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Steven Spielberg And George Lucas On Hollywood's Future
'We're in a mess but out of the chaos will come some amazing things'

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Earlier this week, a small clutch of journalists and students were treated to a state of the union address by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Speaking at the University Of Southern California, the pair were sharing a panel at the School of Cinematic Arts to discuss the future of entertainment. The picture they painted for movies' role in the future landscape was hardly bright.

Steven Spielberg And George Lucas On Hollywood's Future

Steven, tell us about the role technology has played in your filmmaking...
Steven Spielberg: Well, my filmmaking really began with technology. It began through technology, not through telling stories, because my 8mm movie camera was the way into whatever I decided to do. Film was so slow that you were forced into a technological choice - if you wanted to create something indoors, you suddenly had to discover a bright light. So that was technology for me: going to Sears and Roebucks and buying a bunch of those floodlights you put outside to light your backyard and putting them on stands with Scotch tape, because we didn't know what gaffer tape was in those days. I had the will and the technology was the way in for me.

George?
George Lucas: People get very confused about the art and the technology. All art is dependent on technology because it's a human endeavour, so even when you're using charcoal on a wall or designed the proscenium arch, that's technology. And in the film industry, which is the most technological of all the art forms, it's the same, because the artist bumps up against the technological ceiling and pushes further. My involvement has stemmed from the fact that I have very imaginative movies that were impossible to do using the technology we had at hand. So I had to help come up with a new technology that would allow us to do things in visual effects that hadn't been done before.

You're talking about the transition from analogue to digital?
Lucas: Yeah, but that's just the normal transition, like anything. It's like going from frescos to oil paintings or going from circle in the round to the proscenium arch. The technology keeps moving forward, which makes it easier for the artists to tell their stories and paint the pictures they want.

How did all these tools change your process once you had the ability to digitally animate at your fingertips?
Spielberg: Well, I couldn't have made Jurassic Park without digital technology. It hadn't been invented yet. I basically learned my Ps and Qs from Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien before him, but Jurassic Park was supposed to be a movie about bringing dinosaurs back to the 20th century and I didn't want it to be stop motion. Even Phil Tippett's tests, with Go motion dinosaurs and frame blurs to make them look more fluid, still looked like The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad. I couldn't get away from that. And then because George and I had sort of grown up in the same gene pool together...

Lucas: Suburbia.

Spielberg: Suburbia! (laughs) I went to Dennis Muren, who did Close Encounters Of The Third Kind for me, and then to George at ILM, and it was Dennis who had been messing around with a little technology called 'digital animation'. He suggested that we could make all the dinosaurs that weren't the full-sized mechanical animatronic Stan Winston creatures on the computer. I was a little familiar with this because the first computer character ever done was in a movie I produced called Young Sherlock Holmes, that George's company, ILM, did all the effects on. We animated a little Templar Knight in a stained glass window to come alive, jump out of the glass and kill a priest in this sort of Young Sherlock Holmes movie. It was the first digital effect in a movie. So there was precedent for Dennis Muren's audacity in saying, "I think I can do your dinosaurs on the computer". And that was the beginning.

Lucas: The big thing for us was having a computer division that devoted itself to trying to bring digital technology into the visual effects business. And in the beginning nobody from ILM would have anything to do with it, so I took Dennis aside and said, "I'm gonna give you a sabbatical, I'm gonna give you a Mac and I want you to learn this stuff", and he was the first one to cross that divide. We had two buildings, ILM and the computer division, and nobody from ILM would go to the computer division. They were feeling very lonely over there! But they were the ones that actually built the technology from which developed the idea of being able to animate the full form digitally. That was Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, so it was basically the beginning of Pixar. But for the first ten years it was simply trying to help Steven make his dinosaurs.

Spielberg: Right, and I think the interesting thing to point out also is that the key animator on Young Sherlock Holmes was John Lasseter.

Lucas: We actually did the very first computer-animated sequence in Star Trek - this silent, mean-looking green thing, but it looked very digital. It didn't look realistic. Even though the (Young Sherlock) window pane wasn't realistic in terms of people, it was realistic as a window pane and it looked like a piece of stained glass. So, yes, that was the first realistic digital animation ever done.

