Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Editorial: Why We Need Dancer-Directors

There always seems to be debates about what's needed in the Hollywood film industry to bring greater legitimacy to dance movies featuring street dancers or the culture. Since the early 1980s, there have been a slew of these films. Many have come and gone. Some remain in our memories. If we look at the lineup of these films, there were some who were remembered as inspirations and others who were derided for their agenda to capitalize on the popularity of street dance. Do we need more dancers as film directors? Or at least, filmmakers with some dance experience surrounded by the right collaborative team of experienced street dancers? This is a tough call because we have to ask if it's feasible to find both talents in one person. (Photo above is from a Getty Images archive.)

It's easy to hypothesize that we might have better dance movies if the directors were street dancers themselves. This perfect candidate would understand the culture after having lived it. The director would know the terminology, the feel of the dance style, and know how to translate it into a believable and moving storyline on film. This director would also have accomplished filmmaking skills and the right financial backing from strong producers and a major Hollywood studio. Believe it or not, these are all tall orders. They're not impossible. But let's consider the fact that for most of us, it's hard enough to excel at one artistic craft. We spend hours and hours honing our skills and then testing ourselves through competition and showcasing. How long would it take to develop considerable professional-level skills in street dancing and in filmmaking? Are there enough hours in the day for one person to do this? It could be possible if you're a natural talent in both fields or a genius. But the limitations of time make it difficult for most of us to excel in two areas at once.

Plus, the Hollywood studio system operates on different business principles than the street dance world. Currently, our studios are banking on franchises based on well-known creative properties to guarantee some kind of financial return at the box office. With a struggling economy, not even big-name movie stars can command the same audiences as they once did in the '90s and early 2000s. We're seeing Transformers 3, two more Harry Potter movies, and new films developed from beloved toys, board games, and old TV shows in the near future. Perhaps it isn't that the Hollywood system is lacking in creativity. There's just a general concern that audiences won't show up in theaters if they don't have some emotional involvement in a movie that they're planning to see. Can a street dance film thrive in this economic climate? More importantly, what is the demographic that studio executives are seeing as the audience for street dance films? It makes sense from their perspective to aim for a lower to medium budget for a dance film if they see an audience limited to a teenage to twenty-something crowd. After all, they want to make their money back. We know that box office returns aren't the financial boon for studios. It once was DVD and ancillary sales. But today, those cash flows are reduced as well. Would this make it harder for a street dance film to be made?

What we can fight for is more filmmaking professionals who are informed and intimately collaborating with street dancers on green-lit dance movies. That seems to be the compromise at this time. Until we see a dancer like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly take the reins of a Hollywood production, it's seems unlikely that things will dramatically change in the genre of street dance films from the studio system. Perhaps a film education should be embraced by street dancers who want to influence the world through Hollywood films. In a world where filmmaking is democraticized by easier access through digital video, there might be a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly waiting in the wings.

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