Earlier this month, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the two men who largely created the summer event movie, expressed their concern that major studios and theater chains are on the verge of massive implosion. Big-budget movies are really time bombs, they said, and a few failures will irrevocably damage major studios — and more importantly, squash any hope that filmgoers have of seeing any sort of feature not about men in tights in their local multiplex.
To them, the doomed fate of Hollywood seems almost irreversible. Their good friend Ron Howard agrees, but only to a point.
The Oscar-winning filmmaker is one of the few mega-producers left who can get non-superhero movies made on the regular — see: Frost/Nixon, The Dilemma, and Cinderella Man. In his opinion, audiences have the power to help story-driven pictures reclaim their place at multiplexes, he said in a phone interview on Monday.
"Studios, mainstream investment entities, they can't hand experimentation over entirely to the indie world," said Howard, whose racing biopic Rush, starring Thor actor Chris Hemsworth, was produced by his Imagine Entertainment and is being put out by Universal. "That would be a shame. And experienced filmmakers shouldn't be delegated only to tentpoles with reliable, easily marketable titles. But that's just a moment of tension. That has to get sorted out, because ambitious filmmakers, they don't want to be categorized. They're going to find ways and audiences."
Howard says he hasn't spoken with Lucas and Spielberg about the issues, but does understand where they're coming from.
"I saw them this weekend at George's wedding but I didn't bring it up because it wasn't the environment to talk about implosion," he said, laughing. "But on the one hand, I know exactly what they're talking about and feel some of that because there's definitely a shift going on, and it's pretty seismic. And it threatens to undermine a certain kind of filmmaking, and that is movies that take a chance and function on a large canvas. That's what I think they're really talking about— could David Lean get to make Lawrence of Arabia today? He mentioned Lincoln [almost going to HBO]. It's something to be acknowledged, but on the same token, I wouldn't characterize it as implosion."
Lucas and Spielberg predicted in a panel discussion earlier this month that movie theaters would be required to offer tiered pricing for different films, with big-budget superhero films being given premium pricing more akin to Broadway shows. Spielberg warned that smaller, more plot-driven films will soon be entirely abdicated by major studios, and could even appear less and less in theaters.
Howard said that if audiences want ambitious work on the big screen and not just their televisions, they need to take a stand by showing interest in (and buying tickets to) non-superhero movies. Ultimately, the film business has to respond, if sometimes slowly, to audience's fiscal choices.
"I think what they were saying, in a way, was kind of a call to audiences, is that ultimately, the whole thing is very entrepreneurial, pretty free enterprise," he said. "And at the end of the day, you have to hope audiences demand that. And I think what Stephen and George were saying, if I can interpret a little bit — at least my interpretation — is that you have to give them something to vote on. You have to continue to be ambitious about what films can be on whatever canvas. Small, yes. That's risky too. But let's not be afraid to take big risks."
Howard's next film, Rush, is an example of one of those risks. Set in the 1970s and with a film quality that is reminiscent of that decade's gritty dramas, it features Hemsworth not as a Norwegian god and comic book hero, but as a flawed race car driver. The explosions are limited to car crashes, which, unlike most comic book films (see: Man of Steel), have consequences.
In some ways, Howard is helping to broaden the scope of what ambitious, low-budget filmmakers can accomplish without the help of a movie studio — or even a theater — to display their work. Project Imagination began as a promotional partnership with Canon cameras two years ago, and has since become an ambitious part of Howard's multi-varied project portfolio. In the first year, his daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, directed a film based on photos submitted by the public; now the senior Howard is mentoring various celebrities — actors and otherwise — as they make their own short films based on photos that have once again been sent in by the public.
This year, the freshman filmmakers are Jamie Foxx, designer Georgina Chapman, LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, Eva Longoria, and Twitter co-founder and creative director Biz Stone, all of whom have now completed their work. Stone, a professional filmmaking novice, was especially impressive, Howard exclaims.
"He's a little bit of a ringer in that yes, he's made his name as a new media entrepreneur and he's brilliant and he's got a very organized mind in that regard," he says. "But he's always loved films, he's always written, he's made films in college, and he loves art and media. And so I think in a way, this was a chance for him to flex some of those muscles with a deadline attached and a standard to meet and I think he sort of enjoyed that challenge. I think he's never lost touch with his creative side."
The completed shorts will premiere at this fall's Project Imaginat10n film festival, along with five shorts submitted by fans. The movies won't be seen in theaters, but as Howard's friends have predicted, it represents a widening of opportunity for young and creative directors to have their work seen in new platforms.