Webfilm - Much ado about nothing?

By Patrick Carpenter, posted 3 August 2006

Filmmakers have held their breath at the prospect that their industry and craft is about to be changed forever by the impact of digital technology as a production medium and the internet as a delivery platform.

Digital technology has undoubtedly had impact upon the art and craft of film making - whether that is a good or bad thing only time will tell. The web however to date appears to offer, few, if any benefits to the art and craft of filmmaking. The web has been flaunted as an extraordinary new tool allowing filmmakers new opportunity to express their visions and find audience. However, few in the film industry are prepared to ask what benefits the web has actually bought to the art, craft or industry of filmmaking? Fear of being branded anti-progress or worse anti-technology has intimidated many too maintain silence on the real questions that need to be asked about the role of the web in the filmmaker's arsenal of tools. Digital hard and software tools have bought benefits to certain types of storytelling-particularly documentary making. However, the reduction of cost allowed by digital technology has also bought with it a worrying proliferation of low quality films. The ease of production allowed by cheap technology has encouraged a global surge in making films specifically for the web. There are numerous websites prepared to host webfilm content with little or no vetting of the material. The result has been a tidal wave of poorly made and badly executed "films" littering cyberspace. The vast majority of these films will never get seen by anybody but they allow the person who made the film to call themselves a filmmaker. Is this a good thing?

It is difficult to see how the making of films for the web offers any benefits to the film industry. Making real films is an expensive and highly skilled craft even at the low budget end of the spectrum. What benefits is the web offering to an industry that needs ongoing reinvestment from previous productions to ensure that new films are made and distributed? What is the revenue model for a film developed for the web? How does the web contribute financially to the industry? With the exception DVD hire online through a company such as netflix.com or service promotion through a website like mandy.com the web offers the film industry few, if any benefits. What do the webmasters of film websites do for the film industry? They get free content for their websites. Film hosting websites can command generous advertising fees for their web presence, money which does not feedback to the industry. The vast majority of the productions are no budget affairs so nobody gets paid for their input. It's difficult to see how these sites offer much to the film industry on any level. Webmasters argue that they are providing a valuable service that allows filmmakers to reach an audience and get their work and name noticed. Filmmakers that do get noticed through such websites already have the talent and the skills that would get them noticed on the festival circuit.The fact is the vast majority of films on these websites are complete rubbish.The more affordable digital technology becomes, the more digital films that are made on zero budgets the more online film websites there will be. This is a bad thing for the art, craft and industry of film making.

Is it a good thing that so many people without skills or training now call themselves filmmakers? Has one the right to call themselves a filmmaker just because they can afford a camera? At the end of the day, all those people making bad digital films to show on the web have the same gaol as serious and committed filmmakers. They want to make a film and show it on the web in order to attract the attention of the majors who will whisk them off to international fame and fortune. However, the vast majority of people who make films for the web have no business making films in the first place let alone have the audacity to show them to the world on the internet. The human community has been here before with new communications platforms. History repeats itself. The advent of the printing press first left a mark not through an explosion of books but through the lowbrow expression of the printed arts - the pamphlet. How many cheaply produced pamphlets have survived the test of time?
History has shown us that above all else quality of production lasts the test of time. The explosion of interest in making films for the web is similar to the first wave of pamphlets that the printing press unleashed on the world. It represents a proliferation of quantity at the expense of quality. Filmmakers must protect their art and craft to ensure that the image of the film medium is not tarnished beyond repair in the rush to embrace technology for the sake of embracing technology. The web has allowed anybody with a cheap camera and limited skills to call themselves filmmakers. These fly-by-night filmmakers generally have neither the craft skills nor the talent to tell a story. The proliferation of fly-by-night filmmakers has a very real impact on lowering the standards of what can acceptably be called a film, thereby bringing into disrepute the art and craft of filmmaking generally. Death by a thousand cuts ?

Film festivals now routinely receive vast numbers of digital submissions. Increasingly the realm of digital filmmaking is in danger of being hallmarked by badly written, badly shot, badly produced and horribly post produced films. The many untrained and unskilled digital filmmakers rely increasingly on the web to find potential audience for their work. Digital filmmaking is in danger of being seen as a poor substitute for the real thing, and if this happens then the real potential for making digital films by serious filmmakers will become marred by the perception that a digital film is more likely than not to be a poor quality production. Without the proliferation of websites to host work unshowable anywhere else less bad digital films would be made. This would be a good thing. The fact that there is no benchmark that distinguishes serious filmmakers using digital technology from the fly-by-night digital filmmaker means the baby is in danger of getting thrown out with the bathwater.

Filmmaking by its nature relies on the good will of the public at large and from civic authorities. Few crafts attract such goodwill as filmmaking, quiet simply because people the world over have an intimate and special relationship with film that is not reproduced in other arts. Few filmmakers starting out can afford to pay commercial rates for location use and the many other facilities that successful industry insiders have in the past been willing to offer at discount or pro bono to up and coming filmmakers. Serious filmmakers. Or at very least people who have the potential to be serious filmmakers. The untrained or badly trained fly-by-night filmmaker is causing real filmmakers great long-term problems in progressing and enhancing their art by reducing the goodwill that filmmakers rely on when starting out. This goodwill is being rapidly eroded by the proliferation of people making digital films on our streets. City officials, often generous in allowing public buildings to be used for shots without necessity for expensive liability cover being provided are growing irritated by the fact that few digital filmmakers will even bother to make a courtesy call to advise that they will be using public space. Laws ignoring Police rights to be informed when road or other public space is being used are routinely flouted. Public rights of way are ignored .Insurance is rarely if ever taken out to cover any damage to property or injury to the general public caused by the activities of the army of digital filmmakers.

