It’s interesting, though, that films like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, The Fighter, and 127 Hours are pulling in huge per-screen averages while heavily marketed fare like Tron: Legacy sinks lower in box office every week. Audiences hunger for the story of the indie film but lust for the spectacle of Hollywood. And while the two are seemingly impossible to meld together, it seems that Hollywood inches closer to indie filmmaking with every chance it gets through technology, while keeping an arm lengths away when possible.
I mentioned previously that movies like Black Swan are pulling in high per-screen averages, and that’s true. Aronofsky’s film, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, has found itself earning competitive box-office revenue in only half the theaters of most major releases. It should be of interest, then, that the film was shot on 16mm film – a standard championed heavily by the independent revolution in the 1990’s – and a scene was even shot on a Canon DSLR. That last part is the bigger news, because that camera is meant for the amateur unable to afford professional tools. A means to an end.
This is where Hollywood seems to be drifting towards the nature of the independent filmmaker. The tools and the technology used in the craft by both are becoming increasingly similar. Five years ago, few films financed by the studios were shot digitally. Conversely, those films financed independently were picking up on revolutionary new cameras like the RED One or even shooting Mini DV. Nowadays, major (and I mean huge) motion pictures are being greenlit to shoot on digital camera offerings with more frequency than ever before. Ridley Scott will be shooting on the RED Epic for his next film, Roger Deakins is working currently with the Arri Alexa, and the new Spiderman reboot has hijacked the headlines of digital cinematography sites with the news that they’re shooting with RED Epics as well. Tack on more major films like The Hobbit, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, and the Oscar-favorite The Social Network – all movies using digital capture as an acquisition format.
Nowadays, major motion pictures are being greenlit to shoot on digital camera offerings with more frequency than ever before.
So why are studio films drifting toward digital cinematography? 3D, of course. The studios have learned a lot about 3D in the past year and seen what the audience palette for the technology is like. Studios saw Avatar soar and Clash of the Titans flop – the former shot natively in 3D and the latter post-converted from film. That sting of bad press about the tech was so bad that it caused Warner Brothers to NOT release Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 in 3D because the post-conversion was not up to par. Though a good move in the eyes of cinephiles and most audiences aware of the difference, it cost the studio millions of dollars in additional 3D revenue.
In short, everyone in the chain of command has gotten smarter and realized that audiences like 3D that is shot in 3D. They don’t want it re-hashed or post-converted. To shoot in 3D, however, usually requires a camera rig that uses two cameras (one for each eye) and a sophisticated workflow in post-production. There needs to be 3D monitoring, 3D editing and programs and software that can fix issues with such things as convergence. That makes shooting in 3D, on film, a very expensive process. On film, shooting in 3D would require twice the film stock, twice the cameras, and all of that adds up quick.
So, almost all of those major tentpole releases I mentioned above – The Hobbit, Pirates 4, and Spiderman – they’re shooting in digital but also 3D. The cameras are lighter and smaller and more well equipped to the modern 3D rigs of today. Take a look at James Cameron with his rig on G4 TV or the Steadicam rig on Transformers 3 for a sampling of how robust these rigs get and need to be. The digital revolution, spurred by low-budget filmmaking, pushed companies like RED to release smaller, cheaper, and lighter cameras and Hollywood is re-purposing that practicality to film some of the most high-profile spectacle genre fare possible.
But even spectacle movies are no longer safely in the hands of the studios, as shown by the recent release of Skyline. That movie was shot on the cheap by two brothers, Greg and Colin Strause, who also happened to be visual effects artists. They were smart, resourceful, and managed to come out of nowhere with a film that had a scope four times larger, it seemed, than their actual budget of $10 – $20 million.
The most valuable lesson that the Strause brothers proved with Skyline was that money no longer has to be the deciding factor in filmmaking. Instead, time is the most valuable resource at the disposal of anybody and everyone. That has been at the heart of independent film since the beginning, that with enough gusto and creativity and time, a good film could get made, but with the second digital revolution, that is becoming more apparent.
Instead, time is the most valuable resource at the disposal of anybody and everyone.
