12 Questions on the Future of Film

As independent filmmakers, press, and cinephiles gather in Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, we turned to our own community of indie filmmakers — many of whom are at Sundance — to get their take on the future of independent film.

From accessible technologies to monolithic digital platforms (hello, Netflix!), the promise of new filmmaking mediums to the essential nature of more established ones, these observations on the state of filmmaking today and predictions for its future will no doubt ripple through the cocktail chatter in Park City.

We’re also thrilled to congratulate the Kickstarter creators who were recently nominated for Academy Awards, including Kahane Cooperman (Joe’s Violin, Best Documentary Short) and Robert Valley (Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Best Animated Short). We’ll be cheering you on.

Stanley Nelson, director, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Penny Lane, director, Nuts!

Andrew Ahn, writer and director, Spa Night

Charlie Lyne, filmmaker, Paint Drying (a project to send a 10-hour shot of paint drying to the British Board of Film Classification, formerly the British Board of Film Censors)

Elaine McMillion Sheldon, documentary filmmaker, Hollow and Rescue Breath (working title)

Pamela Yates, co-founder and creative director, Skylight; director, 500 Years

Dan Schoenbrun, producer, collective:unconscious; creator, “The Eyeslicer

Kel O’Neill, director, The Ark and Empire

Dawn Porter, director, Trapped

Penny Lane: I would say O.J.: Made in America because it’s winning basically every award for theatrical documentaries despite being an eight-hour television miniseries. This says something I haven’t figured out yet — something I think is probably good — about the artistic and commercial possibilities of a flexible documentary form.

Andrew Ahn: Moonlight has proven that small, intimate stories can be emotionally epic and resonate with a wide range of audiences. No other film in 2016 did more to push and stretch American independent cinema to be more inclusive.

Pamela Yates: Moonlight, without a doubt. It was made in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, where both director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney grew up. The film came from their direct experience, and showed us how love and compassion are the essence of our humanity.

Dan Schoenbrun: Even though it’s receded from the headlines and the Oscar race, I think the answer here is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, because it served as a lightning rod twice during the year for very different reasons. First, for the unprecedented bidding war at Sundance last January in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, which led to a reported $18 million sale from Fox Searchlight. Then, due to the controversy that arose around Parker’s resurfaced sexual assault allegations, which raised complex, polarizing questions about how our industry deals with issues of race and gender.

Dawn Porter: Cameraperson. Filmmaking is a collaborative process with each team member contributing, but there’s a cost to seeing so much pain. This film reminds us of the importance and the significance of our work.

Stanley Nelson: I don’t know if there is one particular person I can identify, but I do think we are witnessing an important moment in documentary film with four black filmmakers — Ava Duvernay (13th), Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made In America), Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated), and Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) — on the Oscars’ Best Documentary shortlist.

Penny Lane: Joshua Oppenheimer. He blew the whole thing open with The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, truly one of the great one-two punches in the history of film.

Andrew Ahn: Nonprofit film organizations like Sundance, Film Independent, Visual Communications, Outfest, and Pacific Arts Movement are worthy of recognition and praise. These organizations make a huge impact on up-and-coming filmmakers and instill a sense of community.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: Laura Poitras, A. J. Schnack, and Charlotte Cook, executive producers of Field of Vision. Field of Vision has played a role in helping to support and distribute creative short nonfiction films about contemporary topics.

From The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by Stanley Nelson

Pamela Yates: I could say Ava Duvernay, Laura Poitras, Joshua Oppenheimer, or Ezra Edelman. It has been a rich few years for nonfiction films that have roiled the body politic. But I believe it’s Mexican director Tatiana Huezo and her film Tempestad (Tempest). The film is the most beautiful, meditative, intimate, and cinematic conveying of the paralyzing power of fear — fear as a form of social control directed towards women.

Dan Schoenbrun: As much as I’d like to give this honor to an artist working at the top of his or her game, a Barry Jenkins or Kelly Reichardt, I’m pretty sure the real answer is either Mark Zuckerberg or Reed Hastings — i.e., the people in charge of the algorithms that determine what shows up on your feed.

Kel O’Neill: If I take my field to mean VR — which would make sense since I spent most of 2015 and 2016 making VR — you’re looking at a community that’s building a medium from the ground up. It’s not one or two leaders and a bunch of followers. It’s more like a loosely aligned, global coalition of creators.

Dawn Porter: Probably Lisa Nishimura at Netflix. They are continuing to explore all formats and giving filmmakers green lights and freedom to work.

Penny Lane: Writing, specifically longform nonfiction writing.

Charlie Lyne: Radio.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: Real life.

