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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

From Release Print: Cinema's Future Belongs to Indies (As Does Its Past)

Earlier this fall, Michael Read, the editor of Release Print, a bi-monthly magazine put out by San Francisco's Film Arts Foundation, asked me to write a piece on new technologies for the November/December issue of the magazine, which marks the 30th anniversary of Film Arts.

The piece isn't yet on the Film Arts site -- but with Michael's permission, I'm posting it here. (If you can get your hands on the printed version of the magazine, though, it's well worth it. Margarita Landazuri has a wonderful piece on the history of movie studios in the Bay Area, and Christian Bruno writes about the lost movie palaces of San Francisco, accompanied by great historic photos.)

Cinema’s Future Belongs to Indies (As Does Its Past)

- Scott Kirsner

From its very start, the movie industry in America has been tilted against the independent filmmaker, and designed to exclude the entrepreneur. Yet almost every important cinematic innovation of the past century – from sound to color to 3-D to the widescreen Cinerama process to computer animation, digital projection, and digital cinematography – has been nudged into the mainstream by indies and outsiders.

So even as change accelerates and the art form of cinema mutates in our own technologically-fueled Century of the Short Attention Span, it’d be silly to expect the most interesting experiments and innovations to spring from the established studios. As always, the future won’t spread from the center out; it’ll permeate from the edges in.

A Little History

For much of the 20th century, the technology required to make a movie was inaccessible; building a car from scratch would’ve been an easier project.

In 1908, with projected movies still in their infancy, Thomas Edison, Kodak founder George Eastman, and nine other titans of the young industry formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, which prevented anyone else from making or distributing movies without paying fealty to the MPPC. Independents couldn’t even buy film from Kodak; they had to cultivate suppliers on the black market for both film and equipment.

But it was the entrepreneurs who flouted the system – like William Fox, Carl Laemmle, and Adolph Zukor – who helped to stretch and shape the fledgling art form, introducing new stories, performers, genres, and formats. D.W. Griffith had cranked out hundreds of short silent movies for Biograph, one of the members of the MPPC, but in order to realize his goal of making full-length features, which were seen as economically unviable, he had to strike out on his own. Working outside the MPPC, Griffith made the controversial hit “Birth of a Nation”; Fox, Laemmle, and Zukor formed 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Paramount Pictures, respectively.

Sound. In the 1920s, the brothers Warner were running one of the less-established movie studios. But they were the only people interested in licensing a new technology called Vitaphone from AT&T. After Warner Bros. introduced talkies to the public with “The Jazz Singer” and Vitaphone in 1927, the movies became a truly mass medium; attendance nearly doubled from 50 million in 1926 to 90 million in 1930.

Color. With the advent of color, it was again outsiders who played a pivotal role. The first iteration of Technicolor, in the 1920s, had been a disaster; the more times a film was run through the projector, the further it veered out of focus. No one would touch Technicolor’s new-and-improved second iteration in the 1930s…except for a small animation company called Walt Disney Productions. (Disney’s distributor at the time, United Artists, was skeptical about Technicolor, and required Disney to cover the extra expenses of making the animated short “Flowers and Trees” in color.)

The Hollywood establishment concluded that color was a nice addition to cartoons, but didn’t have a place in live action pictures. It took a novice producer, the wealthy playboy Jock Whitney, to finance the first live action short and live action feature using the new Technicolor process, “La Cucaracha” and “Becky Sharp.” (Whitney went on to option a novel about the Civil War, and help finance the resulting film, “Gone With the Wind,” which earned more money at the box office than any movie before it, and won the 1939 Oscar for Best Picture.)

3-D. The studios sniffed at Natural Vision, a process which required new cameras on the set and additional projectors in the booth. Arch Oboler, an independent screenwriter, producer, and director, used Natural Vision to make “Bwana Devil,” the first 3-D movie in color. (The ads promised, “A lion in your lap!”) Oboler’s movie sparked the 3-D boom of the 1950s, with Warner Bros. scrambling to follow the success of “Bwana Devil” with the Vincent Price film “House of Wax.”

Widescreen. Independent producer Michael Todd helped widen the screen, stretching it from the nearly-square “Academy ratio” (4:3) into a panoramic expanse of 2.6:1, with Cinerama. Cinerama also introduced multi-track surround sound to theaters. The first movie in Cinerama, 1952’s “This is Cinerama,” played for more than two years in Manhattan, grossing more than $20 million. Todd’s son, Michael Todd, Jr., followed in his father’s trail-blazing footsteps, producing the first (and sadly, only) movie in Smell-O-Vision, “Scent of Mystery.”

