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ALT-SCRIPT: How Digital Filmmaking Destroyed Screenwriting

Clive Davies-Frayne believes that the professional independent film production needs a radical change in philosophy and ethos and that these changes need to be driven by writers. His insights demonstrate the challenges the digital age have presented for screenwriters.

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digital filmmaking

Anyone who knows me knows that I am, and always have been, one of the main advocates of digital filmmaking. I've made a career, as a columnist, largely by writing about the digital revolution and how radical changes in production technology have opened up a world of opportunity for writers. However, just for a change, I want to use this article to explain how the digital revolution has single-handedly destroyed screenwriting as a profession, and what we need to do to solve the problems created by both the technology and the naivety of the people using it. SPOILER: this article does have a happy and positive ending. However, to get to that point, I really need to unpack the horrific mess independent film has got into, and the reasons why it's happened.

This story really starts about twenty years ago. At that point, independent film was a very different beast from how it is right now. Firstly, there was a really active direct-to-DVD market for films. If you had a film in the right genre, with a half-decent name attached, you could sell almost anything. However, at the same time, filmmaking was expensive. You had to shoot on film. Filmmaking was costly and technically demanding. This meant that if you actually managed to make a film, even if it wasn't that brilliant, people in the distribution industry would watch it. Not only would distributors watch your film, there was also a fair chance they'd take it on, even if it was only for a direct-to-DVD release.

What this meant to screenwriters is that getting a film into production was entirely down to the faith that investors had in the script and the production team. And, because it was a commercially viable venture, scripts would be optioned (for money), and writers were paid when films went into production. Of course, as films were expensive to make, there were always more writers looking for producers than there were investors willing to commit to a project. This meant that the frustration of screenwriters and producers twenty years ago was the cost of production. Back then, independent filmmakers believed if only they could make more and cheaper films, we'd enter a new golden age of cinema. The main thinking, back then, was that the only thing holding back people's careers was the difficulty in raising production investment. Cheaper production would mean more investors, more films, more opportunities for new talent and the birth of a new golden age of independent cinema.

If ever there was an example of the dangers of getting what you wish for, cheap production was it. When the first professional digital camera systems came out, there was a massive amount of excitement in the independent filmmaking communities. This became the age of the game-changing camera. If you were involved in independent film fifteen years ago, the most common conversation was, "Have you heard about (insert name of camera), it's a game-changer. It's a cinema quality camera and it's only X thousand/hundred dollars." Actually, it would be at least another ten years before truly game-changing cameras hit the market.

However, as soon as independent filmmakers went digital, a couple of things happened. The first casualty of digital filmmaking was the idea that a film could have a budget. What everyone was interested in, was how to make a break-out film for a few thousand dollars. This meant there was money for post-production, camera purchase, transport and catering, but everyone else in the venture was supposed to work on spec. Just five years earlier a screenwriter, working with an independent producer, could expect to have their script optioned and developed. Movies shot on film generally paid their writers for the work they did. The new generation of digital, independent filmmakers did not want to pay for anything. Suddenly there were a lot more opportunities for writers to get stuff into production, but the price of following that path was acceptance of the now notorious back-end deal. A back-end deal is one where the producer promises to pay you upon sale of the movie, as opposed to during production. In the early days of digital filmmaking, this seemed like a reasonable way to do things. It seemed to be in everyone's interest to work on spec, to build careers together, to take advantage of the miracle of cheap production.

It took independent filmmakers about five or six years to figure out that cheap production alone wasn't going to change things in their favour. Looking back, the next problem faced by filmmakers should have been obvious. It was so very, very predictable. Basically, the big selling point of cheap production was that it would open up filmmaking to people like us. All we needed was a camera, a decent script, some mates and a computer to edit it on. The only problem was, it didn't just open up film-making to us, it opened it up to everyone. The problem with completely open access to the means of production, in an industry like filmmaking, is that everyone wanted to have a go. Suddenly, the distribution industry was flooded with screeners of horrifically poor independent movies, shot on low or no budgets. Even as early as 2005, sales agents used to open talks with new filmmakers with the following three questions:

  • What was it shot on?
  • What was the budget?
  • Who's in it?

