SWF Thought of the Day: "Screenwriters' Festival 2009 was the biggest and best yet! Let's do it again sometime!" So say we all!
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Michael Gubbins

Film industry analyst, and former Screen International editor, Michael brings his weekly insight into the business of film in this blog for screen storytellers, and you can respond and comment on it here. What's happening, what do you need to know and how will market trends impact on screenwriters, producers, directors, developers and financiers?

To leave comments for the various blogs please click on the 'Leave Comments' link.

If there is something you would like to ask Michael directly, his e-mail is michael.gubbins@gmail.com

Looking beyond labours of love | Thursday 15th October

A survey commissioned by Twelvepoint for the Screenwriters Festival perhaps yields few surprises - though seeing what we basically know in stark percentages can have real impact.

The bottom line is that a great many people working on scripts are slogging away in less than splendid isolation on projects that are more likely to turn out as labours of love than a lucrative job of work.

For the layperson, the glaring question at the end of thereport is why you would do it.

Screenwriters may often ask themselves the same questions –perhaps at four in the morning or maybe when the postie drops the billsthrough the front door. 

The question for those working on scripts, however, should not really be ‘why’ but‘how’, - how can I improve the chances of success - which is where the screenwriters festival comes in as we shall see. 

But let’s get back to the scoreboard.

Only a minority of screenwriters responding are making thekind of money to make it a full-time occupation and a very small number aremaking serious money.

More than 70% of those surveyed worked more than 10 hoursper week and nearly 40% more than 20 hours.

In other words, a significant number of people are puttingin the equivalent of a full-time week on scripts. 

The survey shows that 68.1% receive sweet nothing for theirlabours.  Just 4.4% of those interviewedmade more than £50K.

Extraordinary resilienceand a willingness to make sacrifices is a big part of the culture of the film business.

Even established writers have to face the most testing setbacks - as Christopher Hampton's brilliantly honest talk about the "scripts that got away" revealed at a Screenwriters Festival event at Bafta earlier this year.

But the persistence for writers remains amazing. More than67% have been working away for more than five years with a quarter having givenmore than 10 years of their lives.

There’s little in the way of support here. Those hours spentyear after year have been mainly spend alone with 58% saying they work solo.

That isolation perhaps helps avoid the sense of collective doom that one hears at independent film industry events from other parts of business. For most screenwriters, it's always been a tough business.

Nonetheless, the Screenwriters Festival was set up as a means of providing a means of collective discussion.

Perhaps even more valuable has been its success in providing the industry context for writers - in the best advice from those who have succeeded and in direct networking with the industry.

The odds may never be great but then the statistically easier success in the day jobs of many screenwriters does not provide an outlet for the creativity. You cannot judge ideas and flashes of brilliance in percentage points.

What you can do is to make sure that you sign up for events that are about shifting some numbers to your side of the equation. 

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The mathematics of taste | Wednesday 23rd September

US DVD rental giant and download service Netflix this week announced the winner of a $1m prize to improve predictions of the movie tastes of its users.

It is the nirvana of internet business that our personal tastes can be reduced to a neat little algorithm and Netflix is at the forefront of if-you-like-that-you'll-love-this-ism.

And the pointy-headed recipient of its largesse apparently offers more than a 10% improvement on the current site performance.

I'm not entirely sure how you measure that 10% but it's no surprise that this obsession exists. Film remains too much of a hit-and-hope business and William Goldman's "no one knows anything" doesn't make for much of a marketing pitch.

For online rental with a choice of thousands of potential films, there is the need to organise into something a bit more credible than a lucky dip.

Even the tastes of those with Enigma or Maverick on their business cards can be captured with somedegree of accuracy. 

What itcannot do is predict the unpredictable swings in mood of the setting. There should be a whole critics book written, for example, just for in-flight movies on long-haul flights where a tiny screen, altitude and a general uncomfortable tiredness has the effect of depressing the critical faculties; Legally Blondeis possibly the Citizen Kane of 25,000 feet.

As a film magazine editor, I was always aware of the rarified environment in which reviewers saw movies at festivals and felt they would make better judgements of likely public reception if, for example, they had been forced to pay for a babysitter, park miles from the screening, had a headache...

But there's an interesting question here.If you can build a business on turning taste  into a mathematical formula, are film-makers and writers any further along the line in predicting the success of a project.

It has become a mantra at conferences these days to talk about the need to think about the audience. At a recent event, gasps of admiration greeted the insight that a recession was not a good time for first-time writers to be working on a Trojan epic.

Another top-10 guide for independent film-makers included the suggestion that projects should begin with A so that audiences will see it first in programmes or online - which is probably not as stupid as it sounds.

And everyone is talking about reaching under-served demographics - Aaron Aardvark's chairlift musical looks a surefire hit.

At the bottom of all this is a truth. Knowing who you are writing for is vital and there is far greater access to business information about those groups available these days.

For the writer, however, no mathematical formula is going to help. In fact the Netflix algorithm might help as an anti-guide: if people like this now, they are probably going to be very bored of it by the time my script gets to the screen.