Pamela Yates: Photography. One of my closest friends is the photographer Susan Meiselas. She has a huge library of photography books, collected over forty years. When I’m beginning a film I pore over her books, searching for the right look, the right light, the right mood to express my vision.

Dan Schoenbrun: Is dreaming a medium?

Kel O’Neill: Food. Since my daughter was born I’ve been doing a lot of braising and slow-cooking, making recipes that take days to execute, and the process reminds me of filmmaking.

Stanley Nelson: The historical documentary is most underutilized right now. We need history to talk about the present. I don’t think there is any concept or technique that is necessarily overhyped — it is, however, interesting to see how much and in what ways animation and drones are being used in documentary film.

Penny Lane: Underutilized: archives. Overhyped: pointing cameras at people and things. (This is mostly a joke, I think.)

Charlie Lyne: The most underutilized film technique is sampling! Every medium but ours understands its value.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: Embedding in a community (rather than parachuting in) to make a documentary.

From Hollow, directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Dan Schoenbrun: I think anonymous filmmaking is going to become a lot more important in the coming years. There’s a reason the members of Pussy Riot wore masks…

Most overhyped? The concept of “bigger = better.” Young filmmakers should know that their budget does not need to increase with every film, and that making larger-budget work does not necessarily indicate success. Smaller budgets allow for greater freedom.

Kel O’Neill: Microsoft’s HoloLens has great potential as a storytelling technology. As far as overhyped, there seems to be a premature emphasis on building a home entertainment market for VR. If we want people to like the medium, they have to encounter it outside the home a few times first. There’s a certain amount of onboarding that the industry needs to take responsibility for before asking people to embrace a new medium by buying expensive headsets.

Andrew Ahn: The cellphone has really changed how people create, view, and share moving images. Philosophically, it has forced us to realize that moving images are all around us. Because of that, I believe creators have a greater responsibility to create work that has meaning.

Pamela Yates: I love immersive cinema. Watching Shoah or this year’s O.J.: Made in America, all seven hours and 40 minutes in one sitting at Metrograph, thrilled me. It’s hard to come back to the world afterwards. This kind of immersive cinema is not really an innovation, it’s more of a “back to the future” idea. But it’s gutsy.

Dan Schoenbrun: Netflix’s dominance of the streaming landscape and the power of their recommendations algorithm to determine what a huge part of the population is watching.

Kel O’Neill: Technology is moving so quickly that anything I say will be outdated by the time this posts.

Stanley Nelson: We’re still very much in the experimental phase with VR, but it has pushed filmmakers to reconsider the boundaries of filmmaking. We’re already witnessing a change in how people consume media and film, but it’s hard to say whether or not these changes will take hold and create seismic shifts.

Andrew Ahn: In the same way that photography freed painting from the burden of representation and allowed painters to become more expressive, I think that VR and immersive video technology will free filmmakers to be more formally experimental and diverse.

From The Ark, a VR film directed by Kel O’Neill and Eline Jongsma

Pamela Yates: Stories created in VR take the feeling of being there and deepen it. I love the possibilities. Nonny de la Peña and Lynette Wallworth are leading the field in creating new ideas about nonfiction narratives and the ethical considerations that are central when filming people for VR.

Dan Schoenbrun: VR can and will have an impact on the film world, but there are a ton of factors — mainly questions about distribution and production feasibility — that are still up in the air. That said, at SXSW last year the McDonald’s Loft had a “VR experience” where you put on an Oculus and went inside a giant virtual Happy Meal…

Stanley Nelson: They have already changed the way audiences consume media, because we now have instant access to an entire library of films at all times. For filmmakers, they have pushed the industry to create that many more platforms, with more players purchasing and commissioning content.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: They’ll allow for the creation of more serialized nonfiction content and create new audiences around niche content.

Pamela Yates: My hope is that more platforms with more subscribers will democratize the documentary viewing experience. But titans Netflix and Amazon cannot [be allowed to] dominate the field, shutting out other platforms.

From 500 Years, directed by Pamela Yates

Dan Schoenbrun: These two companies are outspending everyone else by a huge margin. They’re essentially establishing themselves as new studios: production, distribution, marketing, and exhibition all in one. I don’t see any reason to assume that they won’t continue their evolution into entertainment monoliths.

It’s also worth noting that Netflix’s recommendation engine is rendering traditional film criticism and word-of-mouth buzz more and more irrelevant. Eighty percent of total plays on Netflix come from their algorithmic recommendations, rather than from users searching or browsing to find something they’ve heard about elsewhere. That’s a lot of power.

