Why I Stopped Making Documentaries
March 2, 2019 § Leave a comment
Recently the screenwriter and director Paul Schrader appeared on Seth Meyers to promote “First Reformed,” and spoke the truth about filmmaking today. “The good news is everyone can make a movie….the bad news is no one can make a living at it.”
I’m one of those people. When I started making documentaries twenty years ago, new technologies had opened the field to independent filmmakers by dramatically lowering costs. Instead of shooting on film, I shot on high quality digital video. Digital editing systems allowed me and my editor, Kate Johnson, to weave picture, sound, music and graphics as flatbed editing machines never could. Finally the Internet–even in those pre-streaming days–let me advertise the documentary, make filming arrangements, hunt for and license archival pictures and footage, and communicate with interviewees. As a result, “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” was finished in two years–fast by documentary standards, particularly as I continued to shoot interviews at home and abroad for many months after finishing principal photography in Thailand.
All these technologies were stunning, as was the speed at which they changed. My first film was shot on BetaSP tape and distributed on VHS. My second film, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection,” was mainly composed of footage from “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” but VHS was obsolete by the time it came out, replaced by DVDs. At that point I had to throw out all my VHS tapes for JTSK and order DVDs. By the time I started my third documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” in 2006, I needed a new HD camera and mini HD tape, while Kate had a new Pro Tools editing system.
By 2015, distribution had gone online. I put my films–by then there were four–on Vimeo, but I still needed DVDs for customers who didn’t do downloads. That year I also issued a new, revised version of “Jim Thompson, Silk King.” Only thirteen years after the original was finished, it was technologically obsolete, and Kate had to re-digitize the original footage to create a new master. The re-editing process, which included new footage, music and DVD extras (one of which I shot partly on my iPhone), was so laborious that it took almost as long as the original film.
Technology had become a runaway train, and changes in cameras, tape, software and distribution format ate my profits. But it was the Internet that delivered the final blow: suddenly everything on it was free or nearly so, and no one wanted to pay for anything. At that point I realized that documentaries, much as I loved making them, were ruining me, so I stopped. You can find them for purchase or rent, on DVD or via download, at hopeandersonproductions.com