“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” - Horace Greeley
Around 100 years ago an industry was born when a bunch of upstarts from disparate strands of the globe travelled west across the United States to southern California. There they discovered a small, thriving village with sprawling fields and farmland.
Within two decades this land would be christened “HOLLYWOODLAND.”
Before the stars, before the movie palaces, and before the dream factory, there was simply the dream: Let’s build an industry off of moving pictures.
Griffith, Fox, Laemmle, Goldwyn, Zukor, Mayer, the Warner Brothers. Are you familiar with these names? These are just a few of the innovators who chose to “go west” and find an industry off of sheer will, creativity, and ambition. And for a few decades, the dream factory worked beautifully.
Cinema became our living dream and our ultimate form of collective remembrance.
The “dream factory” was an apt title. It was a time of peak industrialization in the United States. A bit of perspective: Henry Ford debuted his groundbreaking Model T car at the same time Hollywood was founded. It also spoke to the dichotomy of the Hollywood studio system. For the first time ever in human history, the art and the commerce were born in concert with one another. And they have been married, for better or worse, ever since.
This “Golden Age” lasted for some time and for a while it was good. We churned out countless film after countless film during this period, but there also seemed to be a vested interest from the studios and moguls to produce resonant stories.
But here’s the thing… the dream factory, it died a long time ago. And we’ve been living in its afterglow for far too long.
Why is this? Well, in many ways, we have become dependent on it; embedded in an outdated system, born doing an industrial time, when we are now living in a conceptual age, a social era, and in the birth of the sharing economy. We have replaced the early studios, run by moguls but still invested in the power of storytelling, with corporations run by financial bottom liners.
Sure, one can look to the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s or the “Indie” movement of the 1990s and argue that these are prime examples of progress. But those periods are outliers. They’re not the norm. They’re short bursts of creative rejuvenation, but they never last.
And where are we now? We are living in a time when it appears that it is no longer financially viable for the studios to even invest in budding filmmakers or in challenging, dynamic material. And why should they? In their minds, there is zero capital in it. They look at their data and their metrics and their bottom lines and that dictates the product they put out.
For the studios, they already shifted their approach in the last decade or so. See, they used to build and market films around STARS. This was true from Bogart down to Tom Cruise, but is no longer the case. Everything is now about franchise building and tentpole event releases. The movie star is dead. Long live the movie star! Don’t believe me? Ask Will how After Earth did in theaters.
The studios started building franchises around established properties: Marvel Comics. Star Wars. Batman. Why do you think Warner Brother is so anxious for Man of Steel to be the hit film of 2013? They desperately need to jumpstart their DC Comics Justice League franchise to compete with Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel frachises.
I don’t even blame the studios. Why take a risk in fronting $5 million for a smaller, “indie” film from a budding filmmaker with zero guarantee you’ll cover the costs of production, marketing and distribution when you can make Star Wars: Episode VII or Avengers 2 and know not only will you see a ridiculously huge return on your $200 million dollar investment, but can establish a returning audience for these films for years to come.
But the thing is, it’s not sustainable. People will eventually become as burnt out by these tentpole releases as they were by Tom Cruise (Just an aside, I like Tom Cruise. Not a hater). There will be a demand for the challenging and exciting material. It happened in the early 1970s and it happened again in the 1990s. And if we are not establishing the next generation of storytellers, if we are not providing them a platform to grow an audience and share their work, and if we are simply pumping billions of dollars into pre-existing properties…. what will we be left with?
Hell, just yesterday, Steven Spielberg predicted an “implosion of the film industry” based on the current financial model. How can I best put this? This is akin to a high-ranking leader of the Roman Empire warning that the city is about to burn.
I sometimes think that we still look at Hollywood and the film industry through the same eyes that we did 100 years ago. We think it still holds all the power. We’re paralyzed. We’re blinded. We’re still seeing black and white when there is a whole world of color right in front of us.
And because of all of this… I think it’s time to go west again and find a new frontier.
GO WEST. Not geographically, but metaphorically. Let’s find a new community the way Hollywood was founded 100 years ago and embrace dynamic ways of creating, producing, and sharing our stories. The Internet, and what it affords us, is our new frontier.
GO WEST. A community that reflects the time we are living in. Yes, we demand unique experiences, but ones that connect us to the greater whole of humanity.
GO WEST. Build new platforms and models for filmmakers to share their work. Distribution has always been the biggest, most oddly shaped piece of the puzzle.
GO WEST. Understand that the Internet and social media are tools to communicate. They are conduits for sharing, but they do not define us.
GO WEST. Find sustainable communities around filmmakers and the shared experience of film so that they could better find an audience.
GO WEST. Reach out and connect with people online. Do not just self-promote, but engage in meaningful ways. Start a conversation. Shared experiences breed community.
GO WEST. Find your tribe. One individual did not build Hollywoodland. And, in this period, individual ambition can and should be married to open collaboration. We must be humble enough to ask for help and courageous enough to take risks together.
GO WEST. There won’t be a path or a map. We need to forge our own way across these new frontiers.
GO WEST. Accept that there is going to be a ton of trial and error, but that these failures will help better shape whatever path we are forging. This is going to take time. Hollywoodland was not built in a day.
GO WEST. Don’t be afraid. You are not alone.
We are remembering that we are dreamers, creators, and explorers; that it is innately human to discover. This is not a call to start a new industry. I love Hollywood and what it has given to the world of storytelling. This is a call for further exploration of the brave new world we are currently living in. Like the innovators of the past, like the Warners and Laemmles and Zukors before us, we must GO WEST.