Over the past few months, since the announcements of the new RED Epic and Scarlet and the Canon C300digital cinema cameras, and now with all the buzz about the 2K Digital Bolex, various people have asked me (and this is an amalgam of these conversations):
“So, Mike, which one are you going to get? The Canon or the RED Scarlet?”
“Neither. I’m sticking with my Canon 7D?”
“Huh? But don’t you want the raw 4:4:4 files?”
“So your picture looks great up on a big screen.”
“Nobody’s going to be throwing my films up on the big screen. They did at festivals, but that’s as far as indie cinema goes.”
“Well, we’re looking at investing in one of these for our films –- so we can attract theatrical distribution.”
“Nobody’s going to give you theatrical distribution. That’s dead.”
“But what about Steven Soderbergh and Contagion? That was shot on a RED Epic and that’s in theaters.”
“That’s because it’s Soderbergh and he’s backed by the studios. The theater chains want studio movies, blockbusters, mainstream entertainment. That’s what sells tickets—not niche independent films.”
“What about Peter Jackson and the new Hobbit movies? Those are being shot on RED.”
“So what? Peter Jackson’s got a studio sinking $100 million or much, much more. They’re doing that because he’s Peter Jackson—not because he’s doing it on a RED.”
“But you’re a camera guy. You don’t want to shoot on a RED or the new Canon? Why stick with the Canon 7D?”
“Because it’s paid for. How are you going to pay for the RED Epic and all the add-ons you’re going to need?”
“Well, we’re looking for investors.”
“I don’t believe in investors. I don’t think it’s moral to use other people’s money to pay for my playtime.”
I would love to shoot with the RED Epic or a Scarlet. From what I’ve read they sound like perfect cinema cameras. Small, simple, compact, unobtrusive. I would love to have one. But I could not personally justify such an extravagance.
If I were a freelance commercial photographer/D.P. where my livelihood was earned by shooting projects and getting paid very nicely for it — and where I would be charging out the use of my gear to the producers of those projects -– then yes, absolutely. The RED Epic or the Canon C300 would be a dream camera to own. A well-know independent D.P. like Philip Bloom is a perfect example of someone who has a legitimate use for that type of gear.
But I’m not that kind of filmmaker. I have a paying gig as a TV news photographer/photojournalist/shooter and my film ventures are made on my own time at my own expense.
My role model on these projects, as I have stated in my book Naked Filmmaking, has been John Cassavetes. At a time in the mid-1960s, when movies were being made in 35mm color, he independently made Faces, one of his two masterpieces (the other being A Woman Under The Influence), in the mid-Sixties with $200,000 of his own money using a secondhand Éclair NPR and black & white 16mm film. He didn’t worry about making a film that was technically competitive with the films of the day. Cassavetes focused on making a film that unlike other films and focused on acting, life and honesty. His attitude was that anybody can get enough people together to make a film that is technically well-crafted. But not nobody was making films that were real, outside of documentaries, that were looking at the human condition and emotion. Faces went on to be a financial and critical success, as well as earning several Oscar nominations.
It’s also worth noting that people like Philip Bloom who have made big names for themselves blogging about the gear available and what they shoot with, are professional D.P.s. They also significantly supplement their income by holding workshops and sharing their knowledge with people who are willing to pay large tuitions. There are a large number of people who come to believe that through their association with someone who has made a name for themselves, that they, too, are qualified to be in that same circle and similar success will start flowing their way.
DON’T BE SOLD A BURDEN OF DREAMS.
There is a misbegotten belief that if you are making a film and shooting it on the same type of camera as the big guys that you are making a big film as well and will receive the same kind of recognition and financial rewards and success as the big filmmakers.
Of course, this is an image that’s promoted by the makers and sellers of all these jazzy and very expensive new cameras.
And why? Because these expensive new cameras will make you a better filmmaker?
No!!! Because it will sell more cameras! It’s what ad men do—they sell dreams. (Hasn’t anybody learned anything from Madmen?)
ON THE SUBJECT OF INDEPENDENT FILMS GETTING DISTRIBUTION:
I read an article shortly after this year’s Tribeca Film Festival that touted the number of films presented there that were picked up for distribution. The films with big names involved naturally got picked up by big name distributors.
The interesting thing is that the next tier of so-called “independent films” –- and I put this in quotes because I ascribe to Richard Linklater’s definition that “an independent film is a film that you pay for with your credit card” — that were picked up for distribution were for digital distribution online.
What makes this so interesting is that the distribution is actually non-distribution. By that I mean that the film will be converted to an easily downloadable file, or perhaps several types of files and formats, from which consumers will download onto their computer, Apple TV, whatever.
I call this “non-distribution” because “distribution” in the past has meant having 35mm prints made and sending them out across the country to independent cinema, as well as manufacture, duplication and distribution of thousands of DVDs sent out to stores.
However, with digital distribution no prints will be made. Instead, the film is converted into a digital file. And the “distributor” only needs a single digital file from with people anywhere in the country can access to download onto their TVs, computer screens, iPods, iPhones, Androids and so on.
No 35mm internegatives. No 35mm prints. No DVD cover art and jewel boxes.
Just a computer file of a few highly compressed Gigabits of size in a computer somewhere.
And that’s it!
All the time, expense, 2K or 4K capturing and mastering for presentation from a DVD or Blu-Ray disk at a film festival screening –- which you did not get a piece of the box office ticket sales –- ends up as highly compressed 720 or 1080 file on a hard drive that’s probably playing out of a salt mine in the middle of Kansas.
Also, the distribution deal –- it’s a 50/50 split with the distributor after their expenses. And that’s a 50/50 split of another 50/50 split with whoever else is putting the film out on their cable channel or digital download store.
On the other hand, ahis also drastically slashes the overhead for traditional distribution—no 35mm prints, no posters and newspaper advertising, no TV or radio spots. Everything is promoted online using social media. An enormous cost savings. This means that virtually all the revenue that the films general go directly into the bank accounts of the distributor and filmmakers. And online revenues are much easier to keep track of. No cash exchanging hands, so it’s much harder to be siphoned off into greedy pockets.
OKAY, MIKE, SO WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH THE RED SCARLET OR EPIC?
Very simple. What is the purpose to investing $10,000-$50,000 into a camera system that produces a fabulous image that can fill an IMAX screen, as in the case of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion?
If you’re making a film where it’s market is going to be on DVDs (while there still are DVDs) or Blu Ray disks or online download, then a camera that captures an image any greater than that is overkill. It’s nice, but it’s not going to show up.
But what about screenings in film festivals?
Film festivals are not a factor. Film festivals are all run on very tight budgets. They all present films in digital projection, but only the very biggest festivals will be projecting at a very high resolution—and, frankly, if a film that was financed by a studio is being screened at a festival, the studio would most likely pay to bring in their own digital projector for the screening.
Most festivals run a good quality projection, but a RED resolution projection of 4k or higher is beyond the average film festival budget. So, again, an independent film produced on that high of resolution is never going to be seen on most screens.
If you’re making an independent film and actually are seeking investment money, don’t take money from people to make a film where you can’t return the money back.
Don’t take other people’s money in order to purchase a $30,000 camera when the film doesn’t stand a chance of playing on a screen that could be beautifully filled with a camera that could cost $3,000-$6,000.
This is why I believe in independent films being self-financed. When you make movies with money out of your own pocket, you think two or three or four times before you start shelling out a lot of bread on toys.
I’m going to stick with my Canon 7D. It’s paid for. Then when I do make my next film I’ll be much, much closer to something that my friends buying Epics, Scarletts and C300s will never see –- profits.