DIY, the Indie Crisis, and Film Labor

I’m still following the recent conversation about the independent film crisis relatively closely in the midst of long marathons of grading and fighting off an early fall cold.  Like everyone else, I’ve been following many of the recent debates about where this indie asteroid is hurtling.  For every article celebrating the principle that movies can now “debut on your iPhone,” there are dozens of others that offer far more sobering accounts.  A.J. Schnack has a roundup of some of the recent discussion, starting with Anne Thompson’s now widely-cited TIFF column describing the indie marketplace as a bloodbath and concluding that “The old independent market is over. A new one will take its place. But we are smack in the middle between the end of one paradigm and the start of another, and it’s a scary place indeed.”  A.J. goes on to offer pointers to reports from the Indie Summit, including discussions from Eugene Hernandez and Thompson, who served as a co-moderator.  Thom Powers considers the implications of these issues for documentary filmmakers.

But one issue that deserves further consideration is A.J.’s discussion of the place of film festivals in the indie crisis.  Noting that five of the major festivals for documentary have undergone significant changes in the last year,  he observes that “for many festivals, the days of largesse have passed.  No travel, no accommodations, no screening fees.”

The IFC Blog has a thoughtful take, pointing out that arguments based on “quality” (that we just need “better” movies) are faulty, given the diversity and unpredictability of people’s tastes. While a number of festivals and venues have used public enthusiasm, or audience curation, to define what films will play in a given venue, such approaches may be limited and may prevent challenging films from finding a wider audience.

In a related matter, Melissa Silverstein has an engaging interview with Sally Potter about her most recent film, Rage, which was initially released via cell phone.  Potter discusses her concept of “poor cinema” and the challenges introduced by making films so cheaply. On one level, Potter is optimistic, arguing that music downloads may help (in some cases) to stimulate music purchases and that such an approach may benefit filmmakers as well.  In digging around for more detail on her concept of “poor cinema,” borrowed from Jerzy Grotowski, I came across an earlier report by Potter about the making of Rage and the challenges the new indie models raise for film production.  While it is easy to romanticize the idea of the basement auteur, the solitary figure making brilliant films outside the normal production cultures, there is a risk (acknowledged by Potter) that such a practice does in a sense

steal work from others who would otherwise be employed in one capacity or another. A film is not a solitary process, like writing a book or painting. It is a collaborative medium, an interface of art and industry, and therefore money is involved for those people – from sound recordists to editors to lab technicians – who depend on being paid.

I think that what often gets lost in some of the more reductive attempts to analyze DIY production is the genuine costs of labor (and the implications of working on smaller crews that Potter describes).  The first episode of Rage is now available online, with more episodes to follow later this week.

4 Comments »

  1. Sujewa Said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    Well, it’s not one (Hollywood/Indiewood type budgets) or the other (DIY/no budget/volunteers/some paid if lucky) for every project or for each filmmaker during the course of their career/practice. Both methods of production/types of financial commitment have existed since the earliest days of movie making. The positive thing at this moment in time is that due to inexpensive filmmaking tools one person or a small crew can put together an interesting & polished movie even without a lot of money. However, eventually people will need to get paid (if they plan on making movies year after year). Or, if people are making their living from other work & they still want to make movies, then it can be a non-money generating pursuit – maybe like a hobby. I think Walt Whitman had a day job (but he is now considered a great poet). And yes, it is possible for someone to make movies like a poet/working alone – Jem Cohen’s movies have been compared to literature or poetry or photography – and I think Cohen works alone – or has worked alone on several projects. Anyway, DIY no budget solo production is an option, of course if a filmmaker has a bit of money available for a project she may hire a crew & not take the previously mentioned route OR for some subject matters, it may be better to be a crew of one.

  2. Chuck Said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    I’m not suggesting that a single approach is the only possible one, but I think Potter and others are right to express concern that a certain medium-sized film is becoming increasingly difficult to make given the lack of investment in those films for theatrical distribution. Potter’s concern is that a DIY approach that calls for multitasking as a crew (she did the filming, for example) may actually lead to fewer paying jobs within the film industry. Although we may feel compelled to make movies, at some point that has to pay the bills. As one person recently put it, even Jim Jarmusch needs health insurance.

    Yes, we all make choices to make movies. Yes, many DIY filmmakers have second jobs for sustenance, but I think there is some concern that such a model will make it difficult for some people to participate fully, especially the crew members–editors, cinematographers–sound designers–who contribute to the making of a film.

  3. Sujewa Said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    True.

    I think most filmmakers who are currently DIYing it/using no budget/small or no crew methods would gladly hire well paid crew members for projects if they could.

    On the other hand, same could be said about the Beatles – that the coming of 3-4-5 member rock bands/that becoming the norm in popular music entertainment placed a lot of 1930′s & 40′s type orchestra/big band type musicians out of work. Anyway, things change, but hopefully for the better even if there are some difficulties for some people while they adjust to the change. I personally love the fact that a crew of 1 can make a feature now for $0. Still costs a lot of time & money to disctirbute movies though.

    Also, some movies just cannot be made by 1 person alone. So I think there will always be crew work on some projects – even in the real indie world.

    - S

  4. Rob Rushing Said,

    September 30, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    I’m guessing “poor cinema” is by analogy to the Italian “arte povera” movement. As for jobs, the governing logic of neoliberalism is always “do more with less.”

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