Paradigm Shift: Beyond the Silver Screen

In the first of a three-part series on the future of entertainment media, Staff Writer Bram E. Gieben examines the threats and possibilities of the changes in production, funding and distribution for emerging filmmakers

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 03 Jul 2013

In the early years of the film industry, films were projected onto a screen embedded with particles of reflective silver or aluminium. These silver lenticular screens became a metonym for cinema itself, effortlessly capturing some of the glamour and mystery associated with film. In recent years, the return of 3D films – in a newer, technologically souped-up version, of course – brought back the relevance of the term, as silver particles became useful once more for projecting polarised 3D images. This story, in miniature, tells us something about the constant peregrinations and evolutions filmmaking has undergone to reach its current form; and, of course, it tells us that nothing is ever certain. As producer Claire Mundell, also the current chair of Scottish BAFTA, says: “William Goldman was right.” When it comes to film, “nobody knows anything.”

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The current changes and challenges facing the film industry are of an unprecedented scale. The cost and availability of cheap, high-quality digital cameras mean the tools to make a film, one that looks professional, are easier to obtain than ever before. Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter present the possibility of funding films without any support or involvement from studios, whether big and corporate or small and independent. Digital distribution methods – from video-on-demand services offered by the likes of LOVEFiLM, to streaming sites like YouTube and Vimeo make access to audiences easier than ever before.

Steven Spielberg recently gave a speech at the University of Southern California predicting the total dominance of the 'tentpole' or summer event movie, while Steven Soderbergh commented: “Cinema is under assault by the studios with the full support of the audience.” Do new technologies and markets mean more opportunities for filmmakers, and greater diversity of product? Or do they reduce cinema's magic by channeling it on iPad screens and mobile phones, and keeping all but Avengers-style blockbusters out of the theatres? In and around last month's Edinburgh International Film Festival, we asked a selection of established and up-and-coming filmmakers to speculate on the future of the silver screen.

Ben Wheatley is one director who isn't afraid to embrace these new opportunities, but neither is his optimism blinded by the rise of crowdfunding and digital distribution. As he puts it, “I just want to make films.” His debut feature, Down Terrace, was shot for a micro-budget of just £6000. Most of that went on accommodating cast members who had travelled up from London for the shoot. “If we'd done it with our mates instead, it would only have cost £1000,” he tells me. “At which point, if you can get three people together, it's hard to believe no-one's got £350 they couldn't put into something. There you go, bosh, you've made a film.”

Down Terrace: Cinema on a micro-budget

For producer Claire Mundell, whose most recent film, Not Another Happy Ending, closed this year's EIFF, “crowdfunding has become part and parcel of the producer's job now,” and that job “is getting bigger all the time,” she explains. “You have to be a social media manager, you have to do a crowdfunding campaign, you have to understand traditional finance routes.” Crowdfunding can ensure a successful and well-financed preparation period for a film, as it did on Not Another Happy Ending. Crucially, it connects a film with its potential audience, before a single frame has been shot. “It forces you, as a filmmaker, to say: 'Who am I making this film for?' Ultimately, if you're not thinking like that, why are you making that film? You make a film to connect with an audience, and to communicate something.” As a result, “people are going to have to be really sharp about what they are doing and why.”

Mundell's films are independent, with a “modest” budget of under £1 million for Not Another Happy Ending. But they are also commerical – her latest is a romantic comedy, starring Dr. Who's Karen Gillen. Charlie Parker and Joe McTernan are at the other end of the scale – they set up their production company Broken Blonde a year ago after graduating from Napier University, and for Parker at least, the worry is that too many 'industry' filmmakers are getting in on the crowdfunding action.

He cites Zach Braff's successful campaign to fund Garden State 2: “There's something quite unfair about someone running a Kickstarter from their million-dollar mansion. People like us are chewing our own feet off to make films – I literally take every penny I earn out of my own pocket and put it into indie films. I'm not financially stable, I'm spending the money I should be spending on food on making films, because it's my passion. The chances of our campaign making the 'front page news' section of Kickstarter is negligible now, because you have all these big, celebrity-fronted campaigns. They've watered it down. They presented a non-industry route, and then the industry were like: 'Hey! We're back!' If I was at that stage of my career, there is no way I would use crowdfunding.”

