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The Democratization of Movies

Courtesy of Indiewire

Artistic drive and creativity is what makes us uniquely human. How many of us growing up recreated our favorite movie scenes with just sheer imagination? Can you count how many times you’ve sang a song or had a fictional conversation in the shower? We are all theatrical whether we admit it or not.

Practically everyone has been completely enchanted by a movie or a television show and thought to themselves, “I want to tell my own story.” For over a century it has been mostly unavailable to the average person and only recently have all the pieces aligned where we live in a time that anyone can get their work onto a streaming service with some common sense and a few google searches. Most of us are completely unaware the magnitude of the new media renaissance age that we are in.

In 1832 Joseph Plateau was the first to create a moving image with his invention, the Phenakistoscope, or Spindle Viewer. For the next few decades, those with spare change in their pocket could get their kicks in nickelodeons from the dangerous streets in Downtown Manhattan, to the saloons out West following silver and gold rushes. Whether quick clips of people falling off their horses or damsels lifting their dresses up exposing their ankles, this was the very beginning of an industry that would soon take the world by storm.

Then, in 1891, Thomas Edison invented the first actual motion picture camera (although historians have said his assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson did all the work). People had never seen anything like it before; there wasn’t even a radio in every home yet. This was an almost alien technology to the masses and they couldn’t get enough.

Edison is also credited with creating the very first movie studio, The Black Maria, in 1893. The movie industry, believe it or not, started in West Orange, New Jersey… a very long way from the dazzling tinsel town that we all now know. Florence “Flo” Lawrence was the first movie star, Paramount and Universal popped up 1912, and then in 1915 Charlie Chaplin took the world by storm with his mesmerizing scenes as the lovable Tramp. But with all this success, the industry was drifting further and farther away from accessibility to the general public. This was an affluent man’s game and they weren’t giving out invitations.

Skip a few generations and the Japanese insurance company, Sony, comes out with the first portable handheld video recorder in 1964 (to this day, the insurance division of Sony makes more than the electronic sectors). At the time, 8mm and 16mm were mainstream, but the quality and developmental processes, plus the price of projectors and the massive laborious set-up led to auteur filmmaking still grossly inaccessible.

Suddenly, in the midst of a war and a cultural revolution, came 1969’s Easy Rider. Dennis Hopper shot all of the scenes at Mardi Gras guerilla-style and only used natural lighting for the entire shoot stating “God is a great gaffer.” For a budget of $400,000 Easy Rider went on to get two Academy Award nominations, $60,000,000 worldwide box office, and is in the Library of Congress Archives for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The independent film scene exploded. The next few decades would bring all kinds of talent out of the woodwork. In the early 1990’s, a young director who would beat Tarantino at Sundance, wrote a book that is the quintessential auteur movie making book of the era, Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez.

Now just like theatre, if you wanted to make a movie, you needed a producer as the technical logistics were still too complex and expensive. With the arrival of the Hi-8, Mini-DV, and HD video cameras in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, new possibilities had arrived. Suddenly you didn’t need an entire crew, studio and editing facilities. Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe were constantly competing with each other over film editing software and the general public did nothing but benefit from the constant progress. This was the true dawn of the all-in-one writer/director/producer/cinematographer/editor.

With these technological breakthroughs came some very strange, but telling, successes. Many people may not know this, but the origin story of the skateboarder video is relevant to non-mainstream contemporary movie making. We literally would not have geniuses like Spike Jones if it weren’t for a bunch of kids filming their shenanigans with their parent’s camcorders.

Spike was just a 13 year-old when he started to film the older kids in his neighborhood skateboard. By his late teens he was shooting music videos and by his late twenties he was a regular fixture at the Academy Awards. Needless to say, Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine were another duo with a camcorder and dream which led to the multi-million dollar franchise Jackass and transformed (for better or worse in varying opinions) modern MTV and pop culture. Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton would make an extremely crude in quality VHS of their comedy banter only to find it on the desk of the then-new FX president and get greenlit for Always Sunny in Philadelphia which is now on its 14th season. People were no longer scared to just get out there and shoot and it was paying off by the boatload.

To all the dreamers and creatives out there, we live in a time where anyone who wants to tell a story, can. People are recreating their favorite scenes from classic movies for under $20 and getting millions upon millions of hits on social media and Youtube. Web series are being greenlit for the real deal. Nobodies are becoming somebodies.

For the uninitiated, the journey from idea to the actual premiere of your project may seem daunting, but there has never been a better time in movie history to get out there and just do it. There are hours upon hours of tutorial videos online teaching things from track shots, to editing, to special effect makeup. And all that massive Hollywood equipment you think is behind the scenes? Now, it’s all miniaturized and for about a hundred bucks or two (depending on quality) you can now rig a smartphone out with everything from Steadicams to advanced lighting and sound devices.

As for getting it out there? The hunger for new content is so intense that aside from posting it online, you can now independently distribute, self-produced, on a number of streaming services including Amazon Prime. You can literally be available for purchase the week you finish your final render. The possibilities are endless.

Right now, if you have a smartphone in your possession, you already have the bulk of the equipment you need. As for the idea, who doesn’t have a great story tickling the back of their subconscious, ready to break out into the world? The only thing stopping you from getting out there and living your Hollywood dream is yourself… no plane ticket required.

DANIEL GONZALEZ is a chef, novelist, screenwriter, and writes about Theatre, Film, and Television





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