In his book, The Death of the Artist, William Deresiewicz laments the decline and fall of the blue collar, professional artist. And while he unpacks a variety of legitimate and terrifying issues such as the unravelling of historic institutions and the job gobbling monster that is big tech (problems that affect everyone, not just artists), I feel like he misses a certain perspective about the motion picture industry. While the industry manages to sidestep many of the issues plaguing other artistic endeavors, it’s not avoiding them altogether. Because it’s a complex, multi-layered situation, I think it might be instructive to look at the motion picture industry through the three specific lenses: technology, art, and business.
Technology (What is film?)
Deresiewicz differentiates between television and film, but it’s an arbitrary distinction. With the exception of the live or live-to-tape multi-camera shoot, production crews make feature films, television shows, and used car commercials the exact same way. Only a decade ago, we filmed thirty-second lottery commercials on 35mm Kodak. The question of “what is a film” has less to do with being “filmed” than how the content is delivered to an audience.
In that regard, feature films suffer from a major constraint: they need to be long enough to justify the price of admission but short enough to satisfy an audience before their legs fall asleep. To do that, many films rely on tropes and cliches to keep a story moving forward. The boom in quality television over the last decade has allowed filmmakers to explore more interesting stories in more depth than they ever would have been able to on the silver screen.
Are movie theaters dead? Well, not quite. Some nostalgic urge to hit the town and see a show will linger indefinitely. Movie theaters have yet to kill live theater, and a black and white silent movie won the Oscar for best picture in 2011. I can guarantee that ninety-minute visual storytelling will live on. It is true, however, that certain low-to-mid-budget genres are not currently profitable. Nevertheless, I’m not fully convinced that it’s a bad thing or that the trend won’t change.
Art (Are filmmakers artists?)
Deresiewicz defines four paradigms of artist: artisans (or craftsmen), bohemians, professionals, and producers. It’s the professionals—working artists who own houses and have dental plans—that Deresiewicz is most concerned about in his book. Chapter after chapter outlines how writers, painters, and visual artists fight for the crumbs of an ever-shrinking pie while struggling to find time to develop their art. And yet, in 2021, television and film are actually doing okay.
One of the big things I need to point out here is that television and film straddle the worlds between art and commerce more than other industries. True, you’ve probably heard of writers who cut their teeth in the newspaper industry (when that was a thing), but very few renown painters started off whitewashing fences.
On a film set, any given crewmember may have spent the previous day filming a television show or commercial. Disappointingly to most crewmembers, that often means that they’re capable of delivering a much higher quality product than the used car company requires, but it also means that art and commerce move around freely in the same space. Similarly, scenic painters, carpenters, costumers, and camera operators are highly educated, incredibly talented artisans operating at the top of their game. Not only do they need the vision to offer their own artistic input, they need to be able to shift gears to cater to someone else’s vision or mimic a historical style.
In that way, filmmakers really match Deresiewicz’s first paradigm—the artisan—and I think it’s a good model to follow. Although it really doesn’t matter to the IRS, Deresiewicz’s paradigm poses an interesting question: “Are filmmakers artists?” That’s hard to say. If Deresiewicz is looking for talented individuals who work in a creative discipline and can afford middle class lifestyles, then yes. We’ve found a winner. But if you define artists as individuals who create things that make you question and challenge the world… well maybe not. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but the latter is far less economically viable.
It’s also worth pointing out that filmmakers have always been “gig” workers. A crewmember (even a director) may have multiple employers in a single week. By and large, the thing that enables filmmakers to buy houses and get dental plans is unions. As people are trying to cobble together livings by working Uber and Door Dash, I can’t stress enough how beneficial it would be to unionize.
Business (Are moving pictures safe from a flood of amateurs?)
On page 220, Deresiewicz states, “Film and television have a final advantage over arts like music or writing. Amateurs do not pose any threat because no one is ever going to mistake what they do for the real thing.” I have to disagree with him there. As technology has decreased cost, it’s become easier and cheaper for people to produce video content. Whether their productions can be considered art or even “feature films” is another matter. Birdemic is a prime example.
If you think I’m being dramatic, you haven’t noticed how much content Gen Z watches on YouTube. Poor production quality has become synonymous with verisimilitude, and young viewers have managed to lower their standards below even “reality TV” quality. True, in the world of fiction, no one’s going to mistake Tommy Wiseau for the next Spielberg, but it’s a troubling sign if you recognize the names Tommy Wiseau or Birdemic.**
The bigger problem here is that as audiences accept lower quality, they refuse to pay for higher quality. Consequently, production companies refuse to pay as well. Just earlier today, I was speaking with a coordinator who lamented that the latest money-saving trend is to not hire location managers. And after a year of looking at everyone’s terrible lighting skills on Zoom, I’m afraid the bar for quality has been irreparably lowered.
Where does that leave us?
Although not artists in the Van Gogh or even the Andy Warhol sense, filmmakers do work in creative fields, and they can make a decent living. Artisans produce work that is beautiful and functional. Their work may be thought provoking but is seldom a “think piece.” In other words, film—and all twenty-first century art—needs some utility or usefulness (see The Death of the Artist pages 272-273). Within this paradigm, artists are producers. I like this concept. It’s more democratic and egalitarian than the concept of elite geniuses sprinkling culture to the plebes. Artists are useful members of society who produce goods that can also be beautiful and thought-provoking.
That being said, our society is continuing to devalue labor and expertise. There’s no easy fix for this, but there is, perhaps, a silver lining. Art, throughout the ages, has always helped humanity cope with change and reframe tragedy into something that we can—if not understand—at least articulate. In the twenty-first century, art is not only doing this job metaphorically but literally instructing us on how to make a new economic paradigm. If you have a chance, check out Deresiewicz’s book. And if not, at least take a moment to check out some art.
**In many ways, Canon’s 5D Mark II, the first SLR camera to shoot full high-definition video, marked a depressing turning point. In 2009, every film school grad with $3,000 suddenly thought they were a director of photography. Today, the image quality and editing ability of a smartphone are more advanced than the professional digital equipment I used in the early aughts. But to reiterate a point Deresiewicz makes over and over again, just because some can paint or film or sing does not mean they have the professional experience or artistic eye to be an artist.