer is incomplete.

It is getting rarer for a genius like Nolan to be given substantial sums of money to put their vision on the screen. Instead, the substantial sums go to “franchise films.” The pursuit of blockbuster movies is becoming less of an act of creation, and more an exercise in brand management. Franchises generate box office revenue, merchandising revenue and what economists call option value: "Furious 7" does not simply bring ticket revenue for the studio, but also the ability to make more revenue through Fast and Furious Episodes 8, 9, 10 and onward to "The Fast and the Furious 987."

Naturally, such valuable properties cannot be left to the quirky whims of some individual; studios have intervened more and more heavily to ensure that no director goes too far off the rails. As with other markets where mass franchises have taken over, the result is a sort of flattening of the available quality: There aren’t so many truly awful blockbusters being made anymore, but there aren’t so many truly great ones either. Indeed, there aren’t so many big movies being made at all, because studios find it much more attractive to rake in cash off of a predictable comic book film with a big global audience than to make risky bets on greatness.

In some ways it looks like a return to the studio system of yore, with its factory-like control over every aspect of production. But in the old days, the studios were mostly making lots of cheap films fast. The studios could afford to permit a little more variance, a little more creativity and serendipity, because the bets were reasonably small, and even an oddball picture might find an audience somewhere. But if the old studio system was a well diversified industry placing lots of bets -- the cinematic equivalent of an index fund -- the modern system is looking more and more like a hedge fund taking a few giant positions. When all the bets are potential firm-killers, the investment committee is going to want to oversee every detail, leaving less room for genius to emerge, much less thrive.

One reason "Dunkirk" is such a joy is that here is a film in which the deadening hand of the committee is nowhere evident...