Stanley Nelson: Absolutely. Technology has made filmmaking more accessible to people by leveling the playing field in terms of affordability. Hopefully that will bring more and more people into the game. When you’re working with something like an iPhone that is more compact and portable but may not have the capacity of a cinematic camera, it forces the filmmaker to take on a subject in a way that’s very different and intimate.

Pamela Yates: Yes. Neither traditional technology nor lack of money ever held creative filmmakers back.

Dan Schoenbrun: I doubt it, mainly because I don’t think cameras are a prohibitive line item in most budgets. If you’re shooting on an iPhone Tangerine-style, you’re still going to need to spring for a ton of other equipment and services — sound, lighting, post — if you want your film to look and sound professional.

The whole “shot on an iPhone” angle got headlines for Tangerine because it hadn’t been done before, and it worked because the technique matched that film’s gritty vibe. I think directors will absolutely continue to employ non-traditional shooting formats for certain movies, but only when there’s a good tonal or thematic reason to do so.

Kel O’Neill: Sure, but it’s a matter of an expanding tool set, not a linear progression from the technologies of the past to the technologies of the future. Consider that Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine, The Florida Project, was shot on 35mm film.

Stanley Nelson: The responsibility is on the individual filmmaker to decide, but ultimately we need to recognize that our work has the potential to be received on very public stages, and with that comes the opportunity to speak up and speak out. There are so many stories to be told. Do what you feel is important to you.

Penny Lane: Hell no. Art serves as many functions as we can imagine, and some we cannot.

Charlie Lyne: No.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: Documentary filmmakers always have a responsibility to make interesting, challenging, and nuanced work, no matter the political climate.

From Trapped, directed by Dawn Porter

Dan Schoenbrun: I don’t think it’s as straightforward as all of us making more social issue documentaries, but yes, I believe that we need to be thinking carefully about what we are putting out into the cultural landscape. We also need to be thinking about who our movies are for, where they can be seen, why we’re telling the stories we’re telling, and whose stories we’re telling. There are toxic narratives taking hold of our country, and we need to fight back while we still can.

Dawn Porter: I think in any climate that’s a responsibility, if that’s the work you want to do. Not everything has to have the same motivations. How boring that would be.

Stanley Nelson: It’s important that people tell their own story. I hope the conversation in the industry continues to shift and align with that notion so that more opportunities are created for diverse filmmakers to tell their own stories.

Penny Lane: I think we need to continue to talk about our implicit biases around who and what we think a “genius” is — or better yet, forget the idea of genius altogether.

Andrew Ahn: I hope that we seek out and celebrate diversity. I hope that we talk about intersectionality, something that is woefully ignored by society and by filmmakers. The intersection of our identities makes us who we are; it’s where the nuance exists.

From Spa Night, directed by Andrew Ahn

Charlie Lyne: I’d like to see more steps taken in the direction of BAFTA’s recent decision to make diversity an eligibility criterion.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: Foundations and funders have to be willing to take a chance on first-time filmmakers and recognize that a lot of their support doesn’t leave NYC or L.A. Discovering and supporting emerging filmmakers outside of the major cities, across geographical boundaries, will allow for more diversity of opinion and talent.

Dan Schoenbrun: I hope we can get to a point of real gender and racial equality in Hollywood and indie filmmaking, but I fear and expect we are about to take several steps backwards on this issue.

Stanley Nelson: I hope that across the industry the people making, greenlighting, and funding films will more adequately and proportionately reflect the diversity in our society.

Andrew Ahn: I hope that there are more queer people, trans people, women, and people of color making films. It’s very easy for me to say this, but it’s going to be hard work to make it happen.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: More independent platforms for original filmmaking.

Dan Schoenbrun: Small-scale art filmmaking will continue down its current path, transforming into a niche, patron-supported high-culture medium like opera or fine art. Meanwhile, we’ll get a new Spider-man origin story, a new Game of Thrones prequel movie. And if we’re really lucky, maybe we’ll live to see the first openly gay Transformer on the big screen.

Kel O’Neill: When it comes to independent film, I predict an increasingly isolated scene of filmmakers competing for an increasingly small pool of money and serving an increasingly privileged audience. So it will look like opera, basically. I already see that the next crop of young creators are gravitating toward more dynamic mediums like television and gaming, and to immersive forms like AR and VR.

Dawn Porter: No idea, and I love that.

Stanley Nelson and Kel O’Neill: Forward.

Penny Lane: Mutability.

Andrew Ahn: Turmoil (but that’s a good thing).

Charlie Lyne: Fluidity.

Elaine McMillion Sheldon: Awakened.

Pamela Yates: Ferment.

Dan Schoenbrun: Evacuation.

Dawn Porter: Growth.


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From Rescue Breath (working title), directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon