by Bruno Decc
Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror
The media landscape is saturated. There’s too much content and competition to make films profitable. As Andrei Tarkovsky said: cinema is an unhappy art because it needs money – and among filmmakers money is even harder to come by now.
This means we have to resort to techniques that will make filmmaking more of a reliable investment, to attract money. In doing so we must succumb to the usual techniques: get know actors, market it, focus on well established genres (aka: palates in the audience shaped during film history) and pre existing fan bases, story universes, and brands.
Companies like Legion M, that have thousands of fans as shareholders, are actually reactionary because they make their investments safer by creating only within an established and faithful fanbase. That makes investments possible, but also significantly limits the production of new content and the introduction of stars. This explains the recent film reboot age.
Filmmakers have two choices: to play this game and make their projects happen in an increasingly more competitive environment, or as I propose, go to low and use nano-budget to finance production using any means necessary (without infringing on essential regulation and rights) so they can enjoy creative freedom, authenticity, integrity and independence.
If the trend continues, the market will crack, that is, it will become globally impossible to make revenue out of films as the pie gets divided. At this point banks will no longer fund productions and possible budgets will drop significantly. Those who have developed techniques to make films at nano-budget scale will prosper at this time for they will have the method to continue to create and even make profit, perhaps holding on to medium and low level financiers. The payoff will be much more original and innovative work and more fulfilling to audiences than ‘safe’ or too familiar films and series.
How does the Golden Age of TV play into it? As explained by Byung-Chul Han in his essay on binge watching, TV series reflect a current trend into creating closed loops; personal realms where we expose ourselves only to what gives the most pleasure over and over without risking new content.
So even though series are part of the transformation of lower budgets taking over audiovisual content, when on further inspection they still represent a desperate attempt to attract audiences in a saturated market. Most TV series would work better in a condensed form, as a feature film – but are instead a creative way to sustain the market in the saturated age. Take a look at the audience numbers for the series finales of the most watched TV series of the last 40 years:
MASH (1983): 106 million viewers
Seinfeld (1998): 76 million viewers
Friends (2004): 52 million viewers
Breaking Bad (2013) 10.3 million viewers
These numbers indicate that media saturation is ending watercooler TV shows – that is, common narratives that unite us all. Instead, fewer people are watching the same thing at the same time, evidencing a smaller and smaller reach and forcing budgets down. Even though there’s been a recent increase in series budgets, generated by an arms race in the streaming industry- there’s evidence that much less is needed to compete:
MASH’s average budget per episode: 1.000.000 USD
Friends avg. budget per episode 10.000.000 USD
Game of Thrones avg. budget per episode: 15.000.000 USD
Breaking Bad’s avg. budget per episode: 3.000.000 USD
This will lead to the end of this peak. Since the pace of saturation only increases with series, it will make the emergence of nano-budget productions happen faster.
All this will only be possible with further developments in digital filmmaking tools, that will culminate in the extinction of technical tasks leaving only creative (above the line activities) still intact – possibly fused with these digital tools. For example, crews might be reduced to a dozen individuals working 90% with computer graphics, and actors might begin to license their image as digital avatars instead of signing up for specific roles, which could lower the production costs significantly.
Then cinema will be a happy art, finally free.