There it all was, the raw shaky cam quality of images that showed nothing of the Sunset Boulevard one usually sees in movies, the much talked about acting chops of two first-time actresses that, lo and behold, are transgender women actually playing transgender women. As I sat in awe watching Tangerine, the first movie shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, what I couldn’t shake wasn’t the hype amassed along its festival and awards gala circuits. Thankfully, I realized right away the buzz was well-earned and trained my eye on the cinematic grain instead – it was purposefully tacked on as a tip of the hat to the unwieldy uni-purpose cameras. Yet another filmmaking tool breathing its last.
And why shouldn’t cameras go the way of the dodo, and the celluloid? That’s probably a question better left to the contingent of film buffs that, as their counterparts in the book v. ebook debate, can argue themselves raw about it. I prefer to focus on what is. Namely, the rise of the entrepreneurial, tech-savvy indie director, like Tangerine’s Sean Baker, ready to take on Hollywood with the help of emerging tech repurposed for their creative endeavors. This seat-of-the-pants mentality, common to techies and creatives, is giving the early-adopter breed of filmmakers a shot in the arm and their flicks, a shot at getting made.
“You too can get a Sundance-worthy movie shot on an iPhone app (in the case of Tangerine, it was), and picked up by Magnolia Pictures, and trotted out to Oscar voters!” goes the new adage in these heady, innovative times. Idealistic? Maybe. But, increasingly, shoe-string budgets are becoming less of an inconvenience for filmmakers with even just a passing interest in gadgetry; instead, they’re an opportunity to bootstrap their film through bespoke solutions, not least of all apps patched together with gadgets. In the case of Tangerine, the app was FiLMiC Pro and the gadget, Moondog Labs’ Kickstarter-funded anamorphic adapter. With Tangerine – The Sequel, it may well be GoPros on 3D-printed contraptions that bring to life an omni-view fully spherical cinematic experience.
But Tangerine is just one recent instance in a long line of tech news that, by spilling over into this film buff’s reading queue, have conspired to light up a flashbulb over her head. If you look closely at both types of products, film and tech, you come to realize that creativity is a prerequisite for both, and the makers in Hollywood and Silicon Valley are not so different after all.
Some forward thinkers are already very aware of it: Chris Milk’s VR short “Evolution of Verse” came to light this year at Sundance thanks to the support from Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures: tech mogul Larry Ellison’s daughter is nothing if not committed, already setting up a VR division within her young production company. She’s also recently elbowed her way into Hollywood by prophetically backing two Oscar contenders, American Hustle and Her. But tech still has a lot more ground to cover if it’s ever to grapple with the studio system’s clubby practices and turn mindless entertainment on its fluffy big head.
The question isn’t whether a Holly-Valley hybrid is possible or desirable (it’s both), but how long it will be before it makes its way out of the startup/indie outskirts and reaches the mainstream. It will likely disrupt the old studio system at about the same time we hear about the first YouNow micro-star ever to ink a picture deal. Or sooner.
Circling back to gadgets, the iPhone 4 also had its fifteen minutes of red-carpet fame in 2010, when Oldboy director Park Chan-wook shot his eerie short Night Fishing on it, but even then, there was already something of a tradition (think dSLRs) of indie filmmaking moving away from the time-honored ways of making movies. So, how else, besides adapting and adopting its hardware, are filmmakers leveraging tech these days?
It’s worth noting that they’re riding a wave, not a bubble. The DIY trend in entertainment of all kinds is moving full steam ahead toward a more meritocratic era. The Internet has reframed the creative discourse and processes, making entertainment all about openness, transparency, tailor-made content, about unbundling the consumer experience and cutting the time-honored cord that has tied makers to self-proclaimed gatekeepers or mediators.
