50,000 Films Is a Very Good Thing

Digital media increase ease of filmmaking, which should lead to greater appreciation of the art and history of film

For a few years now, the topic du jour at panels and conferences has been whether or not the sky is falling on the film business. Most panelists seem to settle on a common culprit contributing to the malaise: Too many films being made.

Case in point: During a recent conversation between Ted Hope and Chris Hyams, hosted by TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman, the panelists bemoaned this fact, and when Waxman commented that more than 3,000 films were submitted to Sundance last year, Chris Hyams quickly interjected that the Sundance submission number grossly underestimates the real numbers. Based on his analysis of unique, individual entries from the thousands of film festivals that used B-Side’s Festival Genius software to run their websites, Hyams estimated that as many as 50,000 films were made in 2009.

Audible gasps were heard in the room, and judging by the questions and comments from the audience, on Twitter and from those watching the streaming feed, it was clear that everyone agreed that 50,000 films might be 49,850 too many.

While the field is undeniably awash in a flood of (often mediocre) films, we might as well accept the fact that the economics of digital filmmaking ensure that these 50,000 films will likely not just double, but square in number each year.

Contrary to accepted opinion, however, this might be the best thing that could possibly happen for the field.

How is this possible? Because as more people become filmmakers, they will become even greater fans of film. They will feel a more visceral connection to filmmaking and, by extension, this will make them more avid fans of film and eager students of its history and its various niches. For proof we need only look at music – as is so often the case when it comes to thinking about the future of film.

I never walk into the record store and think there are too many bands out there, too many albums to pick from. Instead, I value the diversity of artists available for my listening pleasure. We accept this crowded sphere implicitly, knowing that for every bad band we encounter, there are numerous more that will truly charm our lives. We use trusted source filters — be they online or off — to help us find the music we like, employing a range of recommendations from friends, record-shop owners, Amazon reviewers and Pandora algorithms.

Today, while the industry struggles to adapt to new business models, consumers enjoy a time of plenty when it comes to finding their listening pleasure and musicians are finding their audience directly.

Music has always been cheaper to produce than film, on average, and it was the first of the creative industries to face an ever-larger deluge of content as digital creation on one’s laptop replaced studio production. While once any kid could pick up a guitar on Monday morning, learn a few chords and begin playing some sweaty club by Saturday night, they can now mix in every instrument and have 10 digital tracks for sale online by midnight.

The field is definitely more crowded, but that hasn’t led to any lessening in fan appreciation of music. Not only are people attending concerts in record numbers, but attendance at performances of more obscure music is up as well, with venues like New York’s Le Poisson Rouge filling to capacity for jazz, classical and other formats. Classical music sales online are robust, audiences are lining up across the country to watch the Metropolitan Opera on local megaplex screens and even avant-garde noise musicians are finding their fans in the ever-expanding “long tail.”

While attendance at traditional classical music venues has long been in decline, a study of classical performance attendance by the Knight Foundation gives interesting insight. In an analysis of audiences for classical music, they found the greatest predictor of attendance at such venues wasn’t ticket prices, education or income level, but whether someone had ever learned to play an instrument. If you have musical training, you feel a more intimate connection to the music and you search out many types of music, including classical, to explore its history and its niches.

I believe that likewise, in film, we now have legions of young people who have learned to shoot, edit and make a film. The industry tends to dismiss these as amateurs and complain about the torrential flood of their films, but we might just have the perfect generation — one that feels a visceral connection to film and wants to explore it more.

Film is no longer something mythic for them, hard to do or just for an elite few. They now know how to make it, and this commonness may just lead to more discovery and participation. Knowing what it takes to make a film, they might begin to seek out that retrospective screening of Kurosawa, learn about cinema pre-Tarantino and check out the newest films from Hollywood and obscure indies alike.

But if this is to happen, there needs to be a welcoming of the flood — condescension needs to be replaced by smart marketing, drawing the links between their exploration and those things that every auteur has had to learn.

We, the filmmaking community, need to encourage new methods of programming, discovery, curation and exhibition, or we’ll be left behind as these new systems are built for everyone else — or, rather, for us, the people now making the content, the films, that everyone else is watching.

We can embrace this future or ignore it, but it’s coming our way — in torrents.