On Tuesday, July 18, with very little fanfare, the Walker Art Center offered a roundtable discussion on the subject of low-budget filmmaking. The event was titled “Making Good Film and Television with Almost No Money,” and featured four panelists. The first, Bill Rude, had been responsible for organizing the discussion, and led the conversation. Rude is a filmmaker and teaches summer courses in filmmaking at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. His guests were Sean C. Covel & Chris “Doc” Wyatt, who were two of the three producers of Napoleon Dynamite, and Ari Fishman, who was a producer for The Daily Show with John Stewart.
The four chatted amiably for about an hour, swapping war stories about working on a low budget, including tales of begging and borrowing everything from housing (Napoleon Dynamite crewmembers were housed in volunteers’ spare bedrooms in Idaho) to vehicles (the owners of the van used by the character Uncle Rico in the same film required the filmmakers to make occasional runs to grocery stores to buy them toilet paper). At the end of the discussion, they opened the floor to questions.
The first questioner asked about online video Web pages, such as YouTube. Bill Rude recounted his attempts to develop an online movie for a company years earlier, only to have the company go belly up before anything was ever produced. “The technology wasn’t there,” he said.
Sean Covel thought about the question for a moment, and then opined that it was a good way to get your videos seen, provided you weren’t looking to make any money. “There’s no business model,” he said.
Not much to look at
All right, the world of online digital filmmaking is not much to look at right now. The top three most-viewed films on YouTube, the most popular digital video website, include a six-minute parody of popular dance styles (seen over 29 million times), a music video made to the Pokemon theme song and shot entirely in a teenager’s bedroom (over 14 million viewings), and a professional promotional gimmick consisting of a live-action version of the introductory credits for The Simpsons (over 8 million viewings). Browsing randomly through YouTube and similar digital video reveals a nearly infinite number of three-minute video clips of people’s dogs, illegally uploaded segments from The Daily Show, Jamaicans dancing an inexplicably popular (and notably spastic) dance called “The Bird Flu” in their living rooms, and other assorted home videos.
It doesn’t seem like the ingredients for a revolution, but then, who would have expected the drunken ravings of a group of expatriate British businessmen in New England taverns to produce a rebellion against King George III?
Or, looking at more recent history, who would have expected that the homemade, lo-fi digital recordings (with titles like Cold Turd on a Paper Plate) hosted in a lossy digital format on an obscure web page would instigate a revolutionary transformation in the music industry. Well, admittedly, they did—they being the band The Ugly Mugs, author of the Cold Turd song. In 1993, they hacked together a web page to host digital music, and named it the Internet Underground Music Archive, and genuinely created a new music underground.
Nowadays, it’s common for unsigned bands to record entire albums digitally in their apartments or garages, upload the music to websites such as Apples iTunes store, promote themselves through their own webpages and social sites like MySpace, and bypass the mainstream music industry altogether. This revolution seems to have reached a climax of sorts this past year, when soul mash-up band Gnarls Barkley hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom with “Crazy,” a song that was, at that moment, only available online.
A revolution brewing
In 1991, acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola made a remarkable prediction, preserved on film in the documentary Hearts of Darkness. “To me, the great hope is that now [that] these little 8-millimeter video recorders and stuff [have] come out, some … people who normally wouldn’t be making movies, are going to be making them,” he said. “You know, that suddenly one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the next Mozart and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camcorder. And for once, this whole ‘professionalism’ about movie making will be destroyed forever and lead into an art form.”
Fifteen years ago, Coppola’s democratic vision for filmmaking seemed willfully naïve (and it was—he was entrenched in the process of making Apocalypse Now when he was quoted, and was bitter enough about the process to hope for something simpler). After all, at that time, even a low-budget film shot entirely on video was costing somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000. Once the film was shot on video, it had to be edited, and editing on video (or, more expensively, on film), was an expensive, daunting, complicated task that required extensive expertise.
And once the film created by this portly Ohio child was completed, the real problems kicked in: How to get it seen? Getting it shown in a theater would require the creation of, at the least, a 16mm print, at the cost of additional thousands of dollars. Even with a 16mm print, the film would need to find an audience, and promotional costs for a film can be enormous.
Certainly, there have been some filmmakers who found an audience with almost no money. There was a rather lively film scene in New York in the ’60s that screened low-budget films at a local theater, creating a sort of underground scene for idiosyncratic filmmakers like George and Mike Kuchar, teenage twin brothers from the Bronx who made garish, exploitive satires of Hollywood melodramas on a cheap 8mm camera. They were popular favorites in a film community that included such underground legends as Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, and fans of cult cinema were certainly familiar with their names from books such as J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies. On the other hand, if an interested cineaste wanted to see any of the Kuchar brother’s films, they had some work to do. Most of them existed in only one print, in one of George Kuchar’s drawers, where, he admitted, they were starting to decompose.
