Pity the poor cinematic auteur. Years ago, his Malick-ian vision was frustrated by plutocrat sine qua nons like cameras, film and talent. Nowadays, that high bar to entry has been lowered, courtesy of digital distribution and dime-at-a-time Kickstarter backing. Alas, the D.I.Y. rising tide has lifted all rafts, including ones in which slackers reenact the climactic Unforgiven confrontation with sock puppets.
As a result, Cahiers du Cinéma Claude will never get to set his passion project - the coming-of-age indie in which a widowed podiatrist teaches a lonesome teen about life, love, loss and blisters - to celluloid. He might have to settle for a Vine-able iPhone version filmed at a local nature reserve. This is all Tyler Perry's fault.
Thankfully, as it did with coveted underpriced real estate in major U.S. cities, corporate America has occupied the void, snatching these rough diamonds from their dogwatching gigs and paying them to impose their Godard-meets-Stallone directorial ethos on web videos about shoes. The latest cinebenefactor: Subway, which continues to mine aspiring talent for its Subway Fresh Artists Filmmakers Series.
It's actually quite the canny strategy, at least the way Subway plays it. The chain does the arts community a solid by supporting young filmmakers - and just a wild guess here, it likely gets them for few dollars cheaper than it would more experienced hands. Similarly, the kids (this year's class was culled from film schools at NYU and USC) get to work with professional crews and flaunt their not-philosophically-opposed-to-playing-nice-with-brands-because-I-am-a-realist-and-that's-the-only-way-anything-gets-made-anymore bona fides, which should serve them well later in their careers. Everybody wins.
Well, except maybe viewers. One of the most recent entries - throwback high school teleplay "Bite Night," hosted alongside several other series on the great MyDamnChannel.com - suggests that the approach has its drawbacks. Namely, that for all the babble about brand-curated content experiences that can stand proudly alongside Citizen Kane or Cabin Boy in our cultural canon, it remains exceedingly rare for a series of this kind to transcend its corporate parentage.
This isn't to say that "Bite Night" affirms our skepticism about brand-stamped content. In fact, there's something sweet and old-fashioned about it, which is at least in part attributable to the decision to cast teenager-looking teenagers as teenagers, as opposed to baggy-eyed 20-somethings. The series tells the tale of a high-school track star, who keeps falling during the big scholarship-on-the-line race and wears flowery blouses and is nice and has a crush on the guy behind the counter at Subway. The plot-driving catch: Subway Guy ("Ian") has a deep, dark, spookynatural secret that anyone who happens upon the series title or YouTube blurb ("a female high school track star falls for a SUBWAY® sandwich artist, who turns out to have more bite than she expected") should be able to figure out.
"Bite Night" earns points for avoiding the genre's worst clichés. It employs exactly zero "Office"-style to-the-camera testimonials as exposition shortcuts, plus the acting, effects and cinematographyismness are all network-grade. Also, as a one-time teenage boy, I'll admit that a brand-consistent come-on like "I'll bring the sandwiches. You can guess my secret ingredients" makes me want to slather myself slick with Drakkar Noir, 1989-style. Hoy-o!
But the heavy-handed Subway branding limits the appeal of "Bite Night." You can get away with setting scenes in Subway outposts (do they technically qualify as "restaurants"? Zoning and health-code wonks, feel free to provide clarity in the comments). You can't get away with dialogue like "Spinach? Super-healthy!" or with placing Subway sandwiches above whole grains in the athlete-fuel nutritional hierarchy. I know, I know - content of this sort doesn't get made without generous corporate support (or if it does, it gets made on a shoestring budget and rests for eternity in an unmarked YouTube grave). But jeez, lay off the sandwich-topping rhapsodies.
So while I appreciate the ambition and applaud the professionalism, "Bite Night" ultimately becomes exactly what the presence of amateur filmmakers was designed to prevent it from becoming: puerile brand puffery. Thank you, Subway, for giving the next generation of non-self-serious artistes a needed break. Next time around, back off just a little more.