Why We Started Cinema Set Free

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I came up with Cinema Set Free in the shower when I was 21 years old.  The name came in the shower, not the whole thing.  It was an amazing time.  I was writing faster and closer to the marrow than I ever had. I was a year from graduating film school and I believed I was going to be a filmmaker.

I never understood how much of a summer camp film school was, until I started work.  Unprepared to be a filmmaker doesn’t even fucking say it.  I had been bamboozled.  Bait and switched.  They train you to direct films and they toss you to the professionals with no concept of a ladder. 

In other words, how in the fuck am I supposed to move up from PA to Director?  

I thought about that a lot.  I had a boss who thought I was funny so I got promoted whenever he’d change reality TV shows.  Coordinator, Location Manager, Post Production Supervisor.  I was making good money at a TV company off Times Square who’d just scored a travel show with The Discovery Channel. I met with editors, producers, scheduling sessions where again talented people made good money, using their honed talents.  I directed the tape duplications and managed loggers.  It wasn’t a bad job.  I should’ve been happy.  I should’ve been looking for a new condo…  But I wasn’t.  I was miserable.  

I had little social life.  The hours weren’t shorter with more responsibility.  Especially since we still had to overnight DigiBeta tapes to D.C. and there’s always that 11:30pm drop window on the Hudson docks.

I was thinking a lot.  About the Ladder.

I had continued to write and shoot short films on the weekends while going to work during the week.  Not all of them were worth looking at twice.  But I wasn’t getting worse as a director.  I learned from every project.  I worked night and day.  Even tried polyphasic sleeping for a couple of months to have more hours in my day.  I felt alone a lot.  I’d lost touch with people from film school.  Maybe because it was always considered anathema to go into another profession.  And when they did, they were dead men walking.  Resigned to never express themselves using the cinematic arts.  Maybe they all finally realized that they didn’t actually want to be a Director and film was, for them, just fantasy camp.  

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We always talked of film school like it was the army. We would march on our ambition.  I mean I’m talking 1999.  The class who first held a 16mm camera the same year Fight Club and Eyes Wide Shut came out.  We had high hopes.  We were hungry.  Literally.  We were broke.  We were in debt to school.  We didn’t have any rich relatives.  We were going to have prove ourselves.  No first feature financed on credit cards for us but that also seemed ridiculous at the same time.  A little like buying a lottery ticket for a hundred thousand dollars and going to a film festival for a few thousand more and maybe, if you’re as talented as Robert Fucking Rodriguez, you might be plucked from obscurity by the decision makers.  And boom.  Suddenly.  You are Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant, whoever whoever whoever.

That is the story we believed in.  In our heart, we believed it.  We believed it because we lived in New York and didn’t want to move to L.A.  But we also believed it because that’s the only fucking way to become a working director if you don’t live in L.A.  Yes, even living in New York, we felt far away from the industry we loved.  

Now, I think about my friends in Atlanta.  My friends who’d moved to Portland or Chicago.  Who burned with the same fire to create on the screen that I still have.  They fought each other like wild animals for such illustrious positions as Assistant Production Office Coordinator and Executive Transportation Liaison.  They watched talented people make money by using their talents and they saved up a little money every now and again, and they made another short film.  I wondered at the time, why we did that.  Making shorts was half sad and half crazy.  Half in denial that we weren’t ready to jump in the arena with the guys showing up at Sundance and half minor league lottery with all the short film and screenplay festivals.  The entry price was less but so was the exposure.  

We all wasted our money on shorts contests.  But consider this question.  Can you name the top films at Sundance last year?  The year before? In the last 10 years?  Name 1 filmmaker outside L.A. who was discovered at a big festival that has captivated audiences and has put Hollywood on the ropes, desperate to copy or assimilate them.  

In 2007, I decided to move to Los Angeles shortly before the Writer’s Strike.  I only lasted a year.  If anyone manages to live there longer or even find a way to enjoy that culture I have nothing but respect for your ironclad resolve in the face of the worse and most vapid human culture that has ever graced mankind*.

