Behind The Sky: Technological Progress and Indie Cinema

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Increasingly, independent film is neither independent nor on film—filmmakers and audiences alike are united in a robust system of NetFlix, YouTube, burned DVDs, BitTorrent, iPhones, laptops, SendSpace, low-cost/high-quality equipment, home-editing suites, Bluetooth file transfers and on and on. If we’re truly this connected, how can anybody claim to be independent?

From a different angle, though, the sky is falling. That’s what former Miramax head Mark Gill claimed in his keynote speech at the L.A. Film Festival. In December, the Los Angeles Times declared, “well before the U.S. economy nosedived, the market for highbrow movies was cratering.” The market, perhaps. The audience, no.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it in 2006: Everything that can be expressed as bits will be expressed as bits, and bits will only get easier to copy. Film took a minute to get there (unlike music, which was rendered ephemeral long ago by mp3s), but the medium finally caught up. Despite David Lynch’s protestations (“it’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone, get real!”), iPhones serve the function movie palaces once did by making viewing feel like an elegant, modern experience.

Such small screens are also great levelers. With old-school movie theaters serving as the cinematic equivalent of vinyl, filmmakers have figured out how to imbue shrinking screens with meaning (letterboxing helps). As a new golden age of singles reigns for music, short films are achieving ubiquity online.

Despite repeated cries of piracy, bootlegging films is still much more difficult than bootlegging music. There’s never been a Napster for movies, in large part because of the large file sizes. The industry still has time to monetize its creations before the bandwidth and compression schemes accelerate the bits even more.

Perhaps the sky is falling, but nobody is going to stop making or watching movies. As Gill himself pointed out, Sundance received more than 5,000 submissions in 2008, compared to 500 in 1993. NetFlix ships 2 million DVDs a day. Making movies has always been hard, even with truckloads of cash. So why not let the sky fall? Something dazzling could be behind it.

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