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Runaway Production Forever?

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Today’s filmmakers would do well to follow a precept first articulated by Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” And change, more than anything else, is what defines the present film environment.
Just ask multiple Oscar-winning director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart). He confirms that the structure of the film business has changed dramatically since the ’70s, when filmmaking was driven by entrepreneurial filmmakers with a passion to tell a story. For The Human Stain, the story of a New England college professor whose personal life is shattered by racism allegations, Benton was given a thorny option.
“I’ve always believed that landscape is one of the characters of a film and in an ideal world all films set in a specific location should be shot in that location. In this economic climate, when making a choice to make the movie or not, there are certain compromises that need be made. For The Human Stain we shot in and around Montreal. The exteriors in the film were enough like Massachusetts that producer Tom Rosenberg and I made a deal that if we stayed on budget we’d shoot at Williams College in Massachusetts. Does the audience know or even care? They don’t know, but they care.”
With global conglomerates running the show, the aim is to pack them in on opening weekend by hiring large-salaried stars and keeping the remaining budgets as low as possible. Nonetheless, Benton believes that today’s advances in digital technology will once again put the movie business at the starting gate of a new era in filmmaking. One that puts at least a portion of the power back in the hands of passionate storytellers.
“A system to make interesting films is still in place, and many of the ’70s films considered renegade were actually made by the studios. Sadly, with independent movies today, everyone involved has to take a leap of faith, and independents don’t have deep pockets,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of experience shooting digitally, but making filmmaking cheaper in the U.S. will make it easier to shoot here.”
While Canada is a favorite destination for runaway production, based on its still-favorable currency rate and production tax credits that can cover more than 40% of a film’s below-the-line costs in a province like British Colombia, Hollywood is moving on to even cheaper locales such as Romania (where Cold Mountain was shot) to mimic America.
On the domestic front, seeking to attract production, New Mexico has begun investing up to $7.5 million in films through no-interest loans, while offering a 15% tax rebate. Louisiana has a sales-tax exemption, 20% tax credit on Louisiana payroll, as well as a 15% investor tax credit for movies that meet certain criteria. Texas had a strong 2003, far outpacing its two neighbors with reported production budgets totaling $329.7 million. While pleased with the state’s recent production activity, Texas Film Commission assistant director Carol Pirie believes both city and state government could be doing more to prevent a return to 2002 levels, when production budgets totaled $179.8 million, by passing more legislation to waive taxes and fees and implementing advanced training through the Texas Workforce Commission. As for digital filmmaking, she sees the future as wide-open. “Will digital be the death-knell of 35mm film? I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, but boy I’ve seen some really good-looking stuff shot on digital.”
Shooting with Sony’s MSW-900P digital camcorder, New York producer Susan Leber and collaborators were able to create The Technical Writer, a meditation on loneliness and longing set in Manhattan. The project also marked the return of Tatum O’Neal to the big screen after several years. While pointing out some of the advantages of shooting digitally, Leber is quick to note that renegade filmmaking is a state of mind.
“[With digital] you can eliminate the need for a 2nd AC, and it takes less time to load the camera. Costs are by nature lessened because there is no film processing, but if you blow up to film it becomes similar to 16mm. A lot of people are using video in a guerilla style, free to shoot wherever and with no crew.”
Austin filmmaker Bob Ray and his producer Werner Campbell recently wrapped production for Hell on Wheels, a documentary feature that chronicles the rock ‘n’ roll-fueled all-women’s roller derby movement in Central Texas. Shooting digitally helped the project both from a technical and a budgetary standpoint. “Without the affordability of digital filmmaking, we would not have been able to shoot as we did,” says Ray. “This was a huge project and involved upwards of 100 women in Texas alone. I think shooting on film for Hell on Wheels would have been nearly impossible. The digital format allowed us to have small cameras with the sound system tied into the camera, and our subjects were more at ease without a huge camera pointed at them, not to mention the sound guy, slate, and all that other fun stuff.”
Making imaginative use of graphics, miniatures, and sound design to create a dystopian Los Angeles society, writer/director/actor Burke Roberts’ Handicap City examines the oppression of artists in society.
Delivering Handicap City to niche audiences through DVD sales, Roberts is among the vanguard of moviemakers tackling the critical last frontier of independent filmmaking: distribution. A New Line executive who did not wish to be identified believes DVD delivery will eventually revolutionize the way both independents and the studios exhibit their movies. “Back in the ’70s, filmmaking, distribution, and marketing were vastly cheaper,” according to the exec. “A film could be made cheaply, get a release in one theater in New York, L.A., or San Francisco, get great reviews and word-of-mouth, and find a home with some small distributor or chain of art theaters.
“What is re-emerging today is a similar system that can get by on lower margins—small digital-friendly theaters that can make it with films that have low production values and little to no marketing money behind them. With the cheaper digital systems, ‘renegade’ filmmakers are renting auditoriums in theaters around the country trying to get their films seen on their own. Prints that cost $1,500 and up will disappear once the industry has converted to digital, and the delivery system will then be via super dense and encoded DVDs or encoded satellite transmission.”
One company that is already altering this landscape is 2929 Entertainment brainchild of Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban. It hopes to make between three and eight movies per year using a fully digital production/distribution model. “Our goal is to make 2929 Entertainment the place moviemakers want to come because we have the ability to produce the movie, broadcast it on television via HDNet, and distribute it theatrically via Landmark Theaters. We want to encourage directors and writers to follow their passion, and we are not beholden to the studios.”

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