Friday, May 30, 2008

Where it's at...

The process of filmmaking is not nearly as confusing as they would have us believe and at the same time it’s far more complicated than the “Shoot your first film in 30 days” filmmaking books that seem to endlessly inhabit the bookshelves of filmmaking bookstores. This isn’t as confusing as it seems…trust me.

For starters, making a film is not as complicated as say, bringing someone back to life or curing cancer. I have chosen a some drastic example because due to the nature of the processes that must happen to create a film…there is a general feeling that it’s kind of impossible; but is it? There are only three things that need to happen; you need the script/film/project that you want to shoot, you need the money to shoot it and you need the patience and discipline to finish these tasks…that’s it. While it is true that these steps make take you several years to complete, they are hardly impossible. The game is to make you think that it can’t really be done or even visualized on a small scale. This is pretty much where filmmaking has been since its inception, like it or hate it…it has come to define what this art form is.

And then there is the other side of the street where the booksellers and the IFP people tell you that filmmaking is not really that complicated, that anyone can do it. Well, we all know that this is not true. While just about anyone can raise/borrow money, find a script and some actors and start shooting, that’s a far cry from the meticulous process of creating a unique and individual film. I find it amusing that all the books and all the gurus and all the secret websites that divulge all this “precious” information have really had only one effect; homogenization of filmmaking.

Has it not occurred to you that if all of us read the same books, are inspired by the same films and strive to be like the same director that we will create a boring and stagnant media? We are not making widgets and we are not slapping shiny patches on cheap clothing. Films have a real value that we call rewatchability and it’s what separates the good from the truly horrible.

I am stating these things because I have the answer. Yes, I know that I have said that before, but I mean it this time…I mean… I’m ready to tell you what I’ve been up to.

I’ve realized that self-distribution is the only way to go, but that in and of itself is a misleading statement. Self-distribution as we understand it is one maybe two people, driving around the country in a VW bus or Vanagon with 8 ½ X 11 monochrome onesheets that are four-walling theaters and hoping the Gods of limited release smile upon them…that’s not what I am talking about. Nor am I talking about digital distribution…here’s a newsflash, I hate digital distribution…and here’s another newsflash, I’m not the only one.

I am only concerned with physical delivery. Digital has a lot of empty promises and I have not time for that shit. What empty promises you ask?

The empty promises of Digital distribution:

1) If films just need to be downloaded from a server, then there are no “real” distribution costs and hence distributors will take more risk and be more open to “non-traditional” film.

This is the biggest line of bullshit I’ve ever heard. For starters, digital distribution requires consolidation of the industry. How do I come to that opinion in the early stages of the digital initiative? Well, I’m looking at the process of exhibition a film now. We used to rely on physical prints being duplicated and mailed around the country (planet) to be screened. The physical delivery system allows any print to played in any theater at anytime, digital does not do this. The file that your film is compressed into has to be bounced off of a satellite. How many people either have a satellite or have enough money, clout and political connections to get their shit put on a satellite that is about to launch? Not many! But I’m ignoring the obvious, all these files rely on codec’s which I’ll call the compression/decompression process of playing the file. Now if you are a tin-foil hat wearing crazy man like myself you know that there really aren’t’ that many different companies making the codec that allows you to play a film. It’s a handful of companies vying for dominance…but let’s look deeper shall we? The codec allows the file to be played only at certain times and only on the associated equipment. There is no open-source in this industry, there is no “opening the great coffers” or art. On the contrary, the codec system; the small number of players, the inability to play the file where you want and when you want (without paying for additional screenings) is nonexistent. So, let me ask you this: Do you think it will be easier to get your film screened when it has to be downloaded than if it were a physical print?

Now, I am obviously using the extreme examples to make my point, but my point (and examples) are still valid. Digital distribution is a consolidation of power of the major players and those who wish to be major players. It allows content providers to not only monitor each playing of their media, but also to make the entire process more profitable. But that’s not really why I am against digital distribution, my real reason is much more upsetting.