"Instinct + talent + luck (squared) = outside chance of success" still holds true. And thank God for cinema because serendipity and surprise is at the heart of its appeal.

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Festival boom hits the buffers | Wednesday 9th September

A phone call came through this week from a journalist on a UK newspaper. What he wanted to know was whether the fact that the absence of almost any UK film from Venice was a sign of the decline of the British film industry.  What makes the request so ironic is that another reporter from the same paper had called earlier in the year wanting to know if the impressive number of UK films in competition at Cannes was sign of the success of the British film industry.  These days, journalism has to package everything up as triumph or disaster. 

Film festivals cannot be lazily transformed into sports events and the festivals are at the heart of an international business where creativity to a large extent trumps national chauvinism.  The more pertinent question was what the selection of films - or in the case of Venice the A-listers on the red carpet - say about the festival as an institution. 

While the ubiquity of film festivals, of one kind or another, may have been taken for granted, it is likely that their value will be severely tested over the coming months and years. Falling sponsorship, a crowded calendar and the general economic downturn will take their toll, even where visitor numbers are healthy.  Some of course may not survive and there may even be a case for benefits to the industry of a little thinning of a festival circuit that has expanded at an astonishing rate. 30 years ago there were an estimated 170 festivals, today the numbers are nearer 1,000.

The real benefit of the current climate might be to take the role of festivals far more seriously. And given that the fortunes of so many writers and the wider independent industry are tied up in the circuit, it is a process everyone should watch.  In the first volume of a new Film Festival Yearbook, Professor Dina Iordanova of St Andrews University makes a strong case for the festival as something that should receive the same kind of study as other areas of the business.

A more pressing case for now is self-analysis. The festivals need to take a hard look at themselves and ask 'what are we for?'  This is sometimes an uncomfortable question. Is the place of the film festival really the alternative distribution system for independent film or a fancy tourist brochure? a festival of discovery or just the best of the stuff the big boys turned down? a cinematic celebration for a city or an ego trip for a subsidised few?

An even more important question might be 'who are we for?' The balance between the local community, film-makers and industry will be tested as promotional and public budgets are reduced and travel is cut back.  In much of the world, the number of festivals match the amount of budget available to create them rather than to meet any specific demand.  But that will change and so it should. The industry itself should be thinking hard about which events it supports out of habit and which deliver real value.

The big beasts have the finance and capacity for reinvention and a place at the centre of cinematic culture; some have forged a niche role; some are at the centre of their nation's arts culture; a very few have enough money not to care.  Key to the rest is that they have a real and unique function and a relationship with their audience. 

The Screenwriters' Festival definitely fits the bill here. Set up to meet a real and genuine need. Having spent a few years around the festival circuit, I defy anyone to indentify any event which has a more friendly atmosphere, a more collective spirit and a greater sense of purpose.

That same clarity of mission will be needed for many other festivals but there is a lesson for the film industry in particular.

The festival circuit has grown rapidly to become a key asset for an industry that has to find ways to capture the imagination and to find new audiences.

Just an observation but at the time when were down to 170 festivals, box office was entering the lowest period in cinema history. 


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Facing-up to the Trickle-down | Friday 14th August

The 80s are apparently back. The death last week of John Hughes – the master of the era’s teen angst film – is bound to accelerate a trend that has already seen every cheesy synthpop band re-forming and movie franchisers raiding the decade’s toy cupboards for GI Joe and Transformers.

There’s nothing quite as depressingly low rent as creative necrophilia but it's becoming so prevalent that by next year we may well see films drawing on memories of the golden summer of 2007.  What brought back those not-so-glorious memories of the 80s, however, was a piece of economic jargon.

Admittedly, the term in question lacks some of the evocative qualities of, say, Simon Le Bon on the prow of his Rio yacht, but the words ‘trickle down’ will bring back uncomfortable memories of loopy supply-side economics.  Back then, much of the world was in the grip of the idea that society was best served by allowing the rich to get richer because the crumbs from the top table would be that much bigger and tastier for the masses.

Recent events have perhaps demonstrated the multi-trillion dollar hole in the argument, so perhaps it was just a lazy choice of words when a senior executive described how the current box office boom would have a 'trickle-down' effect on the whole industry.

The context is that right now the box office is doing just fine in many countries with global blockbusters breaking records. Queues around the block do not however simply translate into a healthy industry, as a report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers demonstrated this week. It says around 60 small film companies have gone out of business in theUK alone in the last quarter.

Where there is a trickle, it is irregular and inconsistent except in those few countries where redistribution of revenues is a longstanding policy. But optimism about box office or even production spending (and the UK has had a great year for dollars spent on producing TV and movies) simply do not offer any reason for complacency at the grass roots.

In the film world, it is not necessarily that the rich are getting richer - after all, last year's wonder kids at Universal are having a poor 2009. But that those who can afford to take huge gambles on a few blockbusters have overwhelming influence over the means of distribution and mighty marketing arms.

