Recently, no less an authority than Steven Spielberg predicted that an "implosion" in the film industry was inevitable due to the reliance of American film studios on aspiring box office blockbusters. Spielberg also forecasted a time when such films as his "Lincoln" would "go away" and be only seen on television.
When the filmmaker behind "E.T.," "Schindler's List," and "Saving Private Ryan" says his life's passion may be out of step with the times, I say do not dismiss Spielberg's warning as a random gripe from a celebrated artist who might have been having a bad day.
We are on a precipice, staring down into the abyss -- and it's not one called mediocrity. "Mediocre" is totally exposed in today's quick hit social universe of chatter about a released film. No, the real danger is the abyss with this signpost: "Throw your adequate blockbuster here, and do not demand excellence of this product."
The worst kept secret in Hollywood is that if the awareness of an upcoming branded blockbuster is juiced by an adroit marketing campaign, the film often has the luxury of being wildly uneven in its overall execution. Nowadays, the bigger the scope of the superhero tale, the more forgiving viewers are of its lack of precision. In the sort of films that Spielberg is warning us about, the story structure can just lose all steam, characters can wander off to god knows where, music can be blasted to fill the holes where real emotion was once the intended effect, and the rumble of sound effects can mask the lack of any real tension.
Yet, at the end of the scrum, the film can still hit its designated, forecasted box office "number." Then, in this paradigm, the film's lack of precision, its unwillingness to pursue excellence, its mere adequacy, is forgiven.
When audiences are trained not to demand precision, when they are taught that it is not necessary to pursue excellence, is the game just too rigged against films that do strive for precision and excellence?
Here's my dog in this hunt: I do one thing, and that's work in the business of film music.
My company, the Cutting Edge Group invests in films in exchange for the publishing rights of a film's soundtrack. We own Air Edel, a British management company that reps film composers. We own a recording studio in the U.K. where our film composers record. We have an online music library for our film scores, and started an agency to place our film music in commercials. Last January, along with the private equity firm Wood Creek Capital, we bought the film music record label Varese Sarabande.
The films that all these entities have been involved with number in the thousands, and they include the Best Picture Oscar-winning "The King's Speech," "Drive," and "Gladiator."
Bottom line: I'm all-in on this film music thing. My employees eat and breathe film music 24 hours a day. Stop by any of our offices around the globe, and the discussion is all about film composers, songwriters who can write an original song, bands that are ready to write a film score, and earlier music that can be synced as a song score.
We are, in many ways, a horizontally integrated one-trick pony. It's the business I chose, and I love it.
But here's the thing about making music for films: it's all about precision and the pursuit of excellence. "Merely adequate" doesn't cut it with this gig..."almost" is not enough.
When a film works, the bar of excellence for the film's music gets higher as the quality of the film ascends. Imagine the films you love with the music just "kinda all right." When the orchestral element is wrong, the tempo off, if the music is in the wrong place and overplays a film's emotion, or it is too loud...it totally takes the audience out of the moment of what should be a transcendent experience. Great music scores are also about knowing when to complement the moment, not lead.
Here's an example of being in a business where precision is everything. It's the climax of "The King's Speech," where the great film composer Terry Davies conducts an indelible version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.
Now, we don't hit home runs in the film music business every time we step to the plate. Far from it. And in terms of Spielberg, he sometimes goes for the broad blockbuster himself (check out his take on "War of the Worlds").
But consider Spielberg's "Lincoln" and its adaptation by Tony Kushner of Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of the greatest American president; the Oscar-winning work of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis; and the music score by the great John Williams.
Do you, dear reader, really want to live in a world where a film like this cannot warrant theatrical distribution?
If Steven Spielberg has a prescient crystal ball, filmmakers and those of us who support those filmmakers are in for a rough, unpleasant ride... one where filmgoers will be treated to bigger and bigger films that sometimes say less and less.
I do not have an answer to this conundrum, and I am frightened.
Philip Moross is the chief executive officer of the Cutting Edge Group and its subsidiaries. www.cuttingedgegroup.com