Several years ago, as part of a life-long quest to have a career making independent films, I enrolled in a day-long seminar on the subject featuring renowned Independent Film guru Dov Siemens. Specifically, the topic was how to make an independent film for less than $100,000. This, Siemens argued, was the bare minimum required to produce a movie that met industry standards for distribution.
A hundred thousand dollars. How times have changed.
In the past 10-15 years, the film world has become flooded with the product of a technological revolution that has cut the cost of making an independent film to a fraction of what it was a generation ago. The more successful ones have grabbed headlines: "The Blair Witch Project," made for around $30,000, wound up grossing well over a hundred million. Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi," shot in Mexico for about $6,000, got picked up for distribution by no less an industry heavyweight than Sony Pictures. Kevin Smith made "Clerks" with about $13,000 he charged to various credit cards.
So, to the question 'Is it easier or harder nowadays to make an independent film?," the answer is this: It's easier, but don't count on making a living at it. Yet.
To refer back to Siemens' lecture, he insisted that a feature film made on anything less than 35 mm film didn't have a shot of ever landing a distribution deal. Well, have you ever priced out 35 mm movie film? It makes a college education look cheap in comparison. Not only is the film stock itself expensive, but everything else associated with it goes up in price by a comparable factor, from processing the negatives to striking a final print.
Now, since most movie theaters still project on 35 mm, for the time being, you're going to have to create a 35 mm negative if you want your movie to be shown in theaters. So - bad news. But the good news is that you don't necessarily have to shoot the film in 35 mm.
On the feature-length music documentary "Better Living Through Circuitry," on which I served as Associate Producer - among other things - we delivered a 35 mm negative to the film's distributor, 7th Arts Releasing. The negative cost about $20,000 to make at a post-production lab in Burbank, Calif. There was no getting around that - we just had to swallow the expense.
However, we shot the movie on Sony's first generation of 3-chip digital cameras, the VX-1000. They recorded to mini DV tapes, and retailed for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000.
Two thousand dollars. We shot a feature-length movie on a camera that cost a mere $2,000. And it gets better. The editing system on which we cut the film (in the producer's living room, it should be noted) cost all of $17,000 to buy. Sure, that sounds like quite a price, but keep in mind that, previously, computer-based, non-linear digital editing systems (like the industry-standard Avid systems) cost upwards of - and over - $100,000 to purchase, and you had to keep a tech on-staff at all times to deal with the system's neurotic little tics.
That was more than ten years ago. The cost of computer-based editing systems has dropped dramatically since then, particularly after Apple released the game-changing Final Cut editing software, which at first retailed for around $1,000. Its latest version can be downloaded from the Internet for about $300. And the cameras? My latest purchase, the Nikon D7000 DSLR, sold for $1,100 (minus the lens, it should be said), and yet film Director Darren Aronofsky used this model as a production camera on the Oscar-nominated film "Black Swan."
So, to re-cap: making independent films can be relatively inexpensive these days, unless you want your film shown in theaters, in which case you're looking at a bitter, $20,000 pill you have to swallow.
However, there is a bright side, which can be formulated into the following question: Why, exactly, do you need to show your independent film in theaters? That's certainly not the way most people these days experience visual "content" (to use the parlance of the contemporary entertainment industry).
Consider this statistic: in December, 2010, Internet users watched a record 14.3 billion online videos. That's Billion, with a "b." In just one month. Upload your film, and it has a potential audience that numbers in the hundreds of millions. And how does one get one's video onto the Internet? Find a web-video hosting service like YouTube or Vimeo, and upload it. That simple.
Fine. So making independent films (and distributing them) is easier now than ever before. The problem is: how do you make a living at it? Especially if you're giving the content away for free on YouTube?
Well, I did say not to count on making a living at it. But, you know, there's even hopeful new light shining on this bleak reality. Namely, people have figured out new ways to make money off of internet videos.
The business models are familiar from television: you make money either by selling advertising or allowing the end user to pay a fee and download the product. For the latter, there have been a number of start-up businesses that are amassing a library of content which subscribers will have access to. For example, 2-Way TV has developed an app that will allow makers of short, independent films to offer them for sale on Apple's iPad.
The advertiser-supported model is much more common. YouTube, for example, has recently offered to "monetize" certain videos that garner a large number of hits. In other words, they sell advertising on the video, and split a portion of the revenue with the video's owner.
To be sure, we're talking pennies for most videos. However, there are many instances of entrepreneurial individuals making a killing this way, and more are cropping up each day. To cite an example: Los Angeles-based Internet celebrity Marina Orlova's "Hot For Words" YouTube channel has registered almost 420 million hits since it launched. Through monetization, that has provided Marina with a reputed monthly income of $30,000.
In short, the movie business - the entertainment industry in general, in fact - is going through a major transition. As with all such times, there are enormous opportunities for those with vision and the willingness to work hard to see that vision through.
Now the challenge is to make that person you.