The greatest wrongdoing however is to professional actors. The tradition of resting actors giving their skills for free to up and coming film makers producing short films is long and well established. Traditionally this had the benefit of giving filmmakers the opportunity starting out the chance to work with professionals. Actors gained if the filmmaker went on to have a success with a short or low/no budget film, so potentially everyone had something to gain from the experience. This was a win, win situation. If an actor was not getting paid, they at least knew that the people making the film had done their homework and had begged, stolen and borrowed to acquire the expensive resources and skills required to make and post produce a short film. With so many digital films now being made, the goodwill of many professionals in the film industry has quietly dried up as individuals and companies can no longer distinguish between fly-by-night digital film makers from serious students and practionners of the art. They have grown tired of giving their time and resources for free or little recompense to the army of digital filmmakers all living under the delusion that their product will be the next Blair Witch Project.

Digital filmmaking is now such a popular pastime that vast numbers of private colleges offer digital filmmaking courses -often certified by dubious academic bodies. Such colleges do little to benefit the film industry and rarely turn out graduates that will have any hope of employment in the industry. Serious film schools that do turn out quality graduates find their students disadvantaged by the sheer numbers of badly trained yet certified filmmakers to hit the streets in recent years. Film schools that are intent on turning out people who will be an asset to their chosen profession are being tarred with the same brush as the host of colleges that throw a film production course together. At risk is the long term trust that the public has given to the filmmaker to tell their stories. The filmmaker relies on public goodwill to do their work. Digital filmmaking runs the risk of debasing the artform in the eyes of the public. The craft is losing its necessary mystique. This will be to the long-term detriment of the industry and do enormous damage, if indeed that damage has not already been done.


However, within the midst of the problem lies the solution - on one level at least. Quality film schools can be an asset in distancing the industry from the rabble of digital filmmakers. Film schools must brand their graduates and film training programmes to ensure that their students and graduates are viewed as an asset to society and the film industry. With so many colleges now offering digital filmmaking courses of dubious quality it is important that the better film schools distinguish them selves from the lower quality establishments. A number of strategies can be put in place to ensure the work high quality graduates is clearly differentiated from the rabble.
Firstly, serious film schools should put their hands in their pockets to develop and maintain formal and remunerated connections with a loosely affiliated troupe of actors who are paid to perform in their student film productions. These days actors are routinely asked to partake in digital film after digital film, without financial recompense and as many have learned, without hope of the film ever being seen by more than a handful of people on some obscure website. websites. The odds against an actor making a name for themselves this way is high. More likely, the actor will waste a weekend or longer on a project that will never benefit them in any way. The winners are undoubtedly the many colleges who run dubious quality filmmaking courses and reap high fees and use actor's skills without financial recompense. If serious film schools begin to retain a known troupe of actors for their student productions this will have a number of benefits. This will firstly put well needed financial recompose in the pockets of the actors allowing them to take their work with film students seriously. This will also guarantee students from better film courses the opportunity of always having experienced acting talent to work with. It will also allow young filmmakers build long term relationships with actors that will be mutually beneficial to both the aspirant filmmaker and the actor. Finally, there is always only a small pool of good acting talent. Actors will no longer feel the need to work for free with fly-by-night digital filmmakers. Shoddy, badly planned and poorly executed digital films will be deprived of the one asset that they still have - the goodwill of the acting profession. This will be a very good thing.

Secondly, Film schools must also reduce trend towards the proliferation of student films away from quantity to quality. It is better that they shoot one excellent production a year than three or four digital productions as at present appears to be the norm on many courses. These rapidly conceived, executed and post produced works undoubtedly make a student filmmaker feel that they are making excellent progress, but often they are merely going from project to project so quickly that they do not have the time to absorb the lessons learned from each project. When it was harder to make films , those that were made had the benefit of better planning and production values, watched over by experienced tutors who themselves had come up through the same system. Less is more as they say in the world of fashion.


Thirdly, it is only a matter of time before the goodwill that currently allows filmmaker's access to public space and resources as a matter of course begins to dry up. Serious film schools must formalise their connection with civic authorities to ensure that their students are not treated as part of the rabble of digital filmmakers. In return for access to public space and regional and state resources for the purposes of filmmaking, serious filmmaking schools can offer to give something back to the community perhaps by way of running film training courses or workshops for disadvantaged youth. The point is that the community has a right to get something in return for the privileged manner in which students of film have traditionally been treated. The trust between the community and filmmaker must be preserved, and the committed filmmaker protected from the negative impact of the numerous fly-y-night filmmakers.

Finally, serious film schools have a need to insure the public against the activities of their students on the streets. Few film schools take the kind of precautions or risk assessments that a professional crew would take before using public space. With so many film crews on the streets of the world as a result of digital filmmaking, the potential for accidents has increased enormously. The lesser quality film courses will have no regard for public safety . The serious schools can take the moral high ground by ensuring that the public is properly insured against the activities of their students. The advent of lightweight digital equipment has meant that student filmmakers are as likely to be found hanging out of a building three or four stories up from street level as they are to be seen on the ground with their cameras. These innovative techniques all well and good. Progress does not happen without experimentation. However, it's only a matter of time before somebody is killed with a camera ( or its operator) falling from a dizzy height in an attempt to get the optimum shot. When public goodwill begins to turn on the filmmaker it will be very hard to get it back. This will be the moment when filmmakers will wonder why they didn't act sooner to protect the image and integrity of their craft with the public at large. Filmmaking in the digital era is fast becoming an intrusion into rights of the public to enjoy public life without unnecessary intrusion. It is not hard to imagine a time very soon when notices in public space will advise "No football, No cycling, No skateboarding and No Film making."

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