Monday, February 01, 2010

Talking About a Revolution (for a Digital Age)

This wonderful news story in the New York Times is must reading. It compares the independent film revolution of the 1960's with today's new media revolution.

Lance Weiler, a D.I.Y. visionary whose 1998 mock documentary “The Last Broadcast,” (directed with Stefan Avalos) was the first movie released in theaters digitally, understood that younger audiences couldn’t be reached the way that their Fellini-loving grandparents once were. Younger audiences might not be more active moviegoers than their grandparents (watching a film is never a passive experience), but they live in an interactive, media-saturated world. These days “everyone is his or her own media company,” Mr. Weiler wrote in Filmmaker Magazine. “With the push of a button they can publish, shoot or record and moments later it can be online for the world to see.” This audience, in other words, has its own D.I.Y. ethos, and sometimes can be part of a movie’s creative process.

The major studios are certainly paying attention to what Mr. Weiler and other do-it-yourselfers have to say. For the release of its recent hit “Paranormal Activity,” a digital-age spin on the old haunted-house formula, Paramount Studios lifted a number of release strategies from this new world, including exploiting social networks — (TweetYourScream) on Twitter — to stoke and sustain audience interest. At the same time Paramount was also borrowing a page from the exploitation cinema handbook. In the 1950s and ’60s the director and producer William Castle (“The Tingler”) competed with Big Hollywood by actively engaging his audience with various gimmicks, like placing buzzers under seats to zap moviegoers mid-screening or advertising that nurses would be standing by in case anyone fainted.

Castle’s genius was to make audience members feel as if, with their giggles and screams, they were active participants in the movie and its meaning. That ability to make moviegoers see themselves as a part of the action was a crucial element to how Harvey and Bob Weinstein turned Miramax Films into a dominant force not only in independent cinema but also in Big Hollywood.

It helped that two of their most popular and early stars, the directors Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”), were natural showmen who attracted intensely dedicated followings. Yet as time went on and Miramax increasingly devoted its resources to slick commercial productions (“Cold Mountain”) that were at times indistinguishable from mainstream fare, it was no longer reaching out to specific audiences but the mass.


Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company