Home video. When home video arrived, studios were reluctant to get into the business of putting their movies on tape (or, in the case of Sony’s VCR, they sued the manufacturer), while independent directors and producers quickly made their product available. “When videotape arrived, the studios were totally hostile to it,” says Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder of Troma Entertainment, a prolific producer of B-movies and the author of “Make Your Own Damn Movie.” “So we had two or three years in the clear, where we could sell our product without much competition. And we were probably the first non-porno studio to get into DVD, because the fans were telling us how great it was.”

Other innovations. It was an independent animation company, Pixar, that made the first computer-animated feature film, not Disney or Warner Bros., the two studios that dominated the business of hand-drawn animation. Digital video cameras were adopted by indies first, for movies like “Julia & Julia” (1987), well before big-name directors like George Lucas and Michael Mann switched to digital cinematography. One of the first times the general public could experience a digitally-projected movie, in 1998, was at the County Theater in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The movie, “The Last Broadcast,” had been made for less than $1000, and the filmmakers, age 28 and 30, had met at Bucks County Community College.

Unfortunately, “The Last Broadcast,” about a documentary crew that gets lost in the wilds of New Jersey, was overshadowed by another independent film released the following year, about a documentary crew lost in the woods of Maryland. “The Blair Witch Project” was one of the first movies to take advantage of the Web to generate buzz; made for $25,000, it went on to earn over $140 million in the U.S.

Throughout cinema’s first century, the studios used their financial might to hire the best-known stars and directors, build the most lavish sets and generate the most elaborate special effects, and advertise their movies so heavily that it is impossible for a living human to be unaware of a tent-pole summer release like “Superman Returns” or the forthcoming “Spider-man 3.” The studios also enjoyed a tight relationship with the largest theater chains. Still, despite the odds stacked against them, it was indies and outsiders who first tried and tamed many of the technologies that changed the way movies were made and experienced in the 20th century – occasionally leading to great financial and artistic success.

The Future

That same dynamic will likely continue into cinema’s second century, even as the pace of change quickens, with new tools becoming available to filmmakers and consumers watching movies on new devices, from cell phones to 3-D television sets to video displays integrated into eyeglasses (currently being made by several companies). Already, indies and outsiders are experimenting with some of the concepts that will catapult movie-making and movie consumption in new directions.

New distribution options. Independent filmmakers like Ben Rekhi (“Waterborne”) were among the first to experiment with selling downloadable feature films on Google Video, which allows them to set a price for each download and share the revenues with Google. Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz (“Extreme Diet Coke and Mentos Experiments”) reportedly earned more than $30,000 by allowing the Web site Revver to show ads at the end of their short video, which plays like an homage to Blue Man Group.

New distribution channels will make it possible for consumers to watch a much wider selection of digital movies – or segments of movies – than are available to them today, on portable devices, PCs, and the trusty old television set. Some of these channels will charge for downloads, others, like Revver, may be ad-supported, and still others (YouTube, for example), might simply provide a way for filmmakers to build a reputation, or promote their work.

The emerging network of digital cinemas, being built by companies like AccessIT and Technicolor Digital Cinema, will also make it easier, and potentially cheaper, for independent filmmakers to get their work seen in theaters. Distributing a movie on a hard drive, a set of DVDs, or as a satellite download is potentially more efficient than striking celluloid prints. But salesmanship and marketing savvy will still be essential. Can a multiplex owner in Nashville be persuaded to show a feature that includes cameos by some well-known local musicians? Might an exhibitor in San Jose be willing to show a documentary about eBay during the week of a convention for eBay buyers and sellers?

Promotion and marketing. Indie filmmakers like Susan Buice and Arin Crumley (“Four Eyed Monsters”) and David Lowery (“Deadroom”) and have shown great creativity in using podcasts and blogs to market their finished movies. Leone Marucci (“The Power of Few”) has relied on novel marketing strategies to get attention for a movie in pre-production, by offering a bit part to the best actor or actress who uploads an audition clip via the Net.

To compete with studios wielding multi-million dollar marketing budgets, indies and outsiders will have to be inventive. Will it be an independent filmmaker who starts sending advance screeners of a new movie to influential bloggers, hoping for a review or mention? Or who offers tickets to a festival screening to the artist who designs the best ad or movie poster?

