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Gary Winick: Ahead of his time

Colin Brown pays tribute to director and digital filmmaking pioneer Gary Winick, who pioneered ‘open-source filmmaking’ at InDigEnt.

The film industry lost one of its kindest, most inspiring souls when Gary Winick succumbed at age 49 to brain cancer on Sunday afternoon in his native New York City. He leaves behind not just a memorable roll-call of films he directed and produced, but also a countless number of executives, filmmakers, actors, collaborators and crew-members who benefited from his clear-eyed wisdoms and empathetic advice. Scroll through the remembrances pouring in on indie filmmaking site indieWIRE and you’ll see the word “generosity” sprinkled throughout all the affection – something that will be a constant echo today at his memorial service in Manhattan.

This is more than just industry sentiment. Winick was perhaps cinema’s closest embodiment of what has come to be known today as the open-source movement. In software development circles, notions such as wikis and voluntary code-sharing are taken for granted as the karmic building blocks to a better future for all. In the context of the movie business, a world that does not happily share its secrets or its rewards, such ideas are revolutionary. And yet here was Winick, back in 1999, proposing a collectivist, profit-sharing approach to filmmaking that is still ahead of its time.

Under the banner of InDigEnt – a clever shortening of words Independent Digital Entertainment – Winick joined forces with Cinetic and IFC Entertainment to create a pioneering slate of digital video productions that attracted big-name talents, distribution deals and festival plaudits in defiance of their meagre six-figure budgets.

Winick himself directed one of the best examplars of InDigEnt, Tadpole, a comedic gem that scored a $5.2m global distribution deal with Miramax, won him the directing award at Sundance and paved the way for a career making warm-hearted Hollywood films such as 13 Going On 30, Charlotte’s Web, Bride Wars and Letters To Juliet.

The InDigEnt philosophy bore all the hallmarks of Winick’s pragmatic craftsmanship. In his mind, shooting on digital was no excuse for on-the-fly amateurism. Screenplays had to be water-tight and the most professional teams of actors and technicians wrangled before filming was allowed to begin. Aware of his budget constraints, Winick would recommend structuring a DV film around three or four memorable interior set pieces, each of which would run for around 10-12 minutes. Between those scenes, the characters should be seen moving outdoors. That way DV productions would seem so much bigger film than their reality. Sundance audiences would invariably ask him how much those films cost, to which his ready reply was this: it’s not what a movie costs that matters, but what it is worth.

In the wake of Denmark’s Dogme 95, digital video storytelling was no longer radical by the time InDigEnt swept the American indie scene with films such as Personal Velocity and Pieces of April. But their financing structures were groundbreaking. And still are. Everyone involved, from the ritziest actor to the lowliest grip, agreed to work for scale in return for a real share of the profits. Under a talent partnership agreement, they all would participate in 50% of the first dollar gross – and it made Winick immensely proud whenever he was able to deliver those checks to those who deep down thought they were just being asked to work for nothing.

The sharing was mutual of course. Even on his big-budget films Winick would draw on his appreciative network of collaborators, past and present, to glean their opinions on rough-cut assemblies of his new films. Never precious about his own skills as a first-rate director of actors and comedic set-pieces, Winick always had an eager ear for constructive criticism. He had a special gift for cajoling others into his orbit – and he was just as generous with his own time for them. Upon reflection, “open-source” filmmaking doesn’t quite capture Gary’s legacy – it was more like open-hearted cinema. We owe him a big debt – and we will miss him.

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