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Spike Lee: Tech is a double-edge sword in filmmaking

What's given moviemakers tools like crowdfunding and YouTube has also led to a CGI-centric Hollywood where everything looks the same, the famous film director tells CNET.

Spike Lee
Spike Lee in front of a list of his body of work at his Brooklyn studio, 40 Acres and a Mule Studios. Screenshot by Michelle Meyers/CNET
Acclaimed film director Spike Lee grabbed the tech spotlight last week by launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for his next feature film. He has until August 21 to meet his goal of raising $1.25 million.

He's getting there, slowly, with help from some incentive giveaways at the higher donation levels. So far, 1,700 donors have pledged $311,000. At the $10,000 donor level, he's offering dinner and one of his courtside Knicks seats. He revealed that one of the $10,000 donors (there are 14 so far) is fellow filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.

CNET got to chat with Lee about his campaign and how technology-driven tools -- like Kickstarter, YouTube, and CGI -- can both help and interfere with the story-telling process that is film.

Here's an edited transcript of an interview he did with CNET Friday:

Q: How is the Kickstarter campaign going?
Lee: It's going pretty well. We're in day 5 of a total of 30 days. We're reaching our daily goal. Yesterday, we had our biggest day which was $68,000, and we have to reach $1.25 million to get the money because on Kickstarter, if you don't reach your goal, you don't get anything. I'm not complaining, but I'm doing everything I can to ensure we get the support.

It's about keeping the momentum going with these things...
Lee: I've been told by people who have done it, and also the co-founders of Kickstarter, that there's a great initial push, then you have a lull in the middle, then it picks up again as you're trying to reach that finish line.

Is it harder than you thought?
Lee: Well, really, I didn't have any expectations. This is new territory for me. I just knew that it wasn't going to be easy because what is easy. I've been really grateful for the help -- people have come out of the woodwork to steer me in the right direction and have given me guidance and wisdom because, like I said before, I've never done this before.

Given your prior film history, it's not unusual for you to go seeking out funding, but it's just new for you to do this way?
Lee: This method is new. This whole idea of crowd funding is totally new to me. You're appealing directly to the people who have supported your work, in my case, for a long, long time. I've been making films for three decades.

Famed filmmaker Spike Lee turns to Kickstarter to raise money for his next project. Kickstarter/Screenshot by CNET

Were you wary at first?
Lee: No, I was convinced by the success Mr. [Rob] Thomas had doing the "Veronica Mars" movie -- that show had been canceled seven years ago -- it got $5.5 million from Kickstarter. Mr. Zach Braff, who was on the TV show "Scrubs" for many years, he got $3.5 million. So those two examples made me believe this was something I should try.

You've watched technology evolve over the years, with digital cameras, Web distribution and advances in computer graphics. Has technology been good or bad for indie filmmakers?
Lee: Technology has really made it possible for me to do my independent films, which I've shot on digital, not film. "Red Hook Summer," which I self-financed, was shot on digital and this will be too. (Lee also shot "Baboozled" mostly on digital.) My concerns are when technology rules the art, instead of the artist ruling and commanding the technology. I will say this: technology has really opened up the floodgates and now anybody can make a film and put it up on YouTube. I'm not saying that all that stuff is good, but still, it gives people the chance to express themselves.

But when I have money, I still want to shoot film which definitely is dying out.

How has the advent of computer graphics changed the way Hollywood looks at filmmaking.
Lee: Well, CGI has definitely changed the game, and I think the trick is how do you use these CGI images to tell a story and to make it original. Now, in my opinion, all these movies look the same. It's like the same effects house is doing everything. They all look the same.

What's driving that?
Lee: That's market-driven. In many cases, the marketing department has a large say in what gets made and what doesn't. That's why the majority of [studio] films today have special effects and 3D and this type of stuff.

It's not just me. Most recently, one of the most successful directors in Hollywood today, Steven Soderbergh, said he's not going to work in feature films in the studio system. He's just going to work in cable TV, where you could argue a lot of the most interesting stuff is being done now.

Technology is a double-edged sword, which I understand.

If you get this next film funded, how will you handle distribution?
Lee: That's down the road. We gotta get this money first or there will be no distribution because there won't be a film.

Where do you advise your students to go to distribute their films?
Lee: Film festivals are still the best way to do it. And it's harder, especially getting into Sundance. Look at how many submissions they get. You got to make a ton of DVDs of your film and put it in the right hands, and hopefully someone will see it.

Anything else you want to tell a our tech-oriented readership?
Lee: For as little as $5 you can join us, get this film made, help us reach our [Kickstarter] goal. I know we've got some high-rollers there [in the Bay Area] who are basketball fans and "Wouldn't you love to sit with me courtside to see your team, the Golden State Warriors playing at Madison Square Garden?" Now they only come once, so somebody I know should hop on it and make that $10,000 pledge. I'll take you out to dinner and we'll sit courtside and we'll see if your team, the Warriors can beat my beloved Knicks. It will be a lot of fun. Your great coach Mark Jackson is from Brooklyn, N.Y., went to St. John's [University] and is doing a great job. And the Warriors are one of the up and coming teams.

Finally, an obligatory CNET question: (This one sent to Lee after-the-fact via text.) What's your favorite personal technology? What cell phone do you carry? Are you a Twitter addict?
Lee via text: iPod, iPhone, BlackBerry. I'm on Twitter but I'm not an addict.