This post continues my coverage of the DIY Days conference in Boston which I began in a previous post. Please keep in mind these are my notes and do not necessarily represent the views of the various speakers at the conference, sometimes it includes my own parenthetical thoughts, which are not always clearly delineated.
Arin Crumley presented an indie filmmakers perspective on recent technological changes and how it has changed the creative process. In spirit the presentation was in the context of the possibility of a two way conversation between filmmakers and their audience (or better yet, community). It’s a recurring theme: create a dialog around your film, what does something like that look like? Arin talked about his Four Eyed Monsters experience and his travel around the world of conferences and filmmaking seminars (the case study has been covered extensively so I will not repeat here) and it’s a fine example of finding a community (rather than an audience) for your film which fits in nicely with the theme of DIY Days.
Arin had just returned from Burning Man where he was collaborating with Mike Hedge on a documentary about the event titled As the Dust Settles, that’s been his focus for the past few months, now in post. They shot with the Red camera and it’s a participatory documentary project designed to allow any individual who attended Burning Man to contribute their photos, videos and edited segments to the project as well as share in any proceeds from the project as well. Given the journey Arin has been on with Four Eyed Monsters, I’m looking forward to see what happens with As the Dust Settles.
Arin asked the audience about examples of interesting use of new technology and techniques in filmmaking, lots of examples were provided, including:
- _Cellular_ Cinema, a cellphone film festival;
- Todd Verow’s Hooks To The Left, a feature-length film shot on a cellphone
- David Redmond and Ashley Sabin’s documentary Intimidad, the film mixes cinéma-vérité footage the filmmakers shot and home-movie footage their subjects shot with a camera the filmmakers gave them in order to shoot their lives when the filmmakers were not around
- Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That a Beastie Boys concert film shot at a concert in which the band distributed fifty camcorders to the audience with the instruction, “keep the tape running” and the result is a ninety-three minute film with over six thousand cuts
- This is What Democracy Looks Like, a film shot by over a hundred cameras in the streets of the Seattle WTO protests providing multiple perspectives that could not have been created prior to the introduction of the consumer camcorder.
Film becomes more subjective, rather than objective, what does an individual see? There are an increasing number of participatory filmmaking projects starting up, the idea of a community participating in making a film is exciting, film is inherently a creative and collaborative experience and new tools are making this easier to do. From the old model of “Filmmaker, Subject, Audience” we are moving towards “Collaborators in Conversation.” Is it still “filmmaking” or is it something new? I’m reminded of Janet Murray’s list of characteristics that make computers an ideal medium for literary expression: they are Procedural, Participatory, Spatial, and Encyclopedic, which she discusses in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck.
Some of the “cool new tools” that were discussed includes the new Scarlett from Red (what the Red One Digital Cinema camera is to 35mm the Scarlett will be to Super16, small, hand-holdable, etc). And a new generation of D-SLR cameras that can shoot video, nice form factor, optics with cinematic depth of field, things are leaping in terms of technology. Apple Final Cut Pro has made non-linear editing easy and affordable, cheap hard drives you can record to directly, disposable cameras, give cameras to your subjects, you can now take crazy risks with cheap cameras, and things like Google Docs support internet-based collaboration, project planning, writing and more. And let’s not forget LED lighting, and portable digital audio recorders like the Zoom from Samson. Cheap hard drives. And Media Indexer Software allows you to browse indexes of your removable media as if they were inserted in your computer. This makes the process of finding your archived files fast and supports indexes export.
Some tools Arin is using on As The Dust Settles includes the Red camera (great for interviews, hard drive, long interview times, straight to a hard drive is a lot better, yet the camera is so heavy, it can be a pain in the ass to shoot with cause of the weight of the camera, but there’s a quality trade-off to be made), the community around the Red camera is a cult bordering on the insane, an amazing open source community around the camera, lots of feedback, corrections, you don’t get that from Sony or Panasonic (I think you get something like it but not as intense from Panasonic), Red really gets the concept of community.
Arin talked about collaboration at a distance and explained the process of emailing FCP project files (each person has a copy of the media files on identical hard drives) and using Google Docs for collaboration (this is how I collaborated with my editor Elissa Mitz while editing Smile Boston Project in order to avoid Boston cross-town traffic). It’s not up to the filmmaker how the audience experiences the film, viewers will do what they want, give full control to the audience in this case, a way they can experience it the best waty and have then decide the scaled down experience. From Here to Awesome is making a list of digital screen 600 movie theater database, so people know where they can show their films, an environment where filmmaker taps into a network. Arin is supportive of open codecs, DIY Filmmakers should be using open source codecs.
The Era Of Digital Creativity: Opportunities & Challenges
Scott Kirsner talked about living in the era of digital creativity: ideas can take shape and reach audiences with an ease that was not possible one generation ago. Now the tools of production and the channels of distribution have been democratized. The old forms like half-hour TV shows, hour-long dramas, 90 to 120 minute feature films don’t seem to work as well in the new environment. So Scott asks: What forms and storytelling strategies might replace them? What will evolve on the internet? And most importantly to everyone who was at the confernece, how are we going to build audiences for our work and earn a living?
One problem, however, is a glut of independent movies competing for audience attention. Scott shared an interesting statistic: in 2000 973 independent films were submitted to Sundance, in 2007 the number grew to 3,624. There’s a lot of noise out there, and I’m always reminded of this sobering point: viewers still have the same number of hours each week for their leisure activities, and not only are there more movies to choose from, there are many new media forms. In spite of this, Scott suggests that “this is the best time ever to be a storyteller” and he presented the audience with five challenges and five opportunities.
