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Hollywood's New Starving Stars

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The young hopefuls with stars in their eyes have never stopped flocking to Hollywood. I can spot these wannabe actors all around town, waiting tables or mixing drinks at celebrity clubs.

But a new generation of young movie producers also has appeared on the scene, armed with a visceral understanding of new filmmaking technologies and determined to forge their own creative paths.

Using inexpensive, but professional-quality digital cameras and off-the-shelf editing software that works on any PC or Mac, they are making low-budget films without the backing -- or interference -- of big studios. They raise money from friends and small investors, write their own scripts, shoot and direct using a cadre of volunteers. And they tap a rich vein of idle actors willing to work often for credit alone.

Some of these films find their way into theaters and others find a home on the Web or on cable outlets. A few have even beaten the odds to become Hollywood hits.

It's too early to tell whether this wave will have a lasting impact. But the dogged determination of these filmmakers reminds me of the generation that broke down the doors of moribund studios in the 1960s and 70s. They revolutionized filmmaking with the likes of "Easy Rider," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Harold and Maude" -- albeit with a drug-infused sensibility.

I met one of the new generation of filmmakers at the House of Blues in West Hollywood during a recent networking event.

Ben Bertucci told me he was living the good life in Chicago, running his own advertising firm and making excellent money. But his real passion was movies. When the economy tanked at the end of 2008 he saw that as a sign it was time to move to Hollywood and pursue his dream.

Now 31, he is in the process of final edits on his first film and beginning pre-production on his second.

In years past, he would have enrolled in film school simply for access to professional equipment. "But now people like me are able to buy a digital camera for $700 and make HD video that is just as good as what you see on TV and in many films," he explained.

Getting cheap or free help is easy, especially in Hollywood, which is overrun by people wanting to break into movies. "All you have to do is put an ad on Craigslist," he added.

Bertucci's projects will likely find an audience at one of a myriad of film festivals springing up in cities all over the nation. But like others of his generation, he has his mind set on making big-budget movies some day. "These short films are really practice ground for me."

With limited budgets, most of these producers must forgo the kinds of special effects that dominate so many mainstream Hollywood productions. Instead, they focus on acting and the art of original storytelling -- something often missing from the budget-breaking blockbusters.

That is at the heart of "Karaoke Man," a completed but unreleased romantic comedy filmed by a small production company for less than $500,000. The script was penned by two talented and experienced television writers, Mike Petty and Kevin D. Guzowski, and executive produced by Debbie Cooper, who just two years ago was directing resort sales in Indiana.

"It's an amazing thing that happened to me," Cooper said. "I never made a single picture in my life and only dreamed of it in my younger years." Like Bertucci, when the economy sank, she headed west.

"You can now make movies for so much less than you used to and make them look like big budget films with the invention of this new equipment," she told me. But ultimately what sells a film is good writing and acting.

As it was for those rebellious film makers of the 1960s, this new generation of producers is entering hostile territory in Hollywood. The industry, trying to operate more efficiently, has reduced the number of releases. Studios are making bigger bets on films that have built-in audiences from best-selling novels or comic books or hold the promise of "multiple revenue streams" from product placement, partnerships or the sale of tchotchkes.

The results, while financially sound, have been artistically and creatively disastrous. Even for someone like me, who appreciates a good car chase or running gun battle as much as the next guy, these films are predictable and boring.

I visited the set of one low-budget production recently to see for myself how the new filmmakers stretch resources in pursuit of their art.

"Los Blancos" is intended as a Web series and this episode was being shot at a stylish Spanish bungalow in Highland Park that happens to be owned by another independent producer and friend of mine. Ed Arroyo volunteered his house for a nominal fee, primarily as a favor.

The actors in the drama -- the story of two sisters running their family's cocaine business -- make their living as hip-hop models. The film crew included a director and a cameraman, who was using a simple single-lens digital camera mounted on an ordinary tripod. There were a couple of men working as set decorators, a stylist and two professional makeup artists. Most had agreed to take minimal payments and some were forgoing salaries altogether to gain experience and forge industry relationships. A fancy Audi used in the filming was borrowed from a friend.

The budget for each five-minute episode is about $3,500, provided mainly by the participants with hope of profitability down the line.

Lisa Love Clavelle, the production's line producer, was a singer who gave it up six years ago to move to Hollywood, where she found work in television and movie production before setting her sights on producing this Web series.

"What we find is that it's the same quality (as major productions) without all the hoopla, frills and the excess fat," she told me. She is convinced this low-cost model is the precursor to mainstream entertainment. "People are living healthy, eating healthy and we're working healthy."

So far, however, Web programming has not proved profitable, and there is no indication it will ever demand the kind of revenue that comes from big studio productions. Only a small percentage of these micro-budgeted films ever make it into theaters.

One of those exceptions is "The Road to Freedom," inspired by the true-life story of photojournalist Sean Flynn -- the only son of legendary actor Errol Flynn -- who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970.

It's a first-time project of producer/director Brendan Moriarty, who was only 20 when he began shooting the film on location in Cambodia with the relatively affordable Red One camera.

Still, he needed to raise about $1 million, which he did with help from family and friends. It was through similar personal relationships that he found an upstart distributor that managed to make a deal directly with theaters, bypassing studio distribution arms. The film, with its lush and sweeping shots of the Southeast Asian countryside, opens later this month in eight cities.

"Because I had no big stars, no one wanted to take a chance on me in the beginning," he said. "But I wanted to show that you can do it if you do something right."

Hollywood's big studios, though insular and self-focused, are watching this phenomenon with a combination of fear and self-interest. Only a few years ago a micro-budgeted surprise hit, "Paranormal Activity," shot for an estimated $15,000, went on to gross more than $300 million worldwide, becoming one of the most profitable movies of all time and bailing out mighty Paramount studio's finances.

In its wake, Paramount and other studios have since established small picture funds in hopes of once again capturing lightning in a bottle.

Whether the pictures made by this new generation of producers can actually break out and transform filmmaking is yet to be seen.

But, like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola before them, many of these young producers will eventually find themselves in the heart of the Hollywood studio system. And their hard-earned sensibilities for no-frills storytelling is, at the least, likely to change the way Hollywood sees its craft.

That has to be a good thing.