Like many of his peers, 21-year-old Arin Crumley, a tall, Twizzler-thin video-grapher living in Brooklyn, New York, went trawling for a girlfriend on the Internet, blasting notes to more than 100 likely prospects who had posted personals on Time Out New York's Web site. Shortly afterward, Susan Buice, also young, a self-styled "artist in theory, waitress in practice," clicked open his email: "What made you move to NY? Do you have any more pix? I think I might find you hot."
Unlike the others on Crumley's hit list, Buice decided to give him a chance and told him to drop by the restaurant where she worked the late-night shift. Crumley showed up, but in disguise--sunglasses, a baseball cap--packing a video camera and snapping surreptitious candids, then trailing her as she left the restaurant for the subway. "Dear Stalker," Buice replied, after the photos arrived in her inbox. "So this is what the world sees. Just an innocent bystander. So pedestrian. Nothing like the tragic hero I feel as I trudge through each day." She told him the typical date wouldn't do justice to the stalking experience. "We need to think of another unique scenario--something challenging." He suggested they communicate without speaking, to avoid small talk.
For their first date, they wandered the Brooklyn waterfront, passing notes, drawing pictures, listening to music on each other's iPods, but not talking. Later, when Buice attended an artist colony in Vermont, they mailed videos back and forth; six months after meeting, they moved in together. Along the way, they amassed a collection of artifacts most couples would call "keepsakes." Buice and Crumley considered them artistic "by-products."
Eventually, in the way of youth the world over, they concluded that their courtship had to be immortalized--and that only a full-length feature film would suffice. They quit their jobs, pooled $10,000 in savings, lined up a stack of credit cards, and flew in a friend from the Left Coast to operate their prized possession: a Panasonic DVX-100 digital video camera. The saga of Four Eyed Monsters, their self-directed, self-obsessed movie, had begun.
It was an unlikely way to make a movie, and if it sounds self-indulgent and a tad "meta," well, it is. But we live in an age when the tools of self-expression have never been more accessible. Until recently, making a movie meant using a shaky Super 8 or low-resolution camcorder--or taking a flier that required tens of millions of dollars, hundreds of personnel, and superior technical expertise. It also meant dueling with the studio executives and distributors who decided which movies made it into theaters and which didn't--and who exerted ham-fisted control over the industry, making it all but impossible for neophytes such as Buice and Crumley to break through. (And even if they did, they were often roundly fleeced: bought off with a nominal take-it-or-leave-it offer, stripped of control of their work, and sent packing back to Mom.)
But the great digital push is under way. Now the same pair of lovelorn kids who would have vanished completely in another age can pick up a camera, teach themselves the art of filmmaking for next to nothing, and make a commercial-quality movie. They might even hit it big.
Of course, digital movies are not new. A decade ago, Love God, long since forgotten, was one of the first--if not the first--independent films entirely shot and edited in digital video. Back then, the format was merely a curiosity; now, with the price of a decent camera dipping below $4,000 and quality steadily improving, digital is reshaping entertainment as the talkies did 80 years ago, with similarly revolutionary effects. Even the notion of a "film" has begun to seem a little quaint: Sure, there are still your standard 90-odd-minute narratives, and they may be around forever, but because moving images are increasingly being viewed in and over a variety of venues and devices--from 3-D high- definition digital theaters to TVs to laptops to PDAs, cell phones, iPods, and everything between--even that form is morphing. A film today might be a series of 3- to 5-minute episodes or a 20-minute short. The Beastie Boys handed out 50 Hi8 videocams so that fans could capture them in concert (the band later returned them for a refund). For $164,000, South African director Aryan Kaganof created SMS Sugar Man, the first feature-length movie shot entirely on cell-phone cameras.
As a practical matter, digital opens up other opportunities as well. Not only is it cheap (35mm film costs about 200 times more than digital tape) but it's also lightweight, simple, and subtle. For documentary filmmakers, for example, the format lets them make movies they couldn't do otherwise. James Longley, director of Iraq in Fragments, rode in the back of a pickup truck filled with Mahdi Army militia, recording everything as they arrested alcohol sellers in a local market and later interrogated them. "A large part of being able to record that kind of material is the ability to be unobtrusive," Longley says, "to let the mechanism of the camera nearly vanish, unencumbered by lights, sound recordists, and film-changing bags."
