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“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
President Obama
State of the Union Address 1/25/11
(Referencing the Soviet’s rocket launch in 1957 which fueled the USA in the space race.)

“The piece of advice that Walter Gretzky gave (his son) Wayne Gretzky was this…’don’t go where the puck’s been, go where it’s gonna to be.’ The philosophy was simple, if you puck chase you’re always going to be behind the game…You want to be the person that’s where the puck’s going to be.”
Filmmaker Kevin Smith
Sundance 2011

Back in the good old days of 1994 filmmaker Kevin Smith sold his $27,000 film Clerks at Sundance. A year later Edward Burns’ $25,000 film The Brothers McMullen was sold. Both Smith and Burns have continued carving out careers since that time and if you want to see which way the wind is blowing take a look at the direction they are heading as independent filmmakers.

A few months ago Burns’ self-produced Nice Guy Johnny (for again $25,000) and released it on iTunes. And earlier this week Kevin Smith announced that for his latest film, The Red State, he will not be selling the film at Sundance, but instead self-distributing the film first taking it on the road to large venues across the county where he will be speaking after showing the film.

His rational is he has a large fan base that follow his podcasts, Twitter feeds, etc. and he (or a studio) doesn’t need to spend $20 million advertising the film. We’ll see how it plays out. But it’s a good indicator of where the puck is heading for one group of filmmakers.

If you wanted to pinpoint indie film’s modern Sputnik moment I think it’s fitting to point to 1999 when The Blair Witch Project showed Hollywood the power of the internet. More than 10 years later we live in a digital world that has altered the music industry and now well into altering the film and Tv industry.

Five years ago we were watching poor quality short videos on You Tube and today you can stream feature films in high quality directly to your computer or TV via Netflix or the like. It’s no surprise that the last Blockbuster video store in my area announced this month that it was going out of business (following Hollywood Video stores that are long gone).

If independent filmmakers can raise their own money, make their own films AND can control the distribution—that is truly independent filmmaking. It’s a new game for filmmakers everywhere—from LA, to Iowa, and even the former Soviet Union. Heck, I can even see hockey great Walter Gretzky making his own films with his actress wife Janet Jones. (Still remember her role in The Flamingo Kid.)

The old Hollywood expression was it takes an army to make a film, these days you just need a camera—and an army of Twitter/Facebook/You Tube followers interested in the stories you tell. (Some of them won’t just be watching your films, but helping you raise funds as well.)

P.S. Speaking of Sundance & the Internet, I received a form email today from Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald saying, “Today we are unveiling Life in a Day at Sundance for the film’s World Premiere. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you for participating in this extraordinary experience….” I was part of the You Tube community who on July 21, 2010 submitted one of the 80,000 clips that they were gathering for a 90 minute film. (Edited down from 4,500 hours of footage. So close. I can always say, “I was this close to having a film in Sundance this year”.)  It will be interesting to see the final film.  Here’s a teaser:

Scott W. Smith

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“The world needs a new culture around creativity…Being Creative makes this planet a better place.”
Chase Jarvis

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…”
Genesis 1

About ten years ago I read a Tom Peters quote that off the top of my head was something like;  “Sometimes to rejuvenate yourself creatively, you need to move to another climate or another culture.” Seven years ago I moved to Iowa (“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by”—Frost) and that has made all the difference. Long story short, it turned out to be the change I needed to rejuvenate myself creatively. In a sense it was a step back from the track I had been on.

I had been on the traditional track, doing traditional things, with a traditional mindset. Even the places I lived were somewhat traditional for somebody with a creative mindset—Miami, Los Angeles, Orlando. And along the way I got to work with some good people on good productions, traveled a good bit, and kept up with the creative changes by embracing new technology as it came my way, like shooting stills and video digitally and going from editing film on a Steenbeck flatbed to editing with an AVID. (And now FCP, Motion, Soundtrack, etc., etc.)

