Sunday, July 13, 2008

Grassroots DV is Dead; Long Live Grassroots DV

Every summer I like to sit down and write one script entirely for myself. I have actually never sold a spec script--every one of my fifteen or so projects have been for hire--so I generally write something that I alone might enjoy and then if something one day happens with it I can be pleasantly surprised.

This summer I decied I would write the script on the Celtx open source platform and then release it under a Creative Commons license. The summer is half over but I have barely gotten started. I think part of it is that I have been sensing some new trends and trying to sniff them out, of which all of the previous stuff I mentioned is a part.

Back around the turn of the century, 1999 or so, I decided with my career settled in and my kids growing along, I would spend a year trying to get my freelancing career on track again. In the late 80s I saw the mom and pop video store boom lead to a strong need for direct to video content (that old pals like the Polonia Brothers filled), but at that time I was a young father and rookie employee and I watched from afar. Content is a hungry beast that always needs to be fed, so when I saw DVD taking off so strongly I knew that need for direct-to-DVD content would be there.

I started trying to re-learn the genre content again. I had grown up on Japanese rubber monsters and Italian sword and scorcery and Russian sci-fi but had a long layoff in college studying film and watching French New Wave and Italian Neorealism and the like. I watched the movies and felt out the trends and started off with two specs; a horror story about a backyard wrestling star possessed by a demon called ONIBOCHO: THE DEMON KNIFE and a dark fantasy everything-but-the-kitchen-sink scarefest called SWORD OF THE ZOMBIE and later DOOMED SWORD RISING and later RING OF THE SORCERESS based on various people's interest. But as I said I have never sold a spec. But I did catch the eye of longtime b-movie producer Mark Polonia, who tested me out on a bigfoot movie script titled AMONG US that is still playing on cable today, and the rest is perhaps history if not truly current events.

At that same time I was starting on a parallel track. I found out that there were a lot of people making their own movies, b-movies and other genres including some that don't easy bear defining. People were screening these in all kinds of funky places and swapping them in the mail. The technology gap was closing such that people felt empowered to produce their own content outside of the mainstream. Where these movies screened were called Microcinemas, and before long the genre for this type of movie was called Microcinema, dubbed so by no less an authority than Wired Magazine.

For me, the big site at the time was ReWind Video, started by a bunch of Canadians who espoused "amateur" filmmaking. I was personally involved in public access television at that time (and now manage the third largest public access television facility in Indiana) and saw this as a natural extension. They launched a film festival, Microcinema Fest, which ran for seven consecutive years before going on hiatus this year. I met a lot of very talented people through this site and the fest and before long filmmakers Jason Santo, Gary Lumpp, Joe Sherlock and I were swapping VHS tapes in the mail and writing each other intricate and sometimes scathing reviews of this work. Santo has always been an ambitious dude, and five years ago this month he launched Microcinema Scene with Gary and I as contributing writers. I wrote hundreds of articles and reviews for the site over the years and piloted the ship for about a year after Jason moved on and before Christopher Sharpe, who I worked on with SEX MACHINE, took over the helm.

ReWind Video has become a wiki and Microcinema Scene is not as active as it once was. The Fest, that I contributed to in judging, MCing, and otherwise the last four years in South Dakota and Illinois is in transition. I think a lot of the early adopters of microcinema in the late 90s have gotten more into family and job commitments, and I saw a disconnect between them and the next generation coming through the ranks. The change in troops didn't really impact me, because I waited until I was an older guy already before I ever got involved. I just kept getting older as most of the people around me got younger.

I think part of what happened was the technology gap has narrowed even more, and I think that with YouTube and its related ilk, as well as the impact of DV in Hollywood, the need for community has lessened somewhat. Back when everybody was shooting SVHS, Hi-8 or even early GL-2s and the like nobody was fooling anybody about where their work was ending up, and I think there was the sense you could be more experimental. Now I think the young Turks can see a more smoothly-paved road to acceptance than their predecessors.

But as this light dims somewhat I have sensed something else on the horizon. There is a lot of talk of free independent content and of the internet as a delivery platform for this content. Again we see a lot of early adopters (too many to list here), from people like the Four Eyed Monsters folks who released their feature free on YouTube in sections to the Butterknife detective show by those mumblecore guys to Cory Doctorow releasing his novels free in a variety of forms to Warren Ellis writing Freak Angels for the web to people writing pulp fiction and otherwise and setting it loose as PDFs. There is Creative Commons and tons of content readers for video and text. People catching fire through viral video is becoming commonplace.

