An alumni of New York University’s Graduate School of Film & Television, David Schreiber worked as Director of Development and Creative Director for four different production companies, and now serves as director of a digital filmmaking program in Santa Monica, California.
Bijan Tehrani: Since we spoke four years ago about international cinema in the United States; what are your opinions on the presence of International cinema in the US.
David Schreiber: Well, I would like to be more optimistic than when we spoke four years ago, but unfortunately the economic forces that impact movie production in this country I suspect will eventually, perhaps soon, take root in other countries as well.
When we last spoke about those national cinemas, we spoke at length about Iranian films and I think that they’re as vital and as interesting as before. Kiarostami seems to reinvent cinema with every movie. When you look at contemporary Iranian cinema, it seems to grow more and more vital and artistically revolutionary at the same time that Iran is being demonized more and more by the Western powers . I recently re-watched Children of Heaven, which was nominated for best foreign film a decade ago, and beautifully directed by Majid Majidi. I re-watched Amir Naderi’s film The Runner. What one responds to in these movies is the honesty and delicacy of the portrayals. I get the same feeling when watching the best of current Taiwanese cinema. Unlike Hollywood movies, the cinema of these nations doesn’t divorce meaning from the everyday experience of life. In the case of Hou Hsiao-hsien, there’s an attempt, a successful attempt, to reenact their history and portray a very personal dissent against an oppressive government. The movies are more vital and real and honest than what we in the West typically get from our corporate cinema.
One of the things that I have done recently is to revisit a lot of the old movies; I have been watching a lot of Ozu’s oeuvre and studying how he did what he did so eloquently and conversely bemoaning the business model that eviscerated cinema in America. I’m sure you recall how cynical I was about the state of things in Hollywood. It’s only got worse. The business model has squeezed the creative model out of existence in America, and I fear that it will affect other nations and their movies as well. The global movement of capital has squeezed the humanity out of many industries; it’s irrational to think that the film industry is immune to the same forces—and yet people do. In the minds of many, the entertainment business is exempt from economic crises. We think of it as an insular art form, inoculated against the dumbing down and leveling that global capitalism seeks to impose wherever it sees opportunity. It should be no surprise that movie production, in the eyes of the mutant elites is no different from other industrial production. Presently, the media in other nations is not controlled by a handful of transnational mega-corporations that strangle creative expression; there remains room for the artist’s vital voice in those nations. Asia comes to mind and Iran and South America. I’m sure there are other national cinemas as well that remain dedicated to the soul, not the sale.
BT: There seems to be a decrease in the number of foreign films that are shown in the US, what is the cause of this?
DS: I know you would rather discuss the art of cinema instead of the political-economy of it—as would I—but the wolves are at the door, Bijan, and it would be foolhardy to think that the entertainment and cultural industry in any nation is immune form economic forces. When the financial sector of our economy collapse three years ago and put the squeeze on the financial institutions, they stopped lending. Even with bailouts and prodding from our own government, they stopped lending. Well, that is pretty much the same thing that has happened with our film industry in America. A lot of people think the studios finance their movies out of their own deep pockets. They don’t. They borrow the money from financial institutions. One of the first shoes that dropped on production occurred right after the Wall Street collapse. Deutsche Bank withdrew a 450 million dollar package of film funding for Paramount Pictures. Paramount said they walked away from the money of course, but the only thing relevant is that credit markets stopped floating loans. If the money changers stop lending, movies don’t get made.
What we are seeing in this country is fewer and fewer movies getting made and so the intimate and honest movies are sacrificed at the altar of movies made by money for money. Corporate values have trumped the art. Because the money isn’t flowing freely anymore, when Hollywood green lights a project, they want it to be a risk-adverse product; they want a film that does not take chances and appeals to the lowest common denominator, which some critics have called the reptilian brain stems of the audience. They trick them up. They become roller coaster rides. The last thing the studios want is the audience to use their brains. If they did, they would say, what’s wrong with these characters? Why are they all walking around with Tommy guns, shooting people to solve their problems. The films are synthetic and divorced from human experience. The studios want to make sure that there is a built in audience before the film gets financed and you can see the results in the theatres.
