On Art and Entertainment

Adam Abdalla, Eric Kohn

Harmony Korine, Aggro Dr1ft, 2023, color, sound, 80 minutes.

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Art. Film. Entertainment. Are these industries distinct, and should they be? One afternoon in late February, the President and Founder of Cultural Counsel and publisher and co-founder of Affidavit Discovery, Adam Abdalla, hopped on a Zoom call with Eric Kohn, head of film strategy and development for the multimedia design collective EDGLRD. Prior to EDGLRD, Kohn spent 17 years at Indiewire, helming its transition from a grassroots DIY publication for the independent film world to a consumer-facing entertainment publication. For this in-the-weeds discussion, the two delve into the evolving face of the entertainment industry, the systems that comprise it, and where they see it all going.

Adam Abdalla: How has the independent film industry evolved since you started 17 years ago?

Eric Kohn: The American independent film industry is quite young, and it was created under circumstances that didn't involve a long-term strategy. Even though there have always been projects that were made outside of the traditional entertainment system, it wasn't really until 1989, when Sex, Lies, and Videotape premiered at Sundance and sold overnight to Miramax, that there was this sudden birth of enthusiasm for independent film. Low-budget filmmaking clearly had tremendous upside.

And so, through that process, you had the creation of an entire middle class of filmmaking outside of the studio system, and people who wanted to finance films at that level. Those are movies that could be made for maybe three or five million dollars. The advent of streaming both overinflated the market, with movies being financed for way more than they actually should cost, and then oversaturated it, causing the bubble to burst. Because of that, we lost that space for middle-class filmmaking, and that's where the best stories are told. It's where the most adventurous kind of artistry takes place for that medium.

AA: How does financing play into this?

EK: In other parts of the world, in Europe in particular, the government subsidizes that kind of storytelling. We don't have that infrastructure in this country, and as a result you need other kinds of workarounds. What I'm not seeing is the nonprofit model being the best place to do that, because the funds are constantly changing, and very limiting in a way. What's changing is that the entire business model through which this work gets supported has to shift. At EDGLRD, we've been trying to figure out a way to make movies however we want to make them, as experimental and risky as we want them to be, and take a lot of the economic pressure off of that because we can exist in other markets.

AA: Working in strategy and development at EDGLRD, how do you think about those aspects of your job in terms of bringing in new talent and new projects? How does your experience in the media shape that thinking?

EK: I always said that anybody who thinks it's a bad year for movies hasn't seen enough of them. I'm constantly on the hunt for new talent, and I know it's out there. The difference between what I used to do and what I do now is that I used to be looking for talented young directors. Now I'm looking for talented young everything, because I think the current youth culture is much more invested in multidisciplinary approaches to art. We're talking to rappers, VFX artists, and skateboarders, and we're funneling all of that creativity into the approach we want to take to make movies, TV series, and games. The mandate is broader in that regard, but there's a curatorial process that's still very much the same.

AA: Worldbuilding. How does that relate to your audience?

EK: Conversations around worldbuilding have been ongoing long before the entertainment business we see today. You can't have this discussion without talking about transmedia, which is an industry buzzword that started in academia and then suddenly became studio lingo for creating interconnected stories that are part of some unifying IP. People don't use it as much now because it feels outdated. But the truth is that the early conversations around transmedia were an important way to understand what worldbuilding is and why it's so challenging to do well. Henry Jenkins out of the MIT Media Lab wrote this great book called Convergence Culture. In it, he looks at the roots of transmedia in fan culture around things like The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek — in particular, the way these large, interconnected universes that have some presence in popular culture end up having more appeal because their fans can connect the dots, and invest not just in individual chapters of the story but the larger mythology as a whole.

That's not exactly the most radical idea per se. It's what franchises and sequels do, to varying degrees of success. It's just that we live in a society now where these stories can be much bigger than just franchises and sequels, and can have a presence in many different ways. But that creates a much bigger challenge from a worldbuilding standpoint, because if you don't have a unifying logic for all these different strands it gets problematic.

Everything at EDGLRD takes place in the same world, at least in terms of the studio aesthetic. We're not trying to build a giant mythology because the more complex these things get the more likely people tune out. And it's less satisfying, both creatively because you have to follow these really strict rules and from an audience standpoint. That's why Marvel fatigue, and superhero fatigue more generally, is settling in now. There are teenagers who hadn't been born yet when the first Iron Man movie came out, so it's hard to try to get a teenager today invested in the MCU. Those audiences are not interested in that kind of work. The important thing with worldbuilding now is to understand that the world has to be satisfying through different access points, and it can't be dense with information.

AA: When you think about the unifying thread within EDGLRD, would you consider that to be mainly aesthetic?

EK: It's also thematic. In time, there may be interconnected narrative strands, but I also think audiences appreciate the mystery and opportunity to connect the dots on their own. You look at what's going on with Monkeypaw and Jordan Peele. There are theories online that all three Jordan Peele movies are part of this larger Monkeypaw universe. He certainly hasn't stepped out and explained that, but it doesn't matter to those audiences. With Aggro Dr1ft, we had this show, paintings and some video work, at Hauser & Wirth. That was before most of the public could see the movie. We had masks that were unveiled on a red carpet and at a press conference and had been making appearances in all these different places, and people are seeing them, whether they're seeing them live or they're seeing records of them in the media. That, to me, is as legitimate an access point to the world of Aggro Dr1ft, to the aesthetic, but also to these themes of masculine rage within these digital worlds that impinge on the real one, as sitting and watching an eighty-minute feature. We had this art opening so anyone in LA, for months, could go and step into the world of Aggro Dr1ft without seeing the movie and feeling like they knew Aggro Dr1ft.