Steven Spielberg And George Lucas On Hollywood's Future

George, you've made video games and movies. Do you see convergence in those two arts?
Lucas: Well, they're different and they're always going to be different. Storytelling is about two things; it's about character and plot. Character is what they're trying to figure out: it's what we have in television and what we have in movies. Sport, you know, is about Tim Tebow and Kobi Bryant. They're starting to realise that if they focus on the characters, it makes the game much richer. But by its very nature, there cannot be a plot in a game. You can't plot out an NFL game. You can't plot out feeding Christians to lions. It's not a plot.

Telling a story is a very complicated process [because] you're leading the audience along, showing them things, giving them insights. It's a very complicated construct and very carefully put together. If you just let everybody go and do whatever they want, then it's not a story anymore - it's simply a game. So you have to make the divide between games and stories. The big deal is that video games are going to have more character, and the character is going to give you a much more immersive effect because you're going to be able to play not only with other communities, but with cyber communities and it's gonna be very, very realistic. So you're gonna have a lot of fun with your friends playing games, ultimately. But you're not going to have a plot and it's not going to be Shakespeare.

Spielberg: I think the key divide between the interactive media and the narrative media is the difficulty in opening up an empathic pathway between the gamer and the character, as differentiated from the audience and the characters in a movie or a television show. That little thing, that little thing called the empathic pathway is currently the great abyss in allowing a player to become emotionally attached to a character. A long time ago they had this little game you could play on your handheld device where they threw babies out of windows of a burning building and you had to run around with a net, catching the babies to save them. That idea came from an urge of the gamer to say, "Let's create an empathic experience for a player to save babies." Who's more helpless than a baby being thrown through the air? But as players started to play this game, they stopped looking at the baby as a human being and they started looking at the baby as a score. So the baby became parenthetical to [the desire to score] more points than your friend.

Once you get the controller in your hand, everything changes. You go from the experience of empathising with mo-cap actors in a very realistic, three-dimensional world, and getting involved in the story and hating the bad guy because he murders people at an airport, to suddenly taking the controller and having something turn off in your heart. Then it becomes a sport...

Lucas: If you don't have an ending and you're creating it by your own skill, it's basically not a narrative anymore. But the idea of creating characters that you can empathise with is a goal to be reached. It's not there yet, but it can be reached. It will be reached.

Spielberg: Right.

Lucas: The problem is an economic one, because the gaming industry grew out of a general thing and became a specific thing for hardcore gamers. So the industry moved toward hardcore gamers. And hardcore gamers love to watch the baby hit the floor, so they didn't catch the baby anymore. They didn't care. They said, "I want a game where I can shoot somebody in the head and blow their head off." So the game industry moved in that direction. You can't empathise with somebody you're going to kill, so that whole idea's gone out the window.

Conversation turned to the potential of technology to enrich the gaming experience with three-dimensional worlds, before moving onto the development of real human avatars in games...
Lucas:
'We're in a mess but of the chaos will come some amazing things, because all the gatekeepers have been killed.' - George Lucas
The interface between humans and computers is going like a rocket, so the next step is what they're doing in prosthetics, where you can put an implant in your head and control your body just by thinking about it. You'll be able to control your dreams the same way, just via a different part of your brain. You'll put a hat on or plug into a computer and be able to create your own world.

Spielberg: It's a Matrix.

Lucas: It hasn't been turned into an entertainment thing yet, but it will be because that technology exists today. It's not a pie in the sky thing. It will happen.

What will this technology mean for the entertainment business?
Lucas: You still have to tell stories.

Spielberg: That's the key.

Lucas: It's all about telling stories. Some people want to be in a game and some people want to have a story told to them, which are two different things. But the content stays the same, and it's been the same for 10,000 years. What Homer was doing was the same thing Steve is doing. The only difference is that he sat around the dinner table and told people stories, [whereas] Steven... well, you turn on the television and he tells you a story.

Spielberg: I've never been compared to Homer before. Thanks, George.