The rightly-lauded phenomenal success of some local films in their home markets does not alter the difficulties of small films in finding distribution.  With DVD and television money slipping away and little sign of an imminent VOD boom, it doesn’t take much of an economic down-turn to squeeze the already tight margins of small producers and distributors.

To an extent then, the combination of box-office success and business failure is a demonstration of the failure of the market to support a sustainable diverse industry in most countries.  But it’s more than that. It also shows the weaknesses in a subsidised European film model, which produces far more films than the current distribution network can handle.

Interestingly, those who would most abhor the economic Darwinism of the 80s are not averse to criticising this supposed overproduction of film.  The number of films produced in Europe has risen steadily for a decade without corresponding growth in either admissions or screen numbers.  So a drop in numbers through the simple mechanism offinancial failure might be welcomed by some as a necessary cull to relieve the competition for state funds, even if such sentiments are not openly expressed.

What is certain is that which business or film lives and which dies is not based on any true sense of value – film is no more a perfect meritocracy than it is a perfect market.

Certainly, there is a significant gap between producer and audience that means that what succeeds is not based on demand. For all the talk of the democratisation of criticism, the success of non-Hollywood film in Europe is based on the subjective judgements of a small number of people –government fund heads, sales agents, critics etc.

The film industry exists in its current form because of the narrowness of the distribution window. The theatrical-dominated business cannot accommodate the talent and ideas out there – and it certainly cannot be an adequate judge of demand given the tiny opportunities for a film to be seen.

These are all good reasons why we need to embrace the opportunities that come with digital technologies. The initiative of the CinemaExhibitors Association in the UK to try to bring together independent cinemas to switch to digital screens, which could offer a far wider choice of film, needs support.

A great deal of talent is going to go to waste if we allow ourselves to be blinded by ringing tills in cinemas to the underlying challenges to the industry. The worst-case scenario is that we return to the 80s whencinema attendances were at their lowest ebb worldwide and we were heading fordisaster.

What rescued the business was renewal and an increase in distribution channels through multiplexes, VHS and particularly DVD.

Perhaps there are some good reasons to revisit the lobotomised decade after all – now where are those leg-warmers?

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Mutual friends needed in tough times | Monday 13th July

“Mutualisation” is a term that has become increasingly popular among bodies representing European indies - the mot juste at industry events. The idea that we might achieve more by putting aside commercial rivalries and pursuing our common interests naturally grows during a recession.

For most, it's a matter of realpolitik; when the ship is going down, there’s little option but to collectivelty bail out. No choice is always the most effective driver for change. Nonetheless, looking at the current market, there are plenty of areas for the independent industry where mutuality makes sense.

Last week in Paris, indendent distributors gathered under the Europa Distribution banner to look at a market that is getting tougher by the day.  The group includes a number of competing businesses in an often cut-throat field. Yet this relatively recently-formed body has begun to understand that there are areas where bringing together knowledge and expertise overrides rivalries. That is particularly true where disruptive technologies mean that very few people have much of a clue about the future shape of the business.

For distributors, there are clear areas of tangible mutual benefit from sharing data on film performance to exploiting economies of scale in promotional material.  The same sense of mutual interest has been a bigger theme in the exhibition sector, where cinemas have been looking to join forces to negotiate a deal for the conversion to digital cinema that could not be managed as individual theatres.

So mutualisation has an obvious advantage in economies of scale but it's more than that.  It is an understanding that the biggest competition is not with each other - tough as that may be at some markets.  Rather, the challenge is winning the attention of time-poor consumers in a world of ever-growing entertainment possibilities.

An already disadvantaged independent film industry is going to struggle to hit what is now a moving target.  What's more, we like to talk about a homogenous entity called the "film industry" but the interests of the small player right now are some way removed from the obsessions of the studios and bigger independents.

A protectionist instinct has taken over at the top end of the business (witness the piracy obsession). But for the independent, there's nothing to protect and closing windows and controlling consumer demand might mean invisibility.  Nowhere is this truer than for screenwriters. Screenwriting, as the most individualistic, even lonely, end of the business has more need of mutuality than any other. 

There are of course guilds but as the writers strike in the US showed, they represent only a small proportion of those in the industry. You need to have made it first. 

The Screenwriters Festival is one of those bodies that has always put the issue of mutual support at its heart. As previous attendees will attest, mutual interest extends beyond writers to producers and directors.  The generosity of the organisers and participants is a testament to the reality that collective support can play a big role in individual success.

Such events ought to be the jewels in the crown for any business serious about its future. 

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Film futures: Awesomistas and architects | Friday 26th June

Maybe it’s the summer solstice, but this has been a week of soothsaying. And there has been a distinct polarising in visions of the future. 

At one end we have the proponents of BIG cinema that will drive customers out of their armchairs with a product that will expose television as the six-stone wimp it is under that fancy new HD.  You don’t get much bigger than James Cameron’s 3D Avatar and the screening of a few minutes of footage to an industry audience seems to have matched the hype.

