Will the internet free motion pictures from the old ways of telling stories?

By Randy Finch

In 1958 the most influential film critic of his day, André Bazin, wrote that the 19th century invention of photography had brought with it “a great spiritual and technical crisis” that profoundly affected other arts – in particular painting.

After the invention of the camera, the burden of what Bazin called “duplicating the world outside” was snatched away from painters and handed to photographers.

Here’s how Bazin describes what happened next: Photography “freed Western painting, once and for all, from its obsession with realism.”

In other words, André Bazin argued that modern painting – with its emphasis on abstraction - would not have existed without photography.

While some painters saw opportunity and pursued non- representational art in the late 1800s, many Old World painters were not happy. Similarly, these days many established professionals are not happy that their accustomed role in motion picture storytelling is being usurped by cellphone-wielding “amateurs.”

But (then as now) the Old Guard’s contempt has never stopped tech- savvy entrepreneurs from coming up with better ways to serve fundamental human needs (like storytelling)...

We’ll never know what André Bazin would have made of the spiritual and technical crisis that the internet has caused in the early years of the 21st century. André Bazin died in late 1958, when he was just 40 years old. But undeniably the 20th century’s dominant art forms - including filmmaking - are undergoing a significant disruption: A disruption that mirrors the changes that photography forced on traditional realistic painting 150 years ago.

In the early 1800s, before the invention of photography, painters were the acknowledged masters of accurate representation. For centuries, painters had served a special role in the culture. That role ended abruptly when the photograph and photographers arrived. As Bazin observed (writing 100 years after the fact), the change in the role that

painters served came with fundamental changes to the aesthetic goals of painting. For example, because photography in the 19th century lacked color, pioneering Impressionist painters emphasized the role of color in their art.

Cameras, utilizing “automatic means,” were the disruptive technology of 150 years ago. Today the internet and affordable digital tools are replacing the old systems for producing and distributing motion pictures. As everyone knows, the internet has already disrupted the business models and forced changes to the aesthetics of newspapers and music. And, just as photography created new revenue streams in the 19th century (e.g., photography shops sprang up to serve common people, who could never own a painted portrait), the new digital tools are in the process of creating new revenue streams for motion pictures. (With all the lamentation about motion picture revenue lost to “piracy” – has anyone tallied up how many billions will be spent worldwide in the next few years on devices and mobile plans for viewing online video?) Most importantly, when the human impulse toward a “likeness of the real” became readily available to a mass audience 150 years ago through photographs, the aesthetics of Old World painting changed. Does the advent of the internet hold a similar promise for a new aesthetics of motion pictures?

How will motion pictures change when motion picture narrative is freed from delivering content that the web does better? Are there elements of storytelling (e.g., exposition? back story?) that might be better delivered on a second screen or via hypertext? If traditional movies are not as immersive as some interactive web-experiences, or there are elements of popular storytelling that the web does better, how will traditional movies evolve? Will the hero’s pearl–handled pistols remain unexplained in a New World Hollywood film – with some fans seeking and finding the story of the pistols online? Will Hollywood motion pictures continue to emphasize big-budget spectacle (something that democratized online filmmaking doesn’t currently offer) or will other aesthetic goals emerge that reinvigorate Old World film production?

Traditional portrait painters didn’t give up without a fight and the transition to a new way of motion pictures won’t be easy either. Old World movies will survive; after all, it’s still possible to get a realistic

portrait painted today. But, as Bazin notes, photography narrowed the psychological and cultural reasons for having a portrait painted. The reasons for commissioning and sitting for a painter today (ostentatious show? self-indulgence? vanity?) are not entirely the same as they were before photography. Which begs the question: What kind of filmmakers will continue to make films in the Old World Hollywood model, once democratized filmmaking is the dominant form?

Just as some painters advanced their art after photography, the redefinition of filmmaking in a digitally networked world comes with opportunity. Some pioneering painters seized the moment in the 19th century: Who are the young filmmakers today who will be remembered tomorrow for their innovative contributions to the aesthetics of modern filmmaking?

