My wife and I took our girls to see “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” a few weeks ago. Mostly, it was dad who wanted to see it, but my three beauties have learned to lovingly tolerate my obsession with sci-fi movies, so they were happy to come along with the promise of popcorn and drinks. Besides that, my birthday movie date in October, that was supposed to be Amber and I watching “Blade Runner: 2049”, somehow turned into a family date to see “My Little Pony: The Movie”, so I had to hold my ground on Star Wars. For the first 30 minutes of screen time in the theater, after sitting through 20 minutes of the “pre-show” of locally-sourced, recycled TV commercials, we endured preview after preview for 2018’s lineup of studio film schlock. I couldn’t tell which looked worse: the next installment of “Jurassic World” or Robert Rodriguez’s “Alita: Battle Angel”.
As we endured the “pre-show entertainment” of recycled TV ads that we were forced to watch, I came to a sad conclusion: 99% of people in film/tv have spent or will spend the majority of their careers working on material that nobody wants to watch, because nobody sitting in that theater paid good money to watch TV commercials. I know I didn’t. That audience paid good money to watch a movie in a movie theater, and they’re literally forced to watch TV commercials in order to get to the content they value – the movie itself. Outside of that captive audience environment, we would all walk away during TV ads or skip them entirely.
I’ve been working in film/tv since I was 14, and I don’t know anyone who’s any good at directing or cinematography, in particular, who started off dreaming about shooting videos for corporate clients or even TV commercials. That doesn’t mean there aren’t tremendously talented people in those markets, but I can tell you with certainty that none of them started off dreaming that one day they could spend their careers making instructional videos about installing screen doors, rotator cuff surgeries or low-carb bread commercials. Nope. Everyone starts off dreaming of working on something cool: movies.
I’m no different. In fact, in 30 years of my career to-date, I would estimate that 90% has been corporate and commercial work. Hey – we all need to live, which means we need to be paid, which means we do our work for paying clients. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The only people who think there’s something wrong with that are either the clueless film students who wouldn’t know reality if it punched them in the face or the clueless Hollywood elitist crowd…who wouldn’t know reality if it punched them in the face. But, for 99.999% of those working in production, corporate and commercial clients pay the bills, and we should all be thankful that they do.
The problem I’ve found in myself, though, is that the longer I’ve spent in the corporate clientele world of production, the less creatively satisfying it has become. Believe it or not, it’s 10 times worse in the ad agency dominated universe of TV ads. At least in the corporate video world, you’re usually dealing directly with your client, and as such you can develop a creative vision that works for their product or service in conjunction with the end user. In the ad agency / TV world, those decisions are made by clueless, disconnected “creatives” in board rooms long before we ever get involved. As producers, directors and cinematographers, all we are by the time the cameras roll is glorified button-pushers. The actual creative decisions were made long before we arrived.
And so, as I sat there in that movie theater, I watched in amusement as tv ad after tv ad after tv ad rolled, and the annoyance factor in the audience was palpable. At first, it’s met with people just talking over it. Next, people are looking at their watches. That soon turns into verbalization, directed to the screen, “Blah blah blah! Where’s the movie?” And finally, after watching the audience run to the restroom, get a refill on their popcorn and drinks and check their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts 5 times apiece, the movie starts. And I thought to myself, like everyone else, “Finally!” Why? Because this is what we paid $50 for at the box office and concession stand – not a bunch of commercials.
Commercials – paid advertising content – is content that nobody wants to watch. Period. We’re forced to watch it to get to the content that we place value upon.
So, as a content producer who’s produced, directed and shot every type of media that ran on that screen – from the TV commercials to the product promos to the actual movie – it occurs to me that the only part of that equation I’ve ever produced that anyone actually wanted to see – actually paid to see – was the actual movie. The bulk of the work I’ve produced in my career, nobody really wanted to watch. Nobody.
That notion, whether consciously or unconsciously realized, puts a drain on a creative mind like pulling the plug on a bathtub. At first, it maybe isn’t noticeable, but it quickly starts to drain the well of your creative resources. Not long after that, it starts to swirl and gurgle, and before long that once-limitless creative drive and belief in unlimited potential is dry, and it starts to show up noticeably in your work. It may be subtle at first, but eventually it becomes undeniable.
The creative drain started to manifest itself in my work many years ago, as I found myself content to set up and shoot the same old stuff for the same old clients and the same old shows…over and over and over again. It was safe. It was predictable. It was financially rewarding. And, it was creatively dead. “Good enough” became my most often used phrase, because “good enough” truly was good enough. My clients didn’t know the difference, and honestly they didn’t care. And so, since my goal was to please them to keep the business and keep the income – I stopped caring, too. “It’s good enough. Whatever. I’m billing them regardless.”
The natural outgrowth of this type of creative model is that everything ceases to be a creative decision and instead becomes a financial one. “Can we bill them for it?” or “Can we bill them MORE for it?” – these questions now become the standard determinators of creative direction. No regard for story. No regard for emotion. No regard for the art of it – it all boils down to money. Billable hours. Justification for equipment becomes a nonsensical competition to “keep up” with the production house across town instead of considerations for how things will help you better convey a message to an audience. Instead of discussions of how tools help us better convey a story, the conversations go more like this:
Videographer: “We need to shoot 4K.”
Videographer: “Because everyone else is shooting 4K.”
Producer: “Does the client really need 4K?”
Videographer: “I don’t know, but 4K is better.”
Producer: “Better, how?”
Videographer: “That’s what the place across town is shooting.”
And so it goes. As the necessity of paid work and real-world economics and the free enterprise system takes over our daily lives, we cease talking about the art of film and instead base everything on a financial or appearance argument. You know we’ve all done it. How many pieces of gear do you own that you bought because of appearance rather than whether it improves the end product or not? How many times have we stopped short of experimenting with a simpler setup because we need to pull out all of our big lights and big lenses to impress the client and visually justify what we’re charging for the job? You see, when we find ourselves in that decision loop, we’re no longer creatives. We’re just bean counters who fear loss of income above all else. And that’s how it goes.
Long live the art of filmmaking. Ars Gratia Artis.