If you still like your movies in the dark, you can see these films that are contrived, divorced from reality, and evoke fake emotions. They never challenge the viewer or allow the viewer to re-imagine parts of their own lives. If you could be a fly in the ointment (mixed metaphor intended) at a typical green light meeting in Hollywood, you’d witness a phenomenon that is quite different to what it was a even a generation ago. Yes, it always was the entertainment business and the people that produced movies wanted to make money, but there were always one or two persons in the room that believed in the script and trusted in the talent of the writer and the talent of the director and would green light the project because they genuinely liked the script. Today you could have twenty people in the meeting and they are all marketers and bean-counters and, to be honest, philistines who only care about money and so they do not want to take any risk with that film. In that same meeting you might have investors from McDonalds and Mattel, you might have a foreign corporation you might have a video game executive, and these people are saying that they could provide this percentage of the budget because they can get a video game spin off or move merchandise. Who is representing the art? Art has no seat at that table, which seems fitting, as movies from Hollywood are no longer the expression of an artistic vision; they are spectacles in 3D.
BT: One of the things happening in Europe right now is that they are not going to wait on the US market for their films and rather they are going to depend on the European market to profit with their films. The result has been positive because the filmmakers are able to at last make back their money on the films that they produced. Do you think that this strategy will eventually help European cinema?
DS: I don’t know for sure, but I think that not accepting modest returns will sap the sweet meats out of any national cinema. As long as producers can accept modest returns, returns sufficient to reproduce their means of production—i.e., to make enough money to support the next production—they will be healthier in both the long run and short. The Hollywood model of production has built into it its own destruction. It’s just one incarnation of the unquestioned premise that an economy must continually grow. On a planet with a finite amount of resources, the growth model will eventually and imminently, run into a fatal roadblock. It’s the same with movie production. Hollywood has irrationally put itself in a position where each movie must make more and more money. That perforce leads to fewer and fewer movies getting made, because each movie must return X number of dollars and that X rises exponentionally as the cost of production and distribution rises. It’s self-defeating and will spell the doom of the American cinema. If each studio makes fewer and fewer movies (and that’s what we’re witnessing), then two or three bombs in a row will decimate that studio. It’s an art form; the painter only needs paint and canvas, but when you deal with movies, which cost so much money, if you can reduce the size of the needed return, it is going to be a positive thing. I actually think the production and business model employed by many European and other cinemas is a great model, a sane model, a model that preserves the role of the artist in the process. Whether or not it can be imported into this country is the question. America is a state in crisis, rapidly approaching the ignominious category of failed state, or as some economists have called it, an undeveloping nation. Unfortunately, the adoption of, what you called, the European model might first require a complete collapse of the Hollywood system.
Hollywood movies are top heavy and they are fake, they reference other movies and do not reference real life; the last time we spoke and since then I still focus my attention and viewing hours on movies from other national cinemas because I want to watch a movie about life and Hollywood movies do not do that. To get back to the economic question; when a country is thriving and growing they can take risks; the economic health of the studio isn’t placed on the strength of any one movie. When you don’t have to work under those economic forces, you have the freedom to take chances and some risk. You don’t have to use a cookbook to make another movie. I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but I do think that the Asian and European models are much more helpful for the artist involved. Even in a country like Iran, where a lot of the great artists are writing in opposition to their government and a number of filmmakers have been thrown in jail for the content of their movies, it is still a more vibrant cinema than say Hollywood where the characters are not recognizably human and they are not speaking to people in a challenging way.
BT: Right now you don’t see many international films in theatres; it seems that you can see international films in film festivals around the country. How helpful do you think that film festivals are in terms of exposing American audiences to international cinema?
