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3Qs: Lots of action in today’s film industry


Terrence Masson, executive professor of animation in the College of Arts, Media and Design, has more than two decades of production experience and has worked on some 20 feature films. We asked him to discuss the latest trends in the film industry—from ballooning film budgets to Kickstarter campaigns to new technologies.

According to reports, director Steven Spielberg recently said several big-budget films are doomed to flop, a cataclysmic event that would change the industry forever through price variances at the box office and other ways. What’s your take on the blockbusters’ rising budgets and how they’re affecting the industry?

I would agree it’s a massive train heading for a cliff; it’s become a “too big to fail” scenario. As far back as the 1990s, two studios had to split the total production/marketing cost of James Cameron’s Titanic because no single studio could risk it failing. Not only are ever-increasing production budgets unsustainable but they are also greatly increasing risk aversion. What I mean by that is the more original an idea is, the less likely it is to be produced. But there will always be a market for “blockbusters.” So what’s a film studio to do?

If I could have the Warner Brothers and Paramount executives in my film production class, I’d tell them the same thing I tell my students: plan smarter in pre-production and don’t start shooting until you know you have something that isn’t terrible. Take John Carter. The film had an A-list director, an experienced producer, but IP was a bit dated, and it just wasn’t great. If they had made the film with a small handful of creatives as a pre-visualized story-reel and realized that it wasn’t very good, they would have been able to work on it for almost no cost for as long as they needed to until it was great. Not until then would you bring in the expensive crew and shoot the film. The same thing happened with World War Z, the new sci-fi film starring Brad Pitt.

Zack Braff and other actors have recently used Kickstarter campaigns to launch their films. What do you think of this trend and the influence it gives actors and fans?

I believe in Kickstarter and other sites like it—at least for now. But its future in the film industry depends on the model’s sustainability. My wife and I just launched one to produce a short animated film in cooperation with some students and professionals called The Café. Small indie production companies have been successful for a long time reaching out to well-off individual investors who can be part of Hollywood for a few hundred thousand dollars. You get a dozen folks like this and suddenly you have a very substantial capability. But most of these films have only had a small independent and foreign distribution market up to now. At some point people may get tired of everyone and his brother having a Kickstarter campaign. But like anything else, I would hope the great projects would always stand out and be successful.

How are technological advances allowing filmmakers to break new ground?

The actual hard costs to make a quality film today have never been cheaper, especially since most desktops come equipped with professional quality editing software. I’m planning a new elective course in Media and Screen Studies, Short Film Production and Development, around this very idea.

The best movie ever made isn’t worth making if no one sees it. To that end, marketing and distribution channels give independent films direct entry into  living rooms around the world. Streaming video sites such as Hulu-Plus and Netflix make the barrier to entry for serious filmmakers almost nonexistent, not to mention YouTube and other file sharing sites, which have no distribution costs. None of this is brand new, but it’s going to catch on with a much broader audience and become mainstream very soon.

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