It's been a longstanding tradition for independent filmmakers to beg, borrow and max out credit cards in order to finance their artistic endeavors. Then it can be similarly difficult to land a movie distribution deal.

This traumatic experience may be coming to an end. As the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival's sold-out New Media forum demonstrated last week, movies are going digital. And that means they will become cheaper to produce which could bring about a sea change in the economics of the independent film industry.

"Digital production is democratizing and revolutionizing the industry," said Peter Broderick, a moderator for one of the festival's new-media panels and president of Santa Monica-based Next Wave Films, which is owned by the Independent Film Channel. "Not only does it give filmmakers another option in how to make movies, it also gives them creative freedom by lifting what used to be prohibitive expenses."

For filmmakers, the greatest asset of digital technology is at the bottom line. An hour of digital tape costs about $10, while 10 minutes of celluloid film might cost $200 (when adding the expense of getting it developed). Overall filming costs shrink from hundreds of thousands of dollars to tens of thousands, or less.

"Quite honestly, this movie would not have happened if I had to use film," said Jon Reiss, director of "Better Living Through Circuitry," which had its world premiere at the film festival. "We shot 190 feet of footage, and we had animation effects. There is no way I could have afforded to do that with film."

Reiss declined to specify how much his movie cost to make, but noted that the process of editing both the audio and visual components on computers shaved months off the production process.

Next Wave Films, which provides funds to filmmakers, has seen digital films that cost as little as $1,000 to make. While that's at the absolute bottom end of the spectrum, Broderick says more and more filmmakers are recognizing the lowered costs of production.

The Los Angeles Film Festival, as well as Next Wave Films, reported a surge in digitally produced films submitted, though specific numbers weren't available. Several panelists at the New Media conference said they each knew several filmmakers that recently began filming a movie on digital tape rather than on film.

With potentially more independent films being cranked out while cost barriers decrease, the already tight bottleneck of theatrical distribution will only get worse. However, that issue is equalized by new media's second major benefit to the indies: new methods of distribution.

With high-speed, broadband Internet technology, filmmakers can potentially show their movies directly to viewers via their computers without ever dealing with studios or theaters. The Independent Film Channel has already experimented with this process on the Internet, and TNT screened "Casablanca" in its entirety on its Web site early this year.

The broadband technology that would give consumers the kind of fast Internet access they need to receive movies through their computers is at least two to five years from being widespread. The popularity of digital distribution also largely relies on the projected convergence of televisions and home computers.

Nonetheless, the potential is overwhelming.

"The future of digital distribution is probably the most exciting opportunity for filmmakers that I've ever seen come along," said Austin Harrison, a panel member and an executive producer at Santa Monica-based Hollywood Online. "It creates more opportunities for filmmakers to get their work seen, and it offers cost efficiencies when it comes to marketing."

Meanwhile, theater distribution remains the industry's brass ring. A documentary, "The Cruise," which premiered at last year's independent film festival, is considered the digital movement's biggest success story to date.

Director Bennett Miller shot the entire film without a crew, which would have been impossible using cumbersome traditional film equipment, and created an award-winning film. He got his first offer 15 minutes after screening the documentary, which Artisan later bought and released across the nation. Director Reiss hopes to replicate Miller's success.

"The stigma that used to surround shooting on tape is dropping away, both from the studios' and filmmakers' point of view," Miller said. "People are becoming blind to the technology. Now it comes down to the quality of the story told, which is the point of filmmaking in the first place."

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