DS: I think it has to be done; I don’t think the rest of the world wants to write off the American market because it is so large. This we spoke of 2-3 years ago; the studios that are distributing movies are also blocking international movies from being shown here. The more pernicious act is that our media megaliths buy up foreign movies and then they don’t distribute them–they kill them. The reason is that when your back is against the wall, you don’t want competition. So studio execs block films that are more humanistic from the American market and, with media consolidation in this country, that means the symbolic universe that we all swim in is narrowed and denuded of dissenting voices. When that happens, movie production is not a business; it’s a monopoly, and like all monopolies, the media mega-corporations actively block competition from foreign cinemas in the North American market. These bean-counters probably fear that serious film lovers in America will connect with these foreign films and ignore the spectacles that their corporations produce. The film festivals are a glimmer of hope in this sea of despair, but how many people actually go to film festivals and get to see those movies? What some filmmakers are doing is showing their films online for free and if the viewer really likes them then they can buy the rights directly from the filmmaker who initially gave it away. It remains to be seen if this is going to pose a serious threat to Hollywood’s domination. But right now things look very bleak. Hollywood is not producing interesting movies and they are blocking cinemas from showing more interesting work.
BT: Could new media help international cinema?
DS: Yes, it can but the way you do it comes with a lot of risk. There might not be money up front for the filmmaker if they have to reach the audience through the Internet and then hope for a wider distribution, which does occasionally happen. You can have Internet sensations and have other distribution channels show these non-American movies. But if the corporate sector successfully brings an end to Net Neutrality, how can we see these films? People are not going to travel overseas to see films. Those who care deeply about our culture need to fight on every front, as our corporate enemies don’t sleep.
BT: Do you think that the new generations of filmmakers are in touch with international cinema?
DS: I’m surprised that young filmmakers in North America know as much as they do. In the classes that I teach, I always try to show my students films that they have never seen or films that they might not have even been aware existed. I mentioned that I showed Children of Heaven and they were blown away by it. I also showed Millennium Mambo; sometimes they are aware of it and sometimes they are not but it’s our job to make them aware. There is a human need to explore and learn about other cultures and other cinemas, and for that reason, there is always hope. You cannot suppress the human spirit and the human need for learning and exploration. Bijan, I do honestly feel that we are not that far away from the Hollywood system collapsing and being put into a condition in which Hollywood cannot afford to make movies. Technological improvements will for a short while keep the body alive, but it clear it’s on life support. We now have the 3-D movie craze. It’s a gimmick, a gimmick intended to keep alive a revenue stream—but these tricks are bound to fail. People like us want to find cinemas that speak to us. You can watch a foreign film and relate to the characters and understand their feelings and way of life. When I watch Asian films (all exceptions granted), I can see that understanding; as these movies don’t have the need to make so much money, they can be more honest. I do think that the spectacle-approach to cinema that Hollywood practices will eventually lead that industry to collapse under its own weight. The 3D rage proves the point; it’s a trick and not a new one, to keep people in the theater, but attendance is down, while ticket cost is up. It can’t continue. These are little more than desperate measures to save the flagging fortunes of an industry.
BT: What do you think students should be taught in school?
DS: I think students should be taught about personal filmmaking. Our students cannot compete with Hollywood; they cannot blow up things, they cannot stage car chases, they can only make it look real and honest. Their lives are interesting. Most of my students come from multicultural, working class backgrounds. If they can be convinced to make movies about their own lives, our cinema will be enriched by the experience. Hollywood worships the affluent. Characters from working class background rarely grace the Hollywood screen, and when they do, they are almost invariably the butt of jokes or depicted as neanderthals. In reality, it’s the studio and network execs who more closely resemble the third character from the left on the evolutionary chart. I encourage my students to explore their own lives and obsessions in their movies. Above all else, they should enjoy life and care about it for what it is, not what life is in a galaxy far, far away. Whether or not this pedagogical approach will stick, I honestly don’t know– but I think that it is a good fight and a fight that will have to continue in order to breathe life back into the American cinema.