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by David Rosen
December 6, 2013 1:48 PM
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Are Mobile Movies The Way of the Future?

"Webcam" was shot entirely on a Mac Book

Writer and business-development consultant David Rosen regularly contributes to AlterNet, Brooklyn Rail, CounterPunch, Filmmaker and the Huffington Post.  The author of the indie classic, Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films, commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project, here he writes about how mobile devices are changing not only the way we watch films, but also potentially the way filmmakers make them.

The first film shot on an iPhone is becoming a reality -- or at least, the first union, full-length narrative feature film to be shot with the iPhone 5s -- director Brian Kowalchuk announced that he'll shoot "Ode" on an iPhone, under a SAG-AFTRA Ultra Low Budget production contract.

"The few technical challenges of filming with the iPhone 5s are being addressed and communications are in process with senior Apple executives with regards to addressing these challenges," according to Kowalchuk, who wrote the screenplay and will also produce. "None of the 5s video camera limitations are expected to interfere with the production and/or eventual theatrical release."

Last year, two movies at least partly shot on iPhones garnered critical attention, the Academy Award-winning documentary "Searching for Sugar Man" and Iranian director Jafar Panahi's "This Is Not a Film," the National Society of Film Critics voted best experimental film. What a difference from five years ago, when the idea of shooting -- or watching a film -- on an iPhone was considered laughable.

At the 2008 Academy Awards ceremony Jon Stewart was caught watching David Lean's epic, 70-mm film, "Lawrence of Arabia," on a tiny iPhone.  Switching from portrait to landscape orientation, he mocked sarcastically, "To really appreciate it you have to see it in the wide screen."  As expected, the audience laughed.

Stewart's comments came just a few weeks after David Lynch's now legendary rant against watching feature films on mobile phones.  As he lamented, "If you're playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film.  You'll think you have experienced it, but you'll be cheated.  It's such a sadness that you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone.  Get real."

Today, the only one who's laughing is Apple -- all the way to the bank.  Lean's classic is available on iTunes for $9.99.

The iPhone and other smart phones are ubiquitous throughout the country, which was not the case in early '08 when Lynch raged against mobile phones.  According to comScore, in July 2007, barely 9 million Americans owned a smartphone -- representing just 4 percent of the entire mobile market. As of September 2013, 148 million Americans had a smartphone.

Tablet computing devices, whether from Apple (iPad), Samsung (with Google's Android OS), Microsoft (Surface), Amazon (Kindle) or another vendor, are replacing not simply the home PC and laptop but the TV set as the primary personal information and entertainment device. The first consumer tablet came out in 2005 and, in 2010, according to Pew Research, adoption was at only 3 percent -- in May 2013, adoption hit 34 percent.  And it's only going up from here.

Last year, the key movie-going demographic, 25-39 year olds, accounted for about 10 million ticket sales.  Not surprising, this age group is the greatest user of mobile devices.  Pew puts the adoption rate at 80 percent.  What does this tell us about the future of the movie and movie making?

Two veteran storytellers, Jeff Lipsky and Marcia Jarmel, one a narrative director and writer, the other documentary filmmaker, share a common hesitation regarding the small screen, mobile movie.  To them, it privatizes what is aesthetically conceived as a shared, public experience.

"Speaking as a filmmaker, digital distribution is the worst things to happen to filmmaking," proclaims longtime indie maker Jeff Lipsky.  He's been part of the indie scene for a generation, working both sides of the desk as director/writer and distributor.  He's directed a number of films, including "Molly's Theory of Relativity," released earlier this year, as well as "Twelve Thirty" (2010) and "One More with Feeling" (2009). After helping to found the pioneering October Films and Lot 47, he currently runs Adopt Films, a boutique firm.


  • Ricky Fosheim | January 30, 2014 2:52 PMReply

    Awesome article. Check out Uneasy Lies the Mind, definitely the first feature length narrative movie to be shot entirely on the iPhone.

  • Vin | December 10, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    Excellent article. I'm sympathetic to Lipsky's point of view, but I think he is missing the fact that it is very likely that the feature film is losing its status as the central - perhaps definitive - filmmaking expression. I don't think we're there yet, but I think that's where we're headed.

    Partly this is due to the fact that technological advances in filmmaking and distribution tools have made non-traditional categories and platforms more exciting to budding filmmakers. Partly it's due to a combination of greater narrative adventuresomeness in mediums like television, and the insistence of Hollywood to turn studio filmmaking into something akin to an amusement park ride. Put it all together, and you've got a generation of movie makers and movie watchers that is increasingly less invested in the ways of the old - because the ways of the old are, frankly, kinda staid.

    I'm not going to say whether all this is good or bad (because frankly what difference does it make), even if I prefer the communality of a packed dark movie theater to the communality of live-tweeting the latest episode of Game of Thrones...but that's the way the world's going.

  • j | December 7, 2013 4:37 PMReply

    It might be a nice idea short term wise but in the long term it wont last .The quality of a film you see in a theater is far better than on your phone .

  • Brian Kowalchuk | December 6, 2013 11:24 PMReply

    It's going to be interesting.

  • Behalf of Everyone | December 6, 2013 3:24 PMReply

    Um, I like Bluray so I wouldn't watch this s***

  • Everyone | December 6, 2013 5:43 PM

    We don't know you

  • dyg | December 6, 2013 2:22 PMReply

    Park Chan Wook's Berlin winning short NIGHT FISHING was shot on an iPhone (financed by Korea's #1 telecom). After seeing it, you think, "what a great short! Pity it was shot on an iPhone."

  • Kristian Berg | December 6, 2013 2:02 PMReply

    At the 2013 Woodstock Film Festival in the Short Docs II program, David Kaplan's "Where Beasts Dwell" was shot entirely on an IPhone with a super-8 filter app. Interviews conducted solely on audio - it totally fit the quirky portrait of artist Kathy Ruttenberg. This was paired with Shira Piven's "The Beast and the Angel" on the MC5's Wayne Kramer and my own "Poustinia" portrait of artist Gendron Jensen.