Capitalising off the Studio System

Now that I’ve made the case that even in this economy filmmakers are still incredibly well off, I thought I’d go a bit further… no, more like jump off a cliff, and make the case that because it’s so easy to make films, it’s possible to make money (hopefully profit) at the cost of the Hollywood studio system.

A lot of us are done with Hollywood when it comes to action films. Occasionally there’s something ground-breaking like uh, well you know, that one action movie that came out. I can’t think of the name, probably because I’ve been inundated with explosions from 50 angles, badly wired fights, generic kung fu poses by Angelina Jolie, and any other characteristic of the typical blockbuster action film. Most of you in the indie action community look at these and think, “I can do better than that.” And you can. You prove it daily. Maybe you can’t make an explosion as big, or as big a car chase, but you can use raw talent in ways Hollywood can’t. Here’s why:

Hollywood is so big that it’s become efficient only at making profits, and inefficient at making quality action (or insert your favorite complaint here).

Hollywood is like AIG and GM. They read charts and predict future profitability based on statistics and make crummy deals with huge groups of people, resulting in poor action films. The only difference is that Hollywood’s still profitable, and it still earns an audience because most believe there’s not much else out there competing with it.

Here’s an example from Heatseeker (1995) with Gary Daniels and Keith Cooke, two of the most talented screenfighters in American cinema history, going head to head:

Bad. Boring, lots of bad fog, bad editing, bad choreography, bad camerawork, bad everything. The cameraman wants to shoot multiple angles of the fight so he can’t be blamed by the editor for not getting enough coverage (which could destroy a cameraman’s reputation), so he consults with the director, who has Keith and Gary perform the fight repeatedly. While the two go at it all night, the cameraman is 300 feet away getting a master shot (just in case any closeups don’t look good), then he puts on the 105mm telephoto and shoots a few more takes, then comes the 50mm, etc. Gary and Keith have to run through the same, long sequence (hopefully broken up somewhat), over and over so the cameraman can get his shots. Any intricate handwork or subtle moves are impossible in this situation. The cameraman could care less if a move connects or looks bad because he’s just getting his coverage. He’s not there to critique martial arts. They fill the scene with fog because keeping the audience around this whole time would be torture. Shooting “around” the audience isn’t an option because the cameraman insists he needs full freedom to get coverage, thus fog is used. Plus fog was cool in the ’90s.

The choreographer has no say in any of this except where the 2 guys’ hands and feet go. When the cameraman moves to an angle where a certain kick suddenly doesn’t look so good, the choreographer’s hands are tied. Keith Cooke’s amazing high kick goes to hell from this angle, and Keith’s the one who looks like a fool. The choreographer (and Keith) let it go and hope the editor doesn’t use that bit. Then the editor makes coleslaw out of it. Case in point: even if you’re as gifted as Keith Cooke or Gary Daniels, a studio system can still make your fight suck.

Here’s a counter-example. Gary Daniels in Gedo – Fatal Blade (2001):

Gary Daniels six years later, but working with a crew that has full control over not only the choreography, but also the camera placement and length of shots, which in effect gives them control over editing. Limit the editor’s options and he has to cut the action the way you shoot it. The ability to just shoot what the shot requires means they don’t have to repeat the same 60 moves all night. Instead they focus on 1-8 moves per setup, and the energy is obviously better because of it.

The difference between these two clips is that the fight from Heatseeker employs Division of Labor to accomplish the goal. Definition by Adam Smith:

Smith saw the main cause of prosperity as increasing division of labor. Using the famous example of pins, Smith asserted that ten workers could produce 48,000 pins per day if each of eighteen specialized tasks was assigned to particular workers. Average productivity: 4,800 pins per worker per day. But absent the division of labor, a worker would be lucky to produce even one pin per day….

Don’t get me wrong: division of labor has brought about wonderul economic wealth. I love it because it makes laptops cheap and pencils magically appear in abundance almost everywhere for next to nothing. The exception is with filmmaking, especially action filmmaking. The clip from Fatal Blade integrates all the necessary elements without so much division of labor, and instead uses a unified vision to accomplish the goal. The modest action set-piece ends up being far more energetic, and probably cost a lot less to film.

An indie filmmaker can see the problems, and he’s able to use his small crew to make something that easily outshines the best martial arts scene Hollywood has to offer.

Maybe the problem you see with the studio system is with their storytelling, or their cinematography, or lack of a certain racial makeup. Whatever it is, if you’re identifying the problem, odds are a million other people are too. That’s your audience, and they’re waiting for something good to come out. It’s no hard task to convince them to buy your energetic, raw-talent film on DVD for $15 instead of paying $20+ to sit through action drivel that leaves even the most catatonic person feeling somewhat lost after two hours.

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One thought on “Capitalising off the Studio System

  1. Great piece Eric. I agree completely. It is a shame when you know a couple of screen fighters are really good at what they do yet the film they are in somehow fails to show that. I think a lot of it too is that in Hollywood systems, each position doesn’t necessarily take input from the others. Even here in NC I’ve meet DPs that claim they know how to shoot everything so they don’t take input from choreographers. I’ve also meet directors that don’t want to offend a DP by having a choreographer tell them where to place the camera. If it makes the film better then I’m all for it. That’s the reason we hired you and Ray for Dogs Of Chinatown. We wanted better. We certainly weren’t going to fly you all the way out here and then not take your input on fight choreography and camera placement during a fight scene. I think if people are willing to lose egos then they can greatly improve their skills. After all, it doesn’t matter if the choreographer told the cameraman where to place the camera, the DP is still going to come off shining and probably get the credit. I also agree, people will buy a great action film even if it doesn’t star top Hollywood talent. So let’s make another one asap:)

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