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The Microfilmmaker Economy

About a week ago, Tom Stern approached me online, stating he was curious about my perspective on something. For those of you who are new to the magazine, Tom is one of our technical writers and reviewers here at MFM. If he's not the smartest person I know, he's probably in the top ten. So when he asks your perspective on something (ie poses a conundrum of nearly epic proportions), it's never something that you can respond to quickly or off-the-top of your head. Fortunately, Tom never expects these questions to be answered right away, so I usually take a few days to think about them. This time, I immediately realized it was the sort of question our readers would like to know about, so I took a week on it. Any time I run into questions like that, I try to work them into an editorial.

With that build up, I'll share Tom's question (with slight paraphrasing):

“What're your thoughts on the impact to the microfilmmaker community of the surging technological capabilities at lowered prices vs. the economic landscape?

On the one hand, the cost of video technology has dropped radically, and the capabilities are unbelievable. Network video is integrated into broadcast and commercial, Youtube is now ordinary, and indie video is integrated into the TV news.

At the same time, the macroeconomic picture is a wreck. And it's almost impossible to perceive truth through the noise caused by people speaking their fears, so it's very difficult to understand the true impacts.

What I would like to know is, from your perspective, how is all this influencing the audience of Microfilmmaker?
What do you think we could do to best serve their current needs and interests?
What guidance would you give to people who are passionate about video/filmmaking at this time?”

Like I said, Tom never asks questions you can easily answer. However, as I thought about it, I came up with some thoughts that tie into all three questions.

As to how it's it's influencing our audience, well the technology that's available at everyone's fingertips has democratized the playing field for filmmaking in a way that none of us recall in our lifetimes. However, it's so democratized that everybody and their brother is taking a stab at it. Many people ask questions like, “How do I stand out in the crowd?” Fortunately, great books are starting to be published on this question, like the book, Climbing the Charts on YouTube (by The $30 Film School's Michael W. Dean), which we'll be reviewing in the next couple issues. Also, folks like Kelley Baker (aka The Angry Filmmaker) are touring across the country with their gospel of self-distribution and self-promotion. Other folks, like Head Trauma's Lance Weiller, are even touring the country with a rented 2K digital projector interface and showing their films in towns across the country. All of these folks have found ways to popularize and monetize their filmmaking, which means it's still possible to stand out from the crowd and make money doing it. Now, is it rock god fame or movie star money? Nope. But, if we're honest with ourselves, most microfilmmakers aren't trying to become rock stars, we're simply trying to make a living doing what we love—making films!

The economy is a wreck, but it's not the worst it's ever been. Sure, it'll mean more of our readership will want to build their own dollies, jibs, and steadycams vs. buying them, but the DIY culture would be present in our readers no matter how big or small the economy is.

The interesting thing about both of these questions (a) the democratization of technology and (b) the low economy is actually that everything's come full circle. It takes us right back to our roots.

Those of you who've read this magazine for a long time know that I consider the spiritual ancestors of the microfilmmaker movement to be the avant-garde filmmakers of the 1890's-1940's. (If you want to learn lots more about this, please do yourself a favor and go and buy a copy of Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film from 1893-1941 .) Essentially, the Edison Corporation had invented the motion picture camera in the late 1800's and the technology had been slowly revers engineered by other companies, despite Edison's vicious patent-defense lawsuits. By the early 20th century people were getting their hands on the technology and it wasn't consolidated in any one place. People were setting up projectors in various pubs and Elk's clubs and churches around the country and trying to drum up an audience. Some of these folks would eventually work in Hollywood (which, ironically, was created by nothing more than a bunch of cinefiles who were trying to escape Edison's tyranny on the East Coast), but even the ones that did work there made sure they always experimented with cutting edge filmmaking on the side. And, even with Hollywood in existence, people found a way to make a living outside it, most of the time doing exactly what we have to do today: self promoting and getting the word out.

They may not have had as many competitors as we do, but they also didn't have nearly as many different tools at their disposal to truly make their own unique filmmaking signature. They also had no way to get the word out to a global audience. (The best they could do was to take a steamer to Europe and try touring there.)

The truest way I know to prove that the economy cannot kill the filmmaker is to simply look at the worst economic time in our nation's history: The Great Depression. Far from film watching dying down during this period of time, theaters actually became 24 hour-a-day affairs. (At the time, as many as 65% of the nation's populace were regularly going to the movies, the highest percentage in national history.) People who couldn't find jobs would scrape together the nickel for the ticket, as they could stay as long as they liked in the theater and they got a free bucket of popcorn with each ticket. (Incidentally, theaters chose popcorn because it was so dirt cheap to make and food is always a good incentive for folks during an economic downturn.) But there was more to this thronging to theaters than just the desire to get in an air conditioned building or get some popcorn. There was a desire for some form of creative escape. Film, at its core, has the ability to take viewers somewhere else. (In fact, the New York Times specifically wrote an article on how there is now a resurgence in movie attendance with this current econcomic slump, which you can read here.) So long as we continue to improve the craft of taking people somewhere else, then we will always find people who want the films we make.

