The High Druid's Homily

A blog about Druidism, Paganism, Politics, Southern Life, Sex, Entertainment, Sci-Fi, and a lot of crap like that.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The future of Hollywood isn’t in Hollywood. It’s in Chatsworth.

With the introduction of Apple’s new Video iPod, and faster and cheaper devices upon which to display video content, production studios all over the world – especially in Hollywood – are salivating at the prospect of new revenue streams as they watch box office totals and TV ratings plummet. TiVo, DVD sales and on-line video piracy are often held to blame for the disappointing earnings . . . but the same execs who cringe at the idea of a domestic box-office that doesn’t break even or a network show that can’t beat out the latest Fox reality show are watching DVD sales and getting erections. Even cancelled shows can make it big on DVD as Joss Whedon’s Firefly has proven. The $1.99 per episode download for Desperate Housewives and Lost, well, that’s simply a gravy windfall. If the ratings are low, direct-sales of such hits will still rack up $300k-$400k per episode, substantially decreasing the costs of production. How can that be bad?

What they ignore is the obvious: when distribution channels are so diffuse, what is to keep smaller studios – or (*gasp!*) talented amateurs from competing head-on with the major players for the customer’s viewing dollar?

It used to be assumed that the cost-of-entry for even small studios was too great to keep them from being a power. Now shot-on-digital cameras are relatively inexpensive. It used to be paradigm that newbie producers could never muscle their way into the incestuously small realm of motion picture distribution – that was before 50 million American households were broadband subscribers, able to download at will.

While these TV and Movie execs are lamenting about low BO and rejoicing about high DVD, they are about to be bitch-slapped with an altogether new reality: the entertainment world will soon have no need of their dubious services. While they bemoan high production costs and actors/writers/directors unions that drive up the cost of everything, a couple of guys in their basement are plotting their eventual downfall and ultimate ruin.

Get this: it costs anywhere from $250,000 to $1,000,000 a minute to produce a feature film in Hollywood. Low-budget TV reality shows cost thousands per minute. With budgets like that, breaking into the business is a daunting task for a hopeful newcomer to the industry. Even seasoned pros are constantly walking a line between brilliance and cancellation. But with the new cheap video technology, everything from special effects to distribution can now be done in one’s basement.

I can already hear the industry insiders scoff: who can make a movie of any length for under $1000 a minute? Even for TV?


That’s right, the whipping boy of the entertainment industry has got this down to a science. Even elaborate porn features, such as Adam & Eve’s Pirates, which was launched in Hollywood style and featured Hollywood special effects, are filmed for a fraction of the cost of a “real Hollywood movie”. Some of the best-selling porn vids of all time were shot with a camera that cost less than $1000. A regular five-scene 90 minute (that would be two episodes of a TV show or one regular feature movie) runs about $60,000 when everyone gets paid – and that puppy is intellectual property, with loads of re-sell value. DVD, pay-per-view, Video On Demand, and the possibility of re-cutting and re-releasing scenes in compilations make the potential for a porn vid – even a hideously bad one – to break even pretty good.

Yes, there is a big difference in 90 minutes of Suburban Sluts #3 and the next Sharon Stone vehicle. Production values, for a start. Most porn vids are poorly shot, poorly lit, poorly written, acted, edited and directed. They almost never do re-takes of a scene, there is no union-mandated craft service, and the girls often do their own make-up. Pay rates are low, compared to Hollywood standard, and the specter of piracy, government regulation, and the capricious whims of Red State prosecutors make the business that much more difficult.

Yet despite all of these issues, Porn Valley (the tony SoCal suburb of Chatsworth where most of the major industry players have offices) produced a staggering19,000 films last year, most 90 minutes or more, for an industry that made somewhere between $10 and $14 Billion.

But Porn has proved an excellent trial balloon when it comes to pioneering new technology, and the incipient destruction of the TV/Movie entertainment complex is no exception. Porn has proved that some sort of entertainment can be shot with a low budget and turn a profit.

The other side of this coin is the amateur production. No, not Aunt Edna and Uncle Steve trying out the bondage room in the basement and sharing the results with their internet fanclub – though truthfully some of the highest paid people in Porn are mom-and-pop internet operations. The amateurs referred to are passionate amateur filmmakers who indulge their creativity with cheap hand-held video cameras and off-the-shelf animation and effects programs. Often obsessed with a particular genre, these “fan-filmmakers” have produced mountains of work – and like Porn, the majority is crap. But there are some who have invested enough of themselves into their pet projects to produce professional-quality “fan” films that rival what the major studios are producing.

Case in point: a few months before George Lucas unleashed the final chapter of his prequel trilogy, an enterprising and uber-geeky amateur in Virginia released his own ambitious Star Wars film: Star Wars Revelations.

Lucas spent $300 million on his movie. Shane Felux took out a second mortgage and spent $20,000. George produced two and a half hours at close to a million dollars a minute. Shane and his all-volunteer cast and crew produced forty minutes of quite credible action for roughly $500 per minute. Yet from the fifth row of the theater, you would be hard pressed to tell which movie had the huge Industrial Light and Magic SFX team toiling away . . . or the multi-million dollar talent paycheck.

Revelations is the first shot of a revolution in home entertainment. No longer is the world of feature film or TV confined to the graduating class of USC’s film department. Now the fans can take control, putting their amateurish visions on videotape and exporting it to the world. This almost seems like a pipe-dream, except for the fact that two big cable TV franchises, South Park and Tripping the Rift both began as hobbies in someone’s basement.

It won’t be long now, I predict, from the time when we will see the advent of “flash films”, productions that are entirely put together over the internet, quickly cast, filmed, and edited, then sold for public consumption at $.99 a pop. With a minimum of effort, a good ensemble of amateur cast and crew could easily do a TV show with every dime that’s made coming back to the creative people who made it, without distribution costs and three-martini lunches for FOX executives and agent’s percentages getting in the way.

Imagine, a dedicated group of say 20 folks decide to do a low-budget sci-fi series. They cobble together a script, handle the pre-production, do a little green-screening, and shoot the thing porn-style, with little or no re-takes, no trailers, and no lunch buffet with lobster claws. They nail enough footage in a weekend to edit it with some bitchin’ SFX courtesy an open-source 3D graphics application and produce a little 45 minute action show. Sure, it’s not Lucasfilm quality, but it looks better than most Dr. Who episodes and (hopefully) has a more compelling story. Total cost (noting everyone is working on spec) say $5000.

A month later, the post-production is done and they post this thing on the web at $1.99 an episode, giving out a three-minute teaser to hook the viewer. Say they get two thousand paid hits, which almost breaks them even. Then they lower the price to $.99 and get another two thousand hits. This is enough success to invest the time and effort to do a second episode . . . when they feel like it. No deadlines, no studio executives wanting to add a car chase or a dog (“’Cause people like dogs!”), no professional critics comparing it to Gigli. The second episode is published. This time five thousand people pay for the $1.99 download . . . and two-thousand more go back and hit episode 1 to catch up. By episode 4 everyone gets a residual check and the DVD with the first four episodes is commercial released, including lots of shiny extras.

How long until such a process becomes viable? How long until someone quits their day-job to do this full time? How long before someone decides to write and shoot all four episodes at the same time, reducing production costs still further, and making that much more profit?

It’s nichey, cheap and fan-oriented. But it is the future.


Blogger Kira said...

It sort of reminds me of when I was in high school and a friend was wanting to film a fantasy flick on her own with borrowed equipment and her friends as actors. I always thought that was unusual then....little did I know it'd be a trend!

7:56 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

So I'm going to see _Aeon Flux_ later today. I'm wondering how long it will take the adult entertainment industry to put out _Aeon Fucks_. ;)

8:17 AM  

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