For those living in 1953, the film has been widely touted as the breakthrough to the 3D revolution that advocates say is the biggest thing since the introduction of sound.  And the Avatar snippet was by all accounts “awesome.” And we mean “by all accounts” literally because it seems an adjective famine has reduced the entire lexicon of possible exclamations of awe to just the one word. Welcome then to the Age Of Awesome.

It’s not just the movies. David Puttnam (now Lord Puttnam) used a speech at Edinburgh to highlight the potential of 3D sport on the big screen, particularly with the approach of the 2012 Olympics.  Imagine being up close and personal with Team GB as it takes bronze in the dressage. It would be so darned awesome (horsesome?) - you could almost smell the Lottery money that has been redirected from the nation's film budget.

At the European Cinema Summit in Brussels last week, we discovered the future also took in opera, gaming and the heaving, sweaty bodies of animalistic rutting porn.  Actually, I may have dropped off and imagined that last bit but this view of the future has a Freudian obsession with sheer bigness.

There’s a part of this image that is pretty depressing. Spotting the future of the writer or indeed the position of independent cinema in this big, brave and BIG new world (did I mention big?) seems to require a microscope.  Given the limitations of consumer time and physical theatre space, it’s easy to imagine even greater marginalisation.

In Brussels, theatre owners were keen to say that film would always be its first love but you can’t help feeling that a world where you can pack a screen at £30 a head for a Verdi is going to squeeze out the immersive, intimate 2D film.

Dimension envy might join the indie film-makers already impressive roster of psychoses and one cansee the indie business like a latter day Norma Desmond's crying that “we are still big,it’s just the cinema got bigger.”)

Let’s not get po-faced here. Puttnam is spot on about the excitement. If 3D can put your head in the game for sport, meaning you can turn out virtually for the Villa* at the local Odeon on a Sunday then what’s not to love.  And, as you would expect from the great man, his speech is a considered and intelligent discussion about the value of cinema and film. 

But skipping on a fewdays in Edinburgh and you could have heard another vision of the future.  Lance Weiler is probably not a name that most know despite being frequently mentioned in “most influential” lists in the US and winningthe Arte prize at Rotterdam last year.  His work has been seen by millions with a demographic profile and a direct relationship with his audience that an ad exec would die for.  The reason he is unknown to most at the moment is that he is firmly at the cutting edge of finance, production and distribution - on that digital frontier that so many want to pretend isn't there.  He has pioneered ideas such as crowd-sourcing and collaborative film-making. What that means is that he is breaking down the barrier between creator and audience in every aspect of work, includingfunding, writing and distribution.

The marketing for his psychological horror film Head Trauma included a head-spinning mix of gaming, live events and a smart theatrical and television release built on the back of a massive internet following. What makes him particularly interesting is that he is a real advocate of the democratisation of film – by which we mean putting the means of film funding, creation and distribution in a far broader range of hands. 

This new generation of internet-savvy film-makers are determined to share with their peers, keep control of their rights, engage withtheir audiences and, most of all, to get their work seen. They want to write their own futures.

Quite naturally, traditionalists have the same concern here that they have for 3D. This may be the movies but not as we know it. In fact, the new media pioneers are more frightening still to the traditionalist with their willingness to work with rather than condemn the peer-to-peer networks.  In fact, film-makers such as Weiler, M Dot Strange or Jamie King – who all spoke at the Power To The Pixel event in Edinburgh – are ambivalent about having any relationship with the film industry.  You know what Weiler calls himself ... a story architect. A pretentious term maybe but an industry that uses terms such as auteur, we can’t really sneer.

And what he means is that at the heart of his vision is writer, story and the relationship with the audience.  There’s something very positive about that thinking and there is no reason why it cannot co-exist with the Awesomista 3D world.  It is surely vital for any up-and-coming writer to immerse themselves in these new ways of seeing – because the future that our competing visions promise has already arrived.

*The Villa, or Aston Villa, for those outside the UK or obsessive cinephiles, are the world’s leading purveyors of Association Football,based in the chocolate-box Venice of the North, Birmingham)


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Writers should obsess about the rights stuff | Thursday 11th June

A great anonymous email popped into the box this week in response to last week's blog. The correct verb for the arrival of an electronic post into the inbox, by the way, is the onomatopoeic "bing". Apologies for the digression but it gives you a flavour of the style of the correspondent, who veered wildly from his train of thought before disappearing down a series of syntactical rabbit holes.

Yet there was an alarmingly lucid finish to his note. "Stop writing this crap about opportunities for writers, what I want to know is where I should be focusing my depression?" Good question, though a journalist may not be precisely the professional needed. Still, you see our hero's problem; there's just such a dizzying array of misery to choose from these days for those who think the glass is not only half empty but the wine is corked. There's a tempting selection of gloomy economic indicators to peruse - even the silver linings have some pretty dark clouds attached. Oh, and the state of the film and television industries could keep you in whinges for weeks.

