Starless starless night

In the 21st century will anyone know anything? N0 fewer than three of the ten people Sight and Sound (February issue) asked to review the cinema of the noughties are former or the current Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival – testament, if any were needed, to their insight, wisdom and erudition.

Premature as it may be to draw major conclusions about the last ten years they were undoubtedly a time of significant change in the technology and business of film making and film viewing, e.g. finally ushering in the third dimension as a core rather than novelty attribute of a signficant film sub-sector (animation) and showing promise in live action.

Most recent ex-EIFF director Shane Danielson always was a deft chronicler of cinematic trade winds and in his piece on the politics of national cinema takes issue with the ‘pressure produces dimonds’ explanation of the rise and fall of e.g. Iran, Romania and South Korea in the global attention stakes. As he points out the socio-economic context of the latter is markedly different from the former so we must look for more complex explanations of what drives creativity and innovation. Luck, he suggests, plays as big a part as any other factor:

 “In the end it boils down to something ineffable,and more random: a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of a number of talented individuals and the enrichment of ideas through discussion and debate. If the entwined histories of cinema and terrorism have taught us anything, its that shouldn’t underestimate the potential of a few, smart ambitious men and women sitting around in small rooms talking eagerly about how they want to remake the world.”

 Indeed.

 In his contribution the ever-passionate, prolific and thoughtful Mark Cousins opines that the advent of the 21st century has embodied a shift from Cinema as a supply economy to a demand economy in which “the new question is not how to see but how to choose“.  He suggests that this is what makes cinema a knowledge economy and that this is a new thing. Here I have to disagree, and strongly.  Pretty much since the Paramount decrees loosened up the restrictive practices that could keep sub-standard fare on the screen past any real appetite for it,  ‘information cascades’ (as the cultural economists term it) have been critical to the success and failure of movies from opening night onwards. This has been expertly, comprehensively but in some respects incomprehensibly (i.e. the underlying maths as far as the lay-person is concerned) demonstrated by the Hollywood economist Arthur De Vany and others. Their work has provided empirical verification for William Goldman’s oft-quoted quip ‘nobody knows anything’.  What Mark sees as a new phenomenon is anything but – what has changed is the means (web, text, twitter etc) and speed by which ‘word of mouth’ is cascaded from first weekend audiences to the potential further audience.  Mark’s concluding thoughts on the problem of why choose anything when media ‘snacking’ can quickly sate our appetite is, I feel, more to the point. The context of cinema consumption in a media-saturated world is what has changed most, the multiple modes of consumption of movies (as I write someone down the train carriage from me is grazing downloaded film or tv on an ipod; I could slot a dvd into the laptop after I post this and check or check out the latest trailers on my phone). 

Our third and current EIFF director Hannah MacGill turns her gaze to the stars and their seemingly waning influence over what we watch. Citing recent star-less hits from Saw to District 9 and Star Trek, she concurs with the popular view that there is an underlying shift in the elements that pull audiences in and more scope for alternative marketing approaches to hook, hold and grow the audience for any given movie. There’s a lot of truth in the latter assertion but thereceived wisdom that stars have until recently had a predictable effect on film success is itself erroneous.  (Anyone who doubts this really should gird their mathematical loins and dive into Mr De Vany’s detailed research and read for themselves how unsubstantiated by the evidence this belief really is. 

 Despite being reverently subscribed to by every major studio exec, the numbers show quite clearly that excluding other variables, stars themselves don’t produce statistically significant gains in box office. They do, however, make financing a blockbuster movie easier, attract the better scripts (sometimes!) and like black holes draw many other propitious elements into a movie’s mix. But come opening night, all other things being equal (which they rarely are) a flop is more likely than a hit with or without a star.

So what the studios may have finally woken up to, then, is not a new phenomenon but one that, like undiscovered planets, was always there only they couldn’t see it because the stars were shining too brightly. The recession, inflated talent costs and the success of star-less movies may have helped them see beyond the marquee but the truth was out there all along.

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