Oren Moverman began his career as a screenwriter, scripting such landmarks of independent film as “Jesus’ Son” and (with Todd Haynes) “I’m Not There.” In 2009, he made his directorial debut with “The Messenger,” an Iraq-war homefront drama that attracted major critical acclaim as well as two Oscar nominations (for best original screenplay and for Woody Harrelson as best supporting actor). Moverman’s other films as a director are “Rampart” (2011), “Time Out of Mind” (2014), and “The Dinner” (2017); he also cowrote the Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy.” In addition, he works as a producer, and has been more and more active in that role in recent years (he’s a partner, with Julia Lebedev and Eddie Vaisman, in Sight Unseen Pictures), having shepherded such films as “Bad Education,” “The Tale,” “Wildlife,” “Monsters and Men,” and “Diane.” I spoke with him about where he thinks the movie world is heading.
Here we are in the middle of a totally fractured, changing movie landscape. When you look around you and look at the future, what do you see?
Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from these times, it’s that nobody knows anything, and everyone’s an expert. And I’m included. I see what’s happening now, the pandemic, as just the evolution moving faster than we thought it would. To me, it’s very clear that independent cinema, as we know it and as we love it, is over.
Over, I think. But qualified: as we know it. The idea of independent financing, putting together films that have no home, taking them to festivals, trying to sell them — they’re going to have to take on a very different model, if they get made. A lot of producers I talk to are looking to set up projects with the streamers, the studios, whoever’s going to be left standing. Whereas the sort of grungy putting together of ten dollars here, ten dollars there to make a film — it’s possible from a financial standpoint, it’s just a question of where it will ever be seen.
Do you see the change you’re talking about, then, as primarily an exhibition problem?
Yes. Without movie theaters in the foreseeable future, and with the way things were already going pre-Covid, we’re going to have to find a different model for showing independent films. For me, it’s very hard to see what that would be like unless Netflix or Amazon comes up with the idea of, say, having one lane for independent film. But I think that takes us into a conversation about cinema — if I can use that dirty word — and quality, and what kind of films won’t make it to the platforms.
You were already ahead of this curve in terms of what happened with “Bad Education,” which you produced. Last year, I wrote that the idea of a movie of that quality, pedigree, and acclaim going straight to HBO felt like a revolutionary change. Do you think that’s accurate?
Yeah, that’s what it felt like. I actually experienced that a couple of years before with “The Tale,” which is another movie I produced that also sold to HBO. The feeling was: You need a home — a home that supports these movies. And that’s not an easy thing anymore. With both these movies, HBO came and really talked a good game and delivered on it. The kind of support and infrastructure that they can provide a film that was made independently is almost shocking in its efficiency, and its potential.
“Bad Education” felt like the kind of movie that, potentially, could have made a splash in theaters. Did you have that thought? Did you think, “We’re going to be missing that?”
Yeah! It was one of those classic middle-of-the-night, people coming into the hotel room to talk about why they should be distributing the film situations. And I think one of the things we’re dealing with now is letting go of some of these expectations of theatrical distribution. I don’t mean to say that it should go away completely. It shouldn’t. There’s room for it and there’s a need for it. But I also feel like you have to question yourself: Why do you want theatrical? Is it about the nostalgic element of it, the romantic element of it, the sort of dreamy aspect of it — which I can say personally, that was my dream. My dream was to make films and have them in movie theaters, and that was kind of it, you know? But you also have to measure that against the reality of where things are going, and whether you’re resisting change because change is hard and change is uncomfortable and change demands a lot of self-reflection. Or are you going to start embracing change and seeing the opportunities that come with it, and seeing what is good about it?
Theater reopenings and big movie openings, like Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” have been delayed and delayed. When do you foresee theaters in the U.S. reopening, and what has to happen for that to happen?
It’s hard to tell, obviously, but I think there are two aspects of it. There’s the science, and there’s the psychology. When are people going to feel safe? And, of course, we know that plenty of people — too many — feel like it’s safe right now, but the reality is that the numbers are going up, and it’s a scary time on a lot of levels. I think when there’s a vaccine, and people are feeling like it’s working, then a lot of stuff will be tested. We’ll test the idea that now people are realizing they need community, they need interactions with people. And when people feel safe, we’ll see whether the theaters are still standing. Obviously, the big chains are dealing with something different than the small chains. The big films will ultimately be fine. But I don’t think it’s all going to be back for quite a few months.
What do you think is going to happen with awards season this year?
I think there is going to be one, because it’s hard to let that go. And it’s also such an integral part of the way the industry operates. You see all the efforts to have some form of a festival, even if it’s just announcing, “These are the movies that will not be shown at our festival!” It’s like the value system is changing, so now the value is like, “We got into Cannes!” No tuxedoes involved. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. You don’t really know that the orchestra playing with the silent movie is about to be canned and never to return to the movie theater. I think people will want to have awards, maybe with a big asterisk. But the industry needs it on some level.
Your silent-movie analogy is fascinating. Do you think that’s the kind of moment we’re at right now?
Yeah, I do. I think this is exactly that kind of moment. It’s like, sound is coming in, and these people are not going to be needed anymore, and these people are going to be making something new out of it, and all of a sudden you need all these people who know how to write dialogue to come in and make the movies talk. What I’m hoping for, as the immigrant that I am, is that good old American ingenuity sort of looks at something that’s gone and can never be repeated and all of a sudden pivots into something that’s new and supplies something else to be excited about.
