Theatrical Thoughts

By Jamie Stuart

Over the past couple of years, I've often wondered what the state of movies will look like by the time I've completed my first feature. Around 2005, it occurred to me that I might never shoot a feature on celluloid; most likely, I would start off on a small picture that utilized Mini-DV or 720p, and by the time that project played out, higher HD formats would be more readily accepted for future endeavors. Over the past year or so, however, I've started to consider that my first picture might not even receive a theatrical release, and go out through the internet or home video instead. I'm relatively content with the former scenario, but fairly ambivalent about the latter.

Does theatrical still matter?

More and more independent producers and distributors with years of experience are trying to convince indie filmmakers that theatrical distribution isn't that important. This isn't because these people in the know dislike the theatrical experience. It's because they understand that the costs of going theatrical are becoming a legitimate burden, and that the real revenue streams lie in the ancillary markets, especially for small movies. Unfortunately, the thing that most filmmakers understand -- and this has nothing to do with advocating the communal experience -- is that by going theatrical, the movie is given a credibility that it would otherwise not have. This may change in another generation or so as people become more used to multiple platforms, but currently, this is still the general mindset.

To offer an example of this disparity, does anybody believe that if the IFC Center hadn't screened its mumblecore series in 2007, the "movement" and its filmmakers would've attained the same level of credibility? The three best-known voices from that scene -- Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers -- have all received some level of theatrical distribution, whether it's micro or day-and-date. Are these three great filmmakers? I think the jury's still out on that. But, by going theatrical, they've legitimized the whole handheld DV film festival movement -- a movement that until recently, had critics, journalists and distributors constantly complaining about the amateurish production values of the movies flooding fests. Theatrical alters people's perception. Theatrical makes it a real movie.

Although my aesthetic is entirely different from the mumblecore group, it's very possible that I might have been wound up in its hype. During the winter of 2005-06, I was trying to get a feature made called The All-Nighter. After ramping through pre-production, casting major roles and even shooting a few scenes, I shut it down. The budget was too small (a quarter of what I needed), and the timing was too late (it was set during winter, but I couldn't start shooting until the beginning of spring). Rather than make something that would be severely compromised, I pulled the plug. Had the movie been completed during the planned schedule, it invariably would've hit the fests during the same period as that group. In that sense, I'm glad it didn't happen -- although I've used the same DIY approach and even the internet as they have, I don't really see any other connection beyond that.

I've often had people suggest to me that I should just go for broke and make a movie for a few hundred bucks, since I do all the shooting and editing myself. Truth is, if I thought I could conceive of something that could work under those circumstances, and be good enough, I would. To date, none of my ideas fit that paradigm. I'm not interested in small, improvised stories about relationships. When I shoot drama, I script and pre-plan. Furthermore, I'm generally drawn to irregular narrative forms (i.e., non-linear), and material that could best be described as spanning from tweaked genre to speculative fiction. This makes things even more difficult when dealing with indie producers and investors, since most are card-carrying liberal humanists and they just don't get it if you tell them your movie contains space aliens and assassins and questions the meaning of existence.

Anyhow, all of this is really to say that I'm inching forward with a long-gestating project that I generally refer to for secrecy's sake as Project: 281. It was initially designed as a five-part web series -- but at a certain point, with series upon series flooding the web, it seemed more practical to just approach it as a feature. The price would be the same, only I'd direct it with different pacing. Although I'd wanted to avoid storyboarding this project, because I wanted to push myself by figuring out the shots on-set, I've accepted that I'll invariably have to pre-vis the movie, at least in part, for the producers and investors. A small compromise.

Unless a sizable investment comes in that allows me to put a proper production together and shoot in 1080p or 4K, I'll stick to the 720p I'm used to. I'm sure one area of concern is whether I can actually tell dramatic stories and work with actors -- since most of my work has been improved around live events. In the meantime, I'll most likely shoot a legit short film to allay any worries. I'm not trying to rush into production, since the story isn't season-specific. I'd rather do it right -- you can only ever make one first feature.

Hopefully, in the end, I'll be able to still go theatrical. But that's not just a matter of where the business is at. It's also a matter of whether I've made a good enough movie. Here's to diving off a cliff feet first...

Filmmaker Jamie Stuart has developed shorts for several years through his production business, The Mutiny Company. Working almost entirely on his own, Stuart has carved out his own niche in the film community, documenting the festival environment with experimental shorts for Movie City News, Filmmaker magazine, Focus Features and others. In this series of columns, Jamie examines the way that new technologies have aided his personal adventures in filmmaking. Read his last entry here.


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