With some 18 billion videos streamed online in 2005--up 50% from 2004--it's not surprising that new businesses are sprouting up around this digital explosion. Each day on YouTube, more than 40 million video views are delivered and 35,000 new clips are uploaded. Google and Yahoo have video search sites and large caches of moving content. Apple's iTunes Music Store sold 12 million video clips for $1.99 each over the span of just a few months. A new company out of Berkeley, California, called Dabble is vying to become a micro movie studio for the masses by inviting users to create, remix, browse, and organize video online. These aggregators are fast becoming the central nodes of an entirely new video marketing and distribution system, one far from Hollywood's control.
Eventually, they concluded that their courtship had to be immortalized--and that only a full-length feature film would suffice. The saga of Four Eyed Monsters, their self-directed, self-obsessed movie, had begun.
"Things that are authentic have great appeal," says Dabble founder and CEO Mary Hodder, who believes that movie studios will increasingly find themselves competing with films made by the masses. "Part of the issue is lowering the transaction cost for making and distributing programs and films, and part of it is the low cost of user-generated content, which is usually free. It's totally disintermediating."
That process of cutting out the middleman, while still in its infancy, has the potential to upend the balance of power that has governed the film industry for decades.
One of the early demonstrations that homespun digital could deliver Hollywood-worthy numbers was the 2003 release of Open Water, a psychothriller with a cast of two, a crew of three, and lots of sharks. Chris Kentis, who had been cutting film trailers for a production company, pounded out a script, auditioned actors, bought two digital video cameras, and shot the movie over the course of two years, mostly on the open ocean. "We were chasing weather, and weather was chasing us," Kentis says. "We could see a storm approaching with lightning, and the captain would tell us we had 15 minutes to shoot the scene. We could react immediately. It was guerrilla filmmaking on the water."
Kentis submitted the film to Sundance with low expectations, figuring that festival organizers would take a dim view of a movie with so few credits (written by Chris Kentis, directed by Chris Kentis, cinematography by Chris Kentis …). But not only was Open Water accepted, it attracted a distribution deal from Lion's Gate and, later that year, opened at 2,700 theaters across the country. Made for $130,000, it went on to rake in about $30 million at the domestic box office and close to $100 million worldwide (counting DVD sales).
At the outset, Buice and Crumley had none of Kentis's skill. For starters, they had no idea how to frame a shot or do basic cinematography. Their cameraman wasn't familiar with the camera. They had never acted before. After each shoot, they beamed the dailies on a wall of their cramped loft and edited footage on a Mac G5 computer with Final Cut Pro software. "Sometimes we ended up shooting and reshooting a scene four or five times before we got it right," Crumley says.
Then, a year into the project, with our young heroes maxed out on seven credit cards, Four Eyed Monsters was accepted into Slamdance, the rogue sidekick to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. That led to invitations to other festivals-- 18 in all, including South by Southwest, the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, and Gen Art. Along the way, the pair collected several awards and glowing reviews. Variety called Four Eyed Monsters "fascinating," a film that "deliberately smudges the line between nonfiction and invention." The Boston Phoenix said it was "spry, brainy, endlessly inventive," an "Annie Hall of the 25-year-old set." Others described it as "exhilarating," "accomplished and endearing," a movie that contains "frantic vibrancy" and "delivers a powerful narrative punch." It felt like the beginning of a Nora Ephron script that would, inevitably, end with Buice and Crumley better dressed, in a fabulous apartment, and very much in love.
In fact, their whirlwind tour yielded nothing. After 18 festivals, they were still without a distribution deal to get Four Eyed Monsters into theaters. Their work seemed to resonate, but they had no money and no access to the pipeline. All they had was a mounting sense that people liked the thing. "We had a film that nobody knew about and nobody wanted to distribute," Crumley says. "Companies told us that the 'target' audience for our film was 'hard to pin down.' What they meant was that they had no tried-and-true formula for how to release a film to the type of audience our film appealed to, so they didn't want to take a risk."
