Seeing opportunity in changing models

EdGibbsSpielberg’s prediction of the demise of the studio system and the burgeoning video-on-demand market present a perfect opportunity for film-makers says Ed Gibbs, in a piece that first appeared in Encore.

Last week, all I seemed to hear, to quote a Rolling Stones song, was doom and gloom. In the US, Steven Spielberg was predicting the end of the studio system as we know it – and for video on demand (VOD) to boom. In Australia, at the Sydney Film Festival hub, the thorny issue of piracy was being laid bare. 

From both events, a clear picture emerged: that studios are shockingly out of touch with their audiences and their consumption habits. As it had happened to the record labels years before, the status quo is about to come crashing down to earth with an almighty thud.

Consider the figures: an alleged US$6bn in lost revenues to piracy each year, with more than US$500m claimed to occur in Australia alone. While studios remain unsure how to act, six or more tentpole pictures will spectacularly fail, Spielberg predicted, sending the industry into a tailspin. Price variances will be introduced. Seeing Iron Man 3 could cost anything up to US$150 a ticket (while Lincoln might play as a matinee at US$7 a pop). Add to that the boom in VOD, with internet television moving the goalposts for studios and broadcasters, and an ever-fragmented market seems inevitable and irrevocable.

It was inspiring, then, to discover an emerging film-maker premiering his feature debut at the Sydney Film Festival, off his own back. Sebastien Guy, a 38-year-old former actor turned commercial director, had just locked Nerve: a dark, absorbing psychological drama, in which a man (Christian Clark) wrestles with his emotions following the sudden loss of his wife. A local girl (Georgina Haig) tries to help, but has issues of her own to face.

Privately financed, with a cash budget of less than A$40,000, and shot in just 14 days, Nerve highlights what can be done if the hunger is there. Guy recruited a top-notch cast, including screen veteran Gary Sweet, for deferred pay, and knew exactly what he was after. His cast and crew leapt on board.

He had always wanted to make a feature. “Like all commercial directors, you hope it’s something that happens,” Guy told me last week. “I have a script that’s getting a bit of interest in LA, but the whole process takes forever and a day. When my wife called me up and told me she was pregnant, I thought, well, I’ve got nine months to get a movie under my belt.”

Working on such a tight timeframe meant there was no time to go through rounds of government-funding applications. His production company, Luscious, had the equipment. A colleague, producer Neal Kingston, and Kingston’s wife, TV writer Sarah Smith, came on board to help make it happen.

The results are impressive. While a greater lead-in time would have allowed more script development, Guy’s assured direction is evident. Both Clark and Haig’s performances are excellent. Indeed, Haig’s turn has already been compared to Abbie Cornish’s breakout role in Cate Shortland’s Somersault. Following Nerve’s premiere, Haig was cast to play Paula Yates in Seven’s upcoming biopic of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence. Then, she’s off to South Carolina to shoot a new US TV series, Reckless, for Fox.

Guy admits it is this type of work ethic that surprised him the most on set. “I learned that everyone wants to do good work, regardless of limitations or money,” he said. “Everyone was excited. Which meant we were able to move quickly from scene to scene. If anything was too difficult to shoot, we simply moved on.”

Guy and Kingston are currently fielding offers for Nerve, following two well-attended sessions at the festival. While it’s far too early to predict the film’s roll-out strategy, Guy can heave a sigh of relief. He’s made his first picture. Which means he can make another.

“In the film world, especially the Australian film world, no-one knows of me,” he says. Guy “just submitted” a rough cut to the Sydney Film Festival and was pleasantly surprised by an invitation to screen the film.

“I’ve only been a commercials director for four years, so I’m still constantly having to prove myself and growing. Hopefully, this will take me up a notch. It’s tough here – there’s a lot of great directors and limited work. Now, at least, people can see that I can direct, that I do have a very clear visual style.”

With Hollywood facing a crisis of confidence, and digital audiences set to boom, now seems like the perfect time to make that first picture and see how far it can travel. Guy and his team are proof it can be done – and quickly. Which should inspire us all. All that is except, perhaps, the studios.

Ed Gibbs is a film critic, journalist, broadcaster and curator based in Sydney. 

Encore issue 19This piece first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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