Film Gigging: Towards A Lo-Fi Film Circuit

Today's guest post is by John Bradburn. Why do kids make music and not films? It’s a right of passage for teenagers up and down the land to jump in a van and travel the length of the country with instruments to play shows. These same kids save up to buy guitars and record demos. They may not make a profit but they enjoy the ride. I want to know why this doesn’t happen with filmmakers. What are the barriers to grassroots film exhibition or Film Gigging and what can we learn from the model most bands work on?

Kids don’t make films. For the cost of a set of instruments you could buy a digital camera and a laptop. Four people can make a film quite easily and with the same level of technological skill needed to record and mix a demo. But kids don’t. Jean Cocteau famously stated that film would only be an art when its materials were as cheap as pen and paper. Well now it’s certainly as cheap as an Ibenez guitar.

The film industry looks like the music industry if we thought we could only record songs with orchestras in the Albert Hall. There is no lo-fi film circuit. There are small budget shorts but 95% are aiming at the mainstream. There are even less film ‘labels’ that fund and distribute films like albums. CDs and DVDs are physically the same. If you can get an album reviewed you can get a film reviewed. So logically there should be an equal amount of indie film labels as there are music labels.

The issue is not with the availability of ‘cinemas’ and lets be clear a cinema is just any old space that can screen a film. Most bars have a big screen projector, speakers and a DVD. Sure there are short film evenings but they work on a different level. Films are frequently chosen by a selector and then screened in a micro festival model. Crucially the money generally goes to the exhibitor not the filmmaker. This would be like paying Glastonbury £90 to listen to your demo on the hope of being selected.

I am trying a different model. I am taking my feature – Wrists - to small venues around the UK in a film-gigging model. I’m taking the film to any screen that will show it where ever that is. I’d even love to be invited to someone’s house and show it to a group of friends. After the screening I’ll sell some DVDs of Wrists or some of my other films. This is entirely possible because it’s a small film for a small audience (It cost about £2, 000 and was shot with a crew of 3). I believe that if your film has a small audience then you should make it for a small amount of money. Reinvest your profits and then continue as any band would.

Much of the influence for this comes from the DIY punk and hardcore music scene. In the 1980s Dischord Records started releasing the bands from Washington DC area. They did everything themselves and released the albums at affordable prices because their overheads were low. They looked at the technology and the audience and worked out a profitable cost structure. They did not look to the received wisdom of the industry (which is currently destroying EMI ). This route is simple but it is a lot of hard work for slow and modest rewards. But you will enjoy the ride.

The 80s hardcore scene made famous the phrase ‘the personal is political.” I worry that our current film industry squeezes out marginal voices because of the perceived cost of filmmaking. Filmmakers feel less empowered to experiment or be honest in their films. I fear that most of the filmmakers we see need acceptance – to be chosen for a festival or given a job in the industry. The perception of cost makes investors always go for the safer or more mainstream or more like what has happened before type product. Technology has now leveled this playing field.

We need a paradigm shift in our thoughts as filmmakers. We are not ‘directors’ or ‘producers’ we are filmmakers who need to own their film, tour their film, sell their film and find their audience. Filmmakers should ask themselves what technology do I really need and what crew is essential to its operation.

Bands are technical – they play their instruments. Films are frequently divided in to talent and technicians. This is illogical and stupid and raises the cost exponentially. If you have an idea to make a film have the passion to learn how to use a camera. Just like kids playing shows and living in the back of a van. Guitarists get better by playing guitar and filmmakers get better by making films not waiting for them to happen. And yes the glamour of the film industry may probably have to go.

This project is aimed to open up a debate about what we expect from film – does it need to be so bloated and only exist in a cinema? Even ‘art-house’ takes on budgets that are beyond the imagination of most people. I argue that this is only through received wisdom rather than looking at the facts of what technology is available, what film you want to make and how to connect with that audience.

Much of the impetus for this idea came from working as the DOP on the 72 Hour Feature project that came out of Staffordshire University’s Digital Film Production Research team. This experience of shooting, editing and screening a feature in 72 hours showed me more than anything that we should look at the evidence of how a film is possible rather than decades old assumptions. And I fear these assumptions are the only barriers to grass routes film exhibition. You can see more details on Wrists at wristsfilm.blogspot.com

You can read more about the 72 Hour Film Project at www.72hourmovie.com You can email me on j.p.bradburn@googlemail.com if you have any comments or want to book a screening. It’s free in the UK by the way.

John Bradburn is a filmmaker, journalist and lecturer at Staffordshire University in Film Production Technology. His no budget feature Kyle played in the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival, West County Festival Los Angeles and Flatpack UK. His research interests include new distribution models, digital film language and DIY Aesthetics.