Jamie Stuart On The Evolving World Of DIY

Ted:  I reached out to Jamie, and as he explains...

Since my earlier e-mail generated a bit of traffic and comments, Ted asked me if I'd be willing to write a follow-up that addresses some of the subsequent points raised. I won't be commenting directly to any commenters, but in a more generalized manner.

Just to note, though I tend to write in a straightforward manner, I'm not angry with anybody or viewing things in black & white. And while I used my own work and experiences as a viewpoint for much of the preceding entry, I don't want there to be any confusion: Insofar as DIY filmmaking goes, over the past half-dozen years or so, I've been incredibly privileged and lucky. As well, my e-mail to Ted was not "unsolicited" -- I've known Ted for nearly 5 years at this point, as he was one of the first producers to offer to look at one of my screenplays.

Some commenters have been unfamiliar with my work and wondered how it can be seen. My website is The Mutiny Company (www.mutinycompany.com). Most of my web filmmaking has revolved around press opportunities (filmmaker interviews, film festivals), and in using that as a centerpiece, I've then created narrative short films and web series based around these documentary situations, functionally blending reality and staged fiction. This form of filmmaking arose out of plain pragmatism. In 2001, I worked as Jami Bernard's assistant, and from 2002-2004 I co-ran the website MovieNavigator.org, for which I was in charge of interviews and essays. By the time MN ran out of gas, the web was ready for large amounts of streaming video, so I tried to convince the film publicists I knew to let me shoot video interviews. However, at the time, independent cameras were not allowed at junkets and web video was not considered legitimate. This started to change in 2004 when The Film Society of Lincoln Center gave me carte blanche to shoot a 14-part web series from The New York Film Festival. Aside from their house videographer, I was the only other camera regularly shooting at the Walter Reade Theater. That led to a 6-month series in 2005 on Movie City News that expanded the established narrative/press format. In 2006, I started doing videos for Filmmaker Magazine, and in 2007, I began contributing to FilmInFocus. This niche of filmmaking has allowed my work to be posted regularly on many major industry news sites and blogs, guaranteeing a certain level of exposure.

There have been two basic strategies in the initial wave of digital DIY filmmaking -- one group immediately made no-budget features that didn't receive distribution and subsequently went to the web to gain exposure, and the other chose to start on the web to build exposure before making a feature. I belong to the latter category. I think a lot of the feature filmmakers weren't ready yet, either technically or in terms of contacts, and the lack of initial distribution success is a testament to that. While I would love to have made my first feature already, I'd rather be patient about it and do it right than to just do it. In the meantime, I can continue to polish my craft, gain greater exposure and make contacts.

DIY filmmaking has been uniformly revolutionary to the filmmaking process. Nowadays filmmakers can own their entire means of production and distribution: Prosumer cameras, affordable post software and, finally, the internet or DVD as a means of self-distribution. The industry as a whole has offered a surface embrace of this while actively seeking an offensive strategy against it (they talked up user-generated content, but their real agenda was to shift established/signed talent to the web rather than to promote upstarts). One thing that first-gen DIY-ers have invariably influenced is marketing. Personally, I haven't been too impressed by most of the filmmaking itself, but nobody can deny the success of Four Eyed Monsters' use of every social networking tool under the sun or Joe Swanberg's (always denied) mumblecore movement. In both cases, people remember the marketing a lot more than what was being marketed, and the legit industry has imitated and absorbed their techniques.

While the first generation's filmmaking output hasn't been terribly ambitious on the whole, I'd be willing to bet that's going to start changing. The recession is going to force a lot of aspiring filmmakers to fend for themselves rather than working their way up through an industry in a downturn economy. I also think that as more ambitious films start being made and noticed, this approach will no longer be so derided but embraced. You'll start to see more and more that filmmakers and production companies will own their own digital equipment, thus dropping the budgets. Furthermore, the movies produced will start to shed excess weight (crew) and become more stealth in their operations.

In general, I like the idea that filmmaking has become more regional, in that films can now be made anywhere at any time, exposing audiences to places they're unfamiliar with. The reason I refer to what's been going on as "regional folk art" is because most of the examples of regional filmmaking haven't had the ambition to be anything more than slice-of-life films made for niches. In theory, this is a phenomenal development -- filmmaking is down to the pencil and paper. The problem is that in the past aspiring filmmakers sought to impress their idols by displaying a great command of craft, but currently, many filmmakers simply don't have that ambition. I think there's room for both -- and both approaches are important. My point is that one needs to feed off the other; we need breakouts that generate enough attention so audiences are then made aware of the smaller pictures. Right now, we just have the smaller pictures. It's really just a marketing strategy.

While I don't think it's incumbent upon the older generation of indie producers and execs to nurture the younger, I brought that issue up because I think a lot of them really wish they could. I believe that new filmmakers are the lifeblood of indie film. I just think that when the dependent phase opened up, with it went a lot of the so-called community pillars, and there was a chasm left in the nurturing pipeline. Unfortunately, this occurred just as digital DIY filmmaking took off, which further exacerbated the situation by creating a de facto economic gap. Now that the dependent bubble has burst, a lot of veterans have been writing essays about how the indie model is broken. They sound a lot to me like print film critics complaining about younger bloggers -- and we know who's winning that battle.

The generational changeover is happening slowly, but it is happening. People have learned the new landscape on their own, and they'll be fine. The most important thing is for the veterans to learn from the new guys rather than feeling threatened. To me, one of the biggest red flags of disconnect was when Sundance hired established filmmakers to create a series of shorts designed for mobile phones. The whole thing seemed like an attempt to seem up to date. Had they really been on top of things and wanted to promote new formats, they should've picked upcoming indie filmmakers that were already using the web to hold up as examples. As these things go, a shift is already underway at Sundance now.

I actually have a lot of ideas about how to integrate DIY filmmaking into the traditional process and how to promote it and profit from it, but for the time being, as I'm developing some models on my own, I'd prefer not to get into that. Hopefully, sometime soon as I put my ideas to work, I'll be better able to discuss them.

One final note. I don't think that most of us are really that far apart in how we view things. A lot of what's being debated is really semantics. And I appreciate that most of the comments to my initial ramble were civil and respectful. Hopefully, that will continue.

-- Jamie Stuart

Hope For The Future pt. 11: The List #'s 43 -46

43. Both the creative and business sides of the film industry are embracing the streaming of features. Both Hulu and Snag are looked at as success stories, although the short form and clips remain most popular with audiences. The key to specialized films’ success has always been creating word of mouth. Regional screenings and publicity has always been an expensive undertaking, prohibiting niche film from truly undertaking such a campaign. Streaming makes it all possible. A limited streaming campaign could do wonders for building an audience’s desire to see a particular film. When directors like Michael Moore and Wayne Wang climb aboard the streaming bandwagon (as both did this year), one can only hope legions will follow.

44. Green awareness: slowly the entire industry is waking up to the fact that there is no away to throw to. Last year less than half of the distributors distributed their award screeners in cardboard packaging. This year all the major ones did. Granted you still have to police sets to make sure bottles are being recycled, and offices to make sure that paper is – but it is much improved from before. I still haven’t been asked to put a carbon offset into a budget, but I am confident that day will come. Green carpets became the vogue over red this year. At the very least, the industry seems to be embarrassed by their waste. Maybe the days of excessive consumption are numbered…

45. The career/financial sustainability of producers is at least now recognized as an issue somewhere in the world. In the U.S. we have watched virtually every studio cut virtually every producer-based overhead deal. On one hand it seems that the US film industry has forgotten what a producer does, but across the ocean, there is a ray of hope. It has been enacted as law that the UK tax credit must be counted as the producer’s equity, thus increasing the back end a producer would have on any given project. Once local municipalities in the US start providing prolific producers with office space then we will know we are on the right foot! The longevity of producers is the cornerstone of fostering a film community’s growth.

46. Filmmakers are recognizing the benefits of limiting the time spent between films. When the American Indie scene kicked into gear in the late 80’s, the directors were quite prolific. Up until recently, the new generations of filmmakers seemed to take five more years in between projects. The directors’ pursuit of larger budgets necessitated this to some degree, but also limited their ability to build a loyal following worldwide. Whether it is the Mumblecore crowd of Swanberg or The Duplass Brothers, or the world vision practitioners like Sean Baker and Ramin Bahrini , this new generation is aiming more for growth in their work than growth in their budgets. The audience will benefit as these directors mature.