One has to look no further than the DSLR shooters to see this taking effect. It used to be that, yes, digital cameras allowed anyone to make a movie, but that was in the days of Mini DV when quality suffered, depth-of-field was deep, and colors were saturated and marred by the demons of interlacing. There was still a quality barrier between the pros and the amateurs and no amount of time devotion would save the quality of the limited Mini DV format.
To actually have a financially successful film in the format, filmmakers were often resorting to gimmicks that had the movie self-aware of its technological limitations. That includes films like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. The only exception I can think of is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which, still, chose Mini DV to exploit the lesser quality of the format.
With DSLR cameras, no-budget filmmakers have at their disposal the lenses, the depth-of-field, and the HD quality that separated the field for so long. As I said earlier, a scene in Black Swan was shot on a Canon DSLR and they got away with it! The same camera used to release a movie on the silver screen is the same one that could be sitting in John Doe’s camera bag in the closet.
Now a digital filmmaking revolution can truly take place. A moment where time supersedes money as the ultimate resource for filmmakers. This is where I think Hollywood is most separated from the independents. Hollywood’s philosophy runs parallel to the Yankees in baseball – spend the most money and let’s win the World Series. But technology is acting as a salary cap, allowing those without a fat checkbook to compete with the big sluggers.
Hollywood’s philosophy runs parallel to the Yankees in baseball – spend the most money and win the World Series.
It is true, however, that time for independent filmmakers is severely limited – and often by money. Renting a camera, finding a crew, it all costs money. But there is a happy medium, where the money provided can stretch for a maximum amount of time. That’s where the independent filmmakers will find the advantage over the studio films. They can go cheaper and faster than the Hollywood productions bogged down by union rules, large amounts of equipment, and a crew the size of a small town in Kentucky.
But perhaps the greatest divide between the two markets is how they view distribution. The studios have dug their heals into the ground on most new technologies, instead wanting to keep milking the DVD/Blu-Ray cash cow. Independent filmmakers are open to anything and everything because the theatrical route is often too far-off and a small-time DVD release isn’t always guaranteed to be the best route. Indie films are more open to ideas of digital distribution like streaming, downloading or video-on-demand services like Netflix.
I guarantee most independent films would love to be placed in Redbox across the country whereas the studios would be happier if every Redbox went out of business or they could expand the 28-day wait period for new releases. For the studios, they already have the exposure, they want the money. For indie films, they have neither and find that exposure drives the money.
The flexibility that comes with having no exposure (and thus, nothing to lose) has allowed independent films to stretch their arms to the various digital revenue streams like iTunes, Netflix and Amazon in ways that the studio haven’t or don’t want to. More importantly, many of these services allow films to be distributed through them with more ease than ever offered by home video or theatrical markets. Amazon VOD, for instance, will list almost any movie – the money it makes depends on sales, not the upfront purchase of the property.
The crux of the great divide, becoming shallower everyday, is that between the cameras, post-production tools and distribution options at their disposal, independent films can now release to a wider audience than ever before with the same credence as a Hollywood studio. And that is something that Hollywood doesn’t like. They like to be in control which is why they are holding onto theatrical distribution as tight as they can with offerings of 3D and IMAX conversions. It is about the only arm of their movie industry octopus that isn’t being tugged on by someone else.
…independent films can now release to a wider audience than ever before with the same credence as a Hollywood studio.
So, in this new decade, where does the industry stand as a whole? It seems that Hollywood is still pouring vast amounts of money into spectacle tentpoles while ignoring the small character dramas that independent films are so exuberant to explore. But while Hollywood may be making movies that run tantamount in philosophy to the indies, the filmmakers behind these are choosing the tools that were pushed for by the independent community, namely digital cinematography cameras. So, while studios seem to be bringing low-budget sensibilities to their productions and closing the gap on how independent films and studio films are shot, they’re also pushing against the independent market with 3D technology and a refusal to embrace newer distribution arms to the full extent.
As with any technology, those who stand against it at the beginning usually end up with an egg on their face. It is more apparent than ever that the future of home-video distribution is going to be streaming or movies stored on computers. And while 3D is stronger than ever, it is still too early in the game to dictate it as a success or long-term failure.
What it comes down to is that Hollywood and independents are widely separated on many different philosophies but they are brought together by the technologies that drive them both. One thing that is clear, however, is that no matter the budget, the tools, the tech, or the number of dimensions, great stories don’t happen without great filmmaking.