Parker and McTernan are also critical of state funding organisations such as Creative Scotland. “A lot of filmmakers don't even know that there are resources available for them, let alone how to apply for those resources,” says Parker. “If you are passionate about film, but come from an underprivileged background, you might never hear of Creative Scotland.” They also perceive the spectre of cronyism: “If you've got a proven track record, you're more likely to get funding,” says Parker. “There's a constant flow of new filmmakers coming in to the market each year, so they shouldn't have time to be funding the same people over and over. It should be a case of: 'Here's your chance, go make something of it.' It's that conflict between what's good business and what's morally right.”

Sebastian Fowler, an emerging 3D animator and director from Australia, identifies the same tension between creativity and profit in his country's state sponsorship: “By their very nature, those bodies tend to make conservative decisions regarding what films they fund,” he offers. “The majority may have some kind of perceived cultural significance or merit, but they're not necessarily the kind of films that the general public are interested in seeing or will pay to see.”

John McKay, the director of Not Another Happy Ending, says: “It is very important that funding be responsive to the market, and evolving. The rules of filmmaking that were true ten years ago are no longer true today. In a smaller economy, like Scotland, we are in an ideal position. We're quite good at talking to each other, when we can stop arguing. We can make changes quite quickly, in a way that larger places, like say Creative England, or the Lottery-funded BFI, cannot.”

Wheatley offers a final word for aspiring filmmakers. To paraphrase the Nike slogan, his advice is Just Shoot It. “People make up excuses not to make stuff,” he says. “The dearest thing is time, and that gets harder and harder as you get older, because you've got to pay the mortgage and feed the kids. But if you're a feckless 25 year-old filmmaker, and you have an iPhone, and you haven't made a film, you should be asking yourself why.”

Just how easy is it to make something that satisfies your creative ambitions, and that people want to see? Scott Byrne, an emerging 3D animator, explains the principal driver behind the rising number of aspiring filmmakers. “The affordability of HD cameras (chiefly DSLR cameras with a video function) and computer editing equipment has completely levelled the playing field,” he says. “For a couple of thousand pounds you can now become a one person movie studio.”

The young Broken Blonde filmmakers carried this to its logical conclusion: “What we set out to do was to be fiction filmmakers, and to create a foundation for people to make the kind of films they want to make with complete creative freedom,” explains Parker. “We bought our own equipment, so we're completely self-sufficient, and now we're bringing in people with creative minds to use that equipment. What we've found out along the way is that the process of making fiction films at an indie level isn't all that rewarding, so we've had to move into doing promotional videos, in order to make money, so we can make more films.”

Corporate videos pay, but that doesn't mean they are without value: “Everybody wants to leave university or college and be the next Danny Boyle, but it doesn't happen like that,” says Joe McTernan. “You need to do things you can use your creative talents on, but which also make you money.”

Wheatley, who says that working in television “was like film school” for him, got his break directing the animated show Modern Toss, and episodes of Ideal, before making Down Terrace. He still shoots ads in between his film projects. “I did an ad last week, and I earned as much doing that as I did from Sightseers. One day versus a year. I don't really think about whether it's well paid or not. I just like doing them. I could probably just about survive just doing the films, but I'd have less money.” The distinction between 'creative' and 'professional' filmmakers seems more spurious today than it has ever been.

“If you're a feckless 25 year-old film-maker, and you have an iPhone, and you haven't made a film, you should be asking yourself why” – Ben Wheatley

John McKay also started in TV, and moves between TV and film to this day. “I think the career trajectory as a film director is whatever works for you,” he says. “It could be four years as a librarian, or it could be forty years of TV, or you could be someone like Quentin Tarantino, and you spring fresh from the ground. It's hard to make recommendations, because each director works his or her mojo in their own different way. Everyone comes to fruition at a different time in their life. I like to get out the house. If you're working, you have a chance of doing good work.”

But what constitutes 'good work'? Does the ease of access to production and editing technology open up new vistas and possibilities, or does it risk flooding the market with inferior product? Scott Byrne is enthusiastic: “Choice is only ever a good thing and quality is subjective,” he says. “Let's open the floodgates and see it all! After all, one man's unwatchable trash is another's lo-fi masterpiece.”

