Pirates, Palm Trees, and Producers
Navigating the High Seas of 21st Century Filmmaking we encounter new troubles, new tools, and a new breed of filmmakers. So let's board this ship and make our way through these uncharted waters together shattering illusions and barriers surrounding the "Film Industry" along the way.
Once upon a time (and to this day) people flocked to L.A. and nearby areas to become a part of the film industry. Much like the Palm trees seen in Hollywood and throughout California, most filmmakers were not native to the territory
but rather transplanted from around the World. In the spirit of the Gold Rush, aspiring actors, writers and filmmakers have been doing this ever since the major studios set up shop there, and the consolidation made some sense at the time.
Distance and location are no longer insurmountable obstacles. While the Internet is the obvious and primary technological answer as to why, we mustn't forget other factors. Relatively new film tax incentives, though often misguidedly killed or weakened as of late, have attracted Hollywood filmmakers to places like Michigan and Louisiana to shoot their films, spend millions and hire at least some required contingent of local crews.
In the realm of technology that has made our world more accessible are ISDN connections allowing studios in different locations to connect a soundstage or recording facility to a producer or director in another location. As I write this, Loft 117 (a brand new studio) just opened its doors in my own hometown, Milwaukee Wisconsin, and have already employed this technology to work with producers/directors in other States.
While there are obvious reasons why working in L.A. still has advantages and the majors have not all folded up despite a lot of noise about the death of their business model, some very relevant developments have begun to create important shifts in process and philosophy. From "old school" punk rock 'zine ethos to sophisticated and well organized transmedia campaigns ...
Of course this has both an upside and a downside. While shaky flip cam, surveillance video and cell phone footage is all the rage on YouTube and other internet video sites and has even found its way into studio backed motion pictures (like "Cloverfield" and "Paranormal Activity"), it will run its course. When the novelty of the "effect" wears thin, everything comes back to storytelling.
However ubiquitous mediocre amateur digital video becomes, only those filmmakers that hang with it and invest in becoming more effective storytellers, improving their craft, and thier business acumen will find a place in the industry. Artists finding the most effective means of utilizing these tools in new forms of multi-faceted storytelling are just beginning to chart these new waters.
Up to this point I have stated nothing new or earth shattering, but bear THIS point in mind which I haven't seen emphasized very much: While millions of amateur/hobby filmmakers assures that a glut of low quality, throw away video will be flooding the view streams, it also provides that millions of people will be able to get inside and have a chance to find a personal appreciation for the art and the process of filmmaking, which generally makes people more excited about the WHOLE enterprise. It makes them more likely to want to attend and support Indie film events, festivals and projects. It makes it more likely that they might know a cinematographer, composer or set designer by name (not just the A list actors and title from the last mainstream 'popcorn' movie they consumed).
And from these masses of amateurs will come the next generation of filmmakers and storytellers, something we desperately need if we are ever to escape from the glut of formula franchise remakes and reboots that add nothing of significance to the cinematic landscape in the way of new frontiers for the film industry.
Which way is North?
The compass on this ship has been broken (and maybe that's not such a bad thing). No one really knows which way is up and that is only further complicated by competing interests and entrenched industries that still have the infrastructure sway and compelling mystique to lure people into old fading paradigms. A lot of people think that some of the filmmakers who have "cracked" the Hollywood" nut must have some magic answers.
I have worked with, interviewed and had many discussions with other filmmakers as well as having listened to MANY filmmaker interviews on great shows such as those hosted by @FilmCourage on LAtalkradio.com , @RexSikesMBT at Rex Sikes Movie Beat (BlogTalk Radio), @CaseyRyan on Cutting Room Floor (TalkShoeRadio), The Jimmy Star Show and others. The common thread that runs through all these conversations is that most all of these people admit - they have no secret beyond a need for intense perseverance, energy and a strong will to keep working at it, even when we are not sure what "IT" is. Most filmmakers finish a project and immediately begin wondering how (or if) they will be able to get another project financed and completed. For many who have been struggling and even succeeding in doing that within the Hollywood "system", the new video streaming and distribution possibilities are even more exciting to them, than to the aspiring amateurs who would be the more obvious DIY fans. And all of the VOD distribution options are fairly new, so there are not enough case studies from which to even gather any tangible idea of what is really working. Filmmakers are approaching this from a lot of different angles and in diverse genres, so making direct comparisons becomes an apples and (in keeping with our Palm tree theme) coconuts problem.
Thar be Pirates!
And finally, Piracy takes on an entirely new meaning in a digital world. A lot of terms get lumped together, (Theft, Piracy, Copyright Infringement, File Sharing) In a world of instant access, bit torrent streams and ubiquitous social sharing networks, control of product is less achievable than ever. There have been a lot of arguments about the moral and legal aspects involved, but it helps if we can clearly distinguish the issues.While many Artists may consider piracy "theft", technically what they are referring to is copyright infringement.
Piracy is defined as:
1. robbery of ships and other crimes upon the high seas
2. unauthorized publication, reproduction, or use of a copyrighted or patented work
3. the illegal recording, transmission, or reception of radio or TV broadcasts
For our purposes we are only interested in number two. Software piracy was a huge catalyst that ignited a lot of movement in the race to prevent duplication both technologically and legally. In the realm of music, digital samplers existed for over a decade before legal clarity came to take root on what was or wasn't legal to sample.
But with the birth of file sharing sites like Napster that blurred and pushed the line between sharing and illegal mass distribution, the Entertainment Industry wasn't far behind. Traditional "Piracy" or "bootlegging" meant someone had to actually physically manufacture a product (however inferior it might be) which is in itself a complicated and costly affair. But downloading and copying files is nearly effortless.
The floodgates have been opened and entire industries are still scrambling to wrap their head around it. For recording artists and filmmakers this has never been an easy business to be in. We too feel the double edged sword of
the digital age. While the technology to achieve professional standards is now within arm’s reach of almost anyone, there is a tendency for devaluation of our currency as artists, craftsmen and technicians. Coming to grips with taking advantage of a file sharing culture while trying to protect and maintain value in one's own intellectual property seems like two different and opposed struggles occurring simultaneously. It can be maddening, but there is an upside.
It is forcing us all to look a little deeper into ourselves and our systems. What at first seems merely "business" oriented speculation must inevitably become deeper inquiry into our nature and our goals. We had succumbed to a kind of sleep that
all systems tend to fall into once they become settled into dogma and barriers of "conventional wisdom". But somewhere in the process of seeking business solutions for an era where the ground has been shifting dramatically, we have stumbled upon the need to dig deeper into the heart of our human experience and interactions. We build systems so we can diminish the amount of energy we have to put into the "business" side of our creative endeavors. It's human nature.
But at some point the "system" needs to get shaken up. It keeps the blood moving. Our rapid plunge into a digital era has forced us to navigate more internal waters, to find out what is REALLY important, and to get back to communicating with others (and ourselves) in a very honest and creatively open way.
In the end this voyage may not be about finding a haven on the East or West coasts but more about finding a deeper inner coast that we can carry with us wherever we go.