End Run

Safety Last! / Public Domain

This entry is part 2 in a series examining why the film industry has resisted disruption so far:

  1. Making a movie is still an all-or-nothing proposition.
  2. Film technologists are focusing on all the wrong areas.
  3. Filmmaking is computationally expensive.
  4. We are a deeply traditional, conservative, and sentimental lot.
  5. The film industry neutralizes its best and brightest.
  6. Postscript: There Are Always Two Revolutions

2. Film technologists are focusing on all the wrong areas.

Film technologists naturally gravitate towards production.

This makes sense: production where the action is. On my first-ever set gig, I wanted to be as close to that action as possible. So I ingratiated myself to the all-German film crew by wearing the same soccer T-shirt to set for 3 or 4 days in a row. By week two, I’d graduated from Location Intern to Camera PA.

At that point I also put on a fresh shirt.

At that point I also put on a fresh shirt.

Production tech is also where many of the most challenging problems lie. Things like image compression, camera colorimetry, and HDR color space encoding are still very much live, difficult, and interesting fields. You can build careers there.

But—as I never tire of pointing out—15 years of disrupting production technology has also failed to make any significant changes to the film business itself. Final Cut Pro didn’t disrupt film, it disrupted NLEs. The DVX-100 didn’t disrupt film, it started the disruption of cameras. And LED lighting panels may be disruptive if you’re an electrician, but they have not unseated any major studios so far.

(And I would include “the 8th studio” in that statement as well. There may be plenty of indie film capital in the world, your access to it depends on many factors with little bearing on the merit of your film project itself.)

NLEs, cameras, Israeli Arms, cool control panels, C-stands, and compression algorithms are all individual pieces of the massive supply chain feeding our actual end product: content. You know, movies and TV shows and stuff.

But those of us who live and breathe production tech keep losing this plot. We confuse our little pieces of the supply chain with the end product itself.

One frequent response I’ve heard to the first entry in this series is: “Film hasn’t been disrupted? Tell that to the VFX industry.”

But this happens to precisely illustrate my point. The film VFX industry is widely seen as beleaguered and exploited by an effective monopsony. (The studio system, taken as a whole, being the sole buyer in the market.) This reality underscores the premise that technology innovation notwithstanding, the film industry’s underlying power structures have so far not been shaken.

To that end, technologists need to look up from their foxholes and start thinking about other pieces in the value chain. As we do so, we should be cribbing from the playbooks of disruptors in other fields. This is exactly what Netflix and Amazon have done. (I’ll get to them but for now, I’ll simply state that I consider them Film 1.5 companies, not Film 2.0.)

But there is some movement in this area. Slated, The Black List, and Seed & Spark are re-thinking the idea of development in the connected age. And the distribution space is a crowded and noisy one, with Vimeo’s acquisition of VHX just one of the latest examples.

As long as we stay focused on tricking out our gear, no matter how fun and exciting that may be, we’ll be doing nothing to change the underlying economics of visual storytelling. It’s time for film technologists to aim higher.

I build Endcrawl and work at HBO. Sometimes I'm wrong about things on the Internet. Feel free to point some of that out on Twitter, or down in the comments section.

  • Ben Balser

    Way to narrow of a focus on the “film industry” which itself is too diverse to refer to as a single entity any longer. The “media production” industry has been disrupted by technological advances, film only being a drop in the bucket of that. A high school kid can make a full length feature film equally as Lucas Films can. The software and hardware is affordable, learnable, more than accessible. THAT is a VERY disrupted industry, when only an elite few Hollywood studios did 100% of the releases. The basics of filmmaking ARE very different today than when I started. Dates me, but that’s a fact. If you only look at the last 7 years of filmmaking, this article makes perfect sense. If you look at the past 10+ years, this article misses a great deal of fact.

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