Lucas: ...and there's no difference between the Olympic Games and video games. You're wondering who's going to win and are you going to be good enough? All those emotions that go through [your mind] were [the same] back then. So it was storytelling and it was games: one has an actual purpose and the other is simply something you do. There's no logic in how it ends - it's basically how good you are, who you're playing with, what time of day it is and how big your gun is.

Steven, do you think that there's a risk that the students with all these technological tools at their disposal will lose sight of the fact that storytelling is still the most important thing?
Spielberg: Well, at any other university, I'd say that's a danger, but at USC we emphasise narrative and story before everything else. This is why these kids are saying, "Why can't I just go right into the program and start making movies and video games?" Because you gotta learn your ABCs first. You've got to learn your history.

So we may not be plugging into The Matrix yet, but we'll maybe have a sense of what that next step is. George, you were talking earlier about how it's all content on screens now and not about 'television' per se anymore. How has that changed the way people consume entertainment when they can access anything they want at anytime, perhaps through the Xbox?
Lucas: Distribution has always been a bit of a thing for us because it's the gatekeeper, and when we started out there were serious gatekeepers. Over the years multiplexes allowed more theaters, which allowed for more independent distributors and television, which moves down into cable, which allows more esoteric programming. It's moved out into a bigger thing. Now we've got the internet, which is the ultimate version of all that: your access to it is much easier than it was going to a network or a movie studio and having to come up with, say, $1m to do anything. Now you can do it much less expensively, which means it's going to be a more democratic process, and I think that's good. So you're gonna get a lot of things going on, but I think now is the best time we can possibly have. In terms of the economy this is 2008, because we're in a mess, all the stock has crashed and everything's ruined. But this is the time to invest. All the opportunity is sitting there but [entertainment] companies are all panicking, saying: "We're losing this market, we're losing DVDs, what are we gonna do?" It's total chaos, but out of that chaos will come some amazing things. All the gatekeepers have been killed.

Spielberg: The market is just ubiquitous - it's everywhere - but we still only have 24 hours in a day. We can't expand the 24-hour cycle: we're stuck with that. So we're stuck with so many choices, more choices than we've ever had. Do we write to those choices or are we users letting somebody else write them? We can't create for every platform media and there's so much out there. My kids get a lot of satisfaction just sharing funny things they find on YouTube, and that eats up the day - there's an hour right there. My daughter comes over to the kitchen and says, "You've got to watch what these people in Wisconsin just put on YouTube! It's so funny." So we're competing with that, with the Crackberrys [sic] and... I don't know what the similar jerky word for iPhone or the Microsoft platform would be, but they're things you can't keep out of your hand. You reach for it not because you have a call or because you forgot something, but because it's your third arm. But it's dangerous and scary when I find myself reaching for it for no reason. And we're trying to get people all over the world to stop for two, maybe two and a half hours to go to the movies.

Lucas: My daughter is 25, and she's got rid of all her cable, she got rid of her television, and she just goes on the internet. She says, "Why should I pay so much for cable when I can get everything for almost nothing?" She'll go to Hulu and all these other [online] services. Unfortunately, she doesn't even go to the movies. She says that she has everything available to her at home.

Spielberg: That's what scares me...

Lucas: Yeah, but she loves movies - Hulu Plus has the Criterion Collection and I can go look at all these old movies - it's just that it's all available to her there. She doesn't have to wait for Falling Skies to come on, because it's there right when she wants it.

Spielberg: Yeah, the convenience is great, but it's there whenever you can schedule it in your busy schedule with that 24-hour cycle. The big danger goes back to what I do everyday and it's this: with all these computers, platforms and competing entertainment opportunities vying for those 24 hours, we're at the point where a studio would rather invest $250m in one film for a real shot at the brass ring, than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal and even maybe historical projects that may get lost in the shuffle.

Lucas: [Studios] are going for the gold, but that isn't gonna work forever. As a result, they're getting narrower and narrower in their focus, and people are gonna get tired of it [but] they're not gonna know how to do anything else. So you need to have these quirky things, and the quirky world is getting bigger and bigger and bigger, because you can actually [distribute them] either via little houses or just put them on Netflix, and you can actually make your money back.

