Nine-Figure Art

by Sonny Bunch on September 11, 2012

I used to be a film critic and still dabble in the form from time to time here. One thing you quickly learn when you are forced (at gunpoint, I swear!) to see every major release is that the vast majority of films aren’t terrible so much as repetitive. There’s just a lot of the same out there: buddy cops and battling robots and comic book heroes all start to blend together after a while and you, the critic, get cynical and angry. You want something more, something you can grapple with and write about in a unique fashion. You want interesting cinema.

As a result, you tend to support, and sympathize with, artists like the Wachowskis, the subjects of a recent and glowing profile in the New Yorker. The media exposure, rare for the siblings, is tied to the release of Cloud Atlas, their monumental, nine-figure, independently financed adaptation of the book of the same name. I haven’t read the book, but I understand it’s complicated, taking place six different eras spread out over a period of 700 or so years. The Wachowskis claim to have cracked the structure and recently premiered the film at the Toronto Film Festival. We shall see: I’m looking forward to it, but half-expect it to be a mindboggling miscalculation. Again: We shall see. Interesting cinema doesn’t necessarily mean great cinema or commercially successful cinema.

As a result, I have extremely little patience for artists who complain about financial backers who get nervous about funding their project. Here are a few select passages from the profile:

“The problem with market-driven art-making is that movies are green-lit based on past movies,” Lana told me. “So, as nature abhors a vacuum, the system abhors originality. Originality cannot be economically modelled.” The template for “The Matrix,” the Wachowskis recalled, had been “Johnny Mnemonic,” a 1995 Keanu Reeves flop. …

The projected budget for the movie was around a hundred and twenty million dollars. …

“It is super frustrating that people think that it’s like a stock market,” Andy said. “You bet on the movie you like because you have taste. It’s not like buying Shell Oil. You get into the movie business because you like movies. Not because you like money.” The projected budget had to be pared down to about a hundred million dollars, which, with all the contingency fees and financing costs, meant an eighty-million-dollar shooting budget.

So, look: I get what the Wachowskis want. They want a patron, a Medici who can just bankroll their art. And if their tools were canvas and paint, they could probably find someone to fund them. Canvas and paint are cheap. You know what isn’t cheap? A major, effects-heavy motion picture with a massive cast that includes a handful of Oscar winners/nominees. You have to pay dozens—hundreds!—of people, build huge sets, invest heavily in computer generated images, etc. None of these are small expenses. Film production, especially independent film production, shouldn’t be the stock exchange—but it ain’t a painting studio either.

Again, success or failure, I’m excited for this picture. It looks interesting. But please, spare me the whinging about investors getting antsy about your nine-figure art film. I’m not terribly sympathetic.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Will September 12, 2012 at 11:18 am

Moreover, what part of the Wachowski’s track record would convince a latter-day Medici to give them carte blanche? Their best work (The Matrix, uh . . .) makes for great popular entertainment, but it’s not exactly high-concept. As for their other movies . . .

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Matt S. September 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Not to mention the audience. If visionary filmmakers aren’t complaining about the philistines who won’t bankroll their revolutionary art, they’re complaining about the philistines who won’t pay to see it. Both of which things may be true, but, as you say, they’re beside the point. It always struck me as a particular kind of ego-blindness that artists Simply Can’t Understand why they can’t get backers and punters to line up for what may be at best an idiosyncratic masterpiece or, much more likely, a fascinating, ambitious failure. If you invest in something that you ought to know from the start is not in high demand, don’t be shocked when the demand doesn’t magically materialize. That naïveté becomes insufferable once it morphs from bittersweet ruefulness to haughty entitlement. I hope the Wachowskis don’t slide too far in that direction.

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