Like many an aspiring auteur, Skizz Cyzyk found his college's filmmaking tools extremely helpful. So helpful, in fact, he extended his tenure at Towson University.
"I actually went there eight years, so that I could have access to equipment," says Cyzyk, class of '92, who went on to found Baltimore's Microcinefest and is now programming manager of the Maryland Film Festival.
It was experiences like his that inspired the Creative Alliance to establish the just-opened CAmm Cage and Media Lab. True, it doesn't look like much -- a 600-square-foot piece of cavernous studio space in a reconfigured East Baltimore movie theater. But for ambitious cineastes, it could make the difference between fantasizing about a career in film and actually seeing their dreams appear onscreen.
"Had we had this all along," says Cyzyk, an early proponent of the lab, "we wouldn't have had to sneak onto college campuses to use their equipment."
Beginning this week, local filmmakers on tight budgets can take advantage of low-cost equipment and facility rentals being offered by the alliance, the performing and visual arts center in the old Patterson theater on Eastern Avenue. For $75 to $240 a day, filmmakers will be able to rent cameras; for $50 to $90, lights. And for $75, they'll be able to use on-site editing equipment, including computer software.
"We want to be of service to everyone, from weekend warriors who see filmmaking as a hobby to the kind of experimental filmmakers" coming out of the Maryland Institute College of Art and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says Kristen Anchor, director of Creative Alliance moviemakers, or CAmm. "These are people who were pretty much on their own before."
The Cage (slang for a room, traditionally encircled by steel mesh, in which film-rental equipment is stored) and Media Lab includes some $50,000 worth of equipment on