But I ways also looking for something different. Something that tapped into that creative ideal I had when I was 18-years-old. Along the way I was also reading Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and Seth Godin. Turns out the same people Chase Jarvis*, a Seattle-based photographer, has been reading. Jarvis is a piece of the puzzle of bridging the gap between the old traditional creative guard and a new way of doing things that is well on its way. This new thing, this wave of change, Jarvis calls “social art.”

What is social art? Jarvis says, “I can’t say exactly what it is, but I can tell you that it’s creating content and context. It’s interdisciplinary, it’s participatory, it’s interactive, and it’s symbiotic. Everybody can win. Most importantly I think social art is incomplete if there’s not another person on the end of the pipe in some way, shape or form participating in that art with you. “ (Have you ever written a screenplay that didn’t get produced? Yeah, me too. That’s a good example of an incomplete art.)

Social art could be a communal dinner where someone is sharing their art of cooking, while another is sharing a song, and others are showing photographs, paintings, and films. What a wonderful world, right?

And despite all of the negativity associated with the Internet there is an amazing amount of sharing of creative content. Dare I say communities connecting via Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and the like. Today people are connecting and freely sharing information with the same zeal that the old tradional guard tried to hide.

Last week Jarvis spoke in New York City at the Photo Plus Expo and said, “I’m asking you to put yourself at the center of a new art, a social art where you’re creating something and sharing it with those around you…Take more picture, be fearless, put yourself out there, shoot more films, build tools—the iPhone app is a great tool, and educate. At the end of the day what I’m talking about is the democratization of creativity.”

It’s an exciting time to be in the creative arts. I have a first hand view of young creative people (some with no traditional arts education) who are carving out niches taking pictures, producing music videos, making films, painting, creating animation, and designing graphics and websites. And they’re earning a living not even aware of the fading traditional way of doing things.

“This is the most exciting time in the history of the world to be a photographer…It’s the first time in the history of the world that content creators are also distributors. Anybody in this room, if you took a picture of me in the hallway you have— within five minutes—you can have a blog, a Facebook account, Twitter and be sharing your work. The content creators are the content distributors. And the best thing about this is we don’t have to ask anybody’s permission.

Until now everything previous to this you had to have permission if you wanted to show your work on any sort of scale. Sure you could show your work to your friends, you could walk around New York with a portfolio, walk into five ad agencies in a day, sure—that’s that scale. You needed permission from the gallerist, you needed permission from the magazine editor, the photo editor, you needed to get tapped, selected by the ad agency to be able to show your work on any sort of scale. Those days are over. Any person in here can share what they create, with scale, right now.”
Chase Jarvis
PDN PhotoPlusNewYork

This may not be the most exciting time in the history of the world to be a traditional screenwriter. But to be a screenwriter with a “social art” mindset it’s an incredible time. Imagine writing a script, doing an online reading, gathering a following, rasing money through a Kickstarter campaign, making your film, generating interest via your blog,  and distributing it via DVD sales on your website and iTunes rentals and sales. That is not the future, these are tools that are at your disposal right now.

Over the weekend we’ll look at how writer/director/actor Edward Burns is a great model for independent filmmakers. For his latest film,  Nice Guy Johnny, Edwards is both the creator and the distributor.

*Jarvis has a blog and you can follow him on Twitter @chasejarvis.

Scott W. Smith

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“Part of a songwriter’s job is to be a scout… to go ahead and come back with a report of the good or the danger that lies ahead.”
Charlie Peacock

If you can avoid Farmville and Mafia Wars on Facebook you can occasionally stumble upon some good stuff on the social network.

About fifteen years ago I met musician and record producer Charlie Peacock at a conference and have followed his career ever since. He’s had an interesting and diverse creative career producing, writing and recording everything from pop & jazz, to gospel & Christian.

Perhaps his biggest pop success was as one of the writers of the Amy Grant song Every Heartbeat, which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Charts back in the 90s.  Arc of The Circle that he produced was #2 on the CMJ Jazz Charts a few years ago. As a producer, he is a Grammy-winner and is listed by Billboard’s Encyclopedia of Record Producers as one of the 500 most important record producers in music history.

