Trends in any industry have two profound effects: they create the feel of a particular time, and they spur innovation that carries forward into future eras.
In a robust film industry, trends and innovative techniques are creating a distinctive look, sound and feel for today’s art. Pushed forward by rapidly developing technologies, these trends are also changing many of the ways we think about and use filmmaking.
Here, we take a look at some of the biggest trends and techniques currently changing our approach to film.
The Internet Revolution: Small-Budget, Short-Form and the Rise of Streaming
There may be some corner of human art that the Internet hasn’t touched. But film isn’t it.
The Internet has opened up new pathways for both the funding and the distribution of film. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are leading the way in both the creation of original works and the distribution of smaller-budget, short-form and documentary films, according to a recent blog post by the Los Angeles Film School.
Unsurprisingly, these three categories of film are seeing a corresponding rise in popularity, according to Stephen Follows.
Netflix Production Budgets
As Benjamin B notes in American Cinematographer, Netflix spent $6 billion in 2017 on original film and TV series, and the company plans to expand that budget to $8 billion in 2018. Television is currently outpacing cinemas as the more popular way to watch film, mostly because today’s widely available 4K digital flat screens provide a clearer visual experience than many movie screens do.
What’s more, television seems to be doing a much better job of tapping into pop culture than film. Part of that is because TV shows have shorter production cycles, so they can be more responsive to culture. Netflix’s big budget is another big reason: With some 700 series in production for 2018, there are so many more opportunities for showrunners to take chances creatively.
Case in point: Tiffany Anders, the music supervisor on the show “Everything Sucks” — a show every bit as rich in musical nostalgia as “Freaks and Geeks” or “Stranger Things” — was given a green light to dig deep into ‘90s indie music to give that show a richer feel. While tracks from Spacehog and Oasis might have captured viewers’ attentions, the Sebadoh and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin song placements let her give a nod to the music she grew up with.
“It’s always difficult [to balance song selection] and I think we handled it by doing things like balancing giant songs with things that were not so giant and being able to really search and balance it that way,” Anders tells Billboard. “I always love doing this because I feel like there are songs people missed, so there might be some discovery in there for them.”
The Role of Crowdfunding
Follows also notes that crowdfunding has become a viable source of film funding for many projects. The Veronica Mars film passed the $7 million mark in crowdfunding, and shares the distinction of being one of two crowdfunded projects to raise more than $5 million, according to Fellows’ data. (That other film was Super Troopers 2.)
New rules from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are likely to expand options for crowdfunding films, as well, according to Mark Litwak at IndieWire. The new rules, based on the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, allow securities to be sold via crowdfunding and set parameters for those sales — allowing crowdfunders not only to contribute to film projects, but actually invest in them.
Conversational Shifts: Social Commentary, Diversity and Real-Life Events
The content of film is also changing to reflect the social milieu in which it is produced. Recent pushes for better representations of human diversity and diverse viewpoints have led to a corresponding increase of films told from the perspectives of women, characters of color and disabled characters, according to Baptiste Charles at Raindance.
Short-form documentaries are also gaining new attention. Bryn Beausoleil recently covered the multiple panels dedicated to the discussion of short-form documentary trends at SXSW, one of which focused solely on the trend’s intersection with both broadcast and streaming television. Social commentary is on the rise not only in documentaries, but also in other types of films, perhaps reflecting the intense social self-consciousness of the era.
Case in point: Horror films are also seeing a resurgence, according to Follows. The number of horror films made in 2016 was double the number made in 2006 and 20 times the number made in 1996, according to Follows’ numbers. Art always mirrors its cultural context in some way, and the alternate realities of the horror genre often act as a grotesque reflection of our own lived realities.
The rise of social commentary in film may have a democratizing feedback-loop effect, researcher Ian Huffer argues in an article in Cultural Trends. When online options make film easier to access, Huffer argues, it builds more connections between audiences and content. These connections both give audiences a richer field of storytelling tools with which to understand their own circumstances and provide a common cultural vocabulary with which to discuss those experiences with others.
While the vast majority of documentary and horror films are independent films, often with smaller budgets, Hollywood continues to look to adaptations, prequels and sequels to maintain its own revenues. Follows estimates that the number of remakes and reboots will continue to decline, but the number of other types of derivative films produced by major companies will likely increase — during a time when companies like Netflix are investing heavily in original content in order to grab new audiences.
How It’s Done: Found Footage, Mobile and Tech Tools
Unsurprisingly, technology is driving new trends in film — but it’s not always driving them in futuristic ways.
The Los Angeles Film School notes an increase in the use of handheld or “found” footage, as well as an increase in the use of practical effects, either alone or layered over CGI. These retro-esque tools are popular in both horror and documentary films, where they’re often used to provide a more tangible uncanny feel.
In the world of professional cinematography, large-format cameras are becoming more popular. Benjamin B at American Cinematographer describes many of the reasons filmmakers are taking these cameras more seriously, including the fact that they have a longer focal length than a Super 35, which can make scenes feel more natural by more closely mimicking the behavior of the human eye.
Pre-Trend Trends: The Anticipated Arrival of VR and Interactive Film
Virtual reality and interactive films aren’t as widespread as the other trends we’ve listed here, so we’re hesitant to say they’ve reached “trend” status. But both options are well on their way.
2016’s Late Shift was billed as the first-ever interactive feature film, allowing audiences to influence the characters’ behaviors and the story’s outcome. Yet, in a sense, the interactive nature of film has been on the rise for as long as films have crossed over with video games — allowing audiences to watch the stories they’ve already come to interact with.
Filmmakers will have much to learn from video games as interactive film becomes more popular, says Charles at Raindance. Some video games have even taken on the feel of an interactive film. For instance, 2015’s Life is Strange and its 2017 prequel, ‘Before the Storm, maintain a relatively linear storyline but allow for several different events to occur, depending on how the player chooses to respond to various events.
The time is ripe for virtual reality in film, as well, says Susan Ruskin, dean of filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. The school’s current projects include an augmented-reality version of Big Rock Candy Mountain, in which students are experimenting with a number of technological features to enhance the audiovisual experience of the old folk song.
Hannah White, creative director at IoT for All, suggests that VR could revitalize a lagging theatre industry, but notes that filmmaking has much to learn about how to use these tools to enhance the cinematic experience rather than simply overwhelm viewers.
At the MIT Technology Review, Ty Burr was even more blunt: “VR will never become the new cinema. Instead, it will be a different thing.” Burr’s concern is that VR movie viewers will never enter the story, instead choosing to hang around iconic locations like Casablanca’s Cafe Americain or Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley forever.
But this may be another site at which virtual reality can learn much from video games. The popularity of 2016’s AR-based Pokemon Go demonstrates that audiences are excited for interactive, world-based media, says Charles, and it got them moving.
The confluence of technology and social issues has supported the rise of film trends that speak volumes about our current anxieties, as well as our hopes. “The advances that are happening are both advances in technology and storytelling,” says Ruskin. “Every three months, there’s an advance in technology, and every time the technology advances, the storytelling advances as well.”
As tools like virtual reality continue to develop, our ability to tell our stories will continue to advance.
Images by: Chris Murray, Krists Luhaers, Jakob Owens