Do Indy Filmmakers Really Present a Challenge to Hollywood?

  • Do Indy Filmmakers Really Present a Challenge to Hollywood?
    This Wired News article quotes a “young filmmaker fresh from the George Lucas movie factory” who says that big-budget effects ruin films, and therefore Hollywood has much to fear from independent digital filmmakers. Case in point: Star Wars Episode 1 was not as good a film as the original Star Wars, even though the former had many, many more visual effects.

    This seems to be a common notion amongst the digerati these days, and while I want to believe it, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as it’s often presented. For instance, in popular music, it has been a common assumption amongst true collectors and fans that indpendent music (indie rock) is truly where the great stuff is. Since the advent of the 4-track recorder and home studios some 10-15 years ago, independent musicians have had the means at their disposal to record music with decent fidelity. And, true, every so often a great indie rock band bubbles up into the mainstream, sometimes causing a few small revolutions within the music industry (think Nirvana). But does this really change things? Or does it just cause the industry to go looking for a thousand copycats of this next big thing?

    Without doubt, having a monopoly over the necessary technology for producing recorded music or movies is one very significant way in which the mainstream entertainment industry maintained its stranglehold on American culture. As the technology for creating these art forms has become cheaper, it has certainly increased the opportunity for people to create such art outside the industry system. But does that mean these independents pose a direct threat?

    Even as the Internet provides a near-ubiquitous distribution apparatus heretofore unavaiable without tremendous capital outlay, are those 1000s of bands with their songs on making any inroads on Britney Spears or Linkin Park? Sure, posting your clever independent film or song on the ‘net might arouse the attention of record companies or Hollywood studios. But in that case, are independents really posing a challenge or just creating a new system of “farm leagues” that feed into the majors?

    While the film studios and recording companies may not have the same lock on the production equipment, they still have a good lock on promotion and distribution. They have the stacks of money necessary to carpet bomb America with TV and radio ads, billboards and promotional knick-knack swag garbage until we’re knee-deep and dazed. And, whether we think it’s a good thing or not, the strategy works. For every clever “Blair Witch Project” underground-PR campaign, Hollywood has a hundred consciousness-blitzing ad-campaigns for Pearl Harbor.

    It’s not that I want to pour cold water on the fire of independents, but rather bring the romantic notion of the artistic underdog back down to earth. Regardless of how cheap or available the technology for creating art becomes, as long as we have a fundamentally corporatized system of distribution and promotion, the independents will only occasionally present a challenge, which will quickly be neutralized by being absorbed. Just think for a moment, paints, canvas, pastels and pencils have been cheaply available for most of the century, why hasn’t this caused a tremendous democratization in the visual arts? Because it’s not about the means to create, it’s about the means to commodify and sell sell sell. And that, my friends, continues to be less democratic, not more.

    I’m glad to now have the means to create videos and films cheaply and easily. I just don’t harbor the fantasy that somehow I’ll be making a great living doing it. It will take a much bigger systemic change before that happens.

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