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
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
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
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).
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