Mainstream movies and television are trying to figure out how it all works by posting TV shows on their sites and so on but again my interest lies with the grassroots efforts. I think we are on the cusp of the next thing, but I fear I am too old to fully grasp it. When microcinema took off I was still doing video production on a daily basis and pretty much knew what was going on tech-wise. Now I am in management and the production guys hope I don't interfere with what they're up to too much. I had only shot a little HD before I left my previous job and I had to finally admit that too many versions of FCP have gone by and I can't keep up any more, which is a shame because I was a pretty good editor, I thought (though my shooting and directing are still pretty sharp, in my opinion). Part of my problem is that I don't like to watch movies on my computer screen (except my own movies on Netflix's "Watch It Now" function, of course) and I don't like to read books on the computer much either (but somewhat tolerated The Shadow on my old Palm Pilot). I don't watch YouTube often and never download music.

But lots of people do all of the above, and again the cry for fresh content is or will be as deafening as it was with VHS and DVD. I think part of the problem is people trying to figure out how best to use the web to deliver new content, and I'm not convinced anybody has it right yet. I do believe, however, that a large amount of this content will run along genre lines, pulp content most specifically. There is something about the immediacy, and some would say the easy digestability and quick discardability, of pulp fiction that seems ready-made for the internet.

None of this is news to people who are involved with it or have been following it longer than I have, but I am taking this summer to figure out my part in it. I have released some of my work under Creative Commons licenses (and they can be found on this site) and my next spec will be as well. I had pitched the idea that this year's Microcinema Fest be an intensive production workshop with the goal being shooting and releasing a feature under Creative Commons with all of the raw footage being made available to the public domain. Although there was some interest, there was not enough to justify resurrecting the Fest this year, but I am still thinking about doing this on my own this Fall.

It seems to be an interesting time. But though I have guessed right on trends before I have also guessed wrong. I never thought CDs would take off because they just looked like little versions of records. I'm not sure if this "free content, internet platform" trend has a name yet, but I'll keep looking.

In the meantime, give me a yell at


Aaron said...


Have you ever seen "The Tape" with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman? It's a low-budget indie film (an hour long?) -- the entire film is shot inside a motel room. But it's really well done.

M. Night Shyalaman's early movies have similarly showed that you don't need special effects to have a good film -- just good acting and good mise en scene.

Pete Bauer said...

This is a very volatile time in the small budget film world. Your assessment about the Microcinema adopters moving on to family and responsibilities and the new people are in the youtube, facebook, myspace world of virtual community is right on the money.

I too feel that the older I get the younger the fellow filmmakers seem to be.

What is more amazing is that studies have shown that the lifespan of a video released on the web is three weeks, but the peak visits being on the third day (unless it becomes viral). My release of Club God fits that mode exactly. Every site that I have it posted peaked at day three. There are still a few stragglers, but the rush is over in a hurry.

I recently started Sonlight Pictures and I find it hard to keep up in this new paradigm. Having a website and a blog and multiple youtube-ish websites and facebook, etc., etc. I'm having to replicate the same information on five different websites just to try and rise above the massive internet noise.

I can't wait until the market figures out a way to monetize it all, because it costs money to make films. It always will. The expectation is that people can watch it for free. That model will fail every time.

When they finally figure it out, then, I'm hoping, the process of getting something out there will be simplified and more efficient.

As for the question if you should continue writing and such, well, I guess that all depends on whether you feel if you still have something to say, or whether you still have the creative itch to scratch.

Love the post. My thoughts exactly. We're about the same age with kids about the same age so I'm with ya on it 100%.

Amir Motlagh said...

Its a world full of sketches now, "sketch filmmaking".....The web has become a popularity contest.

These micro movies being put fourth these days is more about keeping yourself into the public sphere, quantity over quality.

Scattered and uninspired....

Jon said...

'Scattered and uninspired....'

Ain't that the truth Amir.
Back when Wally and I started Rewindvideo, we saw a distinct need for a sense of community amonst us would-be auteurs. And at the time I guess there was a need, because the site flourished, and things were good. But things change, and the eventual disappation of that community I think was a natural outcome. The filmmakers grow up as John noted, some move on, some move out. Different people have different ideas on how such a community should operate, and so you get more websites. And then the mega-community sites like Facebook take over, the mega-video sites like YouTube take over. It's not a bad thing, it's just the way the web grows. And here we are. Rewind lived out it's purpose, so I reformatted it to have some lasting albeit passive function, putting it out to pasture so to speak.