Which got them thinking. At the time, social-networking site MySpace had about half the 75 million members it has today. But, children of the Web that they are, Buice and Crumley understood that social- networking sites could generate interest and create buzz--a free, self-fulfilling wave of publicity. A veritable army of users, the vast majority under 30, would market the film for them virally by blogging about it, or posting video clips. As any ad person will tell you, that kind of lightning-fast word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing, and the Internet makes it possible on a scale never before seen. So Buice and Crumley embraced what Crumley calls "collective curation"--the idea that a loyal, intimate, motivated fan base is better able to judge quality than any individual and that a thumbs-up from the "Netgeist" can be life-changing.
Tonight's dinner consists of almond-butter sandwiches. Still, asked if they would accept a $2 million offer for the rights to their film, Crumley says, "No." Buice isn't so sure. "Only if we maintain control," Crumley insists. And what if that wasn't part of the deal? "No."
It was here that Buice and Crumley began butting up against the film establishment. And it is here that the Web potentially becomes a transformative vehicle for independent filmmakers looking to crash the gates of the old system.
The pair's strategy began taking shape when they attended South by Southwest, where they posted a daily online video diary of their experiences. The diary proved to be popular and helped draw an audience to their screenings. For Buice and Crumley, it also drove home the point that the battle to get their film recognized (not to mention the peripheral tales of their own interpersonal combat and financial woe) was something their peers could relate to--that the story about their story might help them get over the hump.
So they sketched out a series of 10 three- to five-minute video podcasts that they intended to post once a month, a kind of Project Greenlight reality show about the making of their movie. One episode tells how they got started. Another relates their experience at Slamdance, detailing fights that broke out when an acting teacher and some of his students who appeared in the film clamored for more credit. A third looked at the impact the film was having on their relationship, which often seemed on the brink of disintegration. The first podcast was posted in November and immediately became a hit. It didn't take long for each new installment to attract 65,000 downloads via iTunes, YouTube, Google Video, MySpace, and other sites. As of late May, the first seven episodes had been downloaded about half a million times, unleashing a platoon of citizen marketers for the movie as the clips get posted on individual profiles, emailed down the line to friends, or played on iPods.
In fact, the marketing has been so effective that a recent Four Eyed Monsters screening at the Brooklyn Museum sold out completely: 470 tickets, in five minutes. In September, after Buice and Crumley post their 10th and final podcast, they plan to throw a series of screening parties across the country, organized by volunteers. They are trying out a new service from Withouta- box, which lets filmmakers distribute their work to art-house theaters nationwide; the more advance tickets sold, the more theaters sign on. Simultaneously, they'll release Four Eyed Monsters through their Web site, www.foureyedmonsters.com, either on DVD (complete with the podcasts, for around $15) or as a low-end digital download.
Crumley sees their strategy as a showdown between Hollywood and the New Economy: "If we are successful with releasing our film by building our own audience, getting the film directly to that audience, and using what they say about it to get to a bigger audience--that would prove that the distributors' existence is completely unnecessary. It's better than a couple of guys in an office making a multimillion-dollar decision based on their own personal taste."
Buice and Crumley are early examples of the millions who will flow into this filtration process. It's a process that may have some unlikely by-products of its own--possible alliances, say, between low-rent filmmakers and theater owners, who in the past have been separated by a gulf of power and influence. The rise of digital makes it easy enough to imagine a day when theater owners look to the Internet to find movies (or compilations of shorts, or animation, or any other sort of content that can be screened) to supplement the list coming out of Hollywood or the not-so-indies. Even now, they could gauge an audience's interest in advance--based on metrics such as the number of downloads or click-throughs--and deliver specialized, microtargeted content on nights when they're tired of showing Rocky VI to an empty house. Remember, Buice and Crumley's online presence translated into a packed theater, with real tickets.
Of course, there are a number of things delaying that day. It would cost about $3 billion to convert all 36,000 movie screens in this country to digital, and the process has barely begun. But as Bud Mayo, president of AccessIT, a company that offers financing and expertise to theaters looking to convert to digital, explains, delaying that process leaves a lot of money on the table. "You have a $9 billion domestic box office, and that's using 15% of available seats," he says. "If you can impose digital cinema and all its benefits, and attract 5% more customers to fill some of those empty seats, that's a $3 billion to $4 billion opportunity."