If I look at the number of films we critique on an annual basis, I can tell you the thing that ruins most low-budget films are those filmmaking mistakes that specifically prevent the viewer from suspending their disbelief. (Audio mistakes, bad acting, disjointed writing, etc.) Getting a viewer to suspend their disbelief through filmmaking craft and storytelling is what we're talking about when we talk about taking viewers someplace else. It doesn't mean you have to make dumb, bubble gum movies. I've been taken some place else with movies like American Beauty, Requiem for a Dream, and Donny Darko, all of which deal with complex themes and have tragic endings. (To further prove this point, one of the most popular types of movies during the Great Depression were gangster flicks.)

To go out of order and answer the third question now: What advice would I give to those who are passion about video/filmmaking at this time? Well, just because there are thousands of filmmakers out there doesn't mean that there are thousands of people who truly understand this concept of successfully taking their audience someplace else through competent writing and filmmaking craftsmanship. As such, if a filmmaker's passion and diligence with the art of filmmaking is continually improved, then, so long as you promote you work, you will find that your popularity and audience continues to grow.

As to the other words of advice I would tell our readers at this time, here gos:

1) Do not go into debt on films. Going into hawk for a film has always been asinine, but in a tight economic time, it's even worse because it's hard to recover through other financial resources if your gamble doesn't pay off. (There's only been one Kevin Smith, while there have been hundreds of thousands of filmmakers who have lost EVERYTHING going into debt on a film.)
2) Try to write your scripts around locations and effects that you can do with places you can already use, equipment you already have (or can easily acquire), and post techniques that you feel comfortable with. This is more likely to allow you to shoot more films, as you won't have to get as much cash together to shoot each film.
3) If you're going to use new equipment, techniques, or post effects, then be sure to test these items BEFORE you do your shoot. Even post effects can be made much easier if you know how to shoot for them ahead of time.
4) Have each of your films critiqued as you finish it. You can learn a lot from each film if you can get educated input after each one is completed. However, if you don't, you'll likely keep making the same mistakes in subsequent films. With money being harder to come by, it's better to make new mistakes in each film, rather than repeating past mistakes. And with each film, you're refining your craft more and more.
5) Look to see how many free film festivals you can enter when you're done. While submitting to larger, paid film festivals is definitely a good idea, money can quickly get burned through if you submit to nothing but paid festivals. As such, you can stretch out your money if you submit to both types. (Plus, you may be more likely to get accepted to some free fests. Depending on the size of the festival, admission and showing at a festival is all that's required to get an IMDB page, which helps build your legitimacy and can help you grow a fan base.)

Now, back to the second question: What things can we do to help our readers more? That's always a good question. First off, we have an area of our front page devoted to reader requests, which we pay very close attention to so we can help streamline our content. What we've come up with and intend to be working on in the next year is:

  • Creating more video content on basics like cinematography and camerawork
  • Creating more in-depth tutorials and videos on building production equipment—especially production equipment that looks professional (as our readers can use it for paid gigs as well as their filmmaking pursuits)
  • Finding a way to alert our readers of film festivals that are accepting entries each month (especially free ones) and also coming up with a way to review paid film festivals to show our readers the efficacy of certain festivals and the likely cultural impact acceptance they might have.
  • Expanding our articles on lighting in hard to light situations
  • Creating more extensive articles on recording and mixing audio for low budget films
  • Publishing articles on successful forms of distribution and promotion

Hopefully, this editorial has helped renew your belief that you can be successful as a filmmaker, despite additional competition and the slump in the economy. And, hopefully, knowing what ways we're going to be trying to help you with your filmmaking pursuits in the future will help you know that you're not alone in your desires for filmmaking excellence!

God Bless,

Jeremy Hanke
Microfilmmaker Magazine

JeremyHankePicture The director of two feature length films and half a dozen short films, Jeremy Hanke founded Microfilmmaker Magazine to help all no-budget filmmakers make better films. His first book on low-budget special effects techniques, GreenScreen Made Easy, (which he co-wrote with Michele Yamazaki) was released by MWP to very favorable reviews. He's curently working on the sci-fi film franchise, World of Depleted through Depleted: Day 419 and the feature film, Depleted.

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