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Joz Norris

  • Tape 115: Hope For Cinema?

Those of my readers who follow the news about the creative industries, specifically film and TV, will know that everything feels quite perilous over in Hollywood at the moment thanks to the total stalemate over the WGA and SAG-AFTRA writers’ and actors’ strikes. For those not clued up, in a nutshell – writers and actors are making some fairly reasonable demands, principally a guarantee that they won’t be replaced wholesale by AI, and better residual deals and transparency for shows and films that achieve big numbers on streaming platforms, so that writers are fairly compensated for creating something that makes the studios lots of money. The studio heads, predictably enough, don’t like the idea of sharing their 8-figure salaries with the people who make the content they profit off, and are pushing the strike to the brink, with various cheerful soundbites like “We’ll hold out until the writers are being kicked out of their homes” or “Writers can kiss my ass, if they’re not eating value-brand beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner then my work is not done” making their way into the headlines (I might have made up one of those).

The most recent development about this is that Denis Villeneuve and Warner Brothers’ Doon: Part II, the biggest movie scheduled for this autumn, has been pushed back to spring 2024, signifying that the studios have every intention of letting the strike bleed out into next year so they don’t end up having to release big movies without their stars being able to promote them (I personally refuse to go and see Doon II unless a glossily edited clip of Zendaya telling me it was such a fun shoot pops up on my timeline). The release date change itself will cost Warner Bros millions, with their mindset seeming to be “We’d rather lose a lot of money now in the hope that we make a lot of money later, as long as we can avoid a situation where we have to sign a piece of paper now saying we have to pay other people more of our money in the future.” This is, objectively, a shitty decision – it signifies quite how selfish their outlook is, that they’re willing to jeopardise the health of the entire film industry in order to protect their bonuses, while also prolonging a crisis they have the power to resolve that plays games with the livelihoods of not just actors and writers, but also crew, editors, and so many other people. It’s a disastrous move. And yet…

I think this thing is from Doon. I’ve not seen it. I should, it’s supposed to be good, and apparently it was a really fun shoot.

A lot of the stuff I’ve read and heard about this decision amounts to people worrying that the studios’ stubbornness is going to kill the movie business entirely. I’m not so sure. I think, in amongst all the depressing elements of this story, there are chinks of light and hope for filmmaking in general. I’m beginning to think that the only thing the studios are hastening the demise of is themselves, and the stranglehold they have on imagination and creativity in film. I don’t know the ins and outs of it all, but apparently there are provisions in place within the details of the strike that mean writers and actors are allowed to work on small, independent projects – they just can’t work on anything backed by one of the major studios. So, while the likes of Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount etc shut up shop as they refuse to engage with their employees, films are being made. Stories are being told, because of course they are.

Cinemas and movie theatres have to stay open, so what happens when the autumn’s big blockbuster releases are all pushed back to 2024? They have to fill their screens with showings of smaller, more unusual films that might not otherwise get a wide release. In the last week or two I’ve enjoyed seeing small-scale comedy and drama creep back into my local cinema, watching films like Joy Ride, Scrapper and Theater Camp (especially Theater Camp). What happens when film critics and journalists need to keep producing content but there are no big blockbusters to make lots of noise about? They start making lots of noise about the small indie films that are being shown in cinemas. What happens when critics are making lots of noise about films the public haven’t heard of and aren’t primed to enjoy because of pre-existing familiarity with an IP, and those films are the only things showing in the local cinema? Maybe, just maybe, a certain percentage of the moviegoing public start taking risks on things they haven’t heard of, and find that they actually really enjoy them?

The high-profile failure this year of a number of big-budget IP-based studio-manufactured blockbusters with names I can’t quite remember (Antman & The Wasp: A Quantum Situation; Indiana Jones And The Time-Travel Clock; Mission: Impossible: Reckoning: Dead: Part One: Chapter Three: Subsection Five: Paragraph 2; Batman 9: The Flash; Black Adam) and the enormous success of two bold, original pieces of storytelling (yes, Barbie is obviously based on a familiar IP and Oppenheimer is an adaptation of a biography of a well-known historical figure, but I’d say the most distinctive things about both films that felt like such a sea change in the blockbuster landscape was the singularity of vision behind them) shows that people are ready for their viewing habits to change. People don’t want to be served up variations of the same corporate, grey, sedative sludge over and over again. So if the studios’ short-sighted selfishness happens to coincide with a moment where people are hungry for something different, and then ends up creating an environment in which things that are different, original, fresh, new are served up to them by necessity, then it may well be that what they’re hurtling towards is their own doom, not the doom of filmmaking as a whole. If all their delayed and postponed manufactured blockbusters come out next spring, but the public has enjoyed an interlude where they’ve been able to watch some really great original cinema, they might well find that their audiences vote with their feet, and that they’re faced with more high-profile failures. (To be fair, I do hope Doon II doesn’t fail, I’ve heard the first one is genuinely good, but I’m talking more broadly about the wearying palette of schlock served up by Disney, Sony et al).

