Microcinema challenges the big-bucks movie industry
Gone are the days when you need deep-pocket investors just
to get your short film made. With the rise of digital cinema,
aspiring filmmakers?and the rest of us too?can finally afford to
make our daydreams real. Armed with gear once available only to the
industry elite, a new generation of filmmakers is revolutionizing
Anybody can afford to make a movie today. The moviemaking process has finally become egalitarian and populist. You can buy good video cameras, quality sound equipment, and effective editing systems for $10,000 or $5,000 or $1,000 or $500. Over the course of a few months or years, a poor reservation Indian kid can collect $1,000 worth of discarded aluminum cans from ditches and garbage cans, spend $500 on her equipment, and then spend the other $500 to make a movie about the sad beauty of aluminum cans and their relationship to Native American health, economics, and politics.
Of course, that Indian kid will only make her movie if somebody convinces her that a successful movie can be made for only $1,000. I could make a movie for $1,000, but who would see it? I wrote and directed a movie called The Business of Fancydancing for approximately $150,000 in cash and credit, and very few people have seen it. We played a Manhattan theater but received horrible reviews, and the movie bombed. We played three theaters in greater Los Angeles and received wonderful reviews, but the movie still bombed. What does this mean? I hate to say it, but it means I?m an irrelevant moviemaker. I?ve only proved how easily a small movie can disappear. I can?t convince that Indian kid to see my movie, let alone make her own.
So who can make the utterly convincing $1,000 movie? Well, I?m issuing a challenge to Sam Raimi, David Koepp, George Lucas, Jonathan Hales, M. Night Shyamalan, Chris Columbus, Joel Zwick, Nia Vardalos, Jay Roach, Mike Myers, Michael McCullers, Barry Sonnenfeld, Robert Gordon, Carlos Saldanha, Chris Wedge, Michael J. Wilson, Michael Berg, Peter Ackerman, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens.
Who are those folks? They are writers and directors of the 10 top-grossing movies of 2002, and I challenge them all to write and direct $1,000 movies. Who would pay attention to a $1,000 movie made by George Lucas? Half the world. Who would pay attention to a $1,000 movie made by Mike Myers? The other half. Demographic hyperbole aside, I am simply asking these highly successful moviemakers to commit the populist and egalitarian act of making and distributing $1,000 movies.
Of course, I?m assuming these highly successful moviemakers are populist and egalitarian liberals because they work in Hollywood, one of the most liberal communities in the world. And because these filmmakers have varied, wonderful, and commercial talents, I?m also assuming they would make very good and very diverse $1,000 movies. Can you imagine how many Lord of the Rings fans would rush to a $1,000 movie made by Peter Jackson? His first film, Bad Taste, didn?t cost much more than $1,000, so he knows how to make a microbudget movie. After watching M. Night Shyamalan?s microbudget thriller, that reservation kid might begin collecting aluminum cans right in the theater lobby to finance her movie.
Of course, this is a ridiculous challenge. Millionaire moviemakers have no moral, ethical, artistic, or financial imperative to make microbudget films. And I can?t judge them for choosing to ignore my challenge (as I?m quite positive all of them will). But I wonder how many of them have ever watched a $1,000 movie? Sam Raimi probably has a video library filled with zombie movies made for $12, and God bless him for it, but will he ever again make a zombie movie on a microbudget? I can only offer sacred and profane prayers for such a cinematic miracle to happen during my lifetime.
So which moviemakers can and should make the convincing $1,000 movie? I challenge Kimberly Peirce to make a $1,000 movie about Emily Dickinson. The reclusive poet will only be seen in re-created still photographs and only heard in voice-over, telling her life story and reciting her poems. Emily?s true story will interweave with a silent movie about one day in the life of a Chicago Catholic high school cross-country runner also named Emily Dickinson, and her interracial love affair with an African American science geek named Langston Hughes.
Hell, I would be ecstatic if Paul Thomas Anderson filmed one with Adam Sandler. (I would be even more ecstatic if Adam Sandler agreed to star in the aluminum can epic written and directed by that Indian kid.) A microbudget film directed by any of these independent moviemakers would certainly be distributed and play in hundreds of theaters. Imagine what would happen if 10 independent moviemakers of this caliber each released $1,000 films in the same year. Would there be an artistic revolution? A microbudget rebellion? A $1,000 coup d??tat?
Of course, a $1,000 movie shot on video might look like crap, no matter who is behind the camera. But I have faith that most moviegoers will eventually accept, understand, and enjoy the ragged and unpredictable visuals of videography. Most films, whether studio or independent, are seen on televisions, and independent film will survive and thrive because The Blair Witch Project and Lawrence of Arabia look exactly the same on a 19-inch screen. I?m exaggerating, of course, but why must a film be visually beautiful at all? Why can?t a film be ugly, muddy, unclear, bleary, and opaque? Human beings can certainly be morally ugly, muddy, unclear, bleary, and opaque, so why shouldn?t cinematography reflect that? Why do so many film critics and filmmakers worship at the altar of beautiful cinematography? Whenever I stop to admire the physical beauty of a person, place, or thing, I am as uninteresting as I can possibly be, and am usually romanticizing the place or thing, or objectifying the person. The same could be said of movies.
Independent film will ultimately survive and thrive because of cinema?s youth. It will be the independent filmmakers, the unsponsored and unincorporated, the unknown and unappreciated, the wildly immature and impulsive, who will make good movies and then great movies.
Aren?t you excited to know there?s been no Shakespeare of the cinema yet? Shakespeare wrote Hamlet more than 4,500 years after the first human wrote the first letter of the first alphabet. Edison first projected film in 1891, so we can expect the cinematic equivalent of Hamlet in the year 6391.
Independent film will survive because millions of writers and directors will spend the next four or five thousand years in a collectively vain and glorious and vainglorious quest to make the cinematic equivalent of Hamlet. Of course, there exists the possibility that a man or woman might preempt time, might be born with a spectacular blessing or curse, might just be plain lucky, and make the cinematic Hamlet as soon as tomorrow, or next year, or 23 years from now. Hell, some 12-year-old boy might make the greatest movie ever with Legos and Fisher Price Little People. Or maybe a poor Indian girl will make it with aluminum cans and seven stray dogs.
Sherman Alexie is the author of Ten Little Indians (Grove/Atlantic), a new collection of stories published this spring. Reprinted from Moviemaker (Winter 2003). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (4 issues) from 39 Exchange St., Suite 301, Portland, ME 04101.