Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Annoying Semantics Rant

This year's edition of the Phoenix Film Festival is a handful of days away, and I'll be there to enjoy it from a very privileged position: that of a returning filmmaker without a new movie.  Although attending a festival sans new work feels a little like hanging out at high school after you've graduated, it does mean parties, drink tickets, endless free flicks and general VIP access without having to do any of the actual labor of promoting a film.  As a movie fan - and I think most filmmakers would consider themselves one - you're essentially a kid let loose in a candy store.

It also means you talk a lot of film.  With everyone.  And it's in the anticipation of these conversations that I wanted to mention something that's become a bit of a pet peeve of mine.  I don't know if it bothers anyone else, and I'm sure many will consider me unreasonably sensitive, but I thought I would toss it out there regardless:

It kinda irks me when someone refers to a movie as "product".

Now yes, we've all done it.  Myself included.  Within the right context - usually a discussion about marketing or distribution - this is an accepted and well-worn term.  I've been on panel after panel and "product" has just rolled right on out of my mouth.  And I certainly couldn't be accused of meaning anything negative by its use; after all, I love movies.

Yet just because a word is part of our common lexicon doesn't mean it's not derogitory, and I submit that's precisely what referring to a film as "product" is.  The implication is that movies are widgets, created on some sort of assembly line to be packaged and sold thusly.  But movies aren't created this way - at least not yet.  Certainly there are no shortage of suits in Hollywood who've been pushing the studios in this direction for years.  "Product" implies a lumping off all films, each of which have a different execution and audience, into one pile where they're to be dealt with in the same way.  It reflects a core problem with the way we think about distribution and marketing, if not production and conception as well.

In short, I feel "product" puts movies down.  Belittles them.  It's the closest thing we have to an N-Word for films.

As is the case with most slurs in common circulation, the majority of the people using them truly don't mean anything negative.  The term just finds its way into the context of conversation.  But as any student of George Orwell will tell you, the implication of a word can carry weight and influence thought, intended or otherwise. 

Let's take a brief look at some groups of people for whom movies truly are just "product":

• Fear-gripped studio executives who greenlight so many films with pre-sold titles that ninety percent of the "product" coming out of Hollywood are sequels, remakes, reboots, or re-imaginings derived from television shows, video games, comic books, toys, theme park rides or 80's films.  In 3D, no less.  This is soulless garbage puked out by the most visionless and uncreative of minds.  And they wonder why the box office is circling the drain.

• Small-minded indie distribution folk who run all the "product" they have through the same channels in exactly the same way, knowing that Netflix and Blockbuster and iTunes will give them a certain miminum order and all they have to do is spend less than this to stay afloat.  Never mind identifying who the best audience might be for any given film and doing a little work to target them.  That would require creativity.  Showmanship.  As long as they can shove two-to-five movies every month down their pipeline they'll make a profit.  Right?  And we wonder why distribution advances are now lower than the day rates for jury duty.

• Porn producers.  (Although I would submit that these guys still display more creativity and less "product"-oriented thought than the former two parties).

I get that everything isn't about "art".  As I constantly hear people say, "it's called show BUSINESS."  But this mantra is often used as an excuse to let the "business" side completely dominate and override creative concerns.  Guess what, folks: there ain't no business without the "show".  Any other arrangement is the tail wagging the dog.

If you don't feed the creative fires, then the suits don't have anything worth selling.  I submit that making interesting, diverse, and unique movies, and hiring the best artists to do it, is the smartest way to conduct business.  If a film is a quality piece of work, there's an audience for it, and it's the job of the distribution and marketing people to put their creative hats on and find a way to sell it.  And ANYTHING, no matter how uncommercial it may seem, can be sold if handled with the right ideas and ingenuity.  We should've all learned this lesson thirty-four years ago when the seemingly impossible-to-market ERASERHEAD became a box-office success. 

Want a more recent example?  How about BLACK SWAN?  Think about it: how did an oblique, Polanski-esque, phantasmagorical psychodrama about a frigid ballet dancer tormented by sappho-erotic desires and the apparition of her own evil self become a mainstream smash in this, our allegedly sexually-repressed, dumbed-down, fast-food-munching nation?  Why, by some brilliant folks over at Fox Searchlight rolling up their sleeves and putting some actual thought to it.  And by remembering for one brief moment that perhaps the audience isn't necessarily stupid. 

Of course there are also examples of visionary (i.e. unique) movies being financial disappointments when they're first released, but even these still tend to find their audience and make a mint for their distributors over the long haul.  FIGHT CLUB bombed horribly when it hit theatres eleven years ago, but I doubt its studio would dare call it a failure now.   And ARMY OF DARKNESS, an embarrassment for Universal Pictures back in 1993, has been re-issued on DVD more times than I care to count.

Cinema is about event, and when movies cease to be surprising, enthralling, involving and entertaining, the audience will stop watching them.  The cookie-cutter mentality has been applied for too long and we've seen attendance erode accordingly.  We as filmmakers have a responsibility not only to make our films well, but to also push them to be unique and interesting.  Eradicating the use of the term "product" when referring to movies won't change much by itself, but it'll certainly shove the way we think in the right direction.  Not that "product" will disappear overnight.  It's hard to change the way we speak.  But hearing it still makes me bristle, and I'm going to try and do my part to phase it out.

So remember, boys and girls - product is what we put in our hair.  Movies are what we make.


On a side note, I'll be blogging daily from this year's Phoenix Film Festival via FilmThreat.com, which starts Thursday, March 31st.  Feel free to follow along and vicariously enjoy what I consider the best fest on the planet.


  1. Well, there you have it. This is why 90% of films are crap! When the powers that be consider it "product" it will almost always sink to the lowest common denominator in order to sell.