The bubble of franchise fatigue that the movie industry is hovering around has long been compared to the death of the previous big studio system in the 60s, when the safe studio-backed formulas like Westerns and musicals stopped making money and their previously reliable business models fell apart. In the wake of that collapse, a load of visionary auteur directors and writers were able to emerge in the 70s who made relatively cheap, small-scale films that are today held up as some of the most indelible classics of the last century – Taxi Driver; The French Connection; One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest; Jaws, etc etc. I genuinely think we might be on the threshold of a similar transition now – I think we’re not far off the wheels falling off one particular model, and the emergence of a load of really exciting new voices and stories.

So, depressing and grimly predictable as the studios’ disdain for the striking actors and writers is, I do hold out hope that what they’re really doing isn’t starving artists out of their homes, but eating themselves. I have hope that a brighter future exists for filmmaking on the other side of this storm. In the meantime, solidarity to all those writers and actors fighting for a fairer system.

Next week I might share some thoughts on AI and its role in creating art – in the meantime, let me know what you think of all this! Are you worried about the strikes? Do you fear cinema as a whole is about to collapse? Do you think better days are coming? Do you like the current system of IP-based franchise filmmaking, and will you be sad to see the back of it? (You big nerd, you). Let me hear your thoughts!

Also, this week I’m launching a new feature of the Therapy Tapes – an interactive chat function! Subscribers will all shortly receive a separate email inviting you to join the chat, where you can share your thoughts with other readers in response to the ideas I explore in the weekly Tape! I’m sure it’ll take a while for this new feature to build up a consistent readership, but I love the conversations I have with my readers off the back of the things I write about, and for a while I’ve been wanting to find a way to expand that communal, responsive element to the wider readership. Of course, if you just want to communicate directly with me, you can just hit reply with your thoughts and our conversations will remain private. But if my writing ever sparks thoughts you’d like to share with the wider readership, dive into the Chat and let us all know what you think! Each week, the Chat will be prompted by a question from me exploring the central idea of that week’s Tape. Please don’t be shy, as I’d love to build this feature up, and am sure it might take a few weeks and a few brave souls to help build it up!

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Of course, many of this year’s best and most exciting shows are coming to London! Some of the shows I’m most excited to catch at Soho Theatre over the next month or so include Kieran Hodgson’s Big In ScotlandFrankie Thompson & Liv Ello’s Body ShowBen Target’s LorenzoIan Smith’s CrushingAhir Shah’s EndsAnia Magliano’s I Can’t Believe You’ve Done ThisChloe Petts’s If You Can’t Say Anything NiceLorna Rose Treen’s Skin Pigeonand of course Julia Masli’s ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Bec Hill and Gav Innes have been treating me and Miranda to the Bill & Ted trilogy over recent weeks, as we’d never seen any of them. We watched Bill & Ted Face The Music this week, and there’s a bit where they emerge onto a balcony that really made me go.

Book Of The Week – I just finished Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, which is a great, atmospheric little mystery set in a tiny village in Poland, where it looks like the animals might be taking their revenge on people.

Album Of The Week – I Made An Album by Dadi Freyr. And he did! It’s good. I’m going to see him live in December and I can’t wait. I’m sure everyone reading this knows him already, but if not, he’s an Icelandic synthpop guy and he was the winner of our hearts at Eurovision 2020 and he’s brilliant.

Film Of The Week – Theater Camp. This is just utterly joyous, please go and see it. It’s only the second 10 out of 10 film I’ve seen in the cinema this year, after Marcel The Shell With Shoes On. Theater Camp is so funny, so well-observed, so simple, so well-acted, has so many laugh-out-loud moments. It’s exactly the kind of film I really want to see more of, it was like a breath of fresh air.

That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you thought, and if you enjoyed this newsletter enough to share it with a friend or encourage others to subscribe, please do! In the meantime, take care of yourselves until next time and all the best,

Joz xx

PS Ever been in a lido during a thunderstorm? I have now and it turns out they have to evacuate you:

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A weekly creative newsletter. The Tapes function as an interactive notebook/sketchpad exploring comedy, art, creativity, making stuff, etc.. More Info.