In Dizzy Pursuit, an offbeat comedy that will premiere next month at the Raindance film festival in London, a series of unwanted family guests, a cockroach infestation and generally cramped living conditions all contend with limited production funds to prevent an aspiring young American film director from making his artistic mark.
The film amplifies the difficulties of small-scale independent production for comic effect, but for many of those watching at the festival, or who are attending the 75th Venice international film festival this weekend, the joke will be painfully felt. Film-making without the backing of a big Hollywood studio is an unglamorous struggle.
And yet figures released last week showed how lucrative the cinema business has been recently. A run of carefully timed blockbusters, including Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,The Meg, The Equalizer 2 and Incredibles 2, resulted in a 94% increase in last weekend’s takings at British cinemas compared with last year. And this sort of improvement has been evident all summer. Despite the heatwave and the World Cup, cinemagoers have been turning up in larger numbers. The same trend has been seen across the US and Canada, where 2018 has set a record of $11.6bn in box-office takings.
So the space between two apparently separate film economies, running side by side, has never gaped so wide: one half has delivered a string of comic-book heroes and popular remakes to commercial success; the other has provided fresh and more thoughtful fare for the critics and the arthouse crowd with films such as BlackKkKlansman, The Children Act, Apostasy or Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cannes prize-winner Cold War, which opens this weekend.
As Vanessa Redgrave said last week, the morning after she picked up a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at Venice, funding is heavily slewed in favour of the comic-book franchises, sequels and the kind of remakes once seen as suitable for children and teenagers, while serious independent film-makers must battle to find investors.
Joe Russo, who, with his brother Anthony, is the co-director of Captain America: Civil War, and of this year’s even more profitable Avengers: Infinity War, has heard the allegation that he is infantilising his audience. And he doesn’t like it.
Speaking from Los Angeles this weekend, he said: “That is just reductionist and it sounds like sour grapes. We have a lot of unsavoury elements and reductionist talk around now, and we really don’t need any more of that pejorative attitude. Good film-making is always about trying to find the emotional truth. Why crap on one major section of the audience because they like fables and react to that kind of storytelling?”
It is true Russo has a vested interest in comic-book extravaganzas, but as a leading director who once had his own big break at the Slamdance festival, he is also prepared to pay his dues. He and his brother have produced Dizzy Pursuit after spotting the director Jay Alvarez’s work at Slamdance, just as the director Steven Soderbergh first spotted the Russos in 1997 and produced their work (Welcome to Collinwood) with George Clooney.
In order to finance Alvarez’s film, the brothers launched a crowdfunding campaign, offering fans of Marvel Universe the opportunity to visit the set of Infinity War. “Jay’s film was imaginative, and I thought he had an ear for a stylised kind of dialogue I had not heard since [the director] Whit Stillman,” said Russo.
The British film industry analyst Charles Gant is also unpersuaded by the idea that the industry has split and that only blockbuster franchise films like those of the Russos will survive. “The award season tells you a different story. The difference is that those prestige films that win acclaim are now rarely being fully financed by one studio as they once were. So it is just more complicated to get them made,” he said.
And, of course, any talent that emerges in one sector will often move between the two worlds. A film director such as Alfonso Cuarón, for example, who has just taken his new film Roma to Venice, is also the director who made the space thriller Gravity, an Oscar winner and a box-office hit. Similarly Paul Greengrass, who is taking his bleak film 22 July, about the Utøya massacre in Norway, to Venice, has also made the mainstream Bourne franchise films.
“It is true that in north America this summer the number of films based on original intellectual property is disappointingly few,” said Gant, “but those original films that do get made don’t all do badly. And summer is only half the story anyway.”
Gant also points out that last year’s Darkest Hour, with an Oscar-winning Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, made more than £20m in the UK, taking more here than the Star Wars outing Solo.
What is more, Gant adds, a summer blockbuster is not always a sequel or a remake, as The Meg has proved. And big studios in Los Angeles are always on the lookout for new directing talent from the indie world. “They would rather take a chance on one of these names, say someone like Rian Johnson, who made Looper [and went on to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi], because they need fresh ideas. A box-office success is usually a skilful blend of the familiar and the new.”
For Screen International’s Americas editor, Jeremy Kay, the gulf between the commercial prospects of arthouse films and tried and tested studio “tentpoles” has been evident for years. Yet he agrees this “gulf” has come into sharper focus because of the studios’ focus on mostly franchise properties, together with the emergence of streaming platforms.
“There is little appetite for risk at the studios,” said Kay, “and while there are always exceptions, it’s extremely hard for independents to cut through the cacophony of mainstream cinema and compete.”
For Kay, the starry lineup at Venice and at the Toronto festivals, where new work premiered includes renowned film-makers such as Cuarón (Roma), Damien Chazelle (First Man), Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), complete with their A-list casts, would make anyone wonder whether festivals should be doing more to champion true “discoveries” made by relatively unknown filmmakers. “Some do more than others but it’s still incredibly hard for the backers of these films to make a splash at a festival,” he said.
Russo ably defends the superhero glut as part of a wider, inevitable drive towards spectacle. It is, he believes, a response to the competitive entertainment market. “In this digital age, the only reason to go to a movie theatre is for the effects and the experience. There has to be an element of fomo (“fear of missing out”) about it. That is what drives social media interest in a film,” he said.
“But there is always a place for smaller stories which have a different pace,” he said. “It depends what you want to do as an artist. It is a function of the industry that small-scale storytelling supports the rest of the industry by feeding it with talent. And we owe a karmic debt to that world. We came from that world and we know it.”
He and his brother now run their own studio, where they support new talent and have recently made a film in Arabic about Mosul, the Iraqi city.
Last month it was not just a top creative name like Russo’s that was responding to the great chasm opening up between the two worlds of cinema. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself, the Hollywood organisation behind the Oscars, also moved to create a new awards category “for outstanding achievement in popular film” to help bridge the gap. It also brought forward the date of the ceremony to early February and will shrink the telecast down to three hours to offer “a more accessible Oscars for our viewers worldwide”.
Many observers of the film-making world detect in this a panicked reaction to Hollywood’s growing alienation from the art of cinema. It is not yet clear how this new prize category will be judged, whether on budget or box office, but its arrival may also mark a less noble attempt to draw money from the big, money-making studios back into the institution of the Oscars.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again The Abba musical’s box office is up to £58.7m in Britain after adding £1.7m last weekend, taking it to within £10m off the first film’s total.
Incredibles 2 The Pixar animation has taken more than £51m in seven weeks.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout Tom Cruise’s latest action outing has made £22m in five weeks and is the biggest earner of the series in Britain.
The Meg The shark shocker has swallowed more than £11m in three weeks.
Christopher Robin The Disney film stayed top of the British box office over the bank holiday weekend and has made £7m so far.
Summer awards contenders
BlacKkKlansman Spike Lee’s movie has made £1.2m so far and this weekend goes into more multiplexes. It has already beaten his 1992 film Malcolm X.
The Children Act The adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, starring Emma Thompson, did well but is not in the top 10. Its initial earnings were £517,378.