A few months ago, I stumbled onto a childhood artifact. When I was 10 or 11, I had drafted a contract with the kid across the street forming a motion picture production company. Signing our names in crayon on cardboard, we vowed to save our allowances to buy a Super 8 camera and then start making monster movies. I remember devising scripts and perfecting my vampire makeup, while the kid next door practiced his wolf-man shuffle. For the life of me, however, I can’t recall what we were planning to do with these films once we made them.
Amateur films have always been home movies. We make them in our houses, we make them in our neighborhoods, and we show them in our living rooms. Digital cinema may change all of this, at last providing a means of distribution and exhibition so that home movies can become public movies. Today, kids and adults are making their own Star Wars films, using desktop computers to create special effects that would have cost Industrial Light & Magic a fortune just a decade ago. And even more remarkably, we can all watch them on the Web.
Digital cinema could do for movies what the photocopier did for print culture. In the 1970s and ’80s, we saw the explosion of newsletters and ‘zines, documenting the experiences of folks living in retirement homes, working in minimum-wage jobs or slam dancing in mosh pits. Now, the introduction of cheap and lightweight digital video cameras, PC-based digital editing software, and streaming-video distribution on the Web puts the resources of filmmaking in the hands of an equally broad range of citizens and thus expands the potential for grassroots creativity.
Some skeptics may grumble that they have heard this all before: a succession of previous technologies promised more democratic access to the means of media production, only to remain on the margins. Yet this misreads the nature of the current revolution. Digital cinema may describe a range of technological changes, particularly in cameras and editing suites, but what’s really different this time is the advent of Web-based film distribution. That’s what turns digital, or even conventional, filmmaking into digital cinema. In the past, amateur films never made it into the multiplexes. Local activists had to struggle ceaselessly with city councils to protect public-access cable, one of the few venues for such films. But digital cinema is meeting the challenge of distribution at several levels-at the commercial portals, hungry for product, that have put hundreds of films on their sites; on various more specialized fan or subcultural networks; on sites built by filmmakers to showcase their work.
Today, if you know where to look on the Web, you can find fascinating examples of this new garage cinema-from animated shorts to poignant documentaries. Cambridge, MA-based media collective Big Noise and Seattle’s Independent Media Center, for example, distributed camcorders to over 100 media activists in Seattle for the contentious 1999 World Trade Organization conference, and the result was the powerful This Is What Democracy Looks Like, which you can order at www.thisisdemocracy.org. Digital films may be as profound as the Rodney King tape or as superficial as America’s Funniest Home Videos. But every art form needs room for people to take risks and make mistakes. We can’t have great cinema if there isn’t someplace where beginners can make damn awful cinema; meanwhile, some digital movies are more bold and original than anything to hit the big screen in ages.
We can already see evidence that the public (and the mainstream industry) has embraced this new style of grassroots filmmaking. South Park, one of the biggest commercial successes of the late 1990s, emerged from a video “Christmas card” that became ubiquitous on the Web. Several animated series from the Web, including Undercover Brother and Starship Regulars, have been contracted for feature-film or commercial-television production. Perhaps most surprisingly, when Amazon.com offered video copies of George Lucas in Love, an early digital film success, it outsold The Phantom Menace in its opening week.
And beyond the commercial potential lies this tantalizing possibility: cinema may become, like poetry, an intimate and spontaneous mode of personal expression. As Francis Ford Coppola explained in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, “For me the great hope is now that 8-millimeter video recorders are coming out, people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And that one day a little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father’s camcorder. For once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed and it will really become an art form.”
None of my friends became a new Mozart. We never really got around to making those monster movies. But maybe Coppola is right, and somewhere in Ohio the creation of a masterpiece is already underway. Maybe, even, it’s happening in your own rec room.