It’s been 16 years since Coppola’s naïve prediction, and the filmmaker is starting to look like a prophet. Head over to YouTube and ignore the millions of videos of teenage girls lipsyncing to “My Milkshake,” and type George Kuchar into the search engine. Three of his films have been digitized and made available (including the astounding Hold Me While I’m Naked), most within the last two months. More are sure to follow. Quite a few of Kenneth Anger’s films are likewise available on YouTube, as well as such hard-to-find art film oddities as Robert Frank’s 1959 portrait of Beat authors Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, narrated by Jack Kerouac.
But it isn’t the sudden availability of ’60s cult films that points to a digital film revolution. That’s just a sign that tomorrow’s revolutionaries are doing their homework, revisiting the film underground of the past.
No. The forthcoming revolution has been made possible by an advance in technology. We are at a time in history when it is possible to shoot high-quality digital video, edit it with free editing software on your computer, and upload it to a web page that hosts videos, all for exceptionally little money. Peter Broderick, president of Next Wave Film, had this to say to Indiewire.com: “Now, when a filmmaker comes up to me and asks ‘How much do I need to make my movie,’ I tell them, ‘How much do you have, because it’s probably enough.’”
The cost of making a feature-length movie just keeps plummeting. In 1992, critics were stunned that Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi was made for just over $7,000. In 1998, The Last Broadcast, a British thriller, was made for $1,000. 2003’s Tarnation, an acclaimed documentary about a filmmaker’s mentally ill mother, was created from years’ worth of videotapes and mixed together using the iMovie software that comes free with Apple computers. Total cost: $218.32.
This unique confluence of circumstances creates the possibility for a cinematic revolution similar to the zine revolution of the 1980s, when inexpensive photocopies made it possible for thousands of amateur publishers to create their own self-printed magazines. These they printed and distributed through the mail in small quantities, usually a hundred or so, in exchange for other zines or for enough money to cover the printing and mailing costs. An overwhelming majority of these zines were terrible —indulgent interviews with mediocre punk artists, barely comprehensible political screeds, unreadable poetry. But a few, such as Cometbus and Murder Can Be Fun, became countercultural artifacts. A few others, such as Ben is Dead, became glossy national publications. And zines paved the way for innumerable careers in mainstream media, providing an inexpensive, hands-on education in the writing, layout and distribution of a publication.
The need for a cinematic revolution
In an introductory interview to the now-classic (and now-outdated) Making Feature Films at Used Car Prices, vitriolic critic Ray Carney complained that America offered no alternative to mainstream movies—at the date of the interview (the early ’90s), there was simply no alternative venue for non-mainstream work to be seen. Carney was specifically talking about the sorts of films identified as “art films”—small, independent features that explore atypical subject matter or attempt unusual technical experiments. Certainly there was a glut of independently produced exploitation material, as the video store had taken the place of the drive-in theater as a venue for cheaply produced, direct-to-video features focusing on sex, action or horror. But you would be hard pressed to walk into a video store and see the sorts of idiosyncratic, personal artistic creativity that could be found in the independent music and publishing scenes in the early ’90s. Film was simply too expensive a proposition.
No longer. While the Internet is not yet at a point where it is easy to distribute feature-length independent films (download time is still prohibitive, although one expects it won’t remain that way for long), Flash-based sites such as Google Video and YouTube have made it quite easy to download and watch 10- or 20-minute short films. And there is a massive, ravenous audience for such films: YouTube estimates that 100 million clips are watched on its site every day.
There is little money-making incentive in internet distribution. While Google Video allows filmmakers to charge audiences to watch their movies, most sites don’t, and there is still no real business model for distributing films online. But then, the internet is historically slow at moneymaking (Amazon.com, as an example, didn’t show its first net profit until 2003, eight years after the web bookseller started doing business), while it is historically excellent at promotion. The internet has encouraged the popularity of new marketing ideas—that of a meme (a “unit of cultural transmission”) going “viral” – to explain the explosive popularity a web presence can bring. For example, Sam, a blind, Chinese-crested hairless dog, was declared the world’s ugliest dog at a Northern California contest in 2005. His web page, which contained quite a few pictures of the dog, received a sudden surge of attention as a result of internet users e-mailing each other photos of the creature: The site received over 35 million hits in August and September of 2005.
Of course, aspiring filmmakers can’t count on that sort of popularity, but a film placed on YouTube will generally get a few thousand hits within a few weeks of being placed. But there is already one significant example of a short film enjoying explosive success as a result of its internet popularity: In 1995, two film students at the University of Colorado created a short animated film on commission as a Christmas card for several FOX executives. The film, titled The Spirit of Christmas, attracted massive attention online, even though, at the time, it might take an entire afternoon to download the 5-minute short. The filmmakers were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the popularity of the video led to the development of a television series for Comedy Central based on the short animated film’s characters. The show? South Park.