Interstellar Blasts Out of the Hollywood Distribution Mold

The recent Christopher Nolan blockbuster Interstellar is grabbing headlines all over the internet for its scientific innovation and uniqueness within Hollywood. This post isn’t a review of Interstellar–suffice it to say you need to go see it, I’m still debating with my friends exactly what happened in the movie (and for what it’s worth, here’s a theory that I find most plausible). What is interesting and novel, about Interstellar, and Christopher Nolan, is just how the film was made, namely how atypical it was in the usual Hollywood scramble for copyrights and control between studios and the artist.
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A number of news articles came out profiling the cult director and describing just how unusual this process was. This post is an opportunity for me to point out the role copyright has the on economic structure of the film industry, and highlight Christopher Nolan’s success as one of the exceptions that prove the rule.
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The average Hollywood film follows a pretty common formula in terms of both subject area and distribution mechanism. Despite all the rhetoric that copyright ensures the independent artist she can put bread on the table for her work by giving her recourse against ungrateful pirates, the entertainment industry in the 21st century really is just a continuation of ancient patronage of the arts in modern form. Instead of wealthy elites sponsoring an individual artist like the Medici did for da Vinci, the Pope for Michelangelo, and the Duke of Tuscany for Gallileo, we have large movie studios bearing the cost of producing movies for artists and filmmakers in exchange for copyrights and a cut of the profits. In the U.S., there are the “Big Six” film studios–Warner Brothers, Disney, Universal, Sony, 20th Century Fox, and Lionsgate, which collectively accounted for over $8 billion, or 75% of all industry revenues in 2013. Independent filmmakers do exist, of course, but in the end often cut deals with the Big Six and turn over their copyrights in exchange for tapping into the big boys’ distribution network in hopes of reaching an audience of more than just midnight viewings staffed by hipsters.
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Maybe that’s all well and good, assuming the goal is simply to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” for the public welfare, as Article I §8 of the U.S. Constitution mandates. Economies of scale allow for a more efficient distribution mechanism to serve consumers, if not always the artists. The problem is that in the process, the rights to display the film, as well as the right to prevent others from viewing the film without authorization (i.e. “copyright”) are always transferred to the film studios. These firms, rather than the artists, are the ones with both the financial resources and the political muscle to hunt down infringers and to capture the regulatory process to put these copyrights to work maximizing their rents at the expense of consumers and taxpayers. But that’s for another post.
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Naturally, the Big Six aren’t going to accept any “I’ve got a brilliant idea!” pitch willy-nilly. Often they will seek a movie idea that is safe, and simply hire out the director to produce their movie. Sometimes this reaches absurd levels, where simply to protect a right from expiring, they will intentionally produce an awful B-movie version, like the 1994 Fantastic Four film. Furthermore, in the midst of the threat of internet piracy, studios and producers now demand control over a wider swath of revenue streams than just box office ticket sales: merchandise. And what produces merchandise like no other? Franchises full of sequels, plots ripped off of books, and reboots of sequels of plots ripped off of books. For better or worse, studios stick to the conservative revenue-maximizing formula of big action blockbusters with little arete but lots of explosions capable of spawning sequels with rapid diminishing returns to substance.
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This is where Nolan and Interstellar come in to kick things apart, rather than kick the can down the road. Love or hate his movies, he, along with James Cameron, or Steven Spielberg, is one of the few artists who can pitch a standalone movie to a studio and get wide liberties to produce it. Interstellar is (so far as we know), like Nolan’s previous Memento, The Prestige, and Inception (though notably the Batman trilogy was a franchise/reboot cash cow), a standalone movie without a big opportunity for franchising or sequels, and is original content rather than a rehash of a book (though some Heinlein fans may be shaking their fists). In fact, the prospect of this one film captivated Warner Brothers so much that in exchange

For the right to distribute Interstellar internationally, Warner Bros traded the rights for two of their franchises, Friday the 13th and South Park, plus “a to-be-determined A-list Warners property”, while its subsidiary, Legendary, agreed to trade Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for a further piece of the pie. To say this disregards the reigning economic logic of modern Hollywood is not quite right – it reverses the normal logic by which Hollywood operates. Franchises are the lifeblood of the studios. For Warner Bros to hand over the rights to two of its well-known properties, representing money in the bank, for the opportunity to take a spin on an original idea – a film with no sequel potential and few merchandising opportunities, based on the dimly understood recesses of quantum physics – speaks both to the value placed by the studios on Nolan, and also the extent to which he has become a franchise unto himself. (Guardian)

Nolan is also very strategic about his expenditures: he always comes in under-budget. This is a big plus for Big Six in seeking him out, but there’s also an ulterior motive that benefits Nolan:

“What he realised very early on was that the moment you give the studios an excuse to come in, you’ve lost it,” said Emma Thomas, Nolan’s wife and co-producer…“We watched it happen,” Thomas said. “The moment you go over budget, you’ve lost the creative control than an obsessive director like Chris needs.” (WSJ)

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While perhaps people value Nolan’s movies as art for art’s sake, what really helps them stand out is the rest of the noise in Hollywood. Now if only people who appreciate movie substance can find an alternative mechanism to raise films to the same level of success– crowdfunding perhaps? Then again, maybe what makes indie films indie is the fact that they’re not Hollywood blockbusters…