Cinema on the Web: Some Thoughts on George Lucas in Retirement
Knowing my interest in cinematic treatments of African American subjects, a friend drew my attention to a profile in the New York Times by Bryan Curtis entitled “George Lucas Is Ready to Roll the Credits.” Published just prior to the release of Red Tails (2012), the film on the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II which Lucas produced and financed, the profile is about Lucas’ hopes for the film, his disillusionment with Hollywood and his plans for retirement. At first glance, the piece could certainly be read as just one of countless examples of infotainment that are to be found in the mainstream media and that blur the line between criticism and publicity. But, the article is actually a deeply thought-provoking one, though not in ways that either Lucas or Curtis probably anticipated.
The article opens with Lucas’ quite bitter description of the total disinterest on the part of Hollywood studios when he began to shop Red Tails for a distributor. Despite his established track record as a filmmaker, not to mention his legendary status within the industry, Lucas couldn’t even get studio execs to show up for a screening of the film. The filmmaker’s experience is a testimony to something that, sadly, we need no reminder of: in Hollywood, no matter who you are, you are only as good as your last big hit.
At the time the piece was published, Lucas’ plan to retire seemed at least in part a direct consequence of his exasperation with the Hollywood industry: “I’m retiring…I’m moving away from the business, from the company, from all this kind of stuff.” It is almost impossible to imagine such a creative force in retirement, and indeed we learn that he does have plans: “Lucas has decided to devote the rest of his life to what cineastes in the 1970s used to call personal films. They’ll be small in scope, esoteric in subject and screened mostly in art houses.” On the surface level, this sounds like a noble retirement project. Trouble is, there aren’t many art houses left where so-called art films can be screened. While second run cinemas (those showing either recent film festival hits or re-showing commercial films fresh from the cineplex) do exist in many North American cities, cinemas with programs of experimental work, retrospectives on various strata of film history, director spotlights or tributes to emerging national cinemas and filmmakers are to be found almost exclusively in mega-cities like New York, London or Paris, and even in places like these such specialized cinemas endure a precarious existence. What surprises me a bit is that a technical guru like Lucas might not be thinking about the possibilities of the web, especially around the potential for using web-platforms to distribute his works, or the works of others, to a potentially much wider audience. Retirement is by definition a gesture of resistance to anyone else telling you what you have to do with your time, and I should think that whenever George Lucas does retire he will have earned it as much as anyone. But, I do wonder if, as a member of the so-called Hollywood Renaissance generation, he is missing an opportunity to infuse an analogous kind of excitement around the use of the web as when he, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, and Steven Spielberg were all making their early features.
There are many possible lines of exploration suggested by this piece on Lucas, but the particular aspect I want to focus on here is the role of web platforms for the distribution of independent films. To begin with, how to define independent cinema? With Lucas in mind, we can certainly get a sense of what it is not. Consider the latest installment in the Star Wars saga. The Force Awakens had a $200 million dollar production cost, a figure that does not include its marketing budget. The box office records it broke are legion, and include: biggest domestic debut ($238 million); first film to post a single day gross over $100 million; biggest opening weekend of all time in UK, Russian, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, Denmark, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Ukraine, Iceland, Serbia and New Zealand! According to the Hollywood Reporter, within days of its LA premier on December 14 2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens had opened in all of the major markets in the world, with the exception of China, and was able to gain access to the coveted Chinese market by January 9.
Here we have a film that typifies the Hollywood model of global distribution. Even if exact definitions of independent cinema remain a source of endless debate, we can safely argue that, by comparison to a film in the Star Wars franchise, indie films are made on modest budgets and their creators often struggle to gain access to the channels of distribution that would ensure even a miniscule fraction of the audience exposure enjoyed by the typical Hollywood blockbuster. And, we have all had the experience of seeing an amazing film at a film festival, only to have the film vanish into the abyss. The gap between market access for The Force Awakens and market access for what we might loosely call independent films is huge. Throughout the world web platforms are beginning to prove their value in terms of distribution, but many obstacles remain. Interestingly, very few of those obstacles are technological and have more to do with issues around licensing and subtitling, along with the sometimes seemingly intractable obstacles in countries like China and Iran where regimes exert repressive control of the internet.
Important lessons can be learned about both the ups and downs of the current state of web distribution by looking at some of the online platforms for cinema that already exist. One such site that arouses a mixture of hope for the future and frustration in the present, is Fandor. According to the sites’s own profile “Fandor makes it easy for anyone to navigate the world of independent film. Whether your interests are in films travelling the international festival circuit, American independents, genre classics, cult favorites, or archival treasures, we provide a film experience you can’t find anywhere else. We select and organize the most thought-provoking and entertaining films based on artistic and historical value. Subscribers learn about films from trailers, editorial pieces in the Keyframe Digital Magazine, the Fandor Channel and each other – knowing that each film in the library is endorsed by a real, knowledgeable human being instead of a computer algorithm.” But Fandor’s reference to “everyone” is hugely deceptive since the site is only accessible to subscribers in the US.
