Consider the difference between Eraserhead (1977) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006), The former was produced meticulously on a shoestring budget, with continual setbacks due to the cost of film (the medium) itself. With EMPIRE, David Lynch had the ability to shoot digitally, and he felt completely uninhibited, improvising with his camera, shooting aimlessly for hours on end. He thought of it as an exercise in stream-of-consciousness filmmaking.
Whether other contemporary filmmakers now favor digital shooting technology for its stream-of-consciousness capabilities, or simply because of the convenience and cost-efficiency, there’s no disputing that digital technology has forever changed the production of filmmaking.
Digital media has affected other aspects of independent filmmaking, too. Video streaming sites have opened up new distribution channels for independents (and one that is infinitely cheaper), and social media has given independent filmmakers a new means of promoting their work, and it is, in some measurable way, changing public discourse about film.
Consider Nina Paley’s independently produced animated feature Sita Sings the Blues (2009), which had a composite narrative featuring story elements from the Ramayana (an epic Hindu tale) and Paley’s personal life. Astoundingly, Paley made the entire 82-minute film right on her laptop. Paley ran into trouble because she had included Annette Hanshaw songs from the twenties in her film—music which was still under copyright protection. Paley didn’t have a distributor, and struggled to secure the money to pay the copyright fees. Ultimately, she decided to alter the film’s Creative Commons license, so it is now in the public domain and could be downloaded at full resolution.
Although the movie saw little distribution in the conventional way, it still managed to make an impact, thanks to mainstream media and digital media alike. Major critics heaped praise upon her, including Roger Ebert, who went as far as to call it one of “best films” of 2009. Data from Viral Heat shows that that popular opinion also echoed what the critics were saying:
In some situations, academics even engaged Paley directly via Twitter to gain access to the film for screenings:
Or consider the example of The Hunt for Gollum (2009), an English independent film from director Chris Bouchard which examines elements of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” series which hadn’t previously been incorporated into the narrative of any of the other film adaptations. Bouchard reportedly made the film for the equivalent of $5,000, shot everything digitally, and did it all of this without any authorization whatsoever—although, he claimed to have reached an understanding with the Tolkien estate around the time of the film’s release.
The film made its premiere at the Sci-Fi London Film festival, and it was also made streamable online in May of 2009. By October of that same year, it had reportedly been viewed 5 million times, and in years since, it’s been viewed by more than double that number. Once again, fans took to Twitter:
Even though spatially and visually film is still the superior medium, digital media has democratized the film industry—whether we’re talking about production, distribution, exhibition, or promotion. While auteurs have historically been at the mercy of the studios, now creative individuals can thrive with even greater levels of autonomy than ever before.
–Brandon Engel is a freelance writer specializing in entertainment and pop culture, as well as an aspiring filmmaker.