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Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Sky is Falling, but where will it hit?

I'm reading "Yes, the Sky Really is Falling," the speech Mark Gill gave to the LAFF almost a week ago. In it, he discusses the very real approach of a heavy death-toll in the indie film community. The film-making community in general, perhaps, but especially the indies. I agree with a lot of what he says, but of course like anyone of firm opinion, I also disagree with some of his points.

One particular thing that he says is, "the digital revolution is here, and boy does it suck." Well, I disagree with you, Mark. Here's the thing: the digital revolution is a DEMOCRATIZING process (which Mark points out). What this means is, thus, everyone gets a turn. The problem isn't that the revolution sucks, it's that it points out how much more sucky material there is wanting to be, or being, made. It's highlighting all the stupid and uninventive people. Those people have always existed, it just didn't used to be that easy for them to make movies, and to submit those movies to film festivals. That's why Sundance sucked.

The problem here, I think, is that we need a new form of filtering. YouTube, bless it's feeble, racist, childish heart, has a great model for this: number of views, star rating, and viral sharing. People are really, REALLY good at only watching good stuff on YouTube, because a lot of the parsing has already been done. And then they just open up the blog they read, or their e-mail inbox, and the best stuff is right there waiting for them. Maybe the rules and the JUDGING need to be a little more stringent at Sundance. Or maybe it needs to be a more democratic decision who gets IN. Why not push forward the submission deadline, then let everyone who submitted (hell, maybe set up a membership process where any members can do it) vote on what films get in. Yeah, they'll vote for their film, but they'll also vote for the other films they actually LIKE.

OK, maybe it's a bad idea, because maybe people won't want to sit through films twice. Maybe they will. The point is that we need a new model all across the board as the digital revolution pokes its slobbery head out. We're seeing this necessity not just in the film festivals, but everywhere: the big movies, the music industry, computer software, everyone is feeling the crunch. Because when all this stuff is available for free, you can criminalize it all you want, but it's still going to be free and people love free stuff. So, the RIAA and MPAA and all the record labels and software companies need a new business model, a new plan to make a profit off of ALLOWING their digital stuff to be free. I will return to my old argument, if you have something infinitely reproduceable for FREE, then you don't have a commodity, and there is no such thing as supply and demand anymore.

Likewise, if anyone can pick up a video camera and get a free copy of iMovie, or hell, even a free copy of Final Cut Studio for crissakes, then you need a NEW PLAN for how you figure out who's making good stuff.

Also, Gill says: "if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure."

Well, I'll go back to what I said before. The money trail ran out, folks. Wall Street stopped paying Hollywood, and the 14-year-old next door with the dreams of "porno and Grand Theft Auto" can see any movie he damn well pleases for zero cash, just the cost of his Mom buying FiOS.

Gill says, and I firmly agree, that there is basically no money to be made in movie making anymore, except for people on the very top tier of the ladder (and these people, he says, will continue to see a profit). Or at least for right now.

He then argues that what needs to happen is all the bad movies and bad movie-makers will suffocate each other. There will be a drastic decrease in production, and in the amount that those in production will make. But there will ALWAYS be a movie-going community, as there will always be a movie-making community. What will simply happen is we will revert to the way it used to be, where only the good stuff got through.

Now, a lot of times the arguments that I made before come off sounding as socialistic when I start spouting off about them. And to fair degree, I have a socialist streak in me. However, here's something to ponder: The Canadian Government has financial support specifically for filmmakers. The American Government does not. The American Government doesn't really give much money to anything. Except the Army and Other Countries. But, if the socio-economic infrastructure of entertainment consumption shifts largely to a free method of distribution(this excludes cinema-going and concert attendance, which will continue because people love to see stuff BIG), then I believe there will [have to] be government subsidies for the creation of this kind of art. Realizing the necessity for this consumption, and hopefully a shift away from funding international conflict, will result in government sponsorship, essentially, of the arts. What happens is that people end up paying circularly, as we always have, but through a larger circle. Rather than paying the distributors directly for the product, we will be paying the government, who will pay the filmmakers, who will create, and who will distribute their work to the public for free, who will consume it and end up paying back to the government. We do this all the time. It's called taxes.

Ultimately, this concept of a bottom line is where people are getting tripped up, and it's the reason for a lot of my disagreements with other things Gill has to say (in a speech that I think is absolutely fantastic, spot-on, and necessary to read). While I agree that films should be globally watchable and appreciable, should be memorable, and should be somehow provocative, I think that likewise films can and should be specific to a generation, or to a place, and should take their time. They do not need to be explosive, or easily condensible other than into cliché phrases like "meditative" that automatically, and immediately, result in the loss of the message. Human experience will always be exactly that. And because of that, it is possible for it to transcend all borders. It's why we watch Soviet cinema, or films from the 3rd world. There is always a story to be told. The bottom line, which I think is also Mr. Gill's bottom line, is that we should simply strive for greatness. Get great performances from actors. Make images that are beautiful, not necessarily because they're perfectly lit for 35mm, but because the framing is good, or because we're looking at something important, or because we're being forced to NOT look at something that we want to see, and we ask "Why?" You can make a beautiful movie on a cellphone, and that challenge is STILL being posed to anyone (take a hike, Spike Lee). If we strive to make good cinema (and we will never know what "good" is until we see it), we will have fulfilled our duty. It is now our responsibility to determine how to find the good work being made, reward its makers, and provide the means for them to continue to do so, however that may be.

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