Do you find the reference here to “geo-blocking” as disturbing as I do? Admittedly, there is a long list of countries, like China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, etc. where the regime drastically limits internet freedom. In Iran (a country where bloggers have been sentenced to death), clerics and government officials have argued for a “national internet”, which is really double speak for regime efforts to cut off its citizens from the rest of cyberspace. Yet, the dilemma of the Volta founders reminds us that issues of licensing in self-described democracies can negatively affect internet access as well. In the case of the Volta site, with its access restricted to the Republic of Ireland, it isn’t even available to people in Northern Ireland who may well self-identify as Irish. I have long had an interest in Irish cinema, and I am sure I am not alone in my willingness to pay a reasonable subscription rate in order to access Irish films. Yes, I could engage in an act of civil disobedience and use one of many illegal means to simulate an Irish ISP and thereby access the site. But this very situation merely highlights how slowly the laws governing our access to web content are evolving.
Volta also exemplifies another key problem of current web based platforms to do with language. Even though English is the predominant language of use on the web, it still seems somewhat Anglo-centrist to suggest that it should be the lingua franca of international film distribution, on the web or otherwise. Indeed, the global dominance of Hollywood films is often invoked as one of the less savory aspects of American capitalist hegemony. Hollywood films are of course made primarily in English but are subtitled for consumption in many countries where English is not the first language. The problem with this situation is not, strictly speaking, that certain films in English are then “translated” into other languages, but that so many films from one linguistic culture are flooding into other cultural domains. Web platforms for more independent works reveal another side to the problematic dominance of English. Sites like the aforementioned Fandor, Volta and the well known MUBI offer an array of works from around the world, but, even if these services were licensed to operate outside of their specific regions, anyone without a command of the English language would find the appeal of the sites severely limited since the subtitling of “foreign” works at these sites is done in English.
Given the crucial role of language as a constituent element of national culture, it is not surprising that the dominance of English on so many web platforms has other implications. In the case of Ireland, for example, it could certainly be argued that since its film culture plays a role in the creation and dissemination of Irish nationhood a site like Volta, with a catalogue strong on Irish films, plays its own modest role in disseminating Irish culture. Yet, given the inaccessibility of the Irish films on Volta by anyone not living in Ireland, the site reinforces a solipsistic kind of cultural isolationism, where it is only those in Ireland that can use the site to learn about Irish culture. A situation is created whereby barriers to cross cultural exchange are erected, not broken down.
Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of such cultural insularity is the online presence of the British Film Institute. There are three basic dimensions to that presence, including Screenonline, the BFI Youtube channel and the BFI Player. Screenonline offers a staggering array of clips from British films in the National Archive, but very few works, even short films from the silent era, are accessible in their entirety. Similarly, the BFI’s Youtube channel is a great resource for film trailers, filmmaker interviews and additional clips from the National Archive. But time spent at the sight can leave one feeling ambivalent. There is a plethora of useful audio-visual material here, particularly with respect to British cinema. But tantalizing fragments predominate, rather than complete works, leading to a strong sense that Screenonline and the BFI Youtube channel are fundamentally promotional in purpose. At least, though, both Screenonline and the BFI Youtube channel are accessible from outside of Britain. The BFI Player, which constitutes the institutions most ambitious web-platform project thus far, is also its most disappointing for anyone not living in the UK. The mandate of the project behind the BFI Player is to digitize the best of classic and contemporary global cinema along with films from the National Archive. The opportunities for cineastes, particularly scholars of British film and culture, would be immense. As I write, the site catalogue includes collections with intriguing titles like Shakespeare on Film; Railways on Film; the best of BAFTA; Chinese Britain on Film, etc. But the answer to the first question on its FAQ section on whether the Player is usable outside of the UK is as follows: “BFI Player Plus is a UK only service. Playback is restricted to UK IPS.”
Watch the classic Red Balloon on Mubi
Yet, many of the same web-based platforms that typify some of the current problems besetting online distribution also point towards possible future improvements. For example, Volta is a member of EuroVoD, the European Federation of Independent Cinema VoD Platforms. Although this organization is in its infancy, many of its objectives are laudable. According to its own Mission Statement, these include the desire to “increase the cross-border circulation of European films” and “to promote an innovative model for VoD distribution of art-house films thanks to a curator’s approach”, while respecting the cultural specificities that differentiate one country from another. If successful, such an entity would go a good way towards addressing some of the problems that beset online distribution. Within a given country, foreign films would be subtitled in that country’s primary language thereby chipping away at the dominance of English among current online platforms. Yet, the problem remains of only being able to access a given site from within the country where the site is based. Currently, EuroVoD entails online platforms in 9 countries, and all of these function, like Volta, solely within the parameters of the countries where they are based. But, presumably, this Federation could leverage such a cooperative apparatus to maximize the accessibility of films from one of its partner countries to others.
