Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is Arthouse Dead?

Yes. It is.

Look it up on Wikipedia or
Answers.Com. "Arthouse" isn't even there. You'll find 'art film'. From that page it seems very much this is the type of film nobody wants to make any longer, let alone see.

One of the attributes of the term 'art film' is "noncommercial". Explain to me: if a film costs millions to make, how can you be 'noncommercial' about it?

Does it mean you are intending to make a loss? Or are you trying to only just make your money back? I would like someone to explain to me how you can make a business plan that aims to exactly return the film's cost. This is an illusion.

The term arthouse film dates back from the days when a relatively healthy number of people would flock to a type of movies (or rather: 'films') that would not necessarily be entertaining, but challenging and puzzling. Antonioni, Bunuel, Bresson, Tarkowski, Oshima etc. Every main street had its cinema and every cinema had its dedicated crowd of buffs.


Today, I feel some would-be filmmakers call their projects 'arthouse' if they ignore common-sense principles, they are making anti-cinema, they don't have a strong statement, they fear most people wouldn't want to see them. The term 'arthouse' today screams 'small audience', or worse: 'no audience'.

Arthouse at today's box office means 'foreign language film' or 'quirky subject matter'. Here are a few films I saw in independent theaters over the past year:
- BELLA, a colourful, life-affirming American indie film.
- THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Oscar(R)-winning drama.
- MICHAEL CLAYTON, drama starring George Clooney.
- JUNO, winner of the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
I haven't seen AS IT IS IN HEAVEN yet, but does a movie that grosses $1m (in one theatre only) qualify for arthouse?

What these films have in common, and what arthouse didn't necessarily have twenty, thirty years ago: a traditional three-act story. Despite their independent flavour, they are definitely not arthouse as we used to know it.

The darkest film I have recently seen is PRINCESS, a revenge tale mixing anime and live action. Subject matter: pornography and child abuse. Darker? Anybody?? Still, the film was told in a traditional three act structure.

Even if you believe your film will appeal to intellectuals only, the discerning audience, you will need that conventional story structure. Because today, without it you have no audience.


Is there no more experimenting with form? Yes there is. But people don't want to see it any longer. The audience for experimental, avant-garde or non-narrative cinema has shrunk to such small numbers that if/when these experimental films still accidentally get out into the theaters, those theaters remain empty. Mostly they remain limited to film or art festivals.

If you consider yourself an artist, you should not be a filmmaker, dixit Christine Vachon, one of the most successful producers of independent American cinema. Films that have pushed the boundaries: Kids, Happiness, Boys Don't Cry, I'm Not There. She was recently quoted saying:
"Even a cheap movie costs a couple of milion bucks and if you are spending that just to be an artist, that seems rather indulgent."

When I set out to write this article, I googled the phrase "Is Arthouse Dead" and stumbled upon:
"Art house film distributor Andi Engel, dead"
I wasn't aware Andi had passed away. I had met him in London on a few occasions, less than ten years ago. His company Artificial Eye was the icon of British arthouse film distribution. Even then, the company was having a hard time. Despite the fact that they had the rights to virtually every classic arthouse film, for the entire UK, it was a struggle.

Andi died on Boxing Day last year and I believe true arthouse cinema had gone before him.

The bottom line for the independent filmmaker:

Your choice to make a movie for a discerning audience does not absolve you from the obligation to tell your story following a traditional three-act story.



My friend San Fu Maltha, producer of Paul Verhoeven's BLACK BOOK, once asked me if I knew the total gross box office figures for Australia over the past year.

To my embarrassment, I didn't. Although San Fu works out of Amsterdam, he knew the numbers for Australia.

My attitude was symptomatic of many independent filmmakers, too focused on their own little films, not really working towards take a share of the money people spend every year. And that figure is - despite all the alleged doom and gloom - significant.

The AFC have just released the figures for 2007 and here are some highlights:


Box office: In 2007 Australian-produced features accounted for a 4 per cent share ($36 million) of the Australian box office, a decrease from 4.6 per cent ($40 million) in 2006.

Top five titles in 2007: Happy Feet was again the top grossing Australian film in 2007, adding a further $20.7m to its $11.1m earned in 2006. Romulus, My Father followed ($2.6m) with Rogue ($1.8m), Bra Boys ($1.7m) and Razzle Dazzle: A Journey into Dance ($1.6m) rounding out the top five.


Screens and theatres:The number of cinema screens in Australia has risen by 134 per cent between 1980 and 2007, from 829 to 1,941. Following several years of gradual growth, 2007 recorded the first fall in screen numbers since 1987, down 1 per cent on 2006.

Films screened: The vast majority (63 per cent) of films screened in Australian cinemas over the past 24 years have come from the US. However, in 2007 the US proportion was under 56 per cent for the third year in a row (172 out of a total of 317 films). Local titles comprised 8 per cent of films screened in 2007, just under the 24-year average of 9 per cent.

Box office: The gross box office rose to $895.4 million in 2007, a 3 per cent increase from $866.6 million in 2006. Admission numbers also rose in 2007 to 84.7 million. Films released through Roadshow/Warner Bros earned the largest share of the Australian box office in 2007 – 24 per cent, up from 20 per cent the previous year – with gross takings of $212 million.

Top films: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the highest grossing film at the Australian box office in 2007 with earnings of $35,527,464, followed by Shrek The Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Simpsons Movie and Transformers. Happy Feet ranked eighth.

Australians spent nearly $900m at the box office. Nine hundred million dollars. That's a nice chunk of change. Can we please have a small share of that?


Stop making arthouse films.


At the end of my workshops, I send my students home with the message: "Don't try this at home. Yet."

It is hard to apply the material of a course or seminar to your own work. At least immediately after the course. How do I know? Four of my clients took a course (NOT any of mine) that was dealing very specifically with the issues they were facing in their scripts. Right after the course, not one was able to address those issues successfully.

I am a bit wary of courses, seminars and workshops that deal directly with a writer's work. Too often, even if you point at the specific scenes, the students may not see it. Let's face it, the work of inexperienced writers is hardly ever a good benchmark to learn the craft. And it is impossible to see weaknesses if you don't have a frame of reference.

When it comes to story structure, you need to become completely familiar with the major story points before you can even look at your own work. Identifying an Inciting Incident or Crisis scene immediately after learning about it, is virtually impossible. This may sound bizarre and almost unbelievable, but it is a fact.

The only way to quickly sharpen your mind and critically look at stories, is to systematically view and analyse films. This is how I have learned much of what I now know. Watch a movie, preferably one you know well, summarise and note down the DVD timing for each plot point.

Only then, after acquiring a natural feel for a story's core beats, can you return to your own work and analyse it. Only then will you have the competence and authority to not only identify the main plot points but also critically assess them.

As promised, I have started to publish some structural overviews of films on The Story Dept. - Premium Ed.. Recently I analysed the first act of BLADE RUNNER. Meanwhile I have added the full three-act structure of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 and MICHAEL CLAYTON (all links are for Premium Readers only, make sure you log in first.

This is not an exact science and we may disagree. Hell, I know I make mistakes. But the main thing is: the exercise of breaking down a story in its primary plot points helps you to understand how to shape and propel the drama.


Susan Plunkett said...

Not sure I could call this a darker film than the one you describe (not only as I haven't see that!) but also because I think our views of particular films change over time..however..the 1976 Japanese erotic film "Realm of the Senses" really pushed the envelope in many ways and not just because it broke Japanese censorship laws but because it SO focused on obsession to the point of death (both real and living). I found a copy of it in the 90's in a video store and recommended it to a couple of people to watch and they never looked at me the same afterwards!

Susan Plunkett said...

Sorry that was "In the Realm of the Senses". I saw the error as I clicked 'publish'.

Susan Plunkett said...

Have to laugh at 'anonymous susan plunkett' - google is being precious :-)

I thought this article posted by Alef on AWG very apropos to the ArtHouse topic and other readers here may appreciate it:

For me what ArtHouse is supposed to be about is largely cult or taboo topics (or those rarely raised in mainstream films) and experimental cinematography. But cult, taboo and experiment are going to always, as indicated in the main article, draw very small audiences. I suspect they have their place in the sense of major films sometimes using a contrivance to good effect in a more mainstream work but they wind up becoming cliched and less novel than they hope for in short film.

The "indulgence" mentioned in your article Karel really talks about ego very neatly. There is danger in doing what tickles our own fancy unless we are convinced it has the same effect on the greater majority of others. That transferability truly exists.

A classic example is the awful humour made at a wedding toast that has the speaker cracking up but everyone else cringing.

Anonymous said...

I agree - art house is dead. Doesn't that mean most of Australian cinema is dead too? I think it does. Aussie cinema needs to move with the times. Cinema should be SPECTACULAR. It is this that separates cinema from television. TV produces as good a story as any film used to. So 'spectacular' should be either visual spectacle - a style that can not be reproduced on a small screen - or narrative spectacle. Now that TV spreads story and character arcs over a whole series or more, the latter is getting harder to satisfy in cinema. So that leaves 'visual spectacle'. Films need to embrace this aspect of story telling otherwise people will start asking themselves: why bother going to a cinema when they can get the same or better on TV or Internet.