Claire Mundell does not feel threatened by the rising tide of filmmakers – she embraces it, citing the broad scope of options available for the distribution and viewing of films as an effective counter-balance to the proliferation of new creatives. “There's so much choice, whereas there used to be one choice – it goes to the cinema, it's there for 16 weeks, then it's on DVD, then it's on the telly, then that's it,” she says. “Now, there are a myriad of possibilities, and I think that's great. Lots of voices can be heard, because of those different portals.”

The idea of 'narrowcasting' is a function of these new models of content delivery – finding niche audiences for specific products, whether through film festival screenings, traditional distribution, on down to video-on-demand and online streaming. In light of this, says John McKay, Spielberg's pessimism is unwarranted. “I always resist 'end of the world' quotes,” he says. He isn't worried about the cultural dominance of effects-driven event movies. “You've got to remember that cinema started as a special effect in a carnival tent. It didn't start in the art gallery, and it's always had its feet in turning a buck. So it's no surprise that currently we're going through one of cinema's spasmodic periods of spectacle, just like we were in 1955. It didn't die then, and it's not about to die now.”

Furthermore, he believes, “every Avengers creates a demand for something that isn't the Avengers. That stuff never goes away – it moves to the indie movies, it moves to TV. It moves to ways of narrowcasting. There is a future between film, video-on-demand and TV, where people are going to make interesting things. The John Cassavetes of the future is probably already planning something, and it will be narrowcast on demand via something like Distrify for the people who want to see it. People burning with the wish to make something will just make it.”

Distrify, established by Edinburgh-based filmmaker Peter Gerard, allows filmmakers to distribute, showcase and earn revenue from their independently-produced films online. Although still comparatively new, it offers the prospect of a coherent and unified market for emerging filmmakers, completely outside traditional chains of distribution. The possibility for a film to emerge from success on Distrify and cross over to cinemas is inherent. In that sense, this new market is only technologically different from the crossover route taken by a director like Quentin Tarantino, who transitioned from a small, Sundance-backed debut to big budgets, while retaining creative control of his output.

“I'm spending the money I should be spending on food on making films, because it's my passion” - Charlie Parker, Broken Blonde

The proliferation of new viewing platforms, from handheld devices to pop-up cinemas, streaming services and independent film festivals, should be embraced, according to Claire Mundell. It is this proliferation which allows for narrowcasting, giving filmmakers the opportunity to stick to their creative vision and still find a niche audience for the finished product. “The world has changed. Viewing habits have changed,” she offers.

“You only have to get on any form of public transport and you see people watching movies on their handheld devices. Even five years ago, most people would have said, 'Nobody's ever going to watch a movie on a bus.' But it has happened, and it's only going to keep going that way. I'm sure people will be watching movies on Google Glass. I don't think that viewing things this way diminishes them at all – thinking that it does is being in denial about the way audiences have changed, the way our lives have changed, about the impact of technology.”

TV, too, offers a site for creative and independent filmmakers to strut their stuff, with the level of quality and production value being channelled into shows over the last ten years rising sharply, from the too-soon cancelled Deadwood to more recent, lavish productions such as Game of Thrones. This year even saw the launch of a high-profile internet-only long-form drama, in the shape of House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, with its first two episode directed by David Fincher, screening exclusively via streaming service Netflix.

Wheatley brings us back to Spielberg's comments: “I think what Spielberg was talking about quite specifically was his big historical films, like Lincoln,” he offers. “He was saying, 'That could have ended up on HBO,' but I don't really see why that's so bad. Perhaps it should have been on HBO. You don't necessarily want to sit through something for three hours which is being massively telegraphed down. Perhaps from his perspective, it seems like the writing's on the wall. But I don't think many people are going to be as worried as he is.” Wheatley is currently working on a new long-form series for HBO, showing once again the willingness of young and talented film-makers to move between markets, and make films wherever and in whatever format suits them best.

From the comments given to us by these filmmakers, both established and up and coming, it seems that film – especially independent film – is in rude health. Spielberg and Soderbegh's doom-mongering is just that – the worried mewling of ageing, threatened creatives who can only see their market share drying up, completely ignoring the expansive market opening up beyond the technological horizon. Furthermore, Wheatley talks of an increase in the number of theatres in his home town of Brighton showing art house films, and films which have done well on the festival circuit. As he sees it, there is a massive demand for creativity-driven product, as well as the more brainless but spectacular Hollywood fare.