Digital distribution does not fundamentally change the way you view films. Yes, it’s a 1 or a 0 instead of light passing through a frame…but we are still selling tickets, screening films and standing in line to do so. The only real difference is that digital gives the studio and the distributor a lot more control. But you don’t have to believe me; go over to some of the numerous sites and blogs dedicated to the exhibition industry and read what the theaters have to say. Read how theater owners don’t really understand why they need to spend several million dollars to digitally project the same shitty movies they were sent last year. This is a money grab that had nothing to do with expanding the geography of indie films (both in story creation and where the films play), but wait it gets better. We have been told that the new, more efficient, non-tangible delivery system will reduce the implicit and sunk costs of distribution making it a safer endeavor for everyone…oh really?

Well, let me throw this at you: if it costs less for distributors to acquire and distribute films, how does this change your life as a filmmaker? Only if distributors take increased risk in purchasing films, only if producers take more risk in developing projects and greenlighting projects will we see this happen. But we are seeing the opposite with digital distribution. The whole “bouncing media off satellites” thing seems to not mention doing so with small indie films…because that would defeat the purpose. They want rapid consumption of popcorn entertainment and PG-13 content and while you yourself might create those kinds of things (I don’t know why…we have a ton of it) the body of American Independent film is much different from that description.

2) Digital is better.

Is it? In what manner do you mean? Is it a more real, more true image? Are the presence of 1’s and 0’s more sensitive and romantic than the light that bounced off of an object? There is less of a chance of films being screened in the incorrect aspect ratio? There is less of a chance of bad films being shot? Please, film has one component that will never change…the participation of people. Someone has to play the file and someone has to buy the ticket and someone has to write the script. There is a feeling that once digital distribution arrives that it will run itself…c’mon now, do you really believe that? People will download the file, people will play the file and screen the film. Sure you can automate the process, but you will have to watch it eventually, and you will have screen it for people eventually. You will have to talk about the process and you will have to make guarantee’s. This is a relationship business and that will never change. Digital is not better, digital is not worse…it’s just a different format.

3) We can switch between films more quickly and thus films will be more profitable and then the theaters will take more chances and show more films…cause they have more idle time.

Contrary to popular belief the switching of reels is not what takes time. Cleaning the theater takes times and showing you ad’s takes time. The theater makes a fair amount of income from showing you advertisements and they are disinclined to limit the appearance of them…but I’m getting off point. The ability to quickly change between films (forms of media) meaning nothing when the dynamics of human resource deploying are what really limit the speed of screening films. But wait…there’s more. It’s not really in a theaters best interest to constantly flip through media. We are all creatures of habit and we know what we like. People go to midnight movies because there are film screening at midnight. The speed at which they can switch from the latest Hugh Grant romantic comedy to the Rocky Horror Picture show has no real effect on the revenues.

4) It’s a better picture

Really? Do you think that most of you could tell the difference between 200 frames shot on digital and 200 frames shot on 35mm? Do you think the average person could? Let’s go further shall we? Say I have some legendary film… like “Titanic”. Assume further that I am screening this film in theater #1 in 35MM and theater #2 digitally projected and that I charge the same price; which theater will sell out first? Will the viewers have a preference? The answer is no… unless you are a filmmaker the differences between film and digital are so subtle that you won’t notice them. So that begs to ask the question: if I charged a dollar more for digital would people pay the additional dollar for the experience? Let’s go even further and charge a dollar less for film. But we know that movie attendance is heavily dependent on ticket prices (negatively correlated) and viewers will always gravitate to lower prices (that’s why theaters have reduced prices for matinee). What we do know is that the only thing that matters to audience is the quality of the film (story). How it is delivered to them is of no consequence.

5) Digital is the future!

Is it? Are you sure? I am sure that we will continue to watch films as long as we exist, but that is all that I am sure of. Digital does not fundamentally change the way we make and view films. The core business has not changed so what makes you think that this is the only way this can go down? Film is not music. We take music with us, we play music in a variety of different places…not so with film. You can watch a feature in your car, or on you Iphone or in your house on your plasma. But none of that is remotely similar to the spectacle of 35MM projection. Film does suffer greatly from compression and a lack of attention. To truly be appreciated it must be seen on a large screen in the dark with persons who are attentive.

It was due to all of these things that I decided to start my own distribution company, a physical distribution company. In the coming days I will explain it all to you…if you’re still reading me that is?


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