DVD Unbound: Blowing Up the Small Screen

We’re trying to get rid of the film print as a distribution format," explains James Boyd, the man responsible for No Dance, one of a number of micro-fests that screened in the shadow of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival–but the only one presenting films on DVD. "DVD is a finishing format, like a print, only better and less expensive," Boyd claims.

Now that films can be shot with digital cameras, cut on computers, and screened with mega-pixel digital projectors, the phasing out of celluloid seems like an idea whose time has come–but is the multiplex near you getting ready to project DVDs? Probably not. Electronic Cinema may eventually eradicate film altogether, but for the time being, neither DVD nor an army of independent filmmakers with DV cameras will get digital film into theaters without a print.

"DVD really is an easier and better format than film, especially because it’s cheap to reproduce," says Blaine Graboyes of Zuma Digital, a DVD authoring house in New York. "But filmmakers need to look at it as a sales tool and not necessarily as a distribution solution." What Graboyes stresses is that DVD not only looks great, but also allows filmmakers unprecedented flexibility and the ability to package work for presentation.

"Filmmakers gladly pay $15,000 to 30,000 to get a single 35mm blow up," he explains. "For around $10,000 you can have a DVD that you can copy a thousand times and send to that many festivals or prospective buyers." And whereas a film print is only a movie, a DVD can be much more. One of the clearest advantages of DVD over celluloid is that DVD lets you present your film, and package it–with outtakes, interviews, commentary, databased material, and links to web-based content, all of which add to the value of your project. "We manage all of Fox Lorber’s DVD titles," adds Graboyes. "And they always say, the more you can help them to sell your film, the better."

As recently as last year the only way to encode video to DVD was to pay more than $100,000 for a turnkey system, but recent innovations promise to bring MPEG-2 encoding to the desktop, making DIY production of DVD a reality [see sidebar]. Before making a fetish of the hardware, however, filmmakers should know what the format can do for them and what it can’t. Though the rules are starting to change, all the major festivals (where filmmakers hope to impress potential distributors and television buyers) still require a film print (usually 35mm) for exhibition. ResFest and the Dallas Video Festival, among others, have experimented with digital projection (including DVD projection), but at press time no major festival had opened the doors to works submitted on DVD. With that in mind, if what you’re really after is a theatrical distribution deal, it makes sense to shoot on film, finish on film, and let whoever buys your video rights worry about DVD.

"If you want to make a film, go get a 35mm camera and make a film," says Berlin-based director Michael Tucker, who also runs the European DVD Lab [www.dvd-lab.com], an encoding facility. According to Tucker, in order truly to take advantage of the potentials of low-budget digital production, filmmakers have to get over the fetishization of the big screen. "I just don’t see DVD revolutionizing film distribution at the moment," he continues. "But there’s something inherently cool about the format that transcends all the talk of technology and information." And Tucker practices what he preaches. The Last Cowboy, which he shot on DV and finished on DVD, has screened at several festivals and started something of a DVD buzz. In fact, some producers and filmmakers are banking on DVD to create a whole new category of independent production: direct-to-DVD.

"I’d say within a year or so, desktop authoring will be common," comments Scott Epstein of Broadcast DVD, a company that packages DVD titles. FilmFest, the company’s first title, is billed as a "virtual ticket to the best film festivals in the world" and consists of shorts, interviews, and behind-the-scenes glimpses gathered from various fests. "This is really the first time distributing short films has actually been viable," says Epstein. "VHS didn’t work, the Internet is still too slow, and CD-ROM only stores a few minutes of decent video. DVD can get filmmakers’ work seen and can launch their careers." The inclusion of ads on Broadcast DVD’s titles, however, suggests that the market isn’t yet strong enough for sell-through to pay the bills. Bill Columbus, who runs the North Carolina-based post facility Triangle Digital Interactive [www.tvinteract.com], is taking a hint from the music industry, which a few years back hit pay dirt by taking alternative music to the mainstream. "We’re really like an indie label," he says. "We do the authoring up front for free in exchange for split equity, and if a project gets picked up, then we recoup our fees."

Asked about inexpensive desktop authoring, Columbus points out that MPEG-2 encoding does not a saleable DVD make–when it comes to creative and effective exploitation of DVD’s capacity for added features, you get what you pay for. "You can encode files to disc cheaply, but it costs money to really author a DVD." For now, top-of-the-line DVD encoding relies on elaborate and expensive hardware, but technology is emerging that promises to make software DVD encoders as popular with independent producers as DV cameras and desktop editors currently are.

While prosumer digital video has gotten a lot of people excited lately–particularly the theatrical release of Bennett Miller’s The Cruise and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration–some members of the digerati suggest that filmmakers be wary of the hype. "Look, ask any filmmaker how they’d prefer to work and they’ll tell you film–even Thomas Vinterberg’s next project is being shot in 35mm," says ResFest’s John Scalise. "The reality is that video used to play the stepchild to film, and now DV is in the middle, blurring the boundaries."

Michael Tucker, on the other hand, suggests that blowing up DV to film is unnecessary. "I have this blow-up fight all the time," he explains. "It’s really silly, if you think about it. Film is such a limiting factor for an independent filmmaker. Your money is better spent on DVD, which gives you superior quality and a couple hundred copies."

So will a well-produced DVD version of your film get you any closer to a theatrical deal? Perhaps not. But then again, an expensive 35mm print comes with no guarantees either. The key to getting the most out of digital technology is knowing what you want. While it’s true that digital video projects can be blown up and exhibited theatrically, the fact is that most have even less of a chance of getting picked up by a distributor than projects shot on film. In point of fact, the logic of transferring DV to film is backward. It actually degrades the image instead of improving it. DVD, however, is an especially attractive option for digital projects, which don’t need to be digitized at great expense (the way film does) and retain their pristine source image. So while it may not revolutionize the film industry, DVD allows filmmakers to explore new opportunities–both in terms of content and ways to make good on their investment. At press time, more than 1.5 million DVD players had shipped (not including DVD-ROM drives, which also play video), and more than 200 titles are released on DVD each month, adding to the 3,000 titles released since the format’s introduction in 1997. As a real market for DVD develops, along with affordable production tools, what could develop is a vibrant market for alternative video, with small companies devoted to the medium distributing independent projects on DVD. Producers could use the web to promote and sell their projects (even offering video samples), and arthouses could screen DVDs with digital projectors. Ultimately, DVD has the potential to change the way much independent work is seen, avoiding the distribution bottleneck and putting technology in the service of art.

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