Arthouse Films

Too much money can kill your film. For every dollar the studio gives a filmmaker, that’s one less risk they allow him to take – their mind is on box office returns, not artistic merit. Take Avatar, for instance. It’s true that criticising Avatar is like violently kicking a poor, confused, defenceless blue kitten (in 3D), but as the most expensive film ever made, it’s the best example of how money throttles originality. Within ten minutes, a two year old could have drawn out the rest of the plot in crayon on the back of a napkin. Still, it’s the highest grossing film of all time, so clearly James Cameron and his moneymen were proved financially wise to avoid any original thought.

Arthouse films don’t have this problem. Without access to the funds that sunk the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Star Wars prequels, the Transformers trilogy (brace yourselves – part 3 is coming) and countless others, arthouse filmmakers must instead concentrate on things that don’t cost money: plot, characters, ideas. While modern audiences are increasingly desensitised to the best CGI money can buy, arthouse films still have the capacity to surprise. The most exciting filmmakers working today – Paul Thomas Anderson, Charlie Kaufman and Werner Herzog, to name a few – operate without big budgets.

But it’s not just about money. It is the arthouse sensibility that is key – a desire to produce something interesting, challenging and new. In short, a respect for the audience. Encouragingly, some directors have beaten the blockbuster system and brought this sensibility into mainstream films. Kubrick and Ridley Scott did this with 2001 and Blade Runner respectively, while Christopher Nolan has gone from making the brilliant, low-budget Memento to the biggest budget arthouse film ever made: The Dark Knight. James Cameron could learn a thing or two.

[Originally published as part of 'Film Wars' - 'Arthouse vs. Blockbuster' by Cherwell, in print and online, on 05/06/2010: http://www.cherwell.org/content/10528]

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