Four years after Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” marked the arrival of the digital revolution by snagging the 1998 Cannes Jury Prize, filmmakers, producers and sales agents find themselves in the best and worst of times of digital filmmaking.
The easy accessibility of cameras and equipment has opened up a world of creative and technical possibilities for those with very little financing. But the odds of securing distribution in a crowded market and the necessary blow-up to 35mm prevents many DV auteurs from taking full advantage of the progressive tools at their disposal.
Behind the scenes, several longtime indie insiders are laying the groundwork for exhibition and distribution systems that will effectively eliminate the need for costly prints and create a fresh market for languishing films.
“It’s a very exciting time right now because we’re in a stage of transition,” says Peter Broderick, prexy of Next Wave Films, a company of the Independent Film Channel that provides finishing funds and assistance throughout the production and sales process. “When we look back five, 10 years from now, we’ll see that digital has changed cinema more than color, sound or any other advance.”
He points out that much existing media remains virtually untapped in the digital film world. Broderick, who also executive produces digitally shot films through Next Wave’s Agenda 2000, is working on a system that will utilize subscription satellite TV and DVD, bringing digital films into home theaters.
“These things will change the way we see films,” he says. “The audience is there, the films are there — it’s just a matter of bringing them together.”
Still others are looking for a way to present DV films without sacrificing the theatrical experience.
Ira Deutchman, president and CEO of Emerging Pictures and Emerging Cinemas, is in talks with existing distributors, technology partners and filmmakers to develop a circuit of theaters that digitally project DV films as well as those shot on film.
“The whole point of our circuit is to take movies that are for very specialized audiences and be able to distribute them broadly on a very cost-effective basis,” he says.
Deutchman plans to open 200 theaters equipped with digital projection systems by 2005, the first of which, in New York’s Intrepid Museum, has already become a successful venue for special events, premieres and screenings.
Satellite delivery systems that will supply its theaters with films in easily downloadable files, making unwieldy film cans a thing of the past, are already being tested.
“I think it’s going to happen a lot faster than people realize,” he concludes. “In the independent world, it’s catching on so fast that nobody can even keep up with it.”
“Anyplace you can have a coffeehouse, you can have a digital theater,” says Jeff Dowd, the producer’s rep with over 20 years of experience selling everything from “Blood Simple” to “Kissing Jessica Stein.”
Predictably, the former Seattle Seven radical is championing a grassroots approach to a new digital exhibition circuit — funding student-run digital theaters on university campuses.
“Setting up a digital theater in a room is about twice as complicated as hooking up your own home theater. It’s not that hard,” he says. “I envision a situation where you have digital theaters on colleges operating 24 hours a day.”
As the cost of projection technology goes down, Dowd sees no reason why digital theaters can’t pop up wherever a small crowd can gather.
“So, anywhere that Starbucks plants a flag, why can’t you have a digital theater?” he asks.
Dowd’s and Deutchman’s prophecy is already working wonders for filmmaker Vanessa Vassar, whose low-budget DV docu “American Waitress” has sold out six digitally projected screenings around Santa Fe and Taos, N.M.
“It was total guerrilla filmmaking. There’s no way this film would have been made if it was made on film,” says Vassar, who started shooting with nothing but a tiny one-chip DV camera. To get the completed film noticed, Vassar took advantage of small arthouse venues and secured screenings on a Beta SP projector at Taos Talking Pictures and the Santa Fe Film Festival.
“I didn’t know I’d ever get to see it on the bigscreen. I dreamt about it, and I thought if it’s going to be, it’s got to be transferred to film,” she adds.
The docu, which has yet to be blown up to film, recently landed a worldwide distribution deal with Zia Film Distribution, and has drummed up some interest in Australia and Europe.
Foreign sales veteran Rena Ronson of William Morris Agency Independent says success stories like Vassar’s indicate an indie tide that is definitely turning.
“I believe that we need some pioneers to go out there and trust that these movies that are shot digitally will work — a good film’s a good film,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s the script that matters.”