Tarnished Tinseltown Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 12 April 2010 09:15

Hollywood still holds a hallowed place in American fantasies.  Hallowed is the right word here; celebrity is a kind of sanctity, and Hollywood is the home of the established priesthood that controls the new initiates.  If you want to make it in the film industry, or clamber up the slippery cliff of celebrity, or know all the people worth knowing, Hollywood is where you dream of going.  Hollywood goes New York, New York one better: If you can make it there, you’ve already made it everywhere.

Fantasy always lags a bit behind reality, and the reality is that Hollywood’s dominance of film and celebrity has been ebbing for over a decade.  This year’s Best Picture winner, the Hurt Locker, was filmed in Jordan.  In films, American cities are as likely to be neighborhoods of Vancoover, Canada, as any city in the U.S.Battle: Los Angeles,” an alien invasion film due in 2011, is being filmed in Louisiana.

It’s all about the money.  According to a recent report in London’s Economist, “California has been worrying about ‘runaway production’ since 1998, when Canada began luring producers and their crews away from Los Angeles with tax breaks.  Other places followed, and all but seven American states and territories and 24 other countries now offer, or are prepared to offer, rebates, grants or tax credits that cut 20%, 30% or even 40% of the cost of shooting a movie.”

States are giving film companies hefty breaks, but they have a lot to gain.  The average film “leads to 141 jobs directly, from caterers to make-up artists, and another 425 jobs indirectly.  And it generates $4.1m in sales taxes and income taxes.”  That, and governors who can finagle a photo shoot with a star can hope against hope that glamour is contagious.

Meanwhile, the Left Coast has been losing business.  Between 2003 and 2008, California’s “world share of studio films . . . dropped from 66% . . . to 34%,” and the share has probably dropped further since.  California has fought back with incentives of its own, but its incentives do not match those of other states and they are not permanent either.  By 2014, they will phase out.

All that should encourage beginning filmmakers, and technology offers more good news.  Digital film equipment is affordable and the results are good.  “The playing field has been leveled by HD,” filmmaker Rocky Yost told Slate. “You can go out there with a $12,000 camera and the tape is virtually free.”  YouTube and other sites provide large outlets that bypass the marketing and distribution networks Hollywood studios provide.  Nobody buys a ticket to watch YouTube, but it can be a path to recognition.

These developments conspire to weaken if not break Hollywood’s monopoly  of the film industry, and that is all to the good.  Loosening Hollywood’s grip on the film industry means loosening the networks that bind celebrity to filmmaking.  Film actors will also seem larger than life, mostly because when we see them in the theater they are larger than life.  As more decent films are made on smaller budgets using local acting talent, though, the celebrity culture that Hollywood feeds will have to tighten its belt, if only a little.  Detached from the celebrity culture, film might even have a chance to redeem itself as art.

Under these new conditions, Christians have an unprecedented opportunity to enter the film industry, and some already have.  Inspired by Senior Pastor Michael Catt, members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, formed a church-based film ministry, Sherwood Pictures (http://www.sherwoodpictures.com/), which has so far produced Flywheel, Facing the Giants, and Fireproof.  A group from a church near Portland Oregon organized Broadway Bridge Productions and recently produced its first film, Miracle of the Widow (http://www.miracleofthewidow.com/index.php), which is rooted in the story of the widow’s inexhaustible bowl of flour (1 Kings 17).

These Christian films are far from perfect.  The actors are not professionals, the crews are learning as they go, the equipment is not top-notch.  Sherwood Pictures movies have been preachy and overly pious.  But the efforts are worth supporting.  Almost no industry in modern life has done more to undermine Christian values than the film industry, and if these efforts amount to nothing more than a small stone, at least they’re aimed where they should be aimed, at a giant’s head.

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