Perhaps the writer meant to take a slightly more positive approach to negativity and was trying to identify the dark muses out there - those crises which are crying out to be turned into a drama. Terrorism, economic collapse, celebrity culture gone nuts, the crisis of democracy - and of course global warming all look like rich seams. Research from the London weather centre this week spelled out in the starkest terms the threat to the planet from overheating.

Though even there, hidden away, was still a line to be avoided for the misery-seeker - apparently the West of England, where the Screenwriters Festival is held may be at the edge of a new European Riviera with beautiful summers and warm winters while half the continent is swimming for the Alps.

But, come on, there's plenty of misery to go around. Still, let's take away the word ‘depression', which really should not be used lightly, and switch it for "obsession" - which may well have been more in the writer's mind. Writing is on that borderline between dedication and obsession as the launch of the Screenwriters Festival demonstrated.

Christopher Hampton's talk at Bafta about the screenplays he wrote for movies that were never made - through sheer bad luck - was moving to the point that the non-writer is bound to wonder where the strength comes from to carry on. So the question is what, apart from the day (and night) job, might writers usefully add to the list of obsessions.

The festival launch threw up the notion that greater entrepreneurialism was becoming an occupational necessity. That is true but is perhaps an extension and focusing of the always necessary persistence.

So here's an offer for something new to get obsessed by - intellectual property rights. There will be some who will recoil at the notion as just another digital schmigital scare story. But the centre of gravity is shifting towards globalised, digital content. We are not talking the death of cinema or a world in which all writing goes straight to the web.
This is a multi-platform world in which our work will find its way to audiences through many different channels. There's a good argument that the theatrical business may actually be a big beneficiary.

We all ought to be waking up at night thinking about how to achieve greater control of the rights for work in this changed environment. How can we protect those rights in an age of easy access to pirated content, how can independents exploit rights in a digital world, are their new collective rights, new forms of licensing...? Let's put it another way. Writers should obsess about how to make sure they are not screwed in the new world as much as they were in the old. Starving for one's art in a virtual garret is no more fun than a real one.

This changing world represents, whether our anonymous pal likes it or not, an opportunity. If that's too optimistic, can I suggest a glass of Talisker, some Leonard Cohen and a bit of fresh air?

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The story still counts in any dimension | Thursday 4th June

Belgian 3D pioneer Ben Stassen is one of those engaging personalities who could convince the cynic that his multi-dimensional revolution is coming by sheer weight of enthusiasm.  The maker of 3D-animation Fly Me To The Moon is a passionate believer that we are at the start of a reinvention of cinema in a way that hasnot been seen since the advent of the talkies.

Speaking at Cannes on a panel of 3D film-makers, it was clear he believes the biggest threats to this brave new world are largely technical – notably that too many of the screens being installed in cinemas around the world are not constructed to offer customers the full immersive experience.

Such concerns are perfectly understandable. If 3D is to make the promised impact, the balance of digital wizardry in sound and vision has to be just right.  But it wasn't the technical flaws that killed 3D in its last incarnations in the 50s and 70s. (Stassen admits that technically, it really wasn't too bad).  No, the last incarnation of 3D did not die because of the technology or the glasses were too uncomfortable, it died because the films were, well, crap.

That’s crap in the specific sense of story. You may spill your gallon of Pepsi once in shock at a shark leaping out of the screen but it’s not too many minutes later that you begin to wonder why on earth a shark is leaping in the first place.  The technology may immerse but it is the narrative that will engage.  The video game industry is waking up to the fact that story is the answer to the next stage of development rather than yet more demands onfingers and thumbs. Film-makers and screenwriters are being drafted in to create new interactive games that will pull the user into a story.

The same will be true of new entertainment technologies not yet fully conceived and any writer would be well advised to think about getting in at the ground floor of these advances.  There has in recent times seemed to be an obvious hole in the argument, however. If narrative remains a pre-eminent ingredient, how is it that television has dumped drama in favour of reality shows?  Some have seen a terminal decline in the attention span of the public or even some collective shrinking of the public's imagination. 

Here’s the counter-argument. Television has indeed pulled back from drama because it is an expensive way to tell a story. But what has taken reality shows – for better or worse – to the phenomenal level they are is the injection of narrative.  Take singer Susan Boyle, now a global star with her performance on talent show Britain’s Got Talent and taken worldwide by YouTube. The ability to belt out a competent show tune wasn’t enough for the programme to work - who cares if the ugly duckling can quack out a show tune.  No, we need the full back story – plain woman finds stardom, stardom drives her mad.

Every entertainment needs its narrative, every medium itsstory.  Today’s entertainment business is not about changes in media or platform, despite the hype. It is about winning the precious leisure time of audiences, and there you see the continuing role for writers.  It will always be the story, stupid, although don't expect that fact to be reflected in a fair share of the digital loot without a fight.

So if you turn up to the Screenwriters Festival in a Maserati we will all know you sold your soul to Simon Cowell.

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Cannes sunshine hides dark clouds | Wednesday 20th May

“All the people that matter are at Cannes, it’s just the crazies that have gone.”

