The Firm

The Firm
Unrisky Business

Mark Wallace | 11 Oct 2005 08:03
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But like Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate turned out to be a bloated and expensive failure. It bankrupted United Artists and effectively ended Cimino's career.

It also ended the era of the filmmaker's film. Heaven's Gate was the final over-extension of '70s auteur culture, and ushered in the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s and '90s. To protect themselves from directors, the studios wanted big-ticket productions again, easy stories, bright special effects. Was Rain Man really the best picture of 1988? Actually, it might have been. Die Hard was released that year. The Terminator had already come out, and Terminator 2 was well on its way. By 1997, the best picture was Titanic, and the decade wound up with Jar Jar Binks annoying moviegoers the world over. I'm a big fan of Die Hard, but for character and storyline the '70s directors' pictures are where it's at. In the '80s and '90s, the money was making decisions again, chasing more money, at the expense of - you guessed it - innovation and inventiveness.

You see where I'm going with this. It's not such a new thesis: Once you have money, you want to protect it. Once you have as much money as EA, you protect your cash by not taking any risks. There's not much incentive for EA to innovate. They could probably churn out sports franchises for the rest of Larry Probst's days and do just fine.

That doesn't mean that good games are dead, though. With the movies, a funny thing happened on the way to the blockbuster, and if gamers are lucky and America is ready for it, the same thing could happen with games.

What happened was the birth of independent film. In the shadow of Hollywood's blockbuster mentality, independent producers started throwing money at young directors, giving rise to a new round of thoughtful, non-blockbuster films put together with little more than a script, a camera and a couple of actors and people to work as production assistants. Filmmakers like Todd Solondz, Wes Anderson, and Kevin Smith were guys you could meet on the street in New York and chat with over drinks with friends (if you had the right friends). You got the sense they weren't chasing fame primarily, they were chasing their art - though no one chases art without the thought of renown being close behind.

The people who were dead set on the glamour were the money men. There have always been independent Hollywood producers, but the 90s saw the rebirth of the non-Hollywood producer, of the schmatte king looking for a little burnish through what was suddenly the hottest entertainment medium of the day. If you were talented, charming, ambitious and willing to socialize as though your career depended on it (which it did), you could often convince one of the many bored businessmen, flush from the boom, to invest a million or two in your little jewel of a movie. Whether the mini-mogul made his money back or not didn't really matter; the movies were cool again, and his cash bought him entree to that world.

If gamers are lucky, the same thing will happen for games. The talent is already there. There are plenty of interesting games out there now, plenty of innovation, plenty of inventive designers. You won't find most of them at your local GameStop, though, because big developers and publishers can't afford to take the risk. They're too busy protecting their money by hunting up the next blockbuster game.

What gaming needs is more brave money. It needs cash that's willing to go outside the system and fund developers who are independent in the sense that the '90s indie filmmakers were: small groups of talented individuals working together on the cheap to create their version of art. That talent exists, and I'd wager that money isn't far behind.

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