Culture crunch?

Historically, recession and creativity have gone hand in hand – explores the changing reaction of creative industries to rapidly shrinking budgets

During the 1980s recession, alternative art flourished through cutting edge films, plays, music, fashion and art.

Margaret Thatcher’s astire persona and attempts to revolutionize the industry through stringent laws and deregulation led to a flourishing bohemian backlash. Her abolition of the ‘Eady Levy’ law, which ordered a percentage of box-office revenue to be returned to British production companies, only resulted in the independent sector fighting back. Production companies, such as ‘Handmade Films’ and ‘Working Title’, came into existence to fill the growing demand for films. In art, the industry defied Thatcher (who famously ordered the retouching of the eyes and background of her portrait) by responding with the contemporary and the abstract. Many saw this as confirming the long held belief that creativity is born out of social unrest.

Fast forward to September 2008 and Britain is once again immersed in an economic crisis. Since Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, unemployment has soared, the housing market has plummeted and suddenly money is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Money must be invested carefully and frugally for no jobs are secure, even at the top, and as the economy fluctuates between bad, good, better, and much worse, a bold move could cost anybody their livelihood.

Ironically, creativity – the tool used as a weapon 20 years ago – is now in exactly the same vulnerable position as the banks. Art requires money and, at the moment, songs, films, and books must conform to mainstream, best-seller styles in order to have any hope of making a profit.

Up until 2007, Wall Street invested more than $2 billion a year in independent movies to encourage entrepreneuerial film making. This number has now been cut considerably. According to John Hillcoat, director of upcoming film The Road, “there are 20,000 people out of work in film, and it is a small industry.”

Branches are rapidly being cut, preserving only the mainstream core of each production company. To name a few: Paramount has closed Paramount Vantage (No Country for Old Men); Disney, Miramax (There Will Be Blood); Universal, Rogue (Shaun of the Dead); Warner Brothers, both Warner Independent House (March of the Penguins), and Picturehouse (Pan’s Labyrinth). In 2007, these branches were responsible for over 30% of the Indie box-office revenue, but they are now seen as too risky, and investors are reluctant to buy in. The few companies that remain are being re-staffed with marketing advisors who they hope will steer Hollywood back into a steady turnover of projects. But rumour has it that cuts and collapses amongst the major players of the industry are not over, with Focus Features and Paramount said to be among the first companies that may fall.

The intake of marketing advisors to the film business is set to spark much ‘safer’ projects in a ploy to gather viewers. Cue ‘brand films’: the new wave of marketing films, including Barbie the Movie and Monopoly the Movie. We may scoff and gasp at the prospect of paying £6 to watch the physical re-enactment of a board game, but we are almost powerless to reverse the situation. Power has been handed over to the most frequent moviegoers: teenagers stuck between play-dates at home, and nights out clubbing. Consequently, the near future looks to comprise of escapist films, such as Confessions of a Shopaholic, designed to distract attention away from the dark economic cloud that overshadows everything else. ‘Feel good’ is all that’s needed in a review to reel in a large audience, and so these films are seen as reliable.

It appears even blockbusters will struggle unless they can attract viewers without needing to waste precious money advertising. Although all great films arguably started out by looking risky – The Godfather and Star Wars are among many that were initially viewed by investors as too ‘out there’ – previously, there has always been enough money about to take a risk. Now, with even the Coen Brothers being overlooked, independent moviemakers are pushed to one side.

Music is faced with a similar issue: only the biggest names are guaranteed high record sales, and taking on new artists is dangerous. Last year, the highest selling album worldwide (Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter III), earned below $3 million in sales for the first time in 17 years. For lack of record sales, producers themselves, as well as artists, are forced to abandon the recording studios and perform live. This tactic does not come without its­ own problems: many producers are taking to the DJ circuit to turn a profit, creating more competition for struggling artists and thereby stifling new talent in the genre.

A further issue affecting the entertainment industry is new technology. Hardcopies are rarely bought when piracy provides any song for free at the click of a mouse. Apple’s iTunes is the best attempt made by the industry to match the convenience of free downloads. But with the hit of the recession, even 79p has proven a stretch for record buyers’ pockets. This, combined with the rise in internet piracy, means we are still blind to the exact statistics of listener preference, and so are much safer in favouring mainstream artists such as Lady Gaga rather than unknown bands. Following the same approach as film producers with brand films, the music industry opt to fund names that will be instantly recognisable, and will generate sales for the name of the artist alone regardless of the quality of the song.

Despite, the drastic effects of the recession so far, we are yet to feel the full effects of the most recent wave of the downward spiralling economy. The production companies within film, music, and fashion that have recently closed still have their final releases to come in early 2010. Based on the direction of culture at the moment, things look bleak. John Hillcoat is not optimistic: he thinks, “we’re going to culturally have a wave of shocking blandness”.

However, these are simply the immediate effects of the recession bomb that has just exploded. At the moment we lie in the ruins, watching artists falling in its wake, but we cannot expect them to stay defeated forever. There will come a point – as in the 1980s – when the fallen will stand up. Furthermore, while they recuperate, the Hollywood super power will no longer to be able to completely steer the market.

With luck, given recent successes of films such as Slumdog Millionaire, attention could shift from America to the rising super power of the East: Bollywood. For now, we must wait for this economic storm to complete its course before we can bounce back, fully armed with the next era of creativity.

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