The challenges and opportunities facing a new era of independent and DIY filmmakers have been with us for a while now. The “first” Mumblecore film, Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, came out in 2002. The term itself was coined in 2005, at South by Southwest. Mark Gill famously claimed that “the sky really is falling” for independent cinema back in the summer of 2008. And with all of the hype around digital distribution, it’s easy to forget that past filmmakers, most famously, John Cassavetes, were facing many of the these problems a generation earlier. But in the era of digital cinema, with its cheap production and distribution tools, these questions seem to have gained a new visibility.
With that in mind, I found Manohla Dargis’s recent New York Times article on USC’s Distribution U workshop to be an especially compelling read of the DIY culture as it exists today. As Scott Kirsner notes, the article gives special attention to indie film consultants and practitioners Peter Broderick and Jon Reiss, while citing examples ranging from Bujalski to David Lynch. It’s a pretty thorough article, especially in covering the range of practices that DIY filmmakers have begun to use in order to engage with audiences. Reiss, for example, cites the ned to experiment with what Henry Jenkins refers to as “transmedia storytelling,” by taking a page from Hollywood franchises.
The article also sets up, building upon a lecture by Broderick, what seems like a crude opposition between “Old” and “New World” approaches to film promotion. Expensive newspaper ads are “out.” Facebook, Twitter, and social media tools are “in.” Instead of paying for expensive ads that likely won’t reach your target audience, use the free tools that are already out there. Although I agree with the basics of Broderick’s argument, it’s worth noting that past generations of filmmakers used similar word-of-mouth techniques, albeit in ways that are less visible and archivable than today’s social media tools (I tried to make a similar point last month when discussing social media and fandom on CNN.com). But that’s a minor quibble, really, given that these tools can, theoretically at least, be used to spread messages much more quickly than in the past.
But I think the key observation of the article comes when Dargis discusses the networked nature of the emerging DIY film distribution culture:
These new-era distribution participants are not engaging in blog-rolling. By sharing information and building on one another’s ideas, they are in effect creating a virtual infrastructure. This infrastructure doesn’t compete with Hollywood; this isn’t about vying with products released by multinational corporations. It is instead about the creation and sustenance of a viable, artist-based alternative — one that, at this stage, looks markedly different from what has often been passed off as independent cinema over the past 20 years.
This concept of a “virtual infrastructure” is an especially astute observation. As Dargis points out, many of the DIY filmmakers cite each other as examples in conversations and blog posts. Many of the key figures involved in the DIY film culture are consultants who charge fees for services rather than making films themselves. But the essential point is that a new model of indie filmmaking is beginning to emerge alongside of Hollywood, one built on ad hoc, temporary coalitions, but an enduring one none the less.
Dargis also points out that these new DIY models confront the “downside” that filmmakers may be forced to spend “more hours hawking their wares than creating new work,” a problem that Reiss acknowledges. This is certainly a major question, although it’s possible that once the “virtual infrastructure” becomes more entrenched, filmmakers may not be required to reinvent a distribution model for every film they make. At the same time, because independent film is often situated at the uneasy nexus between art and commerce, I view the efforts to build these new models as a form of creativity that often goes unacknowledged or underappreciated. The article is certainly an interesting read, especially as a discussion of how DIY filmmakers continue to define and develop new distribution tools and practices.
Update: One of the case studies that comes up in Dargis’s article is Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil: The Story of Anvil, so via Movie City News, here is an interview with Gervasi discussing the film’s somewhat unorthodox distribution, which depended heavily on widespread festival screenings.