150 years after photography changed painting forever, we are living through another democratization of representational art. To paraphrase André Bazin, the aesthetics of Hollywood films and TV shows must change as the internet replaces some of their function. The question all filmmakers should be asking: How will the internet free motion pictures from their obsession with the old ways of telling stories?

Randy Finch has produced movies (e.g., OUTSIDE PROVIDENCE and THE SUBSTANCE OF FIRE) and plays (e.g., work at Lincoln Center in NY and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC). Mr. Finch has also contributed to online storytelling experiences (e.g.,plantcitystories.com and miraclemileparadox.com). Mr. Finch’s first film, MILES FROM HOME, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Finch currently teaches New World filmmaking at the University of Central Florida.

Integrating Entrepreneurial Training Into Graduate Film Programs

I was excited to learn recently about how entrepreneurial skills are in integral part of the University of Central Florida MFA filmmaking program.  I gave a talk at LAFF on "The Rise Of  The Artist Entrepreneur" and find many filmmakers woefully under-equipped to navigate the demands of both survival and creation in today's world.  Randy Finch helped start UCF's innovative program in 2005 and I asked him to explain it a bit further. This is his guest post:

Not all filmmakers want to know about writing business plans, entity formation, the uses of social media and DIY distribution strategies. The MFA program at UCF is not for everyone. Our program is designed for a small group of microbudget digital filmmakers. If you are not prepared to do everything (including raising your own financing) that it takes to get a feature made and marketed for under $50,000, we're not for you. While I agree with Ted that financing, distribution and marketing should be woven into today's independent filmmaker's education, I also understand the recent backlash from filmmakers who have no interest in these subjects. The reason most of us got into this was not to become experts in distribution, marketing or finance. But in the 20+ years since I first became an independent filmmaker, I've been compelled to learn about VHS deals, sale leasebacks, foreign presales, negative pick-ups and all sorts of other arcane (and now mostly useless) business practices.

As far as I can tell, being an independent filmmaker has always meant hustling to get the money and an audience. So teaching my students about the new models of distribution, transmedia storytelling, forming an LLC and the like - is not really such a stretch. Just like all the other parts of the filmmaking process, the entrepreneurial stuff independent filmmakers must navigate today are just skills that can (and, I think, should) be learned. Of course, you can choose to ignore what happens with your film after you're done with the editing - just as you can choose to ignore visual storytelling, sound recording and the intricacies of post-production workflow - but the more you know about all aspects of the filmmaking process, the better.

I'd be lying if I said that the students in our Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema MFA track all happily accomplish every task we put in front of them. The two classes they are required to take in UCF's Business School (Entrepreneurship and Business Plan Formation) are generally not their favorites. And the paperwork they are required to submit to get their degree (after they've written, budgeted, scheduled, financed, insured, pre-produced, cast, crewed, directed, edited, and mixed their own microbudget feature) detailing everything they've done and how they now plan to release their film, always seems excessive. (I tell them that we require less paperwork than the delivery requirements of most distribution companies, but it never seems to soothe them.)

But now that their films are starting to circulate, and our graduates are starting their own careers, the results are very positive. Last time I checked, everyone who has received an MFA from UCF Film is working in the film business. And the first three graduates from our program have all launched their films on the festival circuit, where they all have won awards (including: Best Narrative Feature at the 2010 Gasparilla International Film Festival, Best Feature Director 2009 LA Femme Film Festival, 2009 Silver Crystal Reel Award for Best Feature $1 Million and Under from the Florida Motion Picture and Television Association, and Best Feature, Best Score and Best Cinematography at the 2009 Bend Film Festival in Oregon).

So, in addition to a finished feature length film and an MFA (a credential that will allow them to teach at the University level), everyone who completes UCF's graduate program in Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema has been exposed to ALL parts of the filmmaking process - including film financing, marketing and distribution using online tools. Whether they want to use all the tools when they get out is up to them. But, by the time they graduate, all our students really know what it takes to make and market an independent feature.

-- Randy Finch