( * A culture that also, incidentally broadcasts to all of America and in many cases, the entire planet, what we should consider entertainment.)

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That year the Writer’s Guild of America made Hollywood grind to a halt because they wanted a piece of the fabled internet money pie.

Youtube had been up for 2 years and indie filmmakers were busy making web series because it seemed like even a bare minimum effort and talent could net you a production deal if it was popular on Youtube.   But the WGA and Hollywood Producers didn’t care about Youtube.  They wanted a piece of a larger pie.  Hulu was about to premiere online.  Other companies were building on-demand video services too.  The little guys had 2 years to grab a hold of video on the internet, since Youtube (at the time) couldn’t figure out what to do with it’s popularity, it became a DIY-America’s Funniest Home Videos san Saget.  

We were smack in the middle of a revolution in film distribution and everyone in L.A. wanted their fair share of the new audience’s money.   So the writers struck.  Mathematicians said the writers will have to collect on their new hard-won share for the next 20 years to make back the income they lost collectively during the strike.

2008!

Oh yeah, then the fucking banks collapsed.

Now, I’m all for minimalist film.  Dogma 95. Mumblecore.  Good for you.  Who doesn’t love a good road trip movie?  I just… don’t work… in that aesthetic.

When I think to my cinematic influences.  They always revere cinematography.  They write big stories and shoot beautiful people and wide open places.  Their first films were genre pictures. Gangster and Scifi films. Action, drugs and sex.  The stuff Hollywood does very very well.  The stuff Indie film hasn’t done well in 20 years.  It’s not hard to understand why.  The big genres require a bigger budget, a community of producers and craftsmen of skill technicians.  They’re often just too dangerous for semi-professionals to shoot without competent people who cost money.  

You can’t get your roommate to stunt coordinate your War Epic, you need professional competence .  Even indie filmmaker’s favorite genre, Horror, is expensive and dangerous too shoot.  (I’ll talk about Horror in another article.)  

My point is, this economy has sucked for about 11 years and so has indie film.  Indie film really only influences the culture of the world when it manages to out do Hollywood’s predictable pop fair.  An artist comes along with a voice so unique, so important, so generation defining that no one can ignore them.  They just aren’t plucked anymore.  Even the talent shows (X-factor, Idol) don’t produce real director stars like Tarantino or Rodriguez were to my generation.

Maybe Hollywood is busy.  With superhero movies ‘n shit.

The reasons I loved independent film when I was a boy are the same as this morning.  I write this article to remind myself of those reasons.  Indie film challenges the convention about the craft of filmmaking as well as storycraft.  It wakes us up and proves once again that film is not just about entertainment.  It’s about exploration.  It looks for the truth by showing us the imagined and the profound.  Indie film does not wait in the back seat at the gas station.  It blow the gas station to kingdom come.

Indie film is the only time cinema as an art form, moves forward.

I started Cinema Set Free because I love Indie film so much that I would do anything to see it survive my time.  The way things are going, I don’t know if that’ll happen.  New voices must bring it back.  Strong voices.  A common myth in Indie film is there are eras of filmmakers who “make it big”  The film school directors in the early 70’s, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola,   The Video Store generation in the early 90’s, Kevin Smith, Tarantino, Rodriguez.  The Youtube generation, maybe? The truth is, there are no eras or waves. That’s just what the contests sell you.  There are strong voices and strong producers.  There is truth to be explored and a confusion as to how to make money doing it.  

We’ve all got day jobs and bills and gripes and maybe kids and obligations we can’t even imagine.  Indie film has been beaten, bloodied and left for dead, but Cinema Set Free stands strong in the midst of all this defeat.

Because no matter how much they can push unique voices to the margins, we will always push back.  Our voices will find there way to our audience. 

By myth, man or movement, Indie film will rise again!

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