I was asked by Elliot to write an article about what it would take to revive the film industry. “In what sense?” I asked. I felt a dubious frown appear on my face. “Well, you know…” he said before diving back into his work. The question is so broad in its scope, it’s fair to say that there’s a million ways to start on this topic. So I figured I should start at the very beginning, ” a very good place to start”.
An industry on the verge…
It’s hard wrapping your head around how the industry works today. Old studios keep on working with old business models when new studios are working with new business models and getting away with it. The former are churning out franchises so fast we hardly have time to go see it as well as buy the merchandise. The latter are creating terrific content that’s accessible to everyone all over the world at the price of a monthly subscription and a wifi connection.
These production options are still fairly closed to a great number of us filmmakers. Granted, Amazon Studios have opened the circuit of creation: you can create online and submit your work for consideration. Of course, being selected by such a massive player would mean that you would find yourself in the company of Woody Allen, Jill Soloway and Gael Garcia Bernal in the pool of Amazon talents.
In the same time, it’s worth noting that, every minute, 24 hours of content are uploaded on YouTube. This means that an incredible number of people are so busy creating that they’re not even considering going the traditional route. They’re just doing it. That doesn’t mean that all of it is good, obviously: not all cat videos deserve your attention. Many filmmakers are now uploading their art online with a pay-per-view model and make their money that way. How much money? Not a lot. Still, they manage to find their audience with this new means of distribution. The industry is changing. It’s on the verge of… We don’t know what. But it’s changing.
Means of production
Distribution has changed: Netflix and Amazon are making their content available to the entire world in one click. How are they making their money? They have a lot -A LOT- of subscribers: enough that they know what their algorithms can figure out what content is going to work and keep the customer satisfied. Therefore, once they know what they need, they can throw money to solve the problem. Because throwing money at a project makes it work, right?
Avatar cost a hell of a lot of money and look where that got it. Spectre was the most expensive Bond film ever made and it grossed nearly a billion at the box office. John Carter was one of Disney’s most expensive endeavours and… yeah, people probably got fired for that. At the other end of the spectrum, we have films like Tangerine or The Blair Witch Project which had little to no budget and were sensational hits, despite being created with DIY means (iPhone cinematography, few locations, you name it…). 35mm is not a desirable option anymore.
In the third millenium, creators will create. After having built a social media following (a required step), they’ve created a fan base and will be shooting, editing and uploading a film with their phone. If you’re reading this article on your mobile, you’ve got your own personal studio in the palm of your hand, my friend. What matters now is not how you’re shooting and distributing it (although a live film could be exciting to watch), but the story and the performances.
How do you create?
Now how do you create something that’s going to find its audience? You sit down at your laptop and write. Yeah, that’s something that’s never going to change, is it? Well… You can make sure it works and test it online: that’s what was done with Dear White People, and it’s one of the most sensational films in recent years. So even creation is changing shapes.
Social media outcries are also changing attitudes and minds about important matters such as representation politics and diversity. Traditional studios will only care insofar as any buzz is good buzz, and buzz often grows into dollars. So who cares, really? Well, the audience cares -but who cares about the audience?
Well, now the audience is in capacity to take control. They can put their money where their beliefs are and actually finance projects via crowdfunding. In the meantime, filmmakers can go faster than studios. Studios distribute online but create and produce traditionally with huge budgets. Or they produce in a new way but distribute their film like any other film.
Then comes Edward Burns, a filmmaker who starred in Saving Private Ryan and saw Spielberg shoot handheld and in natural light… Well if it’s good enough for the master, maybe it can be good enough for the rest of us. So he took a DSLR kit, a three-person crew rehearsed in his apartment and used accessible locations and made Newlyweds for a budget of $9,000 dollars. It made the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 and was then distributed online.
We live in an age of abundance which means that the new way to make business is not conditioned by scarcity. There is zero marginal cost to distributing a film to a greater number of people. If you apply that dematerialised reality to every step of the filmmaking process, not just distribution, then you can reduce budgets and therefore leave yourself more opportunities to break even and more. Get to it.