How Movies Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘The Revenant’ Could Revolutionize the Industry

THE REVENANT Leonardo Dicaprio
Courtesy of Regency Entertainment

The proliferation of quality television programs like “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” has blurred the lines between small and big screen.

These shows aren’t just well written and acted. They are painstakingly composed, benefiting from a cinematic quality that was absent in earlier eras of adult-driven programming.

Based on footage and studio presentations this week at CinemaCon, bigscreen auteurs such as Ang Lee, Robert Zemeckis and Alejandro González Iñárritu may be pushing back against the television revolution. The technologies and techniques used on films such as “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and “The Revenant” can radicalize filmmaking and redefine the boundaries of cinema.

Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” will be the first film in history to be shot at 120 frames per second, which he told exhibitors will create a greater sense of immediacy and help the film’s 3D crackle.

Zemeckis is also deploying 3D with “The Walk,” but this time it’s his subject matter that represents a departure from the norm. “The Walk” is the story of Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It’s an adult drama, but one that is using 3D to plunge the viewer into the experience of what it must have felt like to balance so precariously high above the streets of Manhattan.

Having extended the tracking shot beyond its natural limits on “Birdman,” Iñárritu is reteaming with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to film “The Revenant” using only natural light. It’s reportedly been a grueling shoot, with production delays forcing co-star Tom Hardy to drop out of “Suicide Squad.” Yet based on the reaction to footage of Leonardo DiCaprio engaged in fights and other rugged elements of frontier life, Iñárritu and Lubezki may have accomplished something galvanizing and remarkable.

It’s important not to get overly euphoric, of course. Much of the footage that screened at the exhibition industry confab was of the unfinished variety, and Lee, who is shooting “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” only appeared in a pre-taped message instead of screening anything from the war drama.

Not every form of new technology receives a rapturous response. Peter Jackson’s experiments with higher frame rates on “The Hobbit” trilogy alienated many viewers who griped that it robbed the film of its more painterly aspects and lent the fantasy production the look and feel of a telenovela. Nor are all 3D films the next “Gravity.”

Moreover, the current studio construction does not show much appetite for risk. It’s telling that each of these men is well established and comfortably middle-aged. Emerging artists with big ideas may not find financiers as receptive to their visions of what’s possible onscreen as the man behind “Forrest Gump.”

Still, it shows a hunger to experiment. In the face of challenges from emerging digital technologies and higher-quality smallscreen entertainments, studios have invested in making effects-driven films they believe are differentiated from the at-home experience. It’s an approach similar to the one Hollywood deployed during the 1950s: When faced with the growing popularity of television, the studios fell madly in love with biblical epics. There’s a reason “big” was the mostly commonly used adjective in the studio presentations at CinemaCon.

For now, the strategy seems to be working, with analysts predicting that a slate of comicbook movies like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and sci-fi epics like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will drive the box office to new heights. But Lee, Zemeckis and Iñárritu represent a third way. It’s not a production’s scope that matters, it’s the size of its ambitions. If they’re right, than an emphasis on innovation — not scale — could be more important for the long-term health of the movie business.

“The future is exciting,” Lee said at one point in his pitch to exhibitors.

Thanks to these three auteurs, at least it promises to be interesting.