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The Filmmaking Commune as Studio
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When Hollywood started out, it wasn’t controlled by massive corporations. This isn’t to say that the studios weren’t ambitious, but, when it all began, Hollywood was pretty much made up of filmmaking rebels that had fled the East Coast to get away from Edison and his over-zealous patent attorneys. Edison was the Steve Jobs or Bill Gates of his day and age and really believed that filmmaking was something he owned. As such, if you tried to get involved in it without the direct approval of him personally, there was a good chance that you’d incur his corporation’s legal wrath!

With the stifling nature of all of this, the creative movie types decided that a change of scenery would be best. And where better to change scenery than to a part of the country that had continual sunshine all year round, perfect for activating the hard to expose film of the turn of the century? With its sunshine and lack of humidity (which was a direct counter-point to Florida), California was the perfect locale.

As the studios took root in this utopian setting, an interesting world began to develop: the studio commune. For the early film studios, the idea of randomly switching up all of your personnel every time a new movie was made was ludicrous. What they thought was efficient (and, in fact, is efficient) was to have a “stable” or “team” of people that all worked for the studio making films. Not unlike a military base, if you had a studio job, you lived at the studio, had meals provided at the studios, had predictable amounts of work each year, and made a little extra money, as well. Although this system worked well for awhile, it got thrown out when the “star” system became popular.

Contrary to popular belief, the star system has not existed for as long as films have. In fact, in early films, it was not uncommon for there to be no mention of the actor or actress in a film, as though the performers were a natural phenomenon that needed no formal recognition. (In a fascinating book called Edison’s Frankenstein by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr., the author explains that in the first film adaptation of Frankenstein, we’re still not sure who all the main actors were in the film because so few of the actors names were revealed in the credits.) Without the mass adoration of the “stars”, studios primarily made films based on content and genre, contentedly living with their own roster of actors and actresses.

After “stars” became a quantifiable way of generating fan interest and profits, studios began to try to gain stars from other studios with high priced deals and other incentives. Once that began to happen, the concept of the studio as a family was shattered. (With the single exception of Clint Eastwood and his much ballyhooed 35-year relationship with Warner Brothers.) You might say that the new “star”-studded studios were now extremely unfaithful spouses who kept having affairs on their mates. (Or, to put it another way, if Hollywood was major league baseball, then every member of the New York Yankees would play a few games with the Yanks, a few games with the Mariners, a few games with the Braves, a few games with the White Sox, and a few games with random minor league teams to keep up their street credibility.)

Once this occurred, the general chaos which Hollywood exists in today quickly took root. With the family communes shattered, the studios stopped the communal living model for everyone and now everyone had to try to get work whenever they could. I have friends in Hollywood today who are very accomplished at what they do who still can’t predictably guess how much they’ll make in a given year because they just don’t know when work is going to turn up.

Those of you who’ve read MFM for a long time know that I believe that the world is being primed for an alternative to Hollywood. While I think Hollywood doesn’t know which end is up right now, I don’t necessarily believe it needs to die. I do, however, believe that there needs to be a strong, smart, and capable alternative to it. I think that people enjoy life more when they have alternatives. In the U.S., we have two major political parties. If you’re fans of cola, your big two alternatives are Coke and Pepsi. If you’re fans of burgers, your big two are still McDonald’s and Burger King (although Rally’s/Checkers, Jack-in-the-Box, and Hardees give some extra choices, as well). Even though the population of exclusive Linux users exists, there are still only two major platforms: Mac and PC. Only in “professional” filmmaking terms is there no competition. The Hollywood studio system is made up of six corporations that operate in collusion without competition and they are the ones you must broker deals with to get your films distributed in the traditional distribution model.

The world is primed for an alternative. I believe that lean no-budget studios which have a passion for filmmaking and are willing to make high quality, low-budget fare are that alternative. Yes, there will have to be a banding together of these studios if any form of competition is to be offered, but I believe it is possible in a way that it’s never been before. We have the ability to permeate the internet and develop virtual movie theaters to show our films in a manner that’s never existed before and in a way that Hollywood simply isn’t able to take advantage of fast enough due to their innate unwieldiness!

And, for those of us who crave more traditional forms of distribution, there are still a number of movie theater owners that are fed up with Hollywood’s costs to show their movies. As such, these sorts of theaters might well be willing to deal with a united group of independent studios for alternate showings. (Right now record numbers of theaters are showing live recordings of plays, ballets, and symphonies as a way to have content that’s not solely controlled through the Hollywood system.) Perhaps the films could be made available to these digitally equipped theaters at a fraction of the price, in exchange for the ticket prices being lower than Hollywood films. This would give an incentive to filmgoers to try out these alternative films.

And of course, this gets back to our main premise: the film commune as studio. I’ve always felt as though if this new alternative to Hollywood were to take root, it would need to learn from the lessons of young Hollywood and not make the same mistakes of throwing the baby out with the bath water. There’s nothing wrong with actors or actresses becoming famous in their own right, but the idea of a permanent community of filmmakers, writers, key personnel, and actors living and working together is a good one. The idea of people being able to work in the films they love and know they will continue have a regularly paying job (so long as they do good work) is an excellent one.

One thing that’s been very exciting to me as the editor of MFM is to see how the seeds of this are gradually starting to come to fruition around the world. Slowly but surely groups of filmmakers in different cities and communities around the country and the world are banding together to make films. Actors and actresses are repeatedly playing different roles in a variety of films made by the same group and different directors get to take their hand at leadership. Everyone tries out different behind-the-scenes work, but, because the work is done in community, the overall quality standards of the films created continue to improve. And, of course, because of this experimental approach, people get to try out different types of roles until they find out the ones they’re best at.

If low-budget filmmakers can home in on the best ways to make these films profitable then, before long, these creative communities could in fact become the lynchpins of the new network of alternative studio communities which could finally offer the alternative we’ve been looking for!

The world may be dangerous and vicious, but we live in exciting times!

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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