Almost the same phrase was repeated by several producers on the Croisette, as an explanation for why numbers were down but trading remained fairly robust.  Given the village atmosphere of any film market, a vague feeling can quite quickly become an overpowering theme and, as with all clichés, there is truth there.

Those looking at some kind of meltdown for Cannes were misreading the economics. There is still strong customer demand and theatrical, DVD and television arestill hungry beasts needing content.  The optimist will see this as potentially a good time for the industry. The crazies referred to above included those on the margin of film, whose projects will almost certainly go nowhere and whose existence depended on a surplus of finance.

And so the “people that matter” can get on with the business of producing quality work in a more stable market shorn of the over-production that has destabilised the business.  The theory goes that we get a meritocracy where only the best survive the cut and the crazies go off to pastures new, their dreams of breaking into the movies shattered but, hey, that’s showbiz.

A decent run of films in competition at Cannes has helped lift the atmosphere too. The choices have been a little conservative maybe, and certainly more commercial in areas, but that’s understandable.

Some critics, however, have really hated this year. In an editorial in The Times, Kevin Maher suggests Cannes has lost its soul.  The extent to which Cannes was every truly counter-cultural is a debate to have after a few Ricards but there does seem to have been an outbreak of what one might call a “new realism.” And what’s the problem with that?  Well, it’s clearly not much fun if you are deemed to be a member of one of the aforementioned crazy gang. And let’s not forget a fair number of today’s “people who matter” were yesterday’s “crazies.” They were people with ideas that were startling and original and helped reinvent and reinvigorate the business.  True, a much bigger percentage of those challengers were too off the wall to make any real impact but the world’s leading film festival ought to be a place where ideas clash.

History actually tells us that film – even in Hollywood – isn’t good at conservatism. Cinema may prove recession and critic-proof but the worst thing you can do is try to make recession or critic-proof films.  The truth is though, that Cannes this year has been offering a false facade to the world and rightly so. Doom and gloom in the current economy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there are bigger problems that are fundamentally undermining the current business for all the hints of green shoots. It’s not just film – all media are facing the same critical challenge: how to make customer demand actually pay in a digital age.  DVD revenues are slipping, television pre-sales will never return to their original state and all the while it gets less and less easy tosee how you can graft digital distribution on to an analogue business. 

The answer to that question is that you cannot, which leaves two choices: try to dampen or outlaw what customers want – or to change the nature of the business permanently.  Cannes was the embodiment of the idea that we are just waiting for normal service to be resumed but it won’t happen. For better or worse (and it is going to feel much worse for many), we are entering a new age.  Screenwriters ought to be at the forefront of this shift. What we saw at Cannes was a small bounceback from an over-correction following a financial collapse. For most writers, it is an irrelevance because this is notthe start of a big return to the status quo ante. Breaking in will be as tough as ever.

The best advice to screenwriters after Cannes is to look very hard at the underlying industry trends - and where you might fit in. Even the people who matter know that's not crazy.

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Auteur allergy | Wednesday 13th May

A colleague once insisted that he would not go to the cinema with anyone unless they pronounced it Kai-nee-ma in recognition of the Greek root of the word. He went alone most of the time.  Lexiconic exactitude is a lonely pursuit.  Witness also those obsessives who get all Looney-Tunes-steam-from-the-ears angry when the word 'pirate' is used to describe copyright thieves.

So it is with trepidation that anyone should build an argument around a word - but here goes anyway.  The word is 'auteur' and, as always happens around the Cannes Film Festival, it's everywhere.  So what's the problem? These days, surely the word auteur is just a bit of lazy shorthand, long since shorn of the ideological intent that it carried for the French New Wave. 

Sometimes, it's just posh for director or, more respectfully, a means to differentiate the great from the merely good.  And the big names in this year’s Cannes competition deserve some sort of accolade. They include Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, Ken Loach, Gaspar Noé, Elia Suleiman, Lars von Trier, Jane Campion, Michael Haneke, Johnnie To, Park Chan-Wook, Lou Ye.

The less reverend usage is summed up in one of those sentences that only Variety could employ: Cannes it suggests is the “biggest heavyweight auteur smackdown in recent years". Who do you fancy for the Rumble On The Riviera?

But even given its bastardised use, auteurism is still out of kilter with the world that we are now in, focused as it is on the idea of the individual creative genius.  Today's watchwords - and apologies for more C words here - are surely community, collaboration and the consumer.  For writers, the notion of film as the product of a single vision has always been difficult - and too often they have been written out of their own script with the director taking the plaudits.

The current successful adaptation of Budd Schulberg's screenplay for On The Waterfront as a stage play offers a different perspective. 

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of Saint-Saens' music for L'Assassinat Du Duc De Guise, which claims to be the first true film score. Even today, the awards for music, script, sets etc are the poor relations come the awards.

