Digital technology removes barriers for Indie film makers

New technologies appear every day, but there are a handful of technologies—or more accurately, meta-technologies—that are changing the world. Cloud computing is one of them. More of a business model than a single technology, cloud computing has already changed both how, and where we work, and is already taking the steam out of Silicon Valley and shifting it to the heartland. Now, digital photography is taking the steam out of Hollywood.

Yes, a lot of great things do seem to start in California. But they don't end there.

Indie cinema is just one of a handful of major democratizing trends that we're seeing as a result of new technology. Besides cloud computing giving little guys a shot at small business, the Internet has made it so virtually anybody can be a publisher, and crowdfunding lets more people raise capital. It's all very Warhol-esque. New technology lets everybody get their 15 minutes of fame. But still, it's what you do with that 15 minutes that will make the difference between something spectacular, and being just another wanna-be. The question then becomes, can you really do something spectacular with a minimal budget and a digital camera? Yes, and there are already many examples, with productions like "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity", both produced with inexpensive digital equipment and "back pocket" budgets.

Mark Armstrong, CEO of independent movie company Wolf Moon Films, notes that "when it comes to the technology, a lot of the movie theaters are saying they are going to digital." From a practical standpoint, it's a lot easier. "You don't have to worry about bringing in reels that weigh about 150 pounds, and putting them on a giant projector. It's where things are headed, and it's going to make it a lot easier." According to the MPAA, digital cinema is up 115% with 6,455 screens, 4,632 of them in the United States—and all of the top 20 film festivals have digital projectors. Costs are decreasing, and quality is increasing all around. Armstrong notes that many blockbuster productions have been filmed recently with the RED digital camera, including "Angels and Demons" with Tom Hanks, and "Wanted" starring Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. "With the RED camera, you can make movies look like you shot them on film." Besides the obvious cost advantage—which is critical for indie producers—the RED camera and other digital tools are just easier to move, which makes set-up faster. And, unlike film, it allows a director to see and edit footage on the spot if needed instead of waiting for the editing room.

It's all due to advances in digital technology, which makes it much easier to create movies with less money, and to retain control over their distribution. The indie cinema market isn't just about cheap cameras though, it's also about distribution. Because movies can be distributed digitally, both independents and major studios are moving in that direction. A single print of a motion picture can cost upwards of $1,000, whereas the cost of distributing a digital film is negligible—and besides theater distribution, independent producers can also retain control over video-on-demand and digital downloads, and direct sales over a web site.

Digital distribution of films is something Liza Moon knows all about. Her Dare Doll Dilemmas series has achieved cult status for those who love campy satires of superheroine characters. Produced on a low budget and distributed over the Internet, Moon says she spends somewhere between $300 and $400 for each 15 minute short, "and $150 of that is paying the actors, and $20 of it is on spandex. And the bad guys usually work for free. We will usually get our $300 to $400 back within 12 hours of listing the new movie," she says. Her studio, which is far from Hollywood in a southwestern Michigan pole barn, is filled with props and lighting from junk stores, but it works—and the quality is excellent and the shorts are always entertaining.

Some people say that "the golden age of cinema" was in the '30s and '40s, and part of that was just the newness of cinema and the fact that the barrier to entry was still low enough to get through the front door. With new digital technology for production and distribution, we can truly say that the golden age of cinema is only just beginning.

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