The iPhone Movie Myth

The iPhone Movie Myth

On February 3rd, 2021, filmmaker Micah Khan became Film Twitter’s main character of the day.

“Stop fucking saying you can shoot it 'on an iPhone,'" he posted.

The now-deleted tweet, which peaked at 2,191 likes and 331 retweets, continued, “No you fucking can’t. Tangerine had a budget and a custom fitted anamorphic lens adapter. Retire this example. You are gaslighting filmmakers because you’re really saying ‘you don’t want it bad enough.’”

The response, as you might imagine, was polarizing, and I think it’s worth exploring why this sentiment is so often thrown around, who it benefits, and who it fails to account for.

First, let’s be very clear: it’s not about gear. It has never been about gear. On September 14th, 2021, because we steadfastly refuse to learn our lesson, writer/director Ty Leisher tweeted, “Bo Burnham won an Emmy for a special he filmed by himself on a Panasonic Lumix S1H ($4,000 camera). Your excuses for not making your movie are now void. Go create something.” For the sake of making any sense of this conversation, we have to put aside the fact that a $4,000 camera or even a $500 iPhone for many people is the difference between rent and an eviction notice. It’s an important point, one that’s often overlooked, but not the one I’m trying to make at the moment.

Grifters like to make the conversation about gear, because for a long time the barrier to entry for independent artists was access to equipment. It’s also because affiliate links are a profitable side hustle. So, sure, if we look at the world of independent art from the lens of “do you have infinitely easier access to cameras of higher quality than anything our filmmaking forefathers could have dreamed of,” then yeah, you have no excuses not to make a movie.

But who are we actually talking to, to what end, and also, how?

As a grad professor, I frequently recommend filming on iPhones, laptop webcams, and any other device my students already have access to. That’s because my goal as their teacher is to show them the storytelling tools they’ll need and the resources they already have access to for experimenting with craft, building their portfolios, and passing my class. The work they make in my class may very well go on to win festivals and get them jobs, but the goal is to just make something, learn from that experience, and then make something else better.

When we’re talking to students, or first-time creators, the advice to shoot something from your iPhone comes from a place similar to the writing advice of “just write.” When you don’t have a body of work but someday dream of writing or filmmaking for a living, you do need to start by, well, doing the dang thing by whatever means necessary.

The problem is that this advice is often given not to students and first timers, but to people with multiple projects under their belts, with festival wins and screenplay contest accolades.

When we broadly advise filmmakers to just “make a movie with your iPhone,” to what end are we advising them to make this film? Again, if they’ve never made a film (short, feature, sketch, or sizzle), the end is to have a completed piece of work. As a former beginner and current teacher, I know personally how much you learn making a project from nothing with just your dreams and a scrappy can-do attitude. You learn what you like about the process, how to improve your craft and communication and, perhaps even more importantly, what you never want to do again.

If you’re offering someone the advice to shoot on their iPhone because they’ve never shot anything before and they want to learn the filmmaking process, go with God.

But when you’re talking to a filmmaker with multiple films under their belt, in your mind, what are you actually telling them to do, and to what end? To have … made an art? They’ve already made an art. Micah Khan won ​​Robert Rodriguez's People's Network Showcase Contest and his latest award-winning short film Meetcute on Danceworld has a poster pull-quote from David Benioff. So, when you tell him, as someone presumably a bit further along in the starving artist to paid professional pipeline, to make a movie on an iPhone, what is it exactly you think you’re offering him by way of mentorship? Clearly, he already knows what he’s doing and has made a film as a proof of concept for himself as a creative. What, for a person in Micah’s position, do you think he’ll gain from this advice to make a movie with his iPhone?

Let’s play a fun game called “what else are we not accounting for?” Micah’s original tweet referenced Tangerine, a 2015 film famously captured on an iPhone that went on to premiere at Sundance and get a limited release deal through Magnolia Pictures. Sean Baker, the filmmaker behind it, went on next to write and direct The Florida Project.

What else are we not accounting for?

  1. This was not Sean Baker’s first film. In fact, it was his fourth feature. Tangerine wasn’t filmed to accommodate a new filmmaker’s budgetary restrictions and lack of experience.
  2. Not only did the Duplass brothers produce the film, but it was Mark Duplass who approached Baker about collaborating after seeing Baker’s previous work. So, the iPhone filming decision came after the financing and traditional industry support.
  3. Much of their gear that made capturing a Sundance-worthy film on an iPhone was donated by Moondog Labs, after Baker informed them he was working with Mark Duplass. Again, in-kind support (which is expensive and financially valuable even when you aren’t paying for it yourself) was not offered to the production until after traditional industry support and name recognition got thrown around.

So, when we’re talking to a filmmaker frustrated that they’re still working one or multiple survival jobs while pursuing their as-of-yet unpaid creative career, “just do what Tangerine did and shoot it on an iPhone” doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

It’s frustrating to hear career advice about how you just need to make a great movie with your iPhone because ... many of us already have. And when you frame someone’s lack of progress or paid career around “no excuses—just make a movie with your iPhone” what you’re actually saying is that we either aren’t working hard enough or we aren’t good enough.

If the film industry was a meritocracy based solely on effort, or finding a way to make something great with limited budgets, Hollywood would look very, very different. But it doesn’t.

It’s not about grit, gear, or gumption. It’s about access that we don’t have and you aren’t offering.

*Feature photo by Mediamodifier (Pexels)

Bri Castellini is a screenwriter, director, adjunct professor, and, like any good millennial, a podcaster. She’s known for the short film Ace and Anxious and the podcast Breaking Out of Breaking In.
More posts by Bri Castellini.
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