The opportunities are:
1. Collaboration and Participation. The approach of “I have my crew, I have my vision, it’s my project” is being replaced with “everyone can help me.” For example, consider the model being used by Robert Greenwald and his collaborators, using field producers to conduct interviews remotely, collaboration, new ways to make films, an example of this is Iraq for Sale, anyone can contribute to a wiki, films cam be made by more than you and your team, it’s tapping into the “society of audience” to borrow a phrase from the MIT Media Lab used a long time ago before the web changed everything.
2. New Forms and Formats. Much of what we talk about when we say “I’m making a film” is the traditional 90 to 120 minute program designed to watch in one sitting, it’s crazy not to work in new forms and new formats, right now we see growing ways to distribute and not a lot of experimentation in forms. Joss Whedon, during the writer’s strike, made his own project, explores new forms and formats, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is well done video in the $100,000 to $150,000 budget range, 7 minute segments, what is the movie musical going to look like on the internet? Here’s an interesting example. New Forms and Formats are where it’s at. Try it.
3. New Tools and Software. Two examples are machinima going mainstream with things like the Red vs. Blue series in which the producers used video game software to render characters for their film. Another example of this is the wonderful new Red digital cinema camera that provides 90% of 35mm quality to independent filmmakers at a cost that’s at or lower the cost of shooting on High Definition video.
4. New Distribution Channels. A mix of established and new generation aggregators are getting films onto iTunes, for example, Michael Buckley satirizes American celebrity culture on his vlog What the Buck, one of the most popular shows on YouTube. He has makes more from YouTube than from his Day Job, which he recently quit, since he got a development deal with HBO. These new channels should not be overlooked by independent filmmakers. Theatrical has always been the holy grail, but in terms of what’s really practical, new channels are opening up much more interesting opportunities for filmmakers.
5. New Marketing Modalities. Lance Weiler developed a game around Head Trauma, his new film, a game is a way to market a movie, another example is the way the King Korn documentary has been marketed with online activities for fans.
And the challenges are:
1. Giving up control. Indie filmmakers might have to get used to being a ringmaster rather than an auteur, a good example is Brett Gaylor’s Open Source Cinema, a collaborative project with the goal to produce Basement Tapes, a documentary film. The site was launched in 2004 and serves as a repository for all of the footage for the film licensed under a Creative Commons license, which the audience is free to remix. The site also hosts user-generated remixes that have subsequently been edited into the final film.
2. Experimentation is really hard. It’s hard enough to make an independent film. It’s even harder to do it in an experimental manner and try new things. It’s a challenge, and at the same time an opportunity.
3. Rights and Windows Conflicts. It’s time to take advantage of the instant gratification culture of the internet. Sundance will get your film know, why not sell the film right then and there, release window conflict with home video or theater downloads, conflict one example is the film 10 Items or Less, tried to release 2 weeks after theaters on clickstar, the problem is no movie theater wanted to show it for that reason, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner are into experimenting with WIndows
4. Getting Paid is still a pain. This is a problem that will not go away, there have been various cases of aggregators not paying filmmakers, for example, Sundance recently ended its relationship with Mediastile, a new media aggregator, after the company failed to send royalty payments and traffic reports to the festival directors who screened films online through iTunes and Netflix. No matter what you do, you should always have rights revert back to you if an aggregator fails to properly distribute your film and pay you. This was good advice with traditional distributors (I know several filmmakers whose films ended up in limbo when the distributor decided to shelf the film) and it’s double good advice with new media distributors who may or may not be here tomorrow.
5. Being a filmmaker is really hard work. It’s a big job and add to that being an entrepreneur, which is also a big job. You have to ask what is the business model, what is the strategy, what is the target market for the film, this is a producer’s job, and if you’re lucky you will partner with a good producer, but for many of us, it’s hard to be an independent filmmaker doing it all ourselves. Two good examples of filmmakers taking matter into their own hands successfully include first-time filmmakers Josh Caldwell and Hunter Weeks’ 10 MPH, Tiffany Shlain’s The Tribe, and We Are The Strange by M dot Strange. All of these projects point to new ways to distribute to the market and it takes a lot of work.
So here’s a thought for filmmakers to consider. The whole world knows about movies when they play at their first festival, “you have to wait until we distribute it” then wait longer to get into DVD, Scott suggests that it is becoming absurd to wait, you need lots of time to market, the first time someone hears about it they want to buy it then, you can’t tell someone “coming in June” unless you have a serious marketing campaign, you have maybe 500 people see you film at a festival, 2,000 festival audience, still millions out there, lots of movies that play at top tier festivals are never picked up for distribution, no DIY strategy, no sugar daddy distributor, Scott’s point is for 80% of films that are not picked up, creating another moment like the SXSW premiere is not going to happen again. Holding out for theatrical, playing roulette at the festival, reality the odds are against you, the odds are not great, no money for festival screenings, sometimes you can get screening fees but it’s rare.
A Sundance premiere can get you the leverage to demand a screening fee from second tier festivals, but it’s very rare, festivals run break-even or at a loss (as Anna Feder, Director of the Boston Underground Film Festival was quick to point out), not a good source of money for your film, though there are exceptions as some filmmakers in the audience pointed out. Scott Kirsner a little while ago asked the folks at Sundance, is there any rule to prevent from selling during the festival, no rule against it, Sundance does want premieres, however, Sundance said no one had done an online release at the same time as a festival, use the big festival thing to be there you can see it on my web site, if you think about it, use a film festival as a launching point for an online release. I think this might become an emerging pattern. iTunes does not deal with indies at this time, but their top shorts have come through festivals.
My notes continue in this post:
DIY Days Boston, October 4, 2008 (conference notes, part 3) (added 13-Oct-08)