Digital production, rather than being the answer to a filmmaker's dream, just created an environment where distributors no longer bothered to consider low-budget films, with unknown casts. This was quite a radical change. In the days of film, distributors had a healthy respect for anyone who managed to complete a movie. Someone like Kevin Smith could make a cheap film, like Clerks, and expect it to be considered for distribution. In the digital age, someone like Kevin Smith wouldn't even be able to get their film seen. Instead of creating more opportunities for filmmakers, digital production had the opposite effect. Doors that once were open to new talent, suddenly were very firmly closed. The filmmakers who prospered in the early days of digital were the ones who stuck to the old-school methods of shooting on film.

This closing of the doors had a very serious impact on screenwriters as well. There were more producers out there wanting to get films into production, but most of them had very limited knowledge or experience. For this new generation of filmmakers, paying the writer was at the bottom of their priorities. Another impact of digital production on screenwriters was that you just didn't know who to believe or trust anymore. Literally anyone could print up a business card and call themselves a producer. So, even when you got your script in front of someone, you had very little idea about whether you were dealing with a legitimate producer or a wannabe. What cheap, digital production really did for independent film was to flood the fringes of the industry with people who didn't have a clue about how the business worked. People who essentially wanted to play at filmmaking. This trend, of anyone with a business card and a camcorder calling themselves a producer, continues to this day. I've seen more screenwriter's careers destroyed by wannabe producers in the last ten years than I care to mention. The rise of the PINOs (Producers in Name Only), only further entrenched the distribution industry. The era of cheap production has led us, almost inevitably, to a point in history where producers can't be trusted to be professional, producers can't be trusted to have a budget, and finally, producers can't be trusted to sell what they manage to make. In the course of ten years, writers went from, "I'll option that script for a small amount of money" to, "I'll offer you a back-end deal that can't possibly ever be paid out." Basically, digital production destroyed the idea of professional screenwriting for anyone other than those working for the studios and the big TV networks.

When independent filmmakers discovered that the distribution industry wasn't interested in them, they decided to look at another cheap/free fix. The solution they chose to be their saviour was THE INTERNET. Where cheap digital production failed, cheap digital distribution and marketing was supposed to fix everyone's problems. With the internet, it didn't matter that distributors weren't interested. Filmmakers could just upload their films and sell them directly to their audiences. Audiences would be easy to find because this new social networking thing meant anyone could amass a huge following for their work. What nobody factored in, was the effect that providing everyone, and their dog, with a free file distribution system, would do to the industry. The impact, right across the industry, was massive.

The first impact was the devaluation of content. Piracy had always been a bug-bear of the industry, but now even the studios couldn't prevent the wholesale ripping and sharing of their movies. The second a film hits the screens, these days, it's available online. More and more, the main focus of the industry was to push all its efforts into "prime" content. By this, I mean content that people want to see so much, that the vast majority of us will still pay to see it.

What I've seen with the growth of online distribution, is the complete collapse of the DVD market (for non-prime products) and the implosion of independent film at ALL LEVELS. Independent movies with budgets, with name actors, suddenly couldn't make their money back. Films that didn't do so well in cinemas, but who built audiences over time, just couldn't be considered as commercially viable anymore. Basically, online distribution and file sharing killed the professional sector of independent film. Meanwhile, all the filmmakers trying to create audiences, via social networking, have discovered that whilst people are willing to follow them, often it's only because they have their own agendas. Social media has become a place where everyone is talking and no one is listening. Not only have filmmakers failed to connect with audiences, they have also adopted practices that alienate what few followers they do have, by constant requests for crowdfunding of their latest project or relentless pimping of their dreadfully mediocre films.

So, what does this all mean?

  • Cheap digital production closed the doors of distributors to low-budget projects, in a way that didn't exist in the days of film.
  • The internet devalued content to the point that it was no longer possible to make a profit on an independent film.
  • The DVD-premiere market collapsed and was replaced by VOD (that provides tiny returns on film in comparison).
  • DIY distribution via social networking has failed to create careers, simply because everyone talks and nobody listens.