Most recently Peacock, who is based in Nashville, has worked on a couple films. Last year he was executive producer of the feature-length documentary Any Day Now. He was also a music supervisor on the film To Save a Life that is being released in a few days.He also produced The Civil Wars’ (Joy Williams/John Paul White) song Poison & Wine that was featured last year on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

If you spend five minutes with him you’ll know he has an artist’s soul. He’s concerned about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Somewhere in the last year or so I reconnected with him on Facebook, and last night I followed a thread he had posted about his new blog (recordproducer.typepad.com)  and that led me to a use a Christmas gift card to buy all the songs on an iTunes iMix of songs produced by Charlie Peacock.

It features the song Poison & Wine as well nine other songs that are simply beautiful songs that somehow transform you to that otherworldly place that music can sometimes take you.

Good writing and producing can do that.

Scott W. Smith

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One of the best places to hear interviews with top screenwriters is Jeff Goldsmith’s iTunes podcasts that are a part of the Creative Screenwriters Film Screen Series. Currently there are 100 interviews with various writers and directors and they are free. 

Goldsmith is the senior editor of the magazine Creative Screenwriting and if you go to their website at www.creativescreenwriting.com you can link to it from there. Just look for “Free Podcast” and follow the promps. Great stuff.

 

Scott W. Smith

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New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

“The future of cinema lies in the power of the pixel. The injection of fresh ideas and methodologies will only serve to mix up the metaphorical gene pool and empower a new generation of filmmakers.
                                                                                           Roger Corman

“The comeback of documentaries is strictly linked to the arrival of digital technology. We only see the tip of the iceberg. The whole the notion of distribution will be changed in the next decade.”
                                                                                          Wim Wenders

“I wanted this movement to be like the French New Wave, in which directors told different types of stories and used the language of cinema a little differently, with smaller cameras on real locations.”
                                                                                           Gary Winick

“Cinema has always been marriage of technology and human talent.”
                                                                                           Francis Ford Coppola 

 

Francis Ford Coppola is a prophet. As he gets older he even starts to look like a Moses-like figure. (Well, at least Charlton Heston-like.)  He’s every screenwriters friend and should be an inspiration to you.

He’s made great films (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), he’s made money and lost money, he’s won five Oscars, he even has a daughter who’s won an Oscar for screenwriting, he’s been a visionary, an artist, “a idea machine,” he own a resort in Belize and a home in Buenos Aires, and he makes a good bottle of wine there in Northern California.

A few months ago I was doing a shoot in the San Francisco Bay area and had an opportunity to make a quick stop in Napa Valley. I had not been there in over a decade and one of the things that struck me was it reminded me of Iowa. Then I realized why, it’s farm land with many Victorian homes scattered around.

Granted those homes in California are five times more expensive than the ones in Iowa. But the area has a similar feel.  In fact if you head west on Interstate 80 from Iowa after a couple days you will end up in California which is essentially what Midwest people did years ago on the first transcontinetal highway looking for new opportunities (and before that looking for gold). Which is why the street names in Napa include, Iowa St., Illinois St., Omaha Ct. and Kansas Ave.

I won’t get into Coppola being born in Michigan because there’s too much room to cover already. Toward the end of part 1 of this post I mentioned Coppola using video on The Outsiders back in 1982.  But before that film he also used video according to ASC cinematographer Russ Alsobrook:

“In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola directed One from the Heart from inside his 28-foot Airstream trailer designed as a complete “Image and Sound Control Center” complete with editing suite, kitchen and Jacuzzi. Aside from the Jacuzzi, the most unusual new piece of equipment that found its way into virtually every aspect of production on One from the Heart was the computer. From word processors in the script phase to budgeting, scheduling, storyboarding, sophisticated video tapes with playback and instant editing, the newest in silicon technology was being integrated into the Hollywood system.”

Coppola and those working with him 25 years ago showed where the technology was heading and helped pave the way. Earlier this year his first film in ten years, Youth Without Youth was released. It was shot on with a high end HD video camera and edited on Final Cut Pro. With five Oscars behind him I’m pulling for Coppola himself to do some of his best work ever in this new cinema.

