Avatar and Paranormal Activity were the most expensive and least expensive movies of 2009, respectively, yet there is one cost that neither project was burdened with: the cost of film. It used to be that in order to even experiment with a camera, you would need institutional backing to pay for the cost of film, which can cost thousands of dollars for a 90-minute movie. Today, digital cameras, such as the RED One, yield the same quality as film, for a fraction of the price. In addition, editing and post-production—traditionally another huge cost for any project—can now be done at home for almost nothing, thanks to programs like Final Cut and even iMovie.
Low-cost filming and editing solutions have been around for several years now and have helped independent filmmakers immensely. The real exciting technology on the horizon now is digital projection. Even though many recent films, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire, were shot digitally, they paradoxically had to be converted backwards to film in order to be shown with the outdated projectors employed in most movie theaters. Just like shooting on film, this is very expensive, so it prevents low-budget filmmakers from being able to present their work to a large audience. 3D movies that require digital projection, such as Avatar, are forcing many theaters to replace their film projectors with new digital ones. Once this transformation takes place (AMC, for example, plans to replace all film projectors with digital ones by 2012), there is no physical barrier standing between low-budget filmmakers and large theater audiences.
Of course, another obstacle more daunting for independent filmmakers than the physical roadblocks remains: legal issues. Although any video file on an external hard drive can soon be shown in any movie theater, most theater chains have distribution deals worked out with studios, so that only certain movies are allowed to be screened in certain places. Translation: don’t expect the documentary you made in class to get shown at the Loews Boston Common any time soon.
The goal of the movie industry, just like that of any other business, is to make money. Hollywood holds no latent discrimination against independent filmmakers (well, we hope not); it’s just that low-budget, specialized, limited-release films are harder to generate money with than big-budget, mass-market studio films. One of the most important functions of a studio is marketing; that is, getting the word out to the public and generating a buzz so that audiences will purchase the product. Most independents are too non-traditional to be marketed to the masses, so studios don’t want to waste their time and money on them. Consequently, independents aren’t marketed well, which dooms their business to obscurity.
Cue the Web 2.0 revolution. In only the last five years, the Internet has finally proven itself as humanity’s most powerful tool for mass-mobilization. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…it’s now possible for a kid with a webcam to screen content to millions of viewers without spending a dime. Although it is still difficult to predict how to best monetize that potential, it’s clear that you no longer need a big budget or a fancy contract to market your creations.