Sharing movies. New social behaviors are already emerging around the sharing of short video clips online, with Internet users recommending them to friends via e-mail or blog entries. New portable media players, like the Zune from Microsoft, will make it possible to share media wirelessly from one device to another. One user will be able to “beam” a song to a friend, who could then listen to it a few times before deciding to purchase it.

While movie studios might initially be reluctant to allow a user to beam the first ten minutes of a movie to a friend, fearing that it might discourage the recipient from buying the movie, independent filmmakers will most likely view that sort of sharing as a welcome variation on word-of-mouth marketing. “Frequent beamers” might even earn a kickback of a nickel or a quarter every time their referral resulted in a paid download of the full-length film.

Remixes and Mash-ups. Letting the audience tinker with the finished product is anathema to most Hollywood executives and directors. “The DGA exists to prevent exactly that -- people who edit our movies without our approval,” one DGA member told me.

Indie filmmakers will likely be more comfortable with the idea that their finished product may only be one of many versions. Movies may be evolving into a collection of “assets” that can be endlessly rearranged; a teenager in Taiwan may produce a tighter, more compelling 80-minute edit of your 120-minute magnum opus, and systems will emerge to make sure that both parties get rewarded for their work if that abridged version is consumed widely.

Already, directors like Richard Linklater (“A Scanner Darkly”) have invited Internet users to cut together different versions of a movie trailer, acknowledging the best ones with prizes. British filmmaker Michela Ledwidge has been exploring the concept of posting all of her raw footage on the Web for a feature called “Sanctuary,” and allowing anyone to produce his own derivative work.

3-D. Entrepreneur and filmmaker Steve Schkair has been developing a digital 3-D camera, called the Cobalt 3Ality System; director James Cameron and camera-maker Vince Pace have been collaborating with Sony Electronics on a competing 3-D camera rig. All of them hope to make digital 3-D cinematography more accessible for low- and moderate-budget projects.

And consumers have once again been gravitating to the 3-D experience, which now offers crisper images and fewer headaches than it did in the 1950s; the 3-D releases of Disney’s “Chicken Little” and Sony’s “Monster House” both performed better than the 2-D versions.

Theatrical 3-D releases, as well as 3-D projects intended for home or mobile viewing (I recently saw an iPod that had been modified to display 3-D imagery), will open new creative possibilities for filmmakers.

Cultivating a fan base. In the past, the relationship between a filmmaker and the audience has been mediated by the distributor; they’ve handled the marketing, letting fans know that “the latest movie from acclaimed director so-and-so will be in theaters this fall.”

Successful directors will increasingly take over the responsibility for that relationship, building up a database of fans and communicating with them in between projects. Directors like Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith have been pioneers in this regard, but other filmmakers may take it further, circulating scenes from their shooting script among fans, or posting selected dailies from the set. The fan community will be considered an important asset, helping to build buzz for upcoming projects (and perhaps financing them, too), whether that community is organized using MySpace or another tool.

Finance. Much as the Internet has provided politicians with a new tool for raising campaign funds, it may present a new way for filmmakers to finance their projects. Documentarian Robert Greenwald raised $220,000 earlier this year on the Web to help produce “Iraq for Sale,” from fans of his previous movies and political activists eager to help Greenwald indict several big companies he considers war profiteers. Other filmmakers could tap into interest groups or fans of their prior work to help cover the costs of future projects, perhaps by pre-purchasing DVDs or digital downloads of the finished product. Want to see a sequel made? Pony up.

Cheaper hardware and software. Cheap cameras and editing software have already made it more affordable to make a live-action feature or a documentary. (And today, building a car from scratch is certainly the more daunting proposition.) Cheaper software for pre-visualization will make it easier for indie filmmakers to pitch more complicated projects. “I’ve heard of of genre filmmakers, making low-budget horror movies, who are using this FrameForge [3D] Studio [software] to storyboard every scene,” says Stuart Maschwitz, a co-founder of The Orphanage, a San Francisco visual effects firm. “They’re using it as part of trying to get funding. You show it to the executives, and it takes a big part of their risk aversion away.”

Cheaper software for animation and visual effects, from companies like Adobe, Avid, Apple, and Autodesk, will also make it easier to produce high-quality computer animation and effects sequences without spending millions.

Preservation vs. Innovation

Since the days of Edison and Eastman, established movie studios and big-name filmmakers have tended to focus on preserving their reputations, their status, and their revenue streams, not on innovating. As director Robert Greenwald puts it, “Throughout history, it has always been the individuals – the mavericks – who make the changes.”

In other words, to track the future trajectory of cinema, keep the camera trained on the indies and outsiders.


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