With the Academy Awards creeping up next week, I figured it would be a good time to reflect on some of the recent winners and nominees that have stuck in my head for one reason or another. Who knows why the Oscars have been able to keep themselves at the forefront of the conversation of film for as long as they have been. Each year with more and more blockbusters coming out and not being represented it feels as though that gap is only getting larger. That said, by this time of the year without fail I find myself planning out how I am going to watch every single Oscar movie and start ranking them with my girlfriend.
To put it simply, I love movies and I love Oscars. And I’m not apologizing for it.
Looking back in like 15 years from now, we may come to the conclusion that I have slowly been circling for some time now, indie film writing is hurting indie film making.
This is not as damning to the young writer-directors as it sounds, the problem is that often they are just that: young. With the blockbusterization of Hollywood, it is getting harder and harder for artistic films to shine, and so the art house film is a small budget piece that is the director’s first or second film.
Write what you know. That’s the old adage. So what happens when you get a kid to write a movie?
Again this isn’t an indictment on the coming of age film, as they have just as much credibility and artistic power as any other type of film. Like everything else, it all depends on execution.
Still, every year I seem to turn to the indie market and it feels like Groundhog’s Day. Constant repetition. Perhaps this time following a rebellious teen as he makes his or her way through life. Or tracking a girl on the edge of adulthood. Or a young man who discovers his passion in life.
Back in the days of the studio system there were more types of genres played with and presented. Nowadays it seems as though we live in a world of five genres: Sci-Fi, Comic Book, Big Budget Comedy, Horror, and Coming of Age.
The problem is that genre is very important to movie making. Genre is what allows you to have bigger set pieces and push the plot and movie ahead. Genre has certain and significant beats or characters: the mandatory breakup in a RomCom, the tensions between the vigilant and the codified authority figure in Westerns, the freewheeling protagonist of an adventure hero. These conventions aren’t constricting, but rather allow you to experiment while also having beats that guarantee entertainment for the audience.
Movies at their best are simultaneously reflections of our society and escapism. It is a hard balancing act. Putting that in the world of genre helps elevate the entertainment value.
When I first saw the Get Out trailer this year, I got flashes of the trailer for Lakeview Terrace. A tense movie about an interracial relationship. I had heard Peele talk about making a horror movie earlier that year on Bill Simmons’ podcast, but I wasn’t sure what I was getting into.
To be honest, it probably is a great trailer because in a perfect world there would be no trailer for Get Out. You would go in cold. You obviously can’t do that, so this almost throws you off the scent of the tone. You expect a B-Movie and instead get a masterpiece.
Get Out for all of the amazing and progressive things it does, is a remarkable embrace of the old, genre. While it is writer/director Jordan Peele’s first film, the did co-write and star in the action-buddy comedy Keanu two years ago, it feels as though he has been operating in this space for years. After all, it is the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture since M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense in 1999. That in itself shows the skill Peele possesses in the genre.
Examining how he has been able to catapult to such a place so early in his film making career is easy as soon as you realize that this is not early in his career. The director is a veteran in the comedy world, clocking in 93 episodes on sketch show MadTV from 2003-2008.
He went on from there to creating and co-starring in the two person sketch comedy show with fellow MadTV veteran Keegan-Michael Key, Key & Peele. The pair were on the air for five seasons and became a viral sensation. While their bread and butter may have been quirky and goofy sketches like the East versus West College Football All Star Game, the true artistry lay in how they worked within genre.
Many of these were written and directed by Peele and it was here where he was able to get his reps in not just filmmaking, but telling captivating stories in genre.
By the time he made his debut Get Out, he was a seasoned vet.
Just how accomplished is he? He is the third person in history to have his directorial debut to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
There is something to be said about that apprenticeship that is not often talked about. Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut and finds itself in a similar place as Peele’s with a Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay nomination as well.
While trained as an actress, her marriage to acclaimed indie writer/director Noah Baumbach has certainly helped her learn the ropes on that side of the camera. Moreover, prior to this film, she co-wrote five films, and co-directed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg in 2008. That gave her the necessary reps to make the leap to have such an impressive debut.
Still, Get Out really stands out to me. A social-horror comedy film with a black heavy cast directorial debut finds itself as a darling of awards season. It’s special.
Because it shouldn’t work.
As Hollywood gets more and more scared about shrinking audiences and growing streaming content to compete with their box office returns, genre films are going to continue to dip.
Most filmmakers will not get the opportunity to work in an artistic space for a very large budget. Genre films traditionally involve set pieces and intricate design. The gadgets and cars of the spy film. The sprawling openness of a western. The action sequences and effects in an adventure film.
An original genre film will be very hard to get greenlighted.
Peele was able to make his film for $4.5 million. That is partially because it was produced by Blumhouse, a cottage industry of micro-budget horrors, but also because he was so seasoned in working in a limited budget with Key & Peele. He knew how to shoot effectively and economically; they made the film in a shocking 21 days.
Real financial concerns create constraints on the opportunity for filmmakers. The original films are quickly being cast aside for pieces based on material proven to be marketable and profitable. The Godfather could not be created in this current industry. Maybe it would live on a streaming service as an mini-series, but certainly not as a film.
It does not make economic sense.
We know the constraints. So what are we going to do?
What I love about Get Out, is that it plays the game, one designed to limit the amount that a film its size can do, and it wins.
As long as people continue to get creative with how they make their movies, budget should not be an issue.
Get Out proved genre is alive and kicking. And we should reward that.