Power to the People: Low-cost filmmaking puts creative pursuits within reach

Back in the misty days of the mid ’80s when I first started toying around with making movies, the common refrain you’d hear from people in the business was, “If you’re not shooting on 35mm film, you’re not actually making a movie.”

In many ways, these comments were meant to discourage people who weren’t blessed to be born with a silver spoon in their mouths — or Hollywood connections — from getting into the business. There always has been a certain “country club” mentality to the movie industry, but in all fairness, the alternative to shooting film at the time was to shoot videotape, which until the advent of HD video in the early 2000s was pretty wretched looking. Even high-end standard definition video had the unfortunate look of a cheap daytime soap opera, and wouldn’t really allow for a cinematic look.

All that changed around 2004, when the first prosumer HD video cameras started to hit the market. My first HD camera cost $7,000 and it gave those who started video production in the ’80s and ’90s a look they could have only dreamed of. The doors to making your own professional-looking movie for a fraction of the price were ready to open wide, and movie-making was about to become an art form for the masses — not one just for trust fund kids or those born into the business.

These days we are shooting our movies on a Blackmagic Pocket 4k Cinema camera that costs around $1,300. The image quality is stunning, and when used by an experienced director of photography, like John Mosetich who has photographed our last four pictures, can produce images that rival major studio productions. And it’s not just the cameras that have gone down drastically in price. Lighting, sound gear and editing software are all now within the reach of the masses, and with that has come a tidal wave of micro-budget and mid-budget indie films from all over the world.

But with every massive change comes many downsides.

There are several problems that started to crop up quickly when low-cost video equipment came into being. The first, and most noticeable, was that many young filmmakers decided that the equipment could do the heavy lifting for them. The DIY mentality of the 21st century gave birth to many filmmakers performing the same basic mistakes over and over again, instead of having a long apprenticeship in television where they could learn the nuts and bolts of their craft or going to film school where the basics are taught. It’s a difficult lesson for a society that loves toys to understand: Just because you have a shiny piece of the newest video gear doesn’t mean you know how to use it.

There were some independent filmmakers who stood out from the pack in the now extremely crowded indie film market, like Georgia-based filmmaker Torey Haas, who created quite a sensation with his witty and visually stunning debut feature The Neon Dead.

I spoke to Haas, who I consider to be one of the best young talents in the business right now, about his views on the changing tide of filmmaking equipment.

“It’s definitely made filmmaking much more accessible. Just browse through Tubi, Vimeo On Demand or Amazon Prime (well, maybe not so much that one anymore) and you’ll see how many independent and micro-budget films have been made in just the past few years. The technology is at a point where an aspiring filmmaker can readily obtain the equipment and software he or she needs to make a movie; if they can’t afford a RED, they can afford a GH5, and if they can’t afford a GH5 there’s always their smartphone. It’s exciting, but it’s also a double-edged sword; with more movies being made it’s much more difficult for an individual movie to stand out from the crowd.”

Now anyone who wants to make a movie can, and probably should. The downside is there are fewer and fewer channels for distribution. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, you had local movie theaters in every city and town, drive-in theaters and movie rental stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood video that were starving for new content. But the video chains are now all gone, the drive-ins are few and far between, and what was supposed to be the savior of indie film — streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix — are starting to squeeze out indie film content so there will no longer be competition for the major Hollywood titles. And there’s another problem with streaming: Many worthwhile movies are lost in the blur of digital distribution. Classic independent films, like Eraserhead, Night of the Living Dead, El Topo and Pink Flamingos would develop a cult following because they stayed in theaters for months, sometimes years, where a loyal following would be built. Now a quality movie can easily get lost in the giant stockpile that is movie streaming services.

So what is the answer? We have this remarkable new equipment, but how can we get people to see our movies? And, if you’re going to be making just pennies per view on streaming sites, what kind of budget should you be working with?

I asked Haas about his thoughts on independent film distribution.

“I really like the Tubi model; if you’re not familiar with Tubi, they’re a streaming service that’s ad-based but otherwise free, kind of like if YouTube only streamed feature films. The great thing about Tubi is that the viewer doesn’t have to pay to watch their films … they simply click on the title, watch a few ads and then watch the movie. And even if they only watch the first five minutes before moving on to something else, Tubi still generates a small amount of income because of the ads at the beginning.

“I sort of hate saying this, but with so many movies being released now I think it’s good to get rid of the paywall like Tubi has since that will encourage viewers to take a risk on more obscure titles. Plus, it seems that people are getting more and more used to not paying for films. Even though Netflix, Hulu and the like aren’t free by any means, they feel free because you can watch all the titles they offer as many times as you want for a monthly fee that’s less than the cost of seeing a movie in theaters, let alone buying a Blu-ray. And the production quality of the average content on a Netflix or Hulu film is far above that of many micro- or low-budget films, so it’s really hard for an indie film to compete. Removing the paywall in favor of ads is smart in my opinion, and you can always sell a limited run of Blu-rays, DVDs or VHS tapes to your fans and collectors.”

As for me, I believe that the future of independent cinema lies within the basic philosophy of community theater. A group of talented people who are passionate about their craft get together to make something purely out of the love of storytelling, not financial reward. With the means of production now at our fingertips, there’s no reason not to go out and make your own movie with your friends, and tell the stories you want to tell. Make the movies that Hollywood won’t — or can’t — tell. And most of all, have a lot of fun and fellowship in the process.

Richard Griffin is an independent filmmaker in RI and owner of Scorpio Film Releasing.

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