Barry Jenkins: No Matter the Format, Filmmaking Is as Expensive as Ever

Barry Jenkins: No Matter the Format, Filmmaking Is as Expensive as Ever


When I talked to Barry Jenkins for my project on the future of movies, the Oscar-winning director of “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” found himself fascinated by the changes gripping Hollywood. “What Netflix is doing right now is radical as hell,” Jenkins told me. His greatest hope was that new formats would empower new directors, especially if the cost of filmmaking can be shrunk: “We’re having a conversation about theaters and screens and distribution, but if there aren’t interesting stories to fill those screens — whether they’re made for a big budget or a small budget — then the conversation is moot.” Here are excerpts from our talk.

Has the way you watched movies changed significantly over the last 10 years?

With the movies I want to watch, sometimes the only way to watch them is through streaming — which is quite positive in some ways, and in some ways unfortunate.

What are the pros and cons of that kind of development?

The cons are that the form of media that we work in is designed to be seen in very big spaces as a communal experience. Like a lot of culture right now, things have gone from being consumed in a crowd to being consumed in isolation. In the same way that social media approximates the experience of being in a community, I think the way we now watch these things — whether on our flat screens or our laptops or our phones — is also an approximation of what the original foundations of this medium always were. It’s bittersweet.

Five years ago, you couldn’t just get on your laptop and find Claire Denis films. Now you can, which is a really awesome thing and better for the world, for sure. But there’s a trade-off.

You’re pretty plugged into a young generation of film fans on Twitter. What do you find striking about the way they watch movies?

They don’t [care] where they watch a thing, they just want to watch that thing. I think the tricky thing is that the financial dynamics of making these things has not shifted in the same way.

Has that sort of reaction made you less precious about the way your films are seen?

I don’t become less precious; I have no choice but to accept it. You have to evolve with the times. For me, though, I’m always trying to make a film as though it’s going to show on the biggest screen, as loud as possible, in front of a lot of people. That’s just where my roots are.

Now, the beauty of that is that these people don’t have to be in New York, L.A., Chicago, Miami or D.C. — they can be anywhere and still see it. I remember after “Moonlight,” going to this tiny town in Mexico and finding bootleg DVDs of the movie, and it was kind of shocking because the quality of the bootleg was really good!

You bought it?

I bought it. But then someone told me the reason the DVDs were there is because that place had the largest concentration of transgender teenagers in all of Mexico, and so the person who delivered the DVDs had brought “Moonlight” there. That kind of shifted my ego. Was it a 35-millimeter print? No, but there you go.

I remember when “Bird Box” came out, it was such a hit on Twitter, and people were asking where Trevante Rhodes had come from. He had just starred in your movie, a best-picture winner, but when those people were told to go watch “Moonlight,” they’d reply, “Is it on Netflix?”

I saw that too on Twitter. There’s something quite humbling about that conversation. A sea change is happening, but the problem is that making films is as expensive as it’s ever been. There’s no big-budget, department-store, $1.99 white-T-shirt version of making films — every film is some version of a really fancy $300 T-shirt from Calvin Klein. That’s just how much this kind of art takes to make! You can make an album for $5,000 and it can have the same quality as Frank Ocean’s “Blonde,” but it just takes so much damn money to make a film.

I don’t know how you offset that cost, and that’s why there’s so much tension between theatrical and digital distribution. For 25 years, DVD and VHS [were] a major revenue stream. We’ve got to figure out what another version of that revenue stream is, and how it can be applied to something like Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama,” where an American version of a film like that can have a reasonable expectation of breaking even.

Do you think that in 10 years, there will still be specialty theaters to play a film like “Zama”?

Look, I go to a few theaters in Los Angeles to see movies — not even specialized theaters, like Tarantino’s theater — and there are always, always audiences there. Who are these people? There will always be people who prioritize the experience in a cinema, who treat it as fine arts in a certain way, and they’ll make it their prerogative to keep these theaters open. Will there be as many theaters? I can’t say, but I’m an optimist, and I think there will be. The Angelika is always going to be there, right?

Maybe! Who can say? We always think buildings are permanent, and they never are.

But then you have something like the Metrograph popping up. Or even a company like the Arclight. Now look, I haven’t gotten too deep into the Arclight’s business plan or funding or any of that, I just know that a couple months ago, I went to see “Burning” there and decided I wanted to see “Border” right before. I bought my ticket and expected to be in this really tiny theater, but it was on a massive screen and the sound was amazing. So I think there are always going to be companies like the Arclight or Laemmle that are going to prioritize the cinematic moviegoing experience.

What excites you about these ongoing changes in the industry?

What Netflix is doing right now is radical as hell. It’s not conforming to any one way of thinking about how movies are made and distributed. That’s a good thing, ultimately. I do think there are going to be younger, more diverse filmmakers telling stories we’ve never seen before. That’s got to be the mandate. We’re having a conversation about theaters and screens and distribution, but if there aren’t interesting stories to fill those screens, the conversation is moot.

Do you think we’re heading to a place where theatrical distribution no longer becomes mandatory for an Oscar-eligible film?

Whoo! That’s a hot question. I think we have to find ways to protect some of these traditions, and the movies are larger than life. So I do think that screening in a theater will always be a qualification for the Academy Awards, I truly do. I think part of that is going to be to ensure that we always share a communal experience watching movies in a theater. But hey, maybe I’m a dinosaur.

We get to see movies on great screens in ideal settings lot of would-be moviegoers live in places with limited access to theaters.

Let me ask you then, do you think that’s a reason for day-and-date [distributing a movie in theaters and in homes the same day]? It’s interesting, because all these other art forms are moving faster, too. The fact that musicians drop mixtapes for free — can you ever imagine a filmmaker dropping a mixtape film for free?

Hiro Murai and Donald Glover just did something like that with “Guava Island”: a surprise drop, not quite the length of a feature, and it initially debuted on Amazon for free.

True, true. Other than that, we haven’t really found a way to do that sort of thing in our medium, and because of that, we’re not as diverse in our breadth of expression as we see in music right now, where you have all these artists who can just pop off: “I was curious, I made this thing, here it is.”

Let me ask you a question. I’m going to go back to “Bird Box,” because there’s a world where “Moonlight” doesn’t get a theatrical release, or doesn’t win the Oscar. Let’s say it instead goes to [festivals like] Telluride, Toronto, and then it gets put on some platform. Do you think there’s a world where as many or even more people would experience it, or was the best thing for the film to go down that traditional theatrical path? I mean Trevante was part of this thing that was one of the loudest moments in pop culture, and yet people were still like, “Who’s that guy?”

One of the arguments a streaming platform can make is that they have the ability to reach people who wouldn’t see certain movies or even know about them in the first place.

Yeah, we’re in transition. I’m going to think about this talk because I’m trying to find the answer and at this point, clearly, I don’t have it. I’ve changed my mind three times on this call! But let me tell you about something, you’ll love this.

We had a screening of “Beale Street” in Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and a fire broke out. So, irony of ironies, we had to go across the street to the Air and Space Museum, where there’s an Imax theater. To see Regina King as a black mom trying to save her family on that larger-than-life screen, in the Air and Space Museum — where, when you walk out, all you see are images of white men going into space — I thought, “O.K., this is what it was like when people sat in a movie chair and thought a train was coming towards them.” I can’t get that feeling on my flat screen at home, so we’ve got to figure something out.

Kyle Buchanan, a Los Angeles-based pop culture reporter, writes the Carpetbagger column. He was previously a senior editor at Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment website, where he covered the movie industry. @kylebuchanan

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