Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Excuse Me While I Howl at the Moon

After a self-imposed six week hiatus from this space, I have returned. I simply couldn't stay away from you-- whoever you are-- any longer.

Anyway, I've been thinking a great deal lately about the frustrating life of the independent filmmaker. Everyone knows how difficult it is to get your films financed. If you're lucky enough to get your film made, it is equally difficult to get it seen. This is not news. But, even more than that, it is just goddamned hard to get your work in front of the decision makers.

As a magazine writer, this is not the case. Sure, your queries to the New Yorker, The New York Times or Vanity Fair might go unanswered, but in many cases cold pitches will get a response and will even get you assignments. That's because it is part of a magazine editor's job to find quality writers and content for his/her publication. But, it is different with film. As an entertainment lawyer at a DCTV seminar on Monday night so eloquently put it, this is the only business where supply exceeds demand. As a result, xecutives and other decision makers are literally looking for reasons to say no.

Now I don't write this to whine (maybe to vent a little). I really intend this as more of a call to arms. We as independent filmmakers need to find ways to take matters more into our own hands. The tools to do so are already out there. It is no secret that digital technology has made it cheaper than ever to make a film. But, distribution (and exhibition) is still the biggest barrier. Theatrical distribution is hard to attain and self-distribution is often cost (and time) prohibitive. DVD self-distribution has not yet proved profitable.

The hope for a brighter future for independent film, I believe, lies in online distribution. Not to replace theatrical distribution, but to provide an alternate channel-- one that exists totally outside the Hollywood establishment.

You already have the potential to reach anyone. The key is to find a way to jump up and down loud enough and in an interesting enough way to get noticed. The Web has levelled the playing field, providing the means to create any kind of site you like and to reach niche audiences. Reach enough of these niche groups-- knitters, biker chicks, biker chicks who like to knit, whatever-- across the country or across the globe and suddenly you've built a real following. Alex Ferrari and Jorge Rodriguez offer a good model with their short film Broken. They created a Web site to rival any studio's and used the Web's ability to reach niche markets by posting a link to their trailer on indie film sites and sending the link to every online reviewer.

Daniel Myrick's The Strand is, to my knowledge, the first network-style series created strictly for online consumption. Myrick saw the possibilities of the Web years ago when he was working on The Blair Witch Project; it is impossible to imagine the success of that film without the buzz it created through its site, a revolutionary feat at the time. With The Strand, Myrick might be a harbinger yet again by creating and distributing a series without any support from or reliance on the establishment.

To date no filmmaker has turned a profit with content geared for online. But, it will happen-- and soon. I have brought up Roger Corman in this space before. Not because I think his films are works of misunderstood genius, but because he created a model for surviving-- and thriving outside the Hollywood system. He knew that if he exploited a subject or an attitude (think the anarachic feel of Rock N Roll High School) and threw in just the right amount of T&A and/or violence and made it for a certain budget, chances are, he would turn a profit.

We need to apply the Corman model to the Internet. That doesn't necessarily mean exploitation films (though he has suggested to me that all films are, to an extent, exploitative. But, that is a song for a different album). Independent filmmakers need to develop an "Internet aesthetic," to develop a style-- or styles-- that take advantage of the medium. The aesthetic would allow filmmakers to move beyong the bite size viral video (though some of it, I must admit, is fantastic), to create a new type of independent film, tailored for the Internet. Some people argue that only comedy, horror and porn can succeed in grabbing viewers on the 'Net at this point. But, we need to reach audiences across every conceivable genre-- and to invent new ones.

From a budgetary standpoint, these products must be made on the cheap. But this constraint could lead to the development of a kind of guerilla style that could define the work visually and even lead to the creation of a new narrative style. They should be specific as possible, "deep and narrow," as niche audiences are described in the biz, as there are so many audiences starved for stories that speak to them. The need to create shorter content could help us develop a unique, economical narrative. And, as Myrick is hinting at, the Web might be the ideal venue for building a community around episodic programming. The point of this rambling is to say that we should use the possibilites and limitations of the Internet to create an aesthetic that is identifiable to audiences, almost becoming its own genre, with its own set of principles and expectations. In that way, will they attract And since they don't cost much to make, you won't need a huge audience to turn a profit. Since the gap between creation and distribution is much smaller with this form, you can churn out (or as we filmmakers like to say, "craft") work much more quickly, to keep audiences hooked and to become economically viable.

BrightCove, for one, is already offering a user friendly system for online payment for programming. Getting people to pay for online content is still a hurdle, but if filmmakers create product that is unique to the Internet, that takes advantage of the medium, both creatively and economically, this hurdle can be overcome.

In time the the independent film community could even have online studios and TV-style networks for creating and exhibiting truly independent content-- independet in vision and independent from the system.

Yes, I am getting ahead of myself, putting the cart before the horse, counting my chickens...I concede all of that.

But the opportunity is there to create an aesthetic online that is fruitful both artistically and economically.

Maybe someone should come up with a manifesto-- like the notorious Dogme principles-- as a guide. Or maybe Corman should be the guide.