I’m pulling for you too which is why this is a monster length post, even after being broken up into two parts. It’s important for you to grasp where all the technology is heading. 

What happened between Coppola’s Airstream video center in 1982 and today that makes it an exciting time to be a screenwriter and filmmaker?

Let’s start with 1997. That was the year that digital video arrived on the scene with the Sony VX1000. It was a leap in image quality, portability, and cost and independent filmmakers jumped on board. Lars von Trier’s was one of the first to shoot a feature with the Sony VX1000. He did the camera work as well as direct The Idiots, which was in competition at Cannes in 1998.

In 2000 Van Trier released Dancer in the Dark which was also shot on video, but in one scene he used 100 DV cameras.  Let it be stated that the critics have be far apart on judging his films. Rodger Ebert wrote, “It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture.” Another reviewer called it “A 2 ½ hour demo of auteurist self-importance that’s artistically bankrupt on almost every level.” (Derek Elly, Variety) But another reviewer said of the same film, “An exhilarating and original work of cinema. A triumph of form, content, and artistic integrity. Astonishing!” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly)

Dancer in the Dark went on to win the top award at the Cannes film festival.

In 2000, Spike Lee chose to shoot most of his $10 million dollar film Bamboozled with the Sony VX1000. In that same year Academy-award winning director Michael Figgis released a DV feature Timecode.

Another film first happened in 2002 with Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark that was shot digitally in one take.  Impossible to do with film due to limitations of film loads. (Though Hitchcock did his best to make Rope look like one take.) Russian Ark was shot not with a DV camera but a Sony HD camera. That same year Academy –award winning director Steven Soderbergh shot a DV feature Full Frontal.

Jerry Seinfeld was executive producer and featured performer for the DV documentary Comedian (2002) that covered his return to stand-up comedy after his successful run on the TV hit Seinfeld. It was made with a small crew, is raw in production values, but offers a unique behind the scene look at the work of a comedian.

In 1999 a company called InDigEnt was formed by director/producer Gary Winick, John Sloss, Jonathan Sehring, and Caroline Kaplan. 

“I got inspired by the Dogme 95 movement because I felt they were starting to tell the types of stories and tell stories in a different way, and I was hoping at InDigEnt we would do that.”
                                                                                                   Gary Winick

Winick directed Tadpole, shot with a Sony PD-150 DV camera, and won the Best Director Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

InDigEnt also made my personal favorite DV feature Pieces of April in 2003. It won many awards at film festivals and actress Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar.  It written and directed by Peter Hedges (who also wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?)

In an Interview with Indie Wire Winick told Matthew Ross:

“I could have shot Tadpole on 35mm, and would it have been a better film? I don’t know. Would I have gotten that cast? I don’t know. Part of the reasons for the cast wanting to be in the film, besides the material, was that they were all interested in working in DV, which I presented it to them as this hybrid between the theater and film. And also, I only need you for two weeks and not two months.”

Ross: I’ve never heard DV described as a hybrid of theater and film.

Winick: Actually it was Sigourney Weaver who inspired me to phrase it that way. But I think it’s well-put for a couple of reasons. One is that you can let the scene keep rolling; you can let the scene unfold like you would in theater. The actors can just perform…Digital cameras can be portable enough that if you suddenly come up with a new approach, you can just back up and redo your scene….Charlie Chaplin used to make films that way… These days, studios just aren’t going to give directors permission to play around that way in 35mm — on DV, you can.

And in 2004 the InDigEnt produced November starring Courteney Cox and shot with a $4,000. Panasonic DVX 100 DV camera by director of photography Nancy Schreiber who won best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival.

That same year at Sundance Morgan Spurlock earned the Directing Award for Super Size Me and the documentary Born into Brothels won an audience award, both of which were shot on digital video cameras. Brothels beat Super at the Academy Awards.

So in less than a decade digital video made some incredible inroads winning international awards and finding audiences.

