At just 24 years old, I was the youngest person ever nominated for the Oscars for Best Director and for Best Original Screenplay. My career launched in 1991 — before the explosive growth of the internet, before Facebook, Twitter and torrent sites — during one of the creative and financial high points of the entertainment industry. Even then, the odds of convincing a major film company to take a risk on giving a 24-year-old kid from South Central L.A. such an enormous opportunity was highly unlikely. In 2017, I believe it’s nearly impossible.I’m deeply concerned the creative voices of the next generation won’t have the same opportunities I had.
So, what has changed? There’s certainly no shortage of young talent. On the opportunity end of the equation, however, you can draw a straight line from the widespread digital theft of creative works to the barriers filmmakers face when breaking into the industry.
The American film and television industries sit at the intersection of art and commerce. Although we often like to think we are simply making art, we also need to make back the investors’ money. And, like in any business, investors want to see a potential path to that profitable return before signing a check. That was as true in 1991 as it is today. The difference is that the emergence of online piracy has had a measureable effect on the health of our industry, threatening the financial success of every single television show, indie film and summer blockbuster.
It’s easy to look at piracy in a vacuum and chalk the illegal streaming of a movie up to a mere $5 or $10 loss for Hollywood investors. Yet the aggregate cost of piracy goes far beyond that. It makes film and television companies far more risk-averse, narrowing their output to that which seems the most bankable, thereby creating a climate in which no one would be willing to take a chance on a 24-year-old with a script about inner city life.
And if they’re not taking those chances, then who is? Where does the next Kenneth Lonergan come from? Sofia Coppola? James Gunn? Paul Greengrass? John Singleton?
My eclectic generation of filmmakers has at least one thing in common: we were given a chance, we ran with it, and we succeeded. But we have to ask ourselves, “Would we get that same chance today?” Is it possible to get “Boyz n the Hood” made in 2017 instead of 1991? I’m not so sure.
You might be wondering: Who cares? Why is that so important?
Creativity inspires us. It causes us to think, reflect, act and overcome. Creative voices hold a mirror to the human experience. Musicians, dancers, filmmakers — storytellers all — show us who we are and what we can become. As a society, what do we become without the opportunity to share our stories, to reflect on who we are?
Copyright keeps their opportunities alive. It allows millions of people to go to work everyday, bringing stories to life that can make our world better or give voice to the voiceless.
At the invitation of CreativeFuture, a creative industries advocacy group, and the Creative Rights Caucus, a bipartisan group dedicated to protecting the rights of content creators, I spoke to hundreds of government officials about what millions of us do for a living and how critically important that work is to our society and culture.
I told the story of how I came to be in that room with all of them — of the determination and collective creative investment of the small army of people required to undertake the creation of a show like “Snowfall” and how none of it would have been possible without that first opportunity I was given at 24 years old.
And I shared my concerns about the next generation of creatives — the ones who will tell tomorrow’s stories.
So what can we do to ensure their creative voices aren’t silenced?
We must protect our rights as creatives by asking our elected officials to understand the importance and value of copyright. And there’s every reason for politicians to be interested in copyright — our country has the largest, most influential and most valuable copyright industry on the planet. It accounts for almost 7 percent of our economy, generating more revenue from exports than pharmaceuticals, agriculture and aeronautics.
Copyright allows distributors, studios and production companies to take risks — and that is exactly what they’re doing when they give a young filmmaker their first shot. Copyright law needs to be strong in order to protect that financial and cultural investment.
Beyond that, the work we as audiences, fans and creatives have to do to support future creators is shockingly easy. You’re probably already doing it. Watch new films and television shows. Tell your friends when you discover a movie, show or young creative you love.So much of what is happening in 2017 is a constant reminder that we can no longer take for granted that the things we value will remain if we don’t stand up for them. In that same spirit, we must nurture and protect the arts.
A critical component of that is understanding that copyright is the only thing that separates 5.5 million working Americans from the breadline. Without it, filmmaking is in jeopardy of becoming an afterthought, a hobby for the weekends.
The next generation of storytellers has something to say. Let’s listen to them.
Singleton is a film director and screenwriter. He launched his career in 1991 with the Oscar-nominated “Boyz n the Hood.” He also wrote, directed and produced “Poetic Justice,” “Higher Learning,” “Shaft” and “Baby Boy” and directed “Rosewood,” “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Four Brothers.”