Claire Mundell reminds us that all filmmaking is inherently risky, no matter what the scale. “It's a numbers game,” she says. “You only have to look at all the massive US studio flops, alongside the successes, to show that. It's like predicting the weather. The only thing you can hold onto is your absolute gut belief and instinct in what you want to do. And if you keep holding onto that, if you're really pure about it, and you surround that project with the talent who also see that, and feel the same way, then you can reach an audience. It's like Russian roulette, every time, but that's what I love about it.”

She emphasises the role of the producer in maintaining and caring for the creative vision of a project. “The risk is that you get quite far down the line and find out, 'Wait a minute, I thought we were making this film, but you think we're making that film.' The producer's job is to constantly take everyone with them, holding hands, checking in, asking: 'Are we still making the same film?' When you don't do that, that is when you get a confused film, something that doesn't know what it is or who it's trying to reach. And you see a lot of those! There will be failures. To achieve success, you need to be prepared to fail.”

Mundell, John McKay and our emerging directors McTernan and Parker believe that the plans to build a Scottish soundstage, with a potential site being mooted in Glasgow, on Govan Road, represent an important next step for the Scottish film industry. “We have to dispense with the kind of default Scottish scarcity theory,” Mundell believes. “There's such a fear that if we don't get it right, we'll never get another one. Why can't we think the other way? We get that one to start with, we make it a success, we prove that there's a demand, and then we build from there.”

With Creative Scotland claiming to have doubled its investment in Scottish film over the past five years, and with high-profile overseas productions such as Prometheus and World War Z shooting in the country with increasing regularity, McTernan and Parker believe the studio is essential. “It's great using Edinburgh as a backdrop, but we're just getting treated like a postcard,” says McTernan. He remains critical of the priorities of Creative Scotland, and the Scottish Government: “Alex Salmond gave £6 million to Pixar to promote Brave – why, when he could have given that money to companies like ours?” he asks. “Perhaps with that money we could have made the next great British film.”

World War Z: Glasgow as Hollywood back lot

The spectre of piracy, where the availability of films via illegal file-sharing sites encourages complacency in audiences, is at least in part responsible for declining audience figures for films without the requisite spectacle and scale. “The only reason most people will get up off their arse and go to the cinema is if it is going to be a sensational experience, one that will be very different from watching the same film at home,” offers Parker. “Cinema needs to be an experience in order to trump the ease of access you get from piracy.”

Offering direct access to audiences, and simplifying the process of getting your name out there with a view to participating in festivals, sites like Vimeo and YouTube have become vital to up-and-coming filmmakers. Scott Byrne says: “I can get instant feedback and connect directly with my audience. For an emerging filmmaker there's really no comparison. Film festivals are still important, but I can afford to be strategic with the festivals I choose to enter, and the application process is now seldom more than a YouTube or Vimeo link.”

Sebastian Fowler agrees, and he is optimistic about his chances of being discovered this way: “Crossing over from DIY to big budget once the director has achieved some success and acclaim doesn't seem like that big of a leap,” he says. “Everyone has to get their start somewhere and if they've had success with a film that people love, at the end of the day, they know how to make a good film and people will go to see what they do next.”

Whether filmmakers choose to produce intimate, experimental, character-driven narratives, like Wheatley's latest film A Field In England, or action-driven narratives packed with explosions is up to them, and arguably, has nothing to do with funding or scale. As Parker and McTernan tell me, they produced a crowdfunded action movie with special effects and exploding buildings for a little under £200. More filmmakers can only be a good thing, and a broader conception of the market for films is an absolute necessity to avoid the pessimism of dinosaurs like Spielberg. “We're entering a period of great new potential, because there is more of a chance for people to make stuff they just want to make, and still get it out to people who just want to see it, without the intervention of or the need for a studio,” says John McKay. “That's got to be good for diversity. Does it mean there's going to be more crap? Sure. But think about it, it's always been 90% crap. We just remember the 10% that's wonderful.”

  • Read the rest of the Paradigm Shift series here:




John McKay and Claire Mundell's Not Another Happy Ending is in cinemas now

Ben Wheatley's A Field In England is released simultaneously in theatres, on DVD and Blu-ray, and via video-on-demand services on 5 July

Broken Blonde:

Scott Byrne on YouTube

Sebastian Fowler:

Thanks to Jamie Dunn, Tom K McCarthy, Janos Honkonen and Pete Ross for additional research