For a time in the early ’90s, I was thoroughly convinced that Spike Lee was America’s greatest filmmaker. Given his various misfires over the past 15 years, I don’t really believe that anymore. But it’s hard to deny the ambition, conviction, and mastery of his work in the Do The Right Thing-Mo’ Better Blues-Jungle Fever-Malcolm X era. From ’89 to ’92, nobody could touch him.
That said, the first time Spike Lee caught my attention (and the attention of most folks outside the bicoastal art-house film scene) was as a pitchman for Nike in a series of late-’80s commercials that followed the cult success of his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. Nike took the loudmouthed Mars Blackmon character that Lee played in She’s Gotta Have It and paired him up with Michael Jordan to harangue MJ in the same punchy cadence Lee’s character used in the film. The line that sticks in my memory is his signature, "Money, it’s gotta be the shoes!"
If a shoe commercial seems like an odd place to find an angry young director, it shouldn’t. Lee knew from the get-go that moviemaking is a business, and if you a) are black and b) want to make your own movies, no one is going to hand you a career. Lee’s early successes are nearly as remarkable for the way he marketed his films and raised his own capital as they are for the work itself; the late journalist Ralph Wiley wrote a whole book (By Any Means Necessary) on the ingenious ways Lee worked outside the system to bring Malcolm X to the screen. Selling Mars Blackmon, a character from a film that was already behind him, to Nike (and building on his success with Nike to launch a profitable second career directing high-visibility commercials and music videos) was just the first way Lee demonstrated that he was willing and able to do business in order to advance his art.
The irony of Mars Blackmon making Spike Lee famous is that Spike Lee is no more an actor than Quentin Tarantino is (his insistence on casting himself in 10 of his films notwithstanding). And then there’s that more obvious irony: Does anyone in his or her right mind actually believe that Michael Jordan’s secret was his shoes?
Maybe it’s not quite as absurd to believe that it’s the equipment that makes the event videographer, but it’s still a costly misconception, and it’s one that most folks in this business have probably fallen prey to at one time or another. This is not to say you shouldn’t pay close attention to your equipment, and follow the technology closely enough to upgrade when your business demands it. But videographers are always better off keeping their pocketbooks closed when gear fetishes get the best of them.
One of the few constants in the video industry is the endless barrage of new products and technologies that—if you let them dictate your equipment choices—will put you out of business faster than yelling "Free Bird" all through the first dance. One recent morning, the first message in my inbox was a Panasonic press release announcing its first shoulder-mount AVCHD model, the HMC70. This new camera (even with its smallish chips and unseemly design) bodes well for anyone who felt encouraged but shortchanged by the flashy but too-consumer AG-HSC1U. I’m always thrilled when camera technology evolves in our favor, whether it trickles up from the consumer market or down from broadcast, and the forthcoming HMC70 is trickle-up Exhibit A.
That said, the HMC70 won’t even ship until NAB, and who knows what campaign promises from other manufacturers may kick it down your wish list in the meantime. And even if those promises turn out to be true in a general sense—yes, the camera does deliver these pixels or that great feature—how much does that have to do with you and the work you do for your clients? Maybe a lot, maybe nothing at all. Odds are if you’re in the social event video business, you deliver a highly stylized project that’s been honed and tailored to your skills as a shooter and editor and packaged to sell based on your accrued knowledge of your market and the brand you’ve crafted within it. Maybe HD/HDV/AVCHD and one company’s particular implementation fit into your immediate plans, or maybe they don’t—but ultimately, what your business needs isn’t between you and Panasonic, Sony, JVC, Canon, or Red. It’s between you and your clients and—closer to home—you and your business plan. You don’t need a new camera just because they’re selling one (or an upgraded NLE because Apple or Adobe released a new version) any more than brides need to drop six or seven figures on a wedding just because vendors offer high-end services. No matter how cool the product or how powerful the pitch, there’s always accountability on the buyer’s part to say no and walk away when it’s the right thing to do—even if Rebecca Mead believes otherwise.
Maybe that’s why I always liked Mars Blackmon as a pitchman. If anything, he was an anti-pitchman, a no-credibility character shouting only the hilariously absurd. This is not to say the selling technique was ineffective; to the contrary, it worked so well that some pundits were stupid enough to blame Lee for inner-city kids killing each other over Air Jordans. Right. And if you believe that, I’ve got an HD camera to sell you that will propel you to the top of your market the moment you hit Record. Money, it’s gotta be the pixels!
Stephen Nathans-Kelly is editor-in-chief of EventDV.