Film Fund-amentals: Across the Digital Divide

Back in 1981, the ever brilliant Bill Gates profoundly announced that “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Yes, the prophet had laid the RAM upon the altar and the word of the Almighty was delivered to the multitude.

However, Gates was wrong (as usual), and as the world dashes into the terabyte universe (where 640K is a dim memory – much like my personal recollection of the night we invented fire), everything is undergoing a massive state of flux. This is especially true with low-budget filmmaking. Did I say flux? Change is taking place even as I write this piece.

Three events may prove to be crucial bellwethers of this change. Individually, each event seems of minor concern. But coming in close relationship to each other, they are indicative of the future in filmmaking and distribution that is about to take hold at a level that is yet to be fully understood or successfully explored. In other words, we are about to get another tricky curve ball from the Historical Dialectic.

First item up to bat is the impending, sort of, release of Paranormal Activity. I say “sort of” because it is sort of getting released on October 2 and has actually, sort of, been released already and is, sort of, available to any theater that gets badgered enough by an online petition drive in a manipulated word-of-mouth campaign that has used extensive viral advertising techniques via YouTube and other online sources. This $15,000 non-epic got picked up by Paramount Pictures after a strong screening at the 2008 Slamdance Festival (the film itself was made in 2007) and has become the test model for alternative advertising and distribution techniques.

Despite the extra money that Paramount had to invest in preparing the movie for commercial release, Paranormal Activity is such a low-rent item that it will make a profit once the first six customers finish paying for their tickets. Likewise, the film’s webcam sense of visuals (the movie could be re-titled America’s Spookiest Home Videos) has become a major bone of critical slam dunk commentary. But let’s face it, Reality TV — like all TV — is already reshaping our sense of visual aesthetics, as was demonstrated in The Blair Witch Project, Fargo (which is basically a variation of the docudrama genre) and Cloverfield.

What is especially interesting about the release of Paranormal Activity is the online strategy. The film has been released for screening in 13 college towns, and people can go to the movie’s website to compete for the next slate of cities where it will get released. In other words, theatrical-movies-on-demand (sort of). So it will be coming to a theater near you once you log on and badger.

While Paranormal Activity is attempting to reshape the traditional top-down structure of theatrical distribution, Isabella Rossellini is preparing to storm the web for financial gain with the third season of her Green Porno series. The series is an eclectic cross between environmental concerns, experimental video techniques, and saucy commentary on the sex life of various critters (not necessarily of the two-legged variety).

So far, the project has largely been supported by Robert Redford via his Sundance Channel (both online and on TV). Now Rossellini is expanding the series distribution through mobile phones via Babelgum. In a recent Reuters news story, Rossellini was quoted as saying, “We are discussing how to continue this experiment, how to learn from Green Porno and develop not only content, but also a business.”

Again, it would be easy to dismiss the concept of mobile distribution except for two reasons. The first reason is Rossellini herself. Oh sure, she’s just an ex-fashion model and an actress with an extremely eccentric film resume. She has also proven herself to be a very determined, focused and even daring figure (all of which was obvious early on in Blue Velvet). Besides, she is a legacy child, and her father (Roberto) was a crucial figure in the complete reshaping of the post-World War Two cinema. I would not count her out.

The second reason is the simple fact that the mobile phone movie is currently premiering this week courtesy of Sally Potter and the increasingly prevalent Babelgum. Though Potter’s career has been more notable for its critical acclaim than overt public success (her two best known movies, The Gold Diggers and Orlando had pretty limited viewing in the States), she is an extremely gifted and surprisingly shrewd filmmaker. Her new movie Rage is skipping theatrical release and going straight to a special limited run of DVDs and widespread release via mobile phones (though you can watch it online in installments at the Babelgum website).

With a cast headlined by Jude Law (in drag, no less), Judi Dench, Steve Buscemi, John Leguizamo, Dianne Wiest and many others, Rage is the first all-star mobile epic. Even more notable, Potter has retooled the visual structure to accommodate the limited size of the mobile screen, producing compact medium shots with a striking sense of strong, saturated colors that create small but vivid images.

Personally speaking, it almost makes up for the time that Potter blew me off when I was trying to interview her. Historically, Rage becomes a milestone no matter what. Even movies can now “phone it in.”

And once again we are reminded of Hegel’s words: “You may not be interested in the Historical Dialectic, but the Historical Dialectic is interested in you.”