Collaboration has always been critical to the film-making process but the ideological element of auteurism is based on a rejection of 'Fordism' - the production line creation of movies that supposedly debase the process.  Actually, one could make a reasonable list of supposed production line movies that have proved to be great films. Sir Michael Caine tells a good story about a Julius Epstein penning some of the great lines of Casablanca while waiting at a particularly slow set of lights on Sunset Boulevard.

But the important element of auteur theory that is surely plain wrong is Truffaut's adage that there are no good or bad movies, just good or bad directors. 

This year's Cannes opener is the Pixar animation Up, a film that most agree is worthy of its place in the festival as a great film and yet animation is nothing if not a collaborative form of film-making.

More concentration on the different talents that make up a film is important to the well-being of cinema as a business. That doesn't undermine the role of director who, at best, can turn the collaborative form into a film that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The second missing link in auteurism is the end customer. The web has helped super-charge a consumerist urge that may well have horrified the original auteur advocates. A theatre critic recently suggested that a similar allergy to the word auteur in relation to the stage was "Anglo-Saxonism" which put markets before art. The fact that the word is French being an additional provocation.

But the view that customer muscle can only create mediocrity is nonsense. What we have is not one big homogenous entity called customer demand but a wide variety of different tastes to satisfy. There is an audience for the most impenetrable film.

Some new film-makers are actually experimenting online with the notion of a truly collaborative film in which audiences are actively involved in production.  Such an idea may never work but engagement with an audience ought to be at the heart of all today's film-making and public policy.

Enshrined in what some call auteurism is the idea that it is the realisation of a vision that counts. More than that, much cultural subsidy is based on the idea that the production of that work is somehow vital to the life of a nation, regardless of who sees it.  My classically-educated pedant pal can squirm at the use of the T-word here - but the tragedy of film and the depressing thought at the end of every Cannes is how much great film will be seen by next to no one because the single vision has been prioritised over its distribution.

Auteurs without audiences is the ultimate sign of an industry needing reform.


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The ties that bind | Tuesday 5th May

Good cinema is being crushed by "tons of unadulterated shit", that's the view of Mike Leigh, who typically cut to the chase at a lecture in London last week; for all the talk of film enjoying an upside to the downturn, he suggests, great work is marginalised to the point of invisibility, while mediocre product floods the box office.

It echoes an underlying fear that what might be good for today's popcorn sales might be damaging to the health of tomorrow's industry.  There’s a hoary old debate here about what constitutes quality film, and Leigh does overstate the case. Many of today’s consumers of the greatest films were introduced to the big screen by “shit,” unadulterated or otherwise. People generally fall in love with the cinema first and discover the potential for film later.  But there are serious questions about how films are distributed outside a lazy consensus of audience taste and the economic downturn has added real urgency to the issue.

A discussion with a screenwriter in London, working on her first feature film, illustrates the point, if not in great detail - it is a sign of the times that even hinting at the plot in question might jeopardise an already unequal relationship with the producer, who has pressures of his own.  Suffice to say she has been told to focus all her attention on a wholesale rewrite. Out must go the international action at the centre of the plot; in comes a more claustrophobolic psychological study of the violent protagonist.

Small is beautiful again, she has been told, with narrow focus and micro budgets.  Given the current financial climate, that advice may be spot on. The industry is polarising at the moment with what finance there is heading for the ever-growing studio megafilms at one end and the ever-shrinking budget film at the other.

The producer's advice might be the most – maybe the only - feasible way of reaching the big screen, particularly for a first-time writer in a recession.  And yet a nagging doubt remains. The key audience in her mind was, like her, relatively young (teens and 20s), and the characters' reaction to the core incident overseas was critical to her vision.  Now she is being asked to make her film more exclusive and excluding – aimed at an audience, characterised as "arthouse", to which she feels no affinity.  It’s a familiar scenario– a film made about a group of people who, through geography, class or culture, will probably never come anywhere near seeing it.

Eventually, the film-maker might find consolation in nice reviews in the upmarket press and a few festival awards and try to ignore the negligible box office that barely squeaked outside the major cities.  Is that really the best to be hoped for? In the short term, the answer may well be yes and the trends that make it so are not necessarily bad.

The cost of film needed to come down. Too often budgets have reflected the amount of available finance with not enough thought about potential returns.  But there is getting real and there is meekly surrendering. This new realism in film, spurred on by economic crises, makes big assumptions about what audiences want and what the industry can deliver.

Yet typically, we are ignoring the elephants and various other unwanted fauna in the room. Our industry in terms of finance and, vitally, distribution is struggling. Specialist and arthouse cinema is especially suffering and badly needs to refresh its roots and broaden its appeal beyond a narrowing and ageing audience.  The traditional means of building new audiences are disappearing, with terrestial television in particular banishing cinema to the farthest reaches of the schedules.  Satellite television has done much to improve its range of film but the argument, as with sport, is that it serves the aficionados and existing fans, but is hard pressed to bring in new audiences.  Arthouse cinema itself is restricted in most parts of the world to big cities or upmarket suburbs. 

My screenwriter friend’s passion was to make an intelligent point through an accessible film that would be seen by people like her.  The film she does make might reach the big screen but not her intended audience and she is already doubting whether film is the medium for her creative talents.

