Independent Cinema’s Hair Problem

25316805 Mahohla Dargis has an interesting piece on the future of American independent cinema. Although she never mentions it, the announcement of the iPad almost certainly motivated the publication of the article. Apple hopes to sell a lot of movies for the device, which is a much better platform for the medium than the iPhone or even a laptop. Apple’s marketing prospects would have been enhanced by giving the iPad a proper 16:9 aspect ratio rather than a 4:3, but no device is perfect. Even the iPod has reduced sound quality.

For everyone involved with independent cinema, the hope is that D.I.Y. distribution via digital channels will revive a devastated segment of the film business. Do it yourself distribution isn’t new, as Dargis points out–Mumblecore directors have always done it–but the approach is starting to gain some momentum and promises to become a viable distribution channel along the lines of the online distribution of music. Dargis writes, “more than one D.I.Y. adherent likes to invoke the music world, where fans can become a loyal following, one that doesn’t just download a single song (or, as the most passionate of fans sometimes do, swap bootlegs), but also buys T-shirts, posters, memorabilia, concert tickets and yet more songs.”

It seems inevitable that online distribution of films will become more commonplace. However, the music analogy only goes so far. First of all, the basic model sustained interest in independent cinema is auteurist: to be a cinephile is to follow the career of a set of directors. Distinguishing between a genuine film artist and a studio hack–not to mention recognizing when a studio hack is really an artist–requires a certain amount of critical work. While certain films have always attracted a cult following (The Big Lebowski, Napoleon Dynamite, and, for a while, Quentin Tarantino’s early films), these enthusiasms tend to be uncritical; they rarely serve as a gateway drug to genuine cinephilia. Fewer and fewer people seem willing to put forth the effort to understand cinema’s complex history and language, especially now that film studies is an endangered species in college curriculums. Dargis writes, “One of the most critical problems facing art-house cinemas is what’s been deemed a ‘hair problem’ — meaning, an aging clientele that’s either gray or bald and whose declining numbers are worrisome to independent exhibition.” How much disk space is there on college kids’ hard drives for the collected works of Aaron Katz or Kelly Reichardt? For a college kid today, does being the first person in your dorm to see Medicine for Melancholy have the same cache as being the person to discover Phoenix or BLK JKS?

The auteurist model has another problem that may hamper its online revival. Rock continues to attract new audiences–long after its relatively crude and limiting forms should have consigned it to heritage music, like blues–because rock musicians have access to a much wider variety of music than musicians did in the vinyl era. Genres and subgenres have proliferated online, with influences going every which way. In the film world, Tarantino is famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure movies transferred to VHS and DVD, but this enthusiasm has been his least influential quality. Independent directors have generally been more concerned with cultivating their own celebrity than collaborating with other filmmakers, or absorbing influences from overseas. American independent cinema has been stuck in the same genres for years now. The variety of world filmmaking continues to have little or no impact on independent American filmmaking.

Still, a vibrantly creative digital independent cinema could work. But directors are going to have to do more than post Facebook updates and make an occasional appearance at a festival. They have to claim space on people’s hard drives, which means opening their own up to the work of Romanians and Koreans. The biggest audience segment of American independent cinema right now is a bunch of guys with graying hair, and they’re growing crankier by the year.

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