Report on Panel at the Venice Film Festival 2012
This panel took place at the Lido at 3 p.m. on Tuesday September 4th, 2012.
The topic under discussion was: “Micro-budget Filmmaking – The Future of Cinema?”
Moderator: Peter Cowie
In 1963, Peter Cowie launched the annual International Film Guide, which appeared under his editorship for 40 years. He has written more than 30 books about film, including biographies of Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman and Francis Ford Coppola, studies of Scandinavian film and, more recently, Akira Kurosawa. Among the publications he has written articles for are The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, theLondon Sunday Times, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, Expressen, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, The Nation, and Sight and Sound. He was International Publishing Director of Variety from 1993 to 2000, and Regents’ Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Cowie has contributed a dozen commentaries for Criterion DVD’s.
Richard Corliss, author and chief film reviewer at Time Magazine (New York)
Richard Corliss achieved renown as the editor of the influential magazine Film Comment, before being named as film critic for Time magazine, a role he continues to fill. He is especially admired for his single-minded efforts to give proper credit to the screenwriter in Hollywood history, first in his anthology, Hollywood Screenwriters, and then in an even more brilliant book, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema 1927-1973.
Mick LaSalle, chief film reviewer at the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco)
Mick LaSalle is film critic for The San Francisco Chronicle and the author of two excellent and well-received books on pre-Hays Code Hollywood, as well as the recent study of French actresses, The Beauty of the Real. LaSalle has lectured on film subjects at various film festivals, including those in the Hamptons, Denver, Las Vegas and Mill Valley and at New York's Film Forum and San Francisco's Castro Theatre. For several years he taught a film course at the University of California in Berkeley and now teaches film at Stanford University. He is also a syndicated columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
Savina Neirotti, Director of the TorinoFilmLab and the Head of Program for the Biennale College - Cinema
Born in Genova, she graduated in Philosophy and completed the first year of Master in Aesthetics at the University of Pennsylvania. After returning to Italy, she became Head of the Press and Communication Office of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, where she was also in charge of the Educational Department. In the same years she founded Scuola Holden in Torino together with Alessandro Baricco. She is Director of Scuola Holden’s Master in Narration Techniques, and she supervises all the school activities, focusing on the international contacts. In the last ten years Savina has written articles and interviews on narration and classical music, book reviews and film reviews for Italian and international newspapers. She has ideated and directed Script&Pitch Workshops since 2005, and TorinoFilmLab since 2008.
Mark Peranson, editor and publisher of Cinema Scope magazine
A writer, programmer and filmmaker, Mark Peranson is editor and publisher of Cinema Scope magazine, for which he was awarded the 2010 Clyde Gilmour Award for contribution to advancement of film in Toronto. He is a member of the selection committee for the Festival del Film Locarno and programming associate for the Vancouver International Film Festival. His first film, Waiting for Sancho (2008), produced, directed, photographed and edited by Peranson, played at over 25 film festivals worldwide and has been released on DVD in Spain. He is currently in production/research on a new project on film festivals tentatively titled Closed Circuit. His acting career began with the role of Joseph in Albert Serra’s Cannes title Birdsong. This year he also appears on screen in The Great Cinema Party (Raya Martin) and Les Coquillettes (Sophie Letourneur). His writing has appeared in numerous publications worldwide including The Village Voice, Cahiers du Cinéma, Sight and Sound, Revolver, El Amante, The Globe and Mail, and Film Comment.
This year marks the inauguration of the “Biennale College - Cinema,” an exciting addition to the programme here at the Venice Film Festival. Exciting, chiefly, because this workshop places the focus squarely on two essential themes – the making of low-budget films in a period of global recession, and the need to find youthful auteurs if the cinema is to be reinvigorated.
Since the turn of the millennium, an ever-increasing number of neophyte film-makers have solved the financial challenge of producing a film by doing things on the cheap – using digital equipment, and even mobile phones. The results have been uneven, just as the cinematography is not exactly up to the standards of a Sven Nykvist or Vittorio Storaro. But the sheer immediacy and authenticity of these films, plus the fact that every so often one of them manages to make a good deal of money at the box-office, justify their modest means of production.
Nor is this a new phenomenon. Is there not a precedent in the work of the great European and Asian auteurs? Satyajit Ray made Pather Panchali for just $3,000 in 1955, Ingmar Bergman shot Summer with Monika in 1952 for today's equivalent of $75,000, and the key films of the Neo-realist movement here in Italy were made on a shoestring. The American director, John Cassavetes, made Shadows for just $40,000 back in 1959. During the early 1990's Kevin Smith made Clerks for $27,000, and Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7,000. We can reflect on such unexpected hits as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, The Immoral Mr. Teas, The Blair Witch Project, and The Night of the Living Dead – all of which were made for less than $120,000 dollars, and all of which covered their budget by a multiple of literally a hundred.
Savina Neirotti began by outlining the aims and functionality of the newly-founded “Biennale College - Cinema”. She stressed that documentaries and fiction projects would be equally welcomed by the selection committee, and that the resulting 3 films would be assured of screening at a future edition of the Venice Film Festival. The successful applicants would be coached in all aspects of filmmaking and film production, even to the selling and distribution stage.
The discussion then turned to the history of low-budget filmmaking. Richard Corliss evoked names like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage, and named numerous low-budget films that had gone on to make many millions of dollars at the box-office.
Peter Cowie reminded the panel that a portal figure in the history of world cinema, Francis Ford Coppola, had turned his back on high budget projects and his three latest films had all been made for very little money, some in black-and-white, and none involving major studios.
Mick LaSalle then talked about the Bay Area of northern California as a hotbed of independent, low-budget filmmaking, starting with directors like John Korty in the 1960's.
Mark Peranson, who has himself made a micro-budget movie, gave an account of his experiences in this regard, and ended by saying how much better his film looked on a large screen than it did on a computer or mobile device.
Richard Corliss assured the audience that even on such a mass-market platform as Time Inc., he could and did find space to talk abouit films made on the slimmest of budgets.
Other issues discussed by the panellists included “hybrid distribution”, whereby the filmmaker gives distribution rights for theatres and TV to a specialist company, but retains DVD and digital downloading rights for himself. The importance of YouTube was underlined, as was the ever-improving quality of smartphone sound and imagery. Peter Cowie pointed out that many African filmmakers were using smartphones to address controversial issues in their countries, and that the new technology enabled them to avoid censorship in many instances.
Questions from the audience of some 80 people were then taken by the panel. The general feeling was that the content mattered more than the quality of sound and image, and that effects-driven movies could become dinosaurs in a nw era of low-budget filmmaking. One questioner asked about “crowd-financing” of micro-budget films, and Savina Neirotti agreed that this was an important and valuable development.
Prepared by Peter Cowie, September 10th, 2012.