Celebs are breaking their news on Instagram, not in People, and no-names are breaking into the TV industry not by slowly kowtowing and glad-handing their way into the inner circles, but straight-up, through online submissions of their work. See Mickey Fisher’s rise from trackingB contestant to exec producing the show he entered, Extant; or Amazon Studios’ pitching process, complete as of late with the free, cloud-based Storywriter app (aka Final Draft without the price tag). On that note – corkboards? Amazon’s got an app for that too.
Networking, that uphill journey of would-be filmmakers hoping to enter the right clique, is also moving online and taking the mental geofence around LA out of the equation for success. That’s thanks in no small measure to techies who love film like Stephan Paternot, the mind behind Slated, a site meant to cut through Hollywood’s opaque practices and connect filmmakers with investors. In a video pitch with a runtime of little over a minute, Paternot throws around big words like “track,” “quantified,” “objective statistical analysis,” “simplified and accelerated,” “business plans” – all perfectly aligned with the ethos and vocabulary of the tech world. Only he’s not talking to techies, but filmmakers, independents who are suddenly learning how to integrate the entrepreneurial lingo and gung-ho one-man-band attitude in order to peddle their art the smart(er) way.
From pre-production through post and marketing, tech is coming up with solutions across the board, to problems that have stumped and even prevented film creatives from working in their prefered medium. But it’s in the brutal financing trenches where the tech industry has really made a difference for filmmakers. Kickstarter and Indiegogo have helped hundreds of movies get made – whether they had some celeb throwing their clout behind the campaign (Wish I Was Here, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Veronica Mars) or not (Keep the Lights On, Indie Game: The Movie, Iron Sky, to name just a few of the ones I can vouch for as adding value to the art form).
As for the other sticking point in the filmmaker’s iliad, the elusive distribution deal, tech is disrupting the failing 20th century models on that count too. And whereas studio bigwigs are taking up arms against piracy through legal channels, tech takes a hammer to the distribution system as a whole, rightfully seeing it as the main culprit. Tech challenges its antiquated practices for no longer being in line with the needs of the content-hungry netizen. That Mjölnir swung by tech is VOD, with platforms ranging from Vimeo on Demand to VHX or IndieReign, and as diverse in functionality, scope and look as you’d imagine. But, while one of the often cited examples of VOD-done-right is Shane Carruth’s DIY release model for Upstream Color, a success by most indie makers’ standards, it’s still hard to envision a time when synced up theatrical and VOD releases become the norm.
Though still in its early days, day-and-date release serve the gen Z, VPN-wielding film buff who’s used to self-identifying as an a-geographical entity in the global village and, as such, before day-and-date would resort to piracy as their only recourse for getting to see films that luckier (read, better placed) “villagers” were watching. It’s a silver lining in the disappearance of the arthouse theater, and fits perfectly into millennials’ comfort-first and on-demand lifestyle, mainly through big players in the VOD space like Netflix or Apple, but also smaller wildcards (like the soon-to-be-launched Flix Premiere) snapping at their heels because, tech-wise at least, they can.
Lastly, while day-and-date sates the consumer’s hunger and meets their demand for comfortable viewing, it also helps smaller films gain enough traction through word of mouth online to rake up more ticket sales than a traditional, stand-alone limited release would.
Let’s look ahead though, to the movies that our grandkids will be enjoying right about the time we punch out. I reckon by then VR will have left theaters and cineplexes in the dust, will have seen its heyday with complete plot immersion where the viewer interacts with the characters and influences the story, and sure enough will have died an undignified death at the hand of some other visionary next step. We’ll have zipped past interactive movies and we’ll be popping content in the morning, in pill form, with our cereals, to then call it up and mainline it throughout the day as an overlay on top of the “real life” going on before our eyes. Entertainment injected into a multi-tasker’s world, without loss of dopamines – that’s a worthy goal to work towards, techies!
But my overarching takeaway here isn’t about hardware, it isn’t even about software alone, or the internet for that matter. It’s that, by hook or by crook, but most definitely by tech, there will be cinema, in some shape or form, as long as there is a civilization for it to chronicle. No other art form is as amenable to change, or as seductive to changemakers.