During a rather passionate discussion that I got embroiled in on Twitter yesterday, Ambrose Heron posited the question: What exactly is indie film in 2012? That’s an excellent question, and one that deserves a hell of a lot more consideration within our industry than 140 characters quips, so let’s discuss.
Like the silent film era giving birth to talkies in The Artist, the landscape of film as we grew up with it is changing. It is. Over the next five, ten years, while much about what we think of as “independent film” will still be recognizable, the way in which it’s consumed clearly will not be. The digital era is a game changer for our industry, just as it spelled the end (or near end) of film even as the Old Guard at Kodak fought to cling to those little yellow boxes like removable seat cushions after the plane’s taken a nosedive into the Atlantic.
Right now we’re still in a phase of people figuring out what exactly all this change is going to mean to how we make movies. Fifteen or so years ago, I sat in meetings at Kodak where old-school managers argued it was incomprehensible that consumers would ever not want to buy Kodak film in those bright yellow boxes, that mothers and grandmas in particular would never adapt to digital. They thought that K-Spot loyalty, that desire to physically put a roll of film in the envelope at the corner drugstore, to hold prints in your hand and arrange them in albums under sheets of cling film, was eternal. They were wrong. And much as many of us in this business may wish with all our might that the idea of “film” will always mean the communal experience of sitting in the dark of a movie theater that smells like buttered popcorn, with an audience immersed in the storytelling on a giant screen and kickass Dolby sound, things are changing.
More movies by more filmmakers will be consumed, but maybe they’ll be consumed over the internet on laptops, or on home tvs, or on smartphone screens, not on a big screen in a darkened theater. You may embrace this, welcome it, or you may, like me, view it all with narrow-eyed suspicion, but either way, we are going to all have to deal with it.
So what does that mean for indie film in 2012?
You just can’t compare the experience of watching a film in a theater versus watching it on a laptop or iPhone — and yet, we must. I recognize that many home entertainment systems are almost as good as a theater in terms of quality of picture and sound, but watching a movie on a laptop or iPad or iPhone is a very different experience, and if our films are as likely — or more likely — to be viewed on smaller devices, should we not consider this when we’re making them? I remember when the conventional wisdom was that people would never adjust to seriously watching movies on something as small as a phone, but these days people do, don’t they? My kids watch movies and TV show episodes on iPhones now without thinking anything of it. This is the world in which they’re growing up.
And I’m only talking “movies” in the sense that I think most people still think of when they say that term. Television, cable television in particular, is arguably becoming more and more the go-to medium for great storytelling. Will we see more and more of the best indie writers and directors migrating to that medium as demand for solid material increases and money for making “films” gets tighter and tighter? Yes, probably so. And then there are web series, and YouTube, and … so many things to consider that it makes your head spin. This is either a great time to be looking to tell stories cinematically, or a terrible one, depending, I guess, on your perspective.
From a film production standpoint, there will still be films made for the big screen, but as more and more film is consumed on smaller, even portable, devices, might we see a concurrent shift in how films are made, and to the priority we give now to certain aspects of filmmaking? Put another way: If you’re assuming the primary delivery system on which people will view your film is going to be, say, an iPad or smartphone, not a big screen, would that alter the importance you’d place on spending budget on details of production design, or a better camera package, or specialty lenses, if the difference in what people actually see wouldn’t be noticed much on such a small screen? Do you need to spend a lot on post sound if your audience is going to be listening to your film through ear buds?
What say you, filmmakers? How is technology shaping the way you think about not only film distribution, but the way in which you make a film?