Sunday, November 2, 2014

Have things not changed?

It was the '80s. I was a dishwasher by trade. They were showing the films of Jon Jost at the university here. Jost himself spoke after the last movie was shown.

The whole thing was organized by the film department and they quickly scrounged up the money for Jost to stay and do an all-day filmmaking seminar, then a short workshop. I was working and could only go to the workshop.

Like I say, this was the '80s. Video8 had just come out. There was no Hi8 yet, or S-VHS. They was no digital video, obviously.

Jost said that if he were just starting out, he would film in Video 8. The Video 8 camcorders had flying eraser heads so you got clean cuts between shots. He said he would film the scenes in order, rewind and record over outtakes. All the editing would be done in-camera, and when you're done, you just push eject and there's your finished movie----he held up his hand like he was holding a cigarette lighter----a ten dollar video cassette!

One of the film students muttered something about a tape-to-film transfer, but Jost said, Naw, just show it on tape! If you wanted to show it to a crowd, there are video projectors.

Everyone seemed horrified. A movie that wouldn't be shown in theaters?

Jost assured them that, if it was their first movie, it probably wouldn't be any good anyway. And, yeah, he got that right.

I've told that story before here. I thought it showed how much things have changed. I figured that film students today assumed their work would go to straight to DVD.

When Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas talked about Hollywood "collapsing", it turned out that they meant that movies might go straight to video and pay-per-view rather than be shown in theaters. They said this to a crowd of film students. I thought it showed how out of touch with reality Spielberg and Lucas were, thinking that film students would be upset at the thought of people watching their movies on TV.

It recently dawned on me that I was wrong.

I was talking to a film student, marveling at the movie El Mariachi. It was shot in 16mm and cost $7,500. All but $400 of the budget went to pay for filmstock and lab costs. This means that the movie could (in theory) be made for only $400 (after adjusting for inflation) if it were shot on digital video. It would cost even less than that since muzzle flashes and blood spatter can be added digitally now.

The film student replied that it didn't really cost $7,500 because the movie studio had to spend a lot of money to prepare El Mariachi for theatrical distribution.

I didn't know what to say to that. The proper response would have been, "Well, duh."

The movie wasn't made for theatrical distribution---it was made for the Spanish-language home video market. And since I was talking about shooting on digital video as an alternative to 16mm film, I thought it was obvious I was talking about distribution on DVD. If you make a movie that cheap, it's safe to assume it's not going to be shown in theaters.

But this was what they always say about El Mariachi. They think they're debunking it to say that they had to spend money to prepare it for theaters, as if this were a necessary production cost, as if theatrical distribution was the goal for any movie.


I was a bit surprised. Film students are still obsessed with theatrical distribution. They still consider TV and home video beneath their dignity. They're living in the past. They're not taking advantage of technological changes.

Robert Rodriguez got in to talk with movie executives on the strength of his short student film, "Bedhead" (available on YouTube), which won at film festival after film festival. They asked him if there was any movie he wanted to make, and he suggested a remake of the movie he just did. He showed them El Mariachi and they said, no, what he had was good enough. They would just distribute the movie he already made.

If you want to be Robert Rodriguez, make a movie for home video and even if you don't end up with a career in Hollywood, you'll end up with a career in home video if you don't screw it up.

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