Leveling the Playing Field Between Studios and Independent Filmmakers

"This is the center of the universe."

It was late afternoon on the campus of the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank: in particular we were standing in a wide pedestrian road filled with metal picnic tables with folding umbrellas.

"The commissary." The guide explained. "This is where everybody comes: meets, talks, makes deals."

If this was the center of the universe then it was an empty one. Not a soul was meeting, talking, or making a deal any where to be seen. The tables were clean and empty. The umbrellas were furled. It was difficult to imagine the area buzzing with life: filled with people with recognizable faces and names. There was a physical quality to the emptiness all around. Everywhere there were pockets of surprising silence: strange empty avenues leading to blind windows and gaping soundstage doors.

This was like walking through a Victorian mansion: beautiful and historical but not the kind of place where anyone lived anymore.

There were certainly still people there: but they weren't there to stay. Workers came with the productions and left when they weren't needed anymore. Visitors came to tour the backlot and left when they had seen enough to satisfy their curiosity. Stars came and dazzled and faded when their moment was over. They came to satisfy a need: for glory, for money, for curiosity, for hope: but no one was there to breathe life back into the beast.

To be fair, this was at the end of the day on a Friday, but filmmaking isn't something that happens from nine to five. This was clearly the machine for creating the movies and shows and music that we consume every day, but the fuel was just as clearly coming from somewhere else. And clearly this was a machine that powered down on weekends when not in use. So where is the power coming from? If this, one of the biggest entertainment providers in the world, wasn't the source of the energy driving the industry then what drives the system?

The answer, increasingly, is: we are- both as independent filmmakers and as audience members. Now that film production can be accomplished cheaply and distributed digitally the industry is facing a democratization that other crafts were forced to deal with the introduction of the assembly line. Ironically, films that used to require elaborate, expensive machinery operated by dozens of skilled engineers and can now be accomplished with a camera phone and a laptop. Ironically, the film industry is moving away from the assembly line and back towards the craftsman: because when anyone can make a film then everyone will be looking for the teams whose work stands out as being especially high quality.

For now, the only difference between the work produced by a studio and the work produced by an independent filmmaker is the availability of distribution. No one yet knows how this whole "digital distribution" thing is going to change the face of the industry, but it's fair to say that when it comes to production the playing field is leveling out.


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