But is grassroots DV dead? No. The means by which we used to distribute and promote - that's dead.

People are still making DV movies, and 97% of them still suck. We continue to keep our eye out for the 3%, and until then we try to encourage one another to improve.

And DV life goes on, at least in our own little circles.

Amir Motlagh said...

well John, i will soon reveal my addendum to all this internet stuff by releasing a sketch piece film, for a critical look at how people view media now.....

This was a fiction i was working on last year, told in a youtube type doc format.

I will most likely offer it for free and cut it in pieces as a sort of grand experiment.

My feature film "whale", which is a no budget feature has taken me over two years because of its importance to me.

But this film is quite the opposite and will be cut on the cusp, as if it fits more with the current crop of filmmaking.

I am curious which will be seen more?

This will be my experiment into complete indulgence, as a critical look into it, since it seems like all these microfilms are self-absorbed pieces cloaked as something else, without even being critical, social, political, aesthitic or even true Slices of Life.

I don't mean all of course, and i hate to generalize but...

we shall see.


Karl said...

All of you are right, and John your right about Your assessment about the Microcinema adopters moving on to family and responsibilities and the new people are in the youtube, facebook, myspace world of virtual community is right on the money as Pete pointed out.

I've beeen trying to get people of like mindedness together for sometime, but failed. Now it's all about the short attention span theater as I like to call it. The web has done that, and a lot of the movies I do see are as amir says "Scattered and uninspired...."

I've been a bit conflicted about whether to dissolve my company or not. I have a strong feeling I want to continue, but maybe the old way of doing business just doesn't make sense. I still like the notion of a band of filmmakers banding together to work on each others films like the new wave did, but I find it hard to find talent that agrees with me. Everyone is doing their own thing, and pulling in a million different directions, and the web is about the here and now.

Of course I'm one of those filmmakers as Pete has said that has a family and responsibilities now, but my love for film still burns, so hence the conflict.

I agree with Jon that "People are still making DV movies, and 97% of them still suck". I agree that maybe the 3% Jon speaks of will break through, but only through the honest encouragement of others will we improve.

Great insight guys.

John Oak Dalton said...


A lot of food for thought here, thanks.


Anonymous said...

Just a word about Microcinema Scene: it not less active than it used to be, it is dead.

Why? Because it became little more than Chris Sharpe's website of self promotion. Since last summer, when "Sex Machine" got its release, the site simply stopped serving micro-budget filmmakers. DVDs sent in, reviews never written - it became a total joke.

And word travels quickly.

John Oak Dalton said...

Well, MCS would have gone dark a year before if Chris hadn't taken it over. It was too hard to carry it all more or less on my back. But again one person or just two or three people can't carry the whole load. More people have to give to make it bigger, rather than just post about their own work or ask for reviews of their own things. The whole community has dimmed, and its not on one person.

A word about reviewing: sending a DVD anyplace--Fangoria Magazine, Joe Bob Briggs, the New Yorker--doesn't guarantee a review from anyone.

At its height on MCS I was getting three to five DVDs a week. At one point I had more than fifty DVDs stacked up. I tried to watch them steadily but also had a day job and family. Still, I have written more than 200 reviews for the site. I don't know many people, if anyone, who has watched and posted on so many microcinema projects (right now I am the #1 contributor to the micro wiki at ReWind Video).

Most people were pretty cool but sometimes you get people who would send you a DVD on Friday and expect the review to be posted Monday morning.

Somebody told me that the 80/20 review doesn't apply to the net; that it's really like two percent of the people are making 98 percent of the content on the web. I think that might be true. Like I've said, content is a hungry beast.

gOnZoRiFFiC said...

yeah, we're swimming in a sea of video. yeah, lots of people are trying to make their own movies. thing is, it's still an art. no matter what, there are certain things about filmmaking that are inescapable. not everyone is going to know how to shoot, light and edit in a cinematic way. sure, we're flooded with video content, but what about GOOD MOVIES? those are still rare and not everyone can make 'em, no matter how expensive their gear is.

what i'm seeing now doesn't make me hopeless, or cynical, or jaded. it inspires me. nowadays, it is common for me to rent a DVD from netflix that looks absolutely horrible. and i think, i KNOW, i can do better than that. there's more opportunity now than there ever was.