With a flood of content, what do we want cinema to be?

In the COVID era, we have been forced to rethink everything. And with home viewing becoming even more dominant as cinemas closed, the question has arisen: What exactly is a movie?

Pundits and industryites focused this debate on streaming vs. cinemas. But artists see things that most people overlook, so Martin Scorsese in the March issue of Harper’s asked, “What is cinema?,” which is not the same question at all.

He writes, “The art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content.’ ”

He uses Federico Fellini as a starting point to discuss movies as art. In the digital age, we have come to see movies (and TV fare) as content, in the way that we see famous people as a brand.

Harper’s senior editor Chris Carroll proposed the article to honor Fellini’s centenary, noticing that his work is less well-known than it once was. Scorsese pays warm tribute to the late filmmaker, and adds a meditation on the relationship between “show” and “business.”

His article raises questions. The movie industry constantly adapts its financial plans, which is a major achievement in a fast-changing world. But how do we spotlight great filmmakers and how do we nurture young creatives who do not easily fit into business-school formulas? In other words, what are we doing about the past and about the future?

Our relationship with movies has changed. Under corporate owners, studios started seeing movies as “content,” and so have audiences. When we bookmark a want-to-see film, our streaming service or website uses algorithms to suggest other similar titles. A movie becomes just another entry in our check-off list.

Variety began to report box office figures early in the 20th century; as a trade paper, we always addressed budgets, B.O. tallies and ancillaries. But the mainstream media has adopted this approach, which encourages audience members to see a film as a dollars-and-cents commodity. Did any review of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” not mention the budget?

What does this have to do with Oscars? Nothing and everything. The Academy has always prided itself on reflecting what’s going on in the industry and in the world. And the changes since the 20th century are a major part of it.

Scorsese points out it’s now a landscape of corporate thinking and too many entertainment options. He doesn’t outline a plan of action; instead, he’s sounding the alarm that classic films may end up forgotten and neglected in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style vaults. And he’s notifying decision-makers — many of whom are Academy members — that they should rethink their reliance on computer data, market studies and algorithms.

“Cinema” may be hard to define, but this year’s eight best picture contenders seem to qualify, with lofty aspirations, serious stories and unique creativity.

In his 1968 book “The Empty Space,” director Peter Brook writes about “deadly theater.” He says in every season “one play succeeds not despite but because of dullness … The right degree of boringness is a reassuring guarantee of a worthwhile event.”

This applies to film as well, and, unfortunately, the public seems to think this applies to Oscars.

Scorsese praises curation: “It’s an act of generosity — you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you.” In contrast, “Algorithms are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.”

The Academy Awards have always offered curation. Oscar voters are saying, “Out of hundreds of movies this year, these are especially worthwhile.”

But the public’s perception is increasingly that the Academy is voting for “deadly theater” films, so they pull back. In a March 18 column, I wrote about the widening gap between Oscar and the public: For decades, the best picture winner was often that year’s top B.O. attraction; however, in the past 16 years the winner averaged No. 47 on the yearly box office chart for the year.

For most of recorded history, people enjoyed only a few hours of entertainment a week. Radio, TV and home-taping changed all that. Now our phones can bring us entertainment 24/7. This is a great luxury, but the downside is that we take art for granted. Something that seemed magical and wondrous now seems like an option from a menu.

A few years ago I was at the Louvre, staring at the Mona Lisa. An American couple walked into the room and he pointed to the da Vinci. The woman paused for a second, then said, “Wow, great, what’s next?” She saw the painting and was ready to move on; the moment was simply something to post on her Facebook page. I fear we all have a touch of that woman in us.

We are the most over-entertained people in the history of the world, so how do we cope with the endless glut of films at our disposal?

Even in the early days, Hollywood executives saw movies as product — they owned theaters, and needed to steadily feed the pipeline.

When discussing “Mank” with Variety recently, David Fincher observed that Henry Ford revolutionized car-making by adapting Hormel’s idea of meat-packing assembly lines.

Early studio moguls in turn “tried to apply Detroit to Hollywood. In a lot of ways it works,” in terms of publicity, distribution and even star-making, he said. “But,” Fincher added, “when it comes to filming a scene, that’s where regimentation disappears — what happens on the field, between actors and a camera. You can apply all these philosophies and specializations, but the actual making is a little more grab-ass and inspiration-intense.”

And even in the studios’ heyday, execs knew some films might lose money, but they should be made — they were
loss leaders.

In a 2019 New York Times column, Scorsese lamented how “modern film franchises [are] market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”

All good points, but of course social media went berserk and focused on one sentence in the piece: “Marvel is not cinema.” And it’s always dangerous to fixate on a detail and miss the bigger picture.

This has created a dilemma for critics. The past 10 Marvel films average an impressive 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, even though the nation’s most revered filmmaker compared Marvel films to theme parks.

But some filmmakers can overcome the assembly line. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” follows Christopher Nolan (and his “Dark Knight” trilogy) and Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) by taking a genre film and making it personal.

In 1999, Steven Soderbergh wrote, “There’s been a shift, in that people who make dumb movies that make a lot of money are now treated with the kind of respect that used to be reserved for people who made good movies … crassness has been completely embraced.”

In 2013, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas warned of a Hollywood “implosion” due to the studios’ focus on blockbusters; Spielberg added that his “Lincoln” almost went to HBO and future serious dramas seem destined for TV or will disappear.

Scorsese backs up these attitudes, saying “everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field.” Whether it’s “The Bachelor” or “Lawrence of Arabia,” it’s all content.

In 2021, we are redefining our relationship with movies and all forms of entertainment. But all of our discussions about platforms and the blurred lines between film and TV are just symptoms of the bigger issue. What do we want films to be?

Our glut of entertainment has gotten out of hand — but many aspects of our lives have gotten out of hand. Like Scorsese, we’re trying to get a grip on what’s going on and how to handle it. The filmmaker talks about Fellini’s “8½,” saying the film’s “lack of resolution is only right, because the artistic process doesn’t have a resolution either — you have to just keep going.”

That’s true for the debate over movies/cinema, and life after COVID. There is a lack of resolution and we should embrace it, rather than perpetually digging for an answer that isn’t there.

Some fear artificial intelligence is taking over but so far, AI hasn’t demonstrated the indefinable sparks of creativity that fed such artists as Fellini and Scorsese; there are no AI “grab-ass and inspiration-intense” moments, as Fincher says.

Artists and business people alike will cope, as they have for centuries. Business people may think they have solutions but, as I said, artists see things that others don’t.

In a March 1 Variety interview, Liv Ullmann said: “True art can overcome any scary feeling we have. Art is more important than ever. Performances help you know what it is to be a human being. That’s holiness.”

We want that holiness and don’t want to lose it — now and especially for future generations. And we don’t want holiness to become “content.”



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