Anyone for revolution?
Whatever happened to the DSLR Spring? ☛
1960: a film called Breathless was released that revolutionised cinema. It was shot on 16mm film, a technology previously only used for newsreels. The French New Wave that followed inspired the counter-culture movies of the next decade, and left a mark still visible in the films we make now.
Five decades later: I, and many others, predicted that DSLR cameras (also designed for journalists) could stimulate a digital New Wave that would continue Godard’s revolution. Finally the prohibitive price of filmmaking had been swept aside – the basic technology to make a film could be bought for the cost of a second-hand car – and a new generation of filmmakers could go wild. I anticipated trends I’d love and trends I’d hate. I expected Peter Biskind to be gleefully gathering dirt on a new generation of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls. I waited for movies to be turned upside down.
I’m still waiting.
Cinema technology is moving at missile speed, but the creative innovations you’d expect to accompany the new cameras, sound recorders, editing, grading, mixing and projecting devices are yet to explode. Why?
It’s not that DSLR cameras haven’t been used for feature films – they have. They have even been used in a number of good films such as Like Crazy and Weekend. But such films are few and far between; most DSLR movies are utterly unremarkable. Ironically, a greater number of edgy, experimental films were made during the DV era of the ‘90s. That, far inferior, technology was embraced by directors such as David Lynch, Harmony Korine, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom, Mike Figgis, Lars Trier and Wim Wenders. I’ve not heard of any of the above so much as touched a Canon 7D.
One reason up-and-coming filmmakers are failing to embrace the experimental potential of the cameras may be because we’ve got cannier financially. Go to any Q&A or seminar where a fresh-faced filmmaker is talking about their newly released debut, and they’ll tell you one thing: completing the film is only the first hill they had to climb. Getting the film to the public, in any form that would make money, was at least as hard.
In fact, you can make the job of getting your film to market considerably harder if you don’t first find out what the market wants. If you’ve chose to make a drama (i.e. non-genre story) with no stars and low production values you’re doomed unless you take the festivals by storm. And sometimes not even those elegant little laurel wreaths will guarantee paying off your credit card bills.
Quite reasonably, a lot of filmmakers have got real and now mean business. They’ve found stars… well, starlets… well, faces you’d half-recognise on a poster. They’ve picked a genre that has a following. They’ve spent as long on their business plan as they have on their script.
This careful preparation means that their films make it through the system: they have a brief domestic cinema release followed by run on DVD. The film makes a reasonable slice of bread and butter for their distributors, a modest return (perhaps) for the investors and nothing for the filmmaker. But that’s okay: the filmmaker has got to boss everyone around and see their vision come to life. Not exactly their vision: a compromise between their vision and market forces. But basically everyone’s happy. Except the crew, who were on deferrals and never see a penny. Or the critics – who are tired of watching the same film over and over again. Or the audience, which is wondering where its evening went.
I have nothing against cheap genre films. An inventive use of genres – combining them, relocating them geographically or chronologically, changing the gender or the race – can be fun, and can lead to unexpected creative ideas. However the business model I’ve just described doesn’t rely on a movie being inventive… or being ‘good’ in any way, it just has to be made. And made so that it will fit into a ready-made box.
In the business plans of these films lies a clue to their mediocrity. All such documents include a section where the success of the project is predicted by the past performance of similar movies. There’s a list of usual suspects that appear in this section: The Blair Witch Project, The Full Monty, Primer, Paranormal Activity, Once, Monsters… any film that turned a shoestring budget into ruby slippers.
Most producers know that they’re pulling the wool over investors eyes a little here: success stories like these are few and far between, and cannot be guaranteed. But still they diligently reverse engineer these success stories, looking to find out what made them hits. Few producers, however, spot (or they don’t acknowledge) the most significant common factor that was at the root of most of those successes.
The secret of these runaway hits reveals a flaw in the basic business model, which is founded on an incomplete understanding of market economics. The real runaway successes in any field are not those products that follow the market: they are those that lead it. This is doubly true when what you’re selling is a story. Few films on that list of usual suspects would have been able to find comparators to settle investors’ nerves; they just weren’t that similar to anything that had gone before.
In some ways movies are still a circus sideshow. The vaudevillian cry “Roll up! We’ll show you something you’ve never seen before” still works. Novelty alone is enough to get your audience excited. And afterwards they want to have that experience again. But if a film is made that’s similar to your story, that very similarity dictates that it won’t be as fresh. Too many films that trade off the success of an original, even if the follow-up is made by the same filmmakers, soon meet with the law of diminishing returns.
Statistics back this up. The 10 films offering the highest returns on investment since world war II were all original stories, in the sense of not being adaptations, many of them were genuinely unlike anything we’d seen previously. Despite being a genre film, Paranormal Activity’s approach was new, and it was rewarded with a staggering 1.3 million per cent return. That figure should surely be enough to get any investor excited.
Surprisingly, however, this is not what investors want to hear. They want success to be more predictable; they want to see steadily rising bar charts, rather than wild spikes and inexplicable troughs.
And this is where the DSLR revolution fits in… or could fit in, were it to exist. The greatest disincentive to experimentation is fear of failure. Ours has always been an expensive art, the most expensive aside from architecture. Mistakes are costly. The ability to make movies with little more than available resources means that cautious investors can be removed from the equation, and with them a lot of the nerves about risk-taking projects. There’s little to stop micro-budget filmmakers from embracing novelty and make the boldest, most original movie of which they can conceive.
Needless to say, a lot of these films will be dreadful: amateurish and incredibly misguided, but such films will not get picked up. They will only bother film festival programmers (sorry guys) and the friends and family of those who made them. Besides, a lot of low-budget films are already awful. Awful and derivative. At least the awful films of the digital revolution will be dire in new and unexpected ways.
The upside, however, is that those films that aren’t dreadful will be fresh and unexpected. Like the French New Wave before them, they will rejuvenate cinema. And, boy, does cinema need it! Genre has been interbred for so long that its DNA has grown weak. Even mainstream cinema won’t last long without new blood in the gene pool. We need fresh ideas, or the very future of the species is bleak.
But the window for a DSLR revolution will not last forever. Right now the quality difference between the cameras used on Hollywood features and those available to new filmmakers is the smallest it’s ever likely to be. Hollywood is pushing new technologies – 3D, 4k and HFR, and the cameras to make such films are well beyond the purse of emerging filmmakers.
So what have I been waiting for?
What have you been waiting for?
If you’re a filmmaker and you, like me, were bewildered by the poor crop of films in 2012, the answer lies in your hands. We’re the only people who are going to make films of 2013 worth watching. Let’s take up our cameras and set out to make the movie we want to make. Forget compromise with what we’re told that the market wants. Study that list of usual suspects and commit to making a film that’s unlike any of them. Let’s use the resources we have to hand to capture our own unique vision. We need to get Breathless again; we need to start our own New Wave.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013
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