You can sit around and argue all day about how film is superior to digital video, but folks the train has left the station. And it’s going to get wilder.  I really don’t think most audiences watching the above films or other DV features such as Trainspotting, Murderball, The Buena Vista Social Club, Inland Empire, and Grizzly Man really care what the film was shot on. They want to be entertained, engaged and get a glimpse into the world they live in. Dare I say films with meaning?

All of this means there are going to be more opportunities for films made and distributed outside the Hollywood system.  People have been dreaming about this time since at least 1955 when Daily Variety’s headline read “Film is Dead” with the invention of the first Ampex video tape recording machine. That bold declaration, and those like it, have caused much laughter. Hollywood is slow to change.

It’s always fun to look back at past predictions and read things like, “The radio will never replace TV because people have to stop and sit down to watch TV” and that Manhattan would never have more than 1 million people living there because there wouldn’t be enough room for all the horses.” 

I remember when a trailer for Silkwood came out in ’83 and Cher’s name appeared on screen. People in the theater laughed. Apparently they missed her excellent film acting debut performance in Robert Altman’s Welcome Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean that came out in 1982.

To the people laughing, Cher was only known as part of the kitchy TV program The Sonny and Cher Show that ran from 1976-1977. She had had a few hit songs, but no one (except Altman perhaps) took her as a serious actress. They weren’t laughing after they saw her performance in Silkwood or the next year for her roll in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, or her academy-award winning performance in Moonstruck.

But that’s the same laughter that I heard when my boyhood friends learned the motorcycle company Honda was going to make cars. It’s the same laughter that Ted Turner heard when he said he was going to start a 24 Hour News channel. When told by a reporter that he lost 10 million dollars in his first year of operation, in true maverick spirit he said, “And I plan on losing 10 million dollars every year until this works.”

No one’s laughing at CNN now and behind Tunrer’s wake are many channels dedicated to sports, weather, history, pets and home improvement. (Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dreams touches on the spirit of the entrepreneur.) The entrepreneur and the artist often share a stubborn vision of what is possible.

Artists have always taken the tools at hand and created art; Be it an old Polaroid camera or a cheap Russian made Holga camera. For years filmmakers have been using a plastic video camera designed by Fisher-Price in the 1970’s for children called PixelVision. It originally shot onto cassettes but now is commonly adapted for DV use and there are now PixelVision film festivals as well. 

Now that iTunes is selling short films from the Sundance Film Festival and Academy Award Nominated films it allows a revenue stream never seen before for short filmmakers. With a few clicks on your computer you can be watching The Last Farm shot in Iceland.

Most books on screenwriting are geared toward the traditional Hollywood feature film route and I’m indebted to those books for there I learned classic storytelling structure, but there are many alternative routes for you these days due to the increased bandwidth of the Internet.

Keep in mind that You Tube was just launched in 2005. And already it’s had success (Lonely Girl 15 and We Need Girlfriends) launching careers. The later now being developed by Sex in the City creator Darren Star, who is working on a CBS pilot with the original creators who made the videos in off hours from their day jobs.

And don’t forget the potential for screenwriting for videos games that have become more and more story orientated. Video game sales a couple years ago surpassed movie revenue. And every year more and more businesses will be using video on the Internet to tell their stories.

The digital genie is way out of the bottle. It may be digital but someone still has to write the screenplays. On the high end there will continue to be films shot digitally like Sin City and 300 that were shot on blue screens on sound stages, and this years’ $30 million Cloverfield which was shot mostly with the Panasonic HVX 200 digital camera that sells new for under $6,000. shooting onto digital P2 cards.

There will continually be upgrades to smaller high def DV cameras and films made from them, and there are films now being made being shot directly to hard drives and edited as they’re being shot, and even those older cameras like the Sony VX1000 will filter down to someone who decides its time to make a little film.

And let’s not forget those cell phone cameras I wrote about in New Cinema Screenwriting (Part 1).

This is filmmaking and screenwriting in the 21 century;  A screen is any screen available. Embrace it. That’s new cinema screenwriting.

So pick up a bottle of Coppola wine today a give a toast to Mr. Francis Ford Coppola, prophet, pioneer, and godfather of new cinema.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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