So the Observer (a sunday broadsheet here in the UK) has run what's effectively an opinion piece today, the opinion being that of "filmmaker" Chris Jones. I know Chris and his work quite well, having read his books and met him several times, usually in the context of his making game attempts to explain to me and the rest of BECTU camera branch why it's OK not to pay people. He presents himself as a filmmaker and gives his opinion on film budgets when in fact he hasn't made a feature film since 1994 and as far as I know has never made a profitable one. I have more credits on feature films than he does, for christ's sake. He is, in my view, a prima facie example of one of modern society's most irritating woes, which is to accrue large amounts of impressive paperwork indicating that something is the case, attend lots of meetings in which people engage in egregious groupthink about it, then behave as if it is so. On this basis, Chris Jones is a filmmaker. For some reason, people keep giving his preposterous opinions airtime.
From the above you could reasonably deduce that my approach to Chris is not by default charitable, although I'm forced to agree, in the broadest possible strokes, with much of his thesis. His position is that the film industry is wasteful, lavishing huge amounts of money on fripperies like never-used personal cars for actors and unnecessary equipment. At this point I think it's only fair to invite the reader to consider how entitled to an opinion Chris really is on this subject, given his ardent campaigning for unpaid work. On that basis, I wouldn't be terribly inclined to take it all that seriously, other than that it isn't actually very difficult to make this case. Actors do get ridiculous perks, if only because their agents are competitive with each other. The price-to-performance ratio of an F35 is indeed absolutely piss poor compared to lower-end gear.
The problem with this is that Chris presents it as a problem specifically of the UK industry. This patent balderdash; the degree of extravagance afforded US productions is vastly in excess of anything done here. I recently watched an interview with Lance Henriksen concerning the production of Aliens, in which he describes Pinewood circa 1985 as "going to hell". Well, Lance, I suspect it hasn't been touched since, but either way it's certainly most of the way to hades by now. The entire site smells of tetanus, and the same goes for Shepperton. Of course the easy answer to this is that the US industry can afford it. You could make the point that even in LA, most films lose money, but it's certainly true that the big Hollywood studios are better placed to absorb the ebb and flow of the financial tide than we are here. Whether we actually want a film industry that works on the Chris Jones model is another issue, but in a business environment where it's next to impossible to get indigenous independent film released it's largely a moot point.
The problem with this is that it just shifts the problem. The British film industry is not failing because it gives actors cars or hires expensive camera systems or produces awful scripts. It does do all of those things and I agree it's often ridiculous to do so, but that's not the big picture. The problem is that there is no British film industry, or at least not one that can support the accepted norms of filmmaking, and this is a point that Chris clearly misses. It's an understandable mistake, since it doesn't seem as if he's actually worked in the British film industry for sixteen years, but that doesn't make it OK to publish it in a major newspaper.
One wishes the Observer would check the qualifications of their sources more carefully, but in fact the crowning moment of gape-jawed astonishment in this report - astonishing, that is, if you aren't familiar with the UK film council - can't, unfortunately, be attributed to Chris Jones. It's so ripe I'm going to quote it in full.
The UK Film Council said that of the £15m it invested in film last year it had recouped £4.9m, a "good return", it said, considering that it was investing in up-and-coming talent.
It's not like there are only two models (and budget-levels) for production: ultra-lavish / expensive and no-budget no-one-gets-paid. It's a bit misleading to point out the excesses of huge productions and suggest that all levels of professional production are that excessive with perks and whatnot. Many of us work somewhere in the middle, where the "perks" are maybe a coffee truck that shows up once a week for the crew. Actors get trailers because it's a SAG requirement and besides, they are only on set for a small percentage of the day and have to hang out somewhere in the meanwhile, and keeping them at base camp is a way of controlling their location and availability.
The real issue is not the mega-productions and the amounts of money they spend on swag and gifts and perks for their stars, the real issue is why there is not a healthier middle. The film industry is mimicking the population at large, the middle class is disappearing. I wouldn't focus on what Michael Bay is doing on "Transformers 3" or that level of hyper-production, the amounts of money spent on those movies will always be surreal to the outsider, and even the insider.
It's fine to promote the notion that professional production can get leaner and meaner, I don't have a problem with that, but I think that's skirting around the bigger issue, which is profitability. Why do such a small percentage of movies make so much of the majority of profits? Why isn't the marketplace more diversified? Part of it derives from the release of movies worldwide on the same day and the expectation that they all make their profits within a week at the most. Of course in this environment, a small movie is going to tank at the box office, whereas if it had been allowed to sit in some smaller theaters over a four-month period, it may have turned a profit.
That's what I think every time a movie like Avatar or Tranformers 2 comes out. Instead of making one film for a few hundred million, why not make 30 films for $10 million each. I thought diversity in investment was good...but what the hell do I know? I seem to remember hearing about one failed movie taking down a studio on more than one occasion. And Wall Street clearly has cornered the market on putting all their eggs in one basket.
On the subject of "no budget" filmmaking...well, it's clearly not a business model that can work, at least not in the long term. If there weren't projects with budgets, super low budget projects couldn't exist. And if you try to build a business around not paying people, well, you'll run out of people pretty fast and you'll have very few good people to begin with. I've always believed that if you paid teachers better, you'd have a lot of better teachers. I think the same holds true in most businesses.