Pretend that it’s five years from now. The pandemic is long over. What does the American film industry look like?
I would have to think, based on what is going on now, that it would be streamers, platforms and such, big movies in theater chains, and small movies in repertory theaters and art theaters like the Metrograph in New York. And by the way, all this stuff Godard said 30 years ago. He said that in the future movies will be in museums, that the kind of movies we love and grew up on and gravitate towards are just going to be more of a specialty item.
But five years from now, do you still see the existence of a big studio franchise culture like the kind we have now?
I think so, in some form or another, yeah. I think that that’s the theme park that doesn’t go away. That’s real business. That’s, like, a level of business that’s going to adjust itself for success. It may not be precisely Marvel, but it will be something of that nature.
Do you think there will be even less room in that model for what we used to call dramas for adults?
I do, yeah. I’m saying all that with a very silly optimistic part of me kind of screaming as I say this, but I actually think that the dramatic movie may be going the way of the novel. It’s human evolution. It’s where we’re going. It’s a very complicated marriage with technology, and it’s a marriage that’s not going to end in divorce, but it’s just not going to be the same.
Whenever I write something about movie theaters vs. streaming, and I tend to be quite a cheerleader for the theater experience for reasons that I don’t think are simply nostalgia, I always get loads of comments saying, “Oh, get over it. Theaters are dying. I’d rather be at home.” Do you think that appetite to go out to a theater is actually waning?
People are always going to have this drive for gathering, for being with other people. But I think culturally a bunch of people going “Hey, let’s go to the movies” could be something that is a relic, a historical thing that you see on “Seinfeld” reruns. Oh, people used to go to the movies! Obviously, the industry is going to try to fight it, and I’m all for the fight.
How does the new deal between Universal and AMC, shortening the theatrical window to a potential three weeks, fit into that fight?
You can’t help but feel like that a deal like that is a practical business adjustment, purely a change acknowledging reality. But it also speaks to the uncertainty of who we are as viewers, as a society. You have a small window to go to the theaters. You may choose not to. There are so many reasons not to go to the theaters, so many fears of the world out there, so many inconveniences and challenges. It’s not a cheap offering, financially and otherwise. Now you get the reassurance that you won’t have to wait long before the film comes to you, safely, at home. You won’t be missing out for too long. So the three weekends the film will spend in the theaters will determine the desire for its consumption in a communal way. Maybe that’s a new barometer moving forward: Is the film worthy of interaction with other human beings in public spaces in the short amount of time it only exists that way? It weirdly raises the bar. But will it raise the quality of the work and its attractiveness? Wouldn’t it be nice?
Everybody now seems to accept the conventional wisdom that if you’re going to a theater, it’s probably to see a big spectacle film. Yet the definition of movies for so long was that you went to theater to see a drama, and it was the theater experience that made it a spectacle. Why has that hunger gone away?
Because I think the streamers and the things that you can get at home changed everything. They didn’t just change that particular element of going to a theater. They changed the way stories are being told. They changed the way narrative is laid out. They changed the acting, editing, writing, directing, the whole approach. A lot of TV, for example, is driven by writers. That has a different effect on viewing habits. I think that the way narrative now is laid out for people, it’s much more challenging to sort of face the more idiosyncratic artistic expression of films driven by a director’s vision. I think the plot vision behind serial television is easier, frankly.
So you’re saying that long-form serial storytelling is changing the DNA of what we want?
Yes. I really believe that. And I see it. Just watching even some of my favorite actors and seeing how working in that system changes something about the way they work, changes the way they are as actors. It’s very interesting when you talk to someone about a TV series and they say, “Oh, you should really watch it — it’s very cinematic.” It means that it’s not just concerned with the words and the plot and the various spoon-feedings of narrative.
I think that’s a telling irony to all this. The television revolution we’re in the middle of is 20 years old. If you look at the great defining shows of that — “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” — these are the shows we think of as being “like movies.”
Yeah. And we all know that “The Sopranos” could never exist right now. For a lot of reasons.
On a very simple level, the content of it, the misogyny, the racism, the stereotypes that people would object to. But also, it’s cinematic. It’s not only driven by: and then this happened and then this happened. It’s gunning for a bigger vision that you don’t see a lot of on television these days.
Is this a moment of creative destruction, like what the Buddhists talk about?
That’s a very good question. In a way, yes. In a sense, something has been built, and now it’s being wiped away. But I think the wiping away just reveals a new thing. And if we pay attention to the changes not in a hostile way, then it could be an exciting time.
The aftermath of the murder of George Floyd has provoked an incredible reckoning in America, and in the entertainment industry. Do you see this moment as having a lasting impact on movies?
Yes. Very much so. I think that’s one place where I’ve noticed that the change is real, and it doesn’t feel like it’s short-term. From what I’m seeing, there’s a real reckoning, there’s a real shifting of perspectives and of operational efforts.
And maybe that, and also the post-#MeToo universe, feeds into the other changes you’re talking about.
Absolutely. One of the things I like about what we do is that all these things sort of interact. Because there are all these new people coming in, all these new perspectives finally getting their full due. And out of that, new things will come.