While Aronofsky struggles to keep Noah intact, we look at the troubles of creating a personal vision within big-budget filmmaking and independent cinema.
Words: William Guy
The relationship between director and studio is notoriously fragile. Throughout cinema history, directors have struggled to produce their creative visions against the resistance of studios and investors. Such hassles are perhaps reasonable when we remember that cinema is an industry like any other, and that studios must ensure that their investments are met with sufficient returns. Most directors merely resign themselves to the meddling studio being a fact of life. Others however, find this hard to accept, rekindling the endless debate over cinema’s balance of art and industry. Darren Aronofsky marks the most recent creative casualty, having fallen into a dispute with Paramount Studios over poorly received test screenings of Noah ahead of its release in March 2014.
It’s doubtful that anyone expected Aronofsky to follow Black Swan with a biblical epic — and epic it must be if it is to face up to a budget now exceeding £77 million. The film represents a big step up into big-budget production for Aronofsky, who has previously stayed within the realms of the low-budget indie. Only with The Fountain did he stray to a still relatively minor £21 million. It is perhaps the director making the initial move into big-budget Hollywood production that feels the loss of creative control most. To be fair to Paramount, test screenings with Christian and Jewish audiences have produced worrying reactions. However, to Aronofsky, a prime auteur of the psychological thriller, frustration over having his project altered is understandable and he continues to resist Paramount’s recommended changes.
Do ambitious cinematic dreams require large budgets to match? Not at all. Aronofsky’s previous work shows this, where even Black Swan looks pricey at a modest £8 million. Working with films which have required little more special effects than an occasional dab of the make-up brush, he has mostly been left free from studio meddling. Are we to assume that the low-budget indie allows for the most creative freedom? It is certainly true that this territory remains fruitful with original and whacky gems from those who manage to keep their head above water — though that is certainly no easy task. Crowdfunding may be an unexpected hope for those newcomers looking to step onto the low-budget stage, with Kickstarter recently announcing peak success rates. With film and video projects representing the most profitable category, crowdsourced cinema has become a surprisingly valid option for alternative funding. Top earning productions have keenly exploited celebrity endorsement, such as Spike Lee’s Da Blood of Jesus which reached over £800,000. However, Kickstarter states that most successful projects raise under £6,000, which should provide optimism to those filmmakers who wish to retain financial – and therefore creative – control of their productions.
So again… do ambitious cinematic dreams require large budgets? With films like Shane Carruth’s Primer going on to make over a quarter of a million from its £4,000 budget, certainly not! But a better question might be: do such cinematic dreams even require the studios at all? With clever marketing, spectator led funding through sites such as Kickstarter could signify two birds with one stone for the shrewd filmmaker who manages to pay for their film while building an audience of their investors. The internet even allows us to further remove the middlemen, with all kinds of online streaming options as alternatives to conventional distribution. So while the effect heavy Noah may have landed Aronofsky in the firm financial grasp of the studios, filmmakers may relax in knowing that film is their own, as long as they’re willing to work hard both on set, and online.