Adding to the power of the digital model is the fact that the big studios themselves stand to benefit from digital conversion. The studios now spend upward of $10 million to dispatch 35mm prints of a single blockbuster, at $1,500 per print, to the thousands of theaters across the country (and $5 million for a more modest release). A digital release would bring that number down to about $200 per movie, transmitted at the push of a button.
Within 10 years, your local cinema will probably have digital capacity (although it may retain film technology for a time, to appease the purist Hollywood directors), and this will profoundly shift the economics of the movie business. AccessIT alone plans to convert 10,000 screens by 2010, by ponying up the up-front costs. (In return, film studios pay a $1,000 fee per screen the first time a film is shown, which Mayo says would generate about $15,000 a year per screen.) AccessIT then transports the film via satellite or fiber-optic cable from a central server; theater owners could add advertisements or trailers, track concessions, and even monitor lights remotely. They would have the technical capability to change their lineup on the fly, substituting 3-D rock concerts, video-game competitions, religious revivals, World Cup matches, versions of a movie dubbed in Chinese or Spanish, or indie efforts like Four Eyed Monsters.
"The studios are afraid of the loss of control that digital sets forth," says Ira Deutchman, president and CEO of Emerging Pictures, another company that converts theaters to digital. "Once you have digital equipment, exhibitors can play whatever they want on a given day. This changes the balance of power between exhibitors and Hollywood." Standing between the studios and the theaters, however, are the distributors, and they still wield enormous clout. "If a theater pulls a movie before the contract stipulates, it's going to have a problem," says David Zelon, head of production for Mandalay Filmed Entertainment. "It's worse than getting sued: You won't get the next big picture."
Zelon says Hollywood studios aren't losing any sleep over the ascendance of digital filmmaking or its ancillary benefits to small-scale indie directors. "Every once in a while, you'll get a My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The Blair Witch Project. But you really need a studio-marketing campaign. At the end of the day, you need stars, because the first question people ask about a film is, 'Who's in it?'" he says. "Without mass marketing, you won't capture the attention of a mass audience, and the Internet is not a viable way to attract a mass audience."
Famous last words. But even if Zelon is right, that doesn't make movies marketed and distributed over the Web negligible. If 85% of a cinema's seats lie fallow every year, a hundred smaller movies that attracted a following would become a force, while a thousand events--from films to sports events to rock concerts--could represent a revolution. How long could theater owners turn their backs on that kind of upside? If they caved, how long could distributors afford to with- hold their films, especially as more theaters joined the digital ranks? And perhaps most important, how long would studios back distributors in that battle if they could deliver their films directly to theaters in a few minutes, for a fraction of the cost?
In the end, of course, Hollywood might respond to the threat posed by Buice, Crumley, and the rest by doing what it did to indie film in the 1990s: co-opting it. The Web could simply become a farm team, a place to scout talent. It seems a safe bet that someone at News Corp., which paid more than half a billion dollars for MySpace, is watching the site closely for the next breakout star, whether of film, music, or anything else. (Even this scenario should give distributors the shakes, however.)
Meanwhile, filmmakers like Buice and Crumley are on their own, their Nora Ephron denouement deferred. Their 450-square-foot loft in a former factory building in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is awash in digital videotapes. An archaic gas stove is set right inside the front door; their bedroom is a mattress stuffed into an alcove, secreted behind a red curtain. A whiteboard is covered in notes, an almost endless to-do list. Two Apple monitors bathe the room in light.
The pair have racked up $54,000 in credit-card debt and are so broke that tonight's dinner consists of almond-butter sandwiches, which they'll eat on their way to the Apple Store in Soho, where they are scheduled to give a lecture. Still, asked if they would accept a $2 million offer from a distributor for the rights to Four Eyed Monsters, Crumley says, "No." Buice isn't so sure. "Only if we maintain control," Crumley insists. What if that wasn't part of the deal? "No."
Buice bites her tongue. She and Crumley fought almost every day while they were making their picture. She once got so fed up, she told him she was leaving as soon as they finished the damn thing. But their arguments smacked of truth. Authenticity, even. And in the end, they made the couple's story--what's the word?--cinematic.
Adam L. Penenberg is a Fast Company contributing writer.