Without the script to hand, it's difficult to make a definitive judgement about who is right but the producer's argument does seem to be based on today's frail finance and distribution system. It's a system that looks more full of holes by the day, with its windows, territory rights and protectionism, standing Canute-like against the digital tide. 

The writer's original script may have been a dog but then again it might just have been a Slumdog. (Let's not forget that the cinematic success story of Slumdog Millionaire came awfully close to disappearing into arthouse or DVD obscurity.)

For now, she will accept the changes as the best deal available in the current climate and, who knows, it may be the start of something.  But there is a note of regret in her voice already and there are no two words more depressing than "what if." 

Every writer needs to think about audiences, budgets and the realities of reaching the market. Scripts cannot exist in some magic kingdom where economic gravity does not apply.  And yet...the future of the industry itself needs fresh ideas more than anything else. The industry needs a to take a hard realistic look at what it means by 'realistic'. 

The real change will come when audiences begin to spot the crap for themselves; or when film-makers make a concerted attempt to use a changing climate and new tools to write their own destinies.  

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Riding the Storm | Monday 27th April

This year's Screenwriters Festival will take place in the most turbulent times for film in decades. The industry is caught in a perfect storm where the global economic crisis is undermining the foundations of independent film finance while a painful transition to digital distribution is disrupting the traditional business models.

Support from government looks likely to be curtailed too.  Bailing out the bankers, who have hurriedly bailed out of film over the last 12 months, is going to mean funding cuts.  In the UK, there is the added problem that Lottery money is being diverted to the 2012 Olympic Games where costs have gone way beyond the original estimates (never saw that one coming!) And then there's the loss of television pre-sales and...let's not go on.

We are - in the words of the Chinese proverb - cursed to live in interesting times. So where does that leave screenwriting?

Well, to an extent, not much worse off than before. Writers have hardly been downing the champers on Easy Street during the boom years - certainly not in the independent sector.  Of course, there will inevitably be a contraction in the number of films made in the next few years. Hollywood has pulled out of the mid-range and specialty film market and those aspiring to fill the gap have struggled in the credit crunch.

One can also see the loss of first-class indie producers. The advice not to go into independent production has become this century's equivalent of Noel Coward's ‘Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington).  But screenwriting is the triumph of hope over experience, and there are some rational reasons for optimism.

Reasons for optimism

Firstly, demand for filmed entertainment, has not diminished. A healthy box office around the planet is only part of the evidence. This is the era of ubiquitous entertainment. We are wired in to some form of diversion more than at any time in history. The missing link is how to translate that demand into cash that can be reinvested in new production. That fact is rightly obsessing the industry but that focus is too often misdirected.  Firstly, there is too much energy wasted trying to defend release patterns and financial models that this on-demand age has already overtaken.

But secondly, and more importantly, these straitened times have also led to a return to that unrealistic alchemistic urge to try to tap into a consumer-driven market by somehow finding the magic formula of "what people want".

Meeting consumer demand

This often manifests itself in a tedious debate about whether customer or content is king - when what we really need is a dose of republicanism in which the debate is turned on its head.  If the task of film was simply to feed the measurable collective royal whim of customers, we might all be rich. Yet for all the hype about the peasantry clamouring for upbeat movies to help us through recession, taste is no easier to read. There is, for example, no more a universal demand for feelgood films than there was for a bit of misery to counterbalance the chirpiness of easier times.

What most of us want is variety. Actually, it's more than that - most of us don't know what we want. "Surprise us" may well be the biggest demand of consumers.  Hollywood is certainly banking on a few, relatively critic-proof, blockbusters for a global audience with 3D as a winning factor.

But away from the rarified climes of the studio megamovie, is there any sign of an winning formula? Comedy might well see a renaissance and horror actually has just as much pedigree as feelgood films in recessionary times.  Yet the trouble with this concentration on genre is that it takes years to get a film into the market and by then the audience has already moved on. If you can see a bandwagon, it's probably already moved on.

Stories from the abyss

But there's a bigger and much more tantalising opportunity for independent films in particular.  Journalism is falling apart at present with the savage cutbacks and closures of newspapers and magazines. Investigative reporting has given way across the world to the cheaper options offered by PR machines, spin doctors and celebrity. Increased interest in documentary in recent years may reflect this shift but drama too can be a very effective way - maybe the most effective way - of describing these times. Television, even during a period of cuts, retains its primacy for those telling prescient dramas about the here and now.

But what is happening in the world today requires the big canvas that film can offer at one end of the scale. Perhaps also, changes in digital production and distribution will also allow a faster turnaround of cinematic dramas that are not tied to TV schedules.
It might be that these stormy times are remembered by the films it produces, harking back to the 30s. That won't happen because of a new distribution mechanism or an ability to squeeze a few bucks from an emaciated finance industry.

It will come from the vision of writers. The flip side of this transition in the media is that might lead to a re-evaluation of value in the creative process.

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