AA: Do you consider this holistic worldbuilding to be a form of auteurship, or is it more a nuanced take on fan service?

EK: We aren't in the business of fan service. We're not giving people what they expect. We're giving people something they've never seen before, and that's what makes it exciting. That's also what makes the greatest auteurs worth following from one work to the next. It's not just about what's predictably great. It's about the unpredictability of a precise creative vision.

AA: Through EDGLRD, we've seen already that the experiential component is an intrinsic element of your strategy, at least so far. Is this a response in particular to how people are consuming media these days?

EK: Of course it is. You don't show a movie in a strip club under the assumption that people only want experiences in movie theaters. We did show Aggro Dr1ft in a movie theater the same week in LA that it played at Crazy Girls, with screenings hosted by the American Cinematheque, and those went really well. But I do feel that if we lean too heavily on that experience, we'd be missing out on a core aspect of the worldbuilding inherent to this movie and inherent to EDGLRD itself. When we do DJ sets, what we're really offering is an immersive experience in disguise. You're seeing something, a work of performance art by Harmony Korine, with people wearing masks and the actors who he's cast to stand around him. But the multichannel element of it is also something that EDGLRD has created as well. You're seeing EDGLRD visuals, some of them tied to other projects that we're working on, including our first skate video and the FloridaLords universe that we're building out.

The potential for flexibility in distribution is exciting, but most companies are not set up to work that way. We haven't seen a lot of innovation in film distribution for decades, and a large part of that is because the birth of the American independent film world and the market around it is not that old, and a lot of the people who were involved in doing that are still doing that. Until there is some real changeover, both generationally and in terms of the companies that are doing these things, you're going to see a lot of attempts to make the old model work, and it doesn't always make sense.

We're seeing some interesting new experimentation around distribution, wherein people retain ownership of their work, and they partner with exhibitors to get the work out there, and then essentially it's on them to get the audience to show up. But, if the work is good enough, the audience shows up. By and large, people are still chasing distribution deals that underserve the work. What we're trying to do is keep the audience in mind every step of the way, whether that audience is best served at home or at a unique experience we've created for them.

AA: It seems a bit paradoxical. On one hand, viewing a movie like Aggro Dr1ft in an experiential setting resists the idea of easy access and on-demand content. But, at the same time, you're also creating a certain set of distractions to contextualize the consumption of the film. What's your relationship to content?

EK: We can play with business terminology when it suits our needs, but we aren't a content company in the sense that we just want to crank out a bunch of stuff. Scorsese has been really harsh on the idea of content being used to talk about cinema because cinema is not something that benefits from those kinds of pressures, and I think he's right. But we do want to figure out where audiences are, and also determine the best kind of work to get their attention. People who are essentially having multi-channel experiences at home, by virtue of TikTok and the TV being on at the same time, should probably benefit from works of art that are attuned to those needs.

Even though Aggro Dr1ft is very much a strong theatrical experience, and one that can also work from an exhibition standpoint more exclusively, like in an art gallery or a strip club, if you watch it at home with your phone out you might still be able to have a compelling experience because it's so visual, and less narrative-oriented. I'm not saying that we only want to make work that functions in that setting, but it's something to be cognizant of and to be open to: the idea that a passive viewer who's not paying attention all the time is still a viewer you should take seriously. I want to lean into radical acceptance of new paradigms. How can someone like me, a committed cinephile who saw Breathless as a teenager and decided that movies were my calling, remain open to the idea that audiences are constantly changing and their receptiveness to different kinds of experiences is acceptable? It's a choice.

AA: Here's a more philosophical question. We've got three words for you: art, film, entertainment. Are these concepts separate or inextricable from each other?

EK: I'm a firm believer in the Trojan horse approach. You can create art that can operate under the guise of entertainment. I'm most invested in this question of how we create art that can somehow have a broader appeal without being limited by the expectations that are placed on entertainment.

AA: What does your audience look like thus far? Who is the typical fervent supporter of EDGLRD?

EK: There are so many different kinds of people inspired by the work that we're doing because it's designed to provoke strong reactions, and people like to be jolted out of complacency. I see a lot of younger people, but also people across generations, because, with Harmony — who is now in his fifties and has been making work for thirty years — you have several generations that have come up with it. But teenagers feel excited by the work we're doing because it doesn't require some sort of ivory tower in order to gain entry to it. The fact that we're playing in the skateboard arena is really exciting because there are young people today who can rattle off all of the exciting skaters and have no idea who Keanu Reeves is. It’s a discreet star system.

AA: You've said you're an optimist. Do you have one big prediction for where you see the industry going?

EK: It's amazing that we've gone this whole time and haven't talked once about AI. This isn't Web3, this isn't NFT, it's not crypto. It's absolutely the practical result of decades of machine learning research rapidly coming to fruition, and it will change everything about how stories are told. ChatGPT and Sora are getting all these headlines, but there are so many amazing kinds of projects around LLMs going on right now that I think will empower artists in a major way, and also create more avenues for people to experiment creatively who otherwise might not even try. It’s a new chapter in the history of artmaking. Again, going back to this idea of not shying away from radical shifts in our society, I think there's something really, really promising about the future of art with this acceleration of technology. Now, there are also a lot of scary components going on there, and this information could have seriously destructive effects on our society. But if we're not raging against the dying of the light, what are we even doing here? Embrace the risk.