The Guardian

The Guardian May 31, 2000


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Short films killed for profit

In his review in The Guardian last week of two short films 
screening on SBS, Tom Pearson alluded to the disappearance of short films 
from commercial cinemas, "elbowed out of movie theatres by the arrival of 
the Hollywood `epic'". It's a common belief, but it is only partly 
true.

What really killed off short films as part of commercial cinema programming 
was, quite simply, the desire of the cinema industry to maximise profits.

Films are hired to cinemas for a percentage  often a hefty percentage  
of the cinema's box-office receipts.

A cinema owner already paying 40 percent of receipts from ticket sales to 
the distributor of the "main attraction" is going to think twice before 
adding a short film to the program for which extra rental would have to be 
paid. Just showing a feature film also means the cinema can run more 
sessions (even allowing for all the adds and trailers they inflict on their 
hapless customers) thus maximising the "take".

As with everything else it does, capitalism's approach to art and 
entertainment is strictly governed by the pursuit of profit.

There is no profit in short films.

Even the animated cartoon  the only short film the Hollywood studios ever 
really developed and nurtured  was eventually dropped, despite its well-
deserved popularity with audiences, because under capitalism cartoons were 
just too expensive to make profitably.

It was left to independent, small-scale even amateur filmmakers to explore 
the possibilities of short films. But their only outlets were usually film 
societies, festivals and sometimes arthouse cinemas (as supports for 
foreign-language films).

Short films hardly ever recovered their costs. Filmmakers in Australia 
tended to sell their short films to the National Library and a couple of 
state film libraries  and that was that. After that they started saving 
up for their next film. Or they gave up.

And yet short films are a valuable and valid contribution to the art of the 
cinema.

The same constraints of short length that affect writers of short stories 
affect makers of short films: the need to be concise, to establish plot and 
characters (if there is a plot and characters) swiftly and with a minimum 
of brush strokes, as it were; the ability to concentrate on a single scene 
or event or to be abstract, lyrical or poetic in a manner that simply could 
not be borne at feature length.

But capitalism is not concerned by the near-demise of the short film 
(largely confined now to Eat Carpet on the non-commercial public 
broadcaster SBS or individual programs on the other public broadcaster, the 
ABC).

The art form and entertainment medium known as cinema is firmly in the 
hands of the capitalists, who dictate its form and generally its content.

And their interest is profit.

If the film industry were publicly owned  a sort of cinematic ABC and 
freed of the reactionary commercial interference (via the Howard 
Government) that is presently distorting and crippling ABC television and 
radio  film programs could once again be made up of a mix of feature film 
plus shorts.

This would enrich the experience of the film-going public and provide 
outlets for a multiplicity of filmmakers, thus enriching the creative pool 
of filmmaking talent that really comprises what capitalism calls the "film 
industry".

* * *
Conspicuous consumption
As the gap between rich and poor gets ever wider, and the number of people living in poverty grows exponentially, the capitalist media are understandably concerned that we should not regard the obscenely rich as bad people. They may be ostentatiously spending lavish amounts of money that other infinitely poorer people toiled to actually produce, but Heaven forbid that we should ever feel the urge to string these thieves up to a lampost by their testicles! No, the capitalist media indeed, all capitalists would much prefer it if instead we regarded these filthy rich types with a mixture of awe and envy. The more they waste on conspicuous consumption, the more impressed we should be. Whether it's Kerry Packer dropping a few million at roulette or Rene Rivkin showing off his 100-plus cars, we are meant to see them merely as "successful" and to dream of one day being "up there" with them, able to also enjoy the pleasure of throwing large sums of money away on our personal pleasures. The mass media could easily make these wastrels objects of popular scorn, but the mass media is owned by fellow capitalists so it is not going to happen. The best we can expect is that the odd journalist will slip a little derision into an inconspicuous place, now and then. Like Candice Sutton's little squib in the Sun-Herald a week or so ago concerning Sheikh Ahmed Al-Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates. This worthy, a "prominent member" of the Dubai "royal family", was in town to take part in the Olympic shooting test event at the Sydney International Shooting Centre. The UAE was formerly a British protectorate. (Like any protection racket, if you didn't take the "protection" offered, the protectors would kick the crap out of you.) In 1971 it was given its independence, but remained what it had always been: an oil rich collection of buffer states. The workforce is mainly made up of Palestinians (who cannot work or in many cases even live in their own country) and Pakistanis, with a large number of Philippino maids. They are grateful for the work, but the oil wealth of the Emirates largely passes them by, being kept for the ruling elite. Sutton's item concerned the Sheikh's departure from Oz. Customs wanted to know his flight number: "No number, no airline, my plane", he replied. So they wanted to know the registration number of his plane: he didn't know. "I have five", he explained. "I just phone for one to pick me up." It turned out to be a Boeing 747SP! Roll on the revolution.

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