And, finally, what this really means to screenwriters:

  • For the vast majority of screenwriters, it is no longer possible to build a healthy career in the independent film sector.

This is true unless we actually do something about it.The question is what can screenwriters do to alter this frankly dire situation? Well, one reaction could be for us all to chase the few remaining crumbs of work out there. Or, we could just accept that independent film just doesn't pay for writing anymore, and write anyway. Sure, we'll have to have other jobs to support ourselves, but at least we'll be writing and producing.

From where I'm standing, these appear to be the two choices that most of us are making. We're either chasing the big prize of, the now severely limited supply, of industry work or we've resigned ourselves to working two jobs in order to write. Neither of those two choices strikes me as acceptable, even though I believe all of us have made a decision to follow one path or the other. I currently teach in order to pay the bills, and make zero-budget art films for the love of it. However, I don't believe these are the only choices. I believe it is possible to revive and reinvent professional, independent filmmaking. However, to make real change and to rebuild a professional screenwriting market, I believe we'll have to do something brand new. I believe we'll have to do something massively innovative.

The first thing we need to change in independent film is the idea that the person who owns the camera is best qualified to be the producer. If we are to stand any chance of rebuilding a professional independent film sector in the digital age, writers need to stop seeing themselves as people who work for the production. Instead, we need to step into the centre and become writer/producers. The biggest mistake made in the era of cheap production was the idea that the person who owns the camera should automatically be the producer. As writers, we will only ever start to improve the quality of cheap, digital movies if we stand up for our material and take responsibility to protect it from idiots. These days, every city in the world has dozens of talented camera owner/operators. Each of these camera operators has friends who are audio recordists and gaffers. Every city in the world has hundreds of actors. All of these people are looking for good projects to put their time and creative energies into. The first things each of us can do is to create a small network of local actors and skilled crew members in the place where we live.

By far the most important thing we can do as writers, is to stop waiting for someone to discover us, and instead to become our own producer. Become the person who draws together a local creative community. Work together. Make things. Stop working in isolation.

Once we have our local creative team. Once we know that we can turn what we write into an actual film, we need to do the next radical thing. We need to start forming online communities of like-minded writer/producers. In fact, what I'm really suggesting is that we should be forming independent studios. When I say independent studio, I mean a collection of about one hundred filmmakers who share a common philosophy or style.

Let me explain how this works. Imagine you are passionate about writing and producing art-horror. Find your local production team, find your actors and start producing. Whilst you are doing that, find other art-horror writers and encourage them to set up their own teams. Only bring in people who share your passion and your unique vision, that art-horror is worth making and watching. Create a Vimeo Group, where your entire group can upload their films. Create a website and a forum for your group. And now the clever part. As a new film is added to the group, promote it collectively via your Facebook and Twitter communities. What I am talking about here is audience consolidation. Instead of one hundred writer/producers competing with each other for the attention of the same audience, they work together to promote the group's unique brand of independent art-horror.

Basically, don't be a filmmaker, be a movement. Write a manifesto. Create a distinctive brand.

The advantage of distinctive, conceptually coherent, brands is that it is easier for them to build audiences. Audiences don't want to have to discover individual films. Audiences want places where they can discover lots of the kinds of films that they like. Art-horror fans don't care who you are, they just want to see good art-horror. If they find a treasure trove of great films, all in the same place, all under the same banner, they will spread that message amongst their online communities. In this industry, any set of filmmakers who can amalgamate and hold a fan base will eventually get to the point where they can turn that fan base into an income.

So, as I said at the start of this piece, I do believe there is a potential happy ending to this story. Independent film doesn't need to roll over and die. It doesn't have to continue to make the same, predictable and frankly tedious mistakes. But, the ability to create this future, the future of professional, independent screenwriting lies in our own hands. All we have to do are two things:

  • Find local production and acting talent to work together to make great films.
  • Decide what kind of writer/producers we are, and gather ninety nine like minded souls to work collectively to build an audience for the kinds of films we love to write.

If we do those two things, we can give up writing spec scripts, we can give up waiting to be discovered and we can create our own futures.

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