Film Fund-amentals: What Is Reality

It is the age-old philosophic question. What is reality (or, actually, what is the nature of reality)? According to Plato, it was mathematics. For the Romans, it was the flesh and blood material of the natural world. After the Enlightenment, it turned into a conflict between rational human intelligence and nature.

But today, it is Honey Boo Boo. Oh well, at least we don’t have to deal with all of that math stuff that so enthralled Plato.

Reality television – and its strange evolution – has become a topic among indie filmmakers. To be honest, I first discovered this fact when I heard Christine Vachon tell a large collection of young filmmakers that they should consider it a crucial emerging genre for indies. At first,  I thought I had misunderstood what she was saying but…no, she said it. Several times.

Later, as I wandered lost through the streets of lower Manhattan (because the entrance I needed to the 4th Street subway station had seemingly vanished) it occurred to me that an indie application of the Reality format is sort of a natural extension of indie history. Well, that and the fact that I always get lost in lower Manhattan. Heck, the last time I barely got out of a major gang incident because of the kindly intervention of a helpful couple from the Nation of Islam.

As bogus and disreputable as most Reality TV shows appear (because they are mostly bogus and extremely trashy), the form is weirdly derived from the documentary cinema. It is especially derived from elements of cinéma vérité. Heck, it even has a few qualities that resemble components of the French New Wave, especially movies like Adieu Philippine.

Sure, the average reality show lacks all of the grace, style, and humanity of everything I just referenced. But they do have cheapness of production and gritty stylization. The main reason why Reality shows have become so predominant on TV is the simple fact that they can be produced for pennies compared to filmed drama. It’s a cheap form. OK, it’s a cheap form showcasing cheap people doing cheap and cheesy things. But it is quite inexpensive to produce.

Add to this the rise of online presentation as the rapidly emerging venue for many young indie filmmakers. A lot of the stuff people are posting onto YouTube is already working in much the same vein as Reality TV. Just go onto YouTube and search under “ex-wife.”  Personally, I can’t believe some of the stuff people are posting and it all plays like a bad night on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. So one of the major distribution systems is already gamed toward this format.

Mainstream film-making is toying with the form. Cloverfield was basically a Godzilla movie done as a Reality show. Same goes with the original Paranormal Activity – sure it didn’t start out mainstream, but Paramount is milking this “franchise” for every nickel it is worth. The Hollywood adaptation is still largely a mix and match of traditional narrative structure and cell phone aesthetics (I almost got sea sick while watching Cloverfield). But these movies have demonstrated the commercial validity of the form.

For indie filmmakers, it almost sounds too easy. In theory, it provides the possibility of establishing a presence in a manner that involves little cost in either production or distribution. Unknown cast members with little acting experience can be a plus within this format. A rough, unprofessional “look” to the movie is virtually mandatory. It’s all win-win.

Of course the likelihood of seeing a single dime out of this type of production is almost zip. Getting viewers is also a major fight. In fact,  that is the biggest hurdle of the game. The online universe is more crowded than a Tokyo subway train at rush hour and the battle for the viewers’ attention begins at the search engine level on YouTube.

The filmmaker is best advised to seek out something that makes for an effective tag and/or title. For example, “Angry Ex-Wife” is a good one on YouTube. “Guy Blows Himself Up” is another good one. You can spend the better part of the day looking up all kinds of possibilities, some good and some just simply demented. I suspect that it is a form of research you should do before you even try to think up an idea. You also will want to do the research at home. The workplace environment is not ready for some of the things you might find.

You cannot expect to go anywhere financially with this type of production. Then again, I don’t know. You have companies like Makers Studios who are creating a successful business model out of this approach. However, it is a lot of work and most young indie filmmakers are not up to the task, if only because they are not in a position to produce the amount of material needed to successfully make it a full-time business. The internet is a hungry monster that is always demanding more.

So you are back to the “presence” issue. This involves getting attention and making people aware of your work. Maybe even finding a way to maneuver from a small one-shot deal toward a larger production. Maybe, just maybe, toward something more resembling a full-blown movie. At the very least, a longer and more elaborate effort.

So I came to realize that Vachon had a point. Since I had dealt with Vachon before, and had come to the quick realization that she knows more about this business than I do, I was not really surprised to find that out. I was simply surprised at the ever strange directions that this whole business is taking. As I always am.

But then I was also surprised to find that the 4th Street entrance was on 7th and that nobody who lived in the area had any more of a clue than I did. So what do I know?