Which brings us back to George Lucas. As a filmmaker who has been both an artistic and technical innovator, and who is now extremely rich, Lucas could be argued to be perfectly situated to help widen the scope of the online distribution of cinema. Such contributions could take many forms, and could include support of restoration and digitization projects, involvement in an organization like EuroVoD, etc. For example, Martin Scorsese, a member of Lucas’ generation of filmmakers, has done important work in connecting the dots between preservation and online access. Scorsese would be the last person to advocate for the abolition of film screenings in public venues. In 2009 his open letter to the Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in protest over the proposed cancellation of its weekend film series leaves no doubt about his position. But he is also aware that restored classics and innovative new works must be seen to have impact, and that the web offers an obvious means to that end. Like Scorsese, the founder of MUBI, Efe Çakarel, has also expressed his belief in watching movies on the big screen, but in an interview with TNW (The Next Web) he goes on to point out that “MUBI is not trying to replace the cinematic experience but often when you get out of the big cities you cannot even access the movies. If you get out of London, New York, Paris or Tokyo you cannot even see the release.” The works restored by the World Cinema Project, spearheaded by Scorsese among others, are available at MUBI on a rotating basis. It is a perfect example of the capacity of the web to facilitate access to works that are both extremely important and extremely difficult to see outside of a few mega-cities.
Britain has recently voted to leave the European union. The acrimony that characterized the referendum campaign has given way in Britain to market uncertainty and political infighting. The Conservative party is in disarray, Jeremy Corbin is fighting to retain the leadership of the Labour party, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is sounding the possibility of a second vote on Scottish independence (since Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU), and some political figures in Northern Ireland have reopened arguments on reunification with the Republic of Ireland. Even more deeply concerning is that France has been rocked by a series of terrorist incidents, most recently the appalling episode during Bastille celebrations in Nice, and Turkey has been deeply shaken by an attempted coup, which in turn has led to a repressive crackdown on civil liberties by the Erdoğan government.
In the midst of such chaos, it can legitimately be questioned whether issues around film distribution are remotely important. But, in great films we find reflections of a culture’s deepest values, anxieties and aspirations. Surely, a wider sharing of film culture can play a role, however modest, in breaking down the barriers of ignorance. And such a role seems particularly apt in an era when insular and xenophobic conceptions of nationalism must be rejected in favor of evolving and inclusive ones. Whether we are talking about the movement of people, the vitality of political institutions or the preservation of culture, walls between nations is not the answer. Part of what makes the web so exciting is its ability to resist the erection of borders. The Iranian government continues its campaign against internet freedom, but Iranians are also among the most internet savvy people on the planet. In China the web is rigidly censored, but Chinese bloggers work tirelessly (and often at great personal risk) to speak truth to power. Under Putin, corruption and repression continue to accelerate in Russia, but web activists like Alexei Navalny continue to resist, against impossible odds. We tend to fear what we don’t understand. A more vital exchange of cinema across borders (one that did not just entail global export of the latest Hollywood blockbuster) would surely constitute a gesture of rebellion (however modest) against a current tendency towards mounting xenophobia on the part of some citizens in America and a number of European countries.
To get a sense of what I have in mind, let’s go back to the example of the Volta online platform. As mentioned, the rich trove of Irish cinema on its site is currently not accessible outside of Ireland. This is particularly a shame because the Volta site boasts a considerable range of Irish works in a range of genres. We don’t fully grasp the cinematic culture of a nation on the basis of a few films from that nation that happen to be deemed most marketable. Rather, our grasp of a culture and its cinema can only come from a deep investigation of its complexities. Given the dominance of the Hollywood monolith, it is easy to forget that even American cinematic culture is a rich, multi-layered entity. How truly educational it would be for a cineaste to be able to really delve not only into a range of national cinemas but also into the full spectrum of cultural richness within a given national cinema. And, while it may be wishful thinking on my part, I like to think that the more widely film culture is disseminated and shared, the less likely cultural isolationism will be allowed to spread.
PS: This article was written in early 2017
“George Lucas is ready to roll the credits” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/magazine/george-lucas-red-tails.html?_r=0
BFI Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/BFIfilms
BFI Player: http://player.bfi.org.uk/
Open letter from Martin Scorsese on the LACMA’s decision to close its weekend film series: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/08/martin-scorsese-an-open-letter-to-michael-govan-and-lacma.html