Spielberg: The great thing about cable [is that] when you can't sell your script to the studios, if it's good, you can get a good cable sale. A lot of these young filmmakers that are taking their stuff to television would like to be making movies, but some of their ideas are too fringey for the movies and you need a big film festival to recognise your art in order to get a wider distribution [and] a chance for people to watch your movie. So that's the big danger and there's eventually gonna be an implosion or a big meltdown. There's gonna be an implosion where three or four, maybe even a half a dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground and that's going change the paradigm again.

What does the world look like after that?
Spielberg: Well, it's like 2008. We will come back from it, that's what I mean.

Lucas: You're gonna end up with fewer but bigger theatres. Going to the movies is gonna cost you $50, maybe $100, maybe $150.

Spielberg: Like Broadway costs today.

Lucas: Yeah, it's like Broadway or a football game; it's going to be an expensive thing. Movies will be these big ticket items because people will still take their chances [with them]. But everything else is going to look more like cable television or TiVo, with great programming that's usually more interesting than what you're going to see in the movie theatre. You can get it whenever you want and it's going to be niche marketed, which means [directors] can really take chances if they can figure there's a small group of people that will react to it. Then it's really a matter of marketing, which is the biggest issue - just making sure that people know you're there - and with the internet there's a whole process for doing that now. That's what will [become of] what used to be the 'movie business' - and I include television and movies. It's going be a television business that actually has nothing to do with television anymore.

The content business?
Lucas:
'We’re at the point where a studio would rather invest $250m in one film, than make a whole bunch of really interesting, personal projects.' - Steven Spielberg
It's going to be internet television. Guys, you know, there's no difference between movies and television. None at all. Except in a lot of cases, television's much better than movies.

Spielberg: Eventually movies go on television, so it's all the same after [a certain period]. Even the window is so narrow [now] that movies go onto hotel televisions within two weeks of their initial theatrical runs.

When I first started making movies, my movies stayed in theatres for one year [and] E.T. was in theatres for a year and four months. That was an amazing situation back then, but eventually there's going to be a price variance so you'll have to pay $25 to see the next Iron Man and probably only $7 to see Lincoln.

Lucas: I think eventually the Lincolns are going to go away and they're going to be on television.

Spielberg: Well, mine almost was. This close. Ask HBO...

Lucas: You're gonna have homes with giant televisions, so the ratio of person to screen is gonna be the same.

Lucas: I know I can't release my own personal films and everyone asks why. Well, it's because if I make a movie for a million dollars, it's still gonna cost me $10 or $15m to market it.

The issue is that you're going to make these movies and eventually you can put them on the internet, but then you're not gonna make any money at it. The monetising issue is still a big deal and you have to be able to see where your market is. I already know I'm making it for a miniscule market, and that's why I'm doing this, because I don't have to worry whether it's entertaining and it's my choice. But at the same time people have options and unfortunately the options for interesting movies are going to be in the home. You can take the best cable shows and the best movies and put them on the screen together and nobody can tell the difference. Actually, television is more adventurous.

If this new paradigm removes the distinction between movies and television, are consumers going to think differently about the way they consume content? Do you think the moviegoing experience will change for the audience?
Lucas: They're gonna go to big movies on a big screen, and it's gonna cost them a lot of money. Everything else will be on a small screen, and it's almost that way now. As I say, when you're talking Lincoln or Red Tails, we barely got into the theatres. I mean, you're talking about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas not getting their movie into a theatre.

Spielberg: I got more people into Lincoln than you got into Red Tails.

Lucas: Yeah, I knew that was coming!

Spielberg: I had to have my own studio to get it distributed.

Lucas: I can get a couple of million people to see Red Tails on the screen or I can get maybe five million people to see it on television, so it's a question of whether you want people to see it [on television] or on the big screen? And again, a lot of people have a big screen [at home]. It's going to be the same thing for video games, because nobody's sitting down there with a little video screen now - they've got a giant screen in their room and Kinect, so it's merging. The definition of "movies" was that you go to a place and pay to get in, but that place where you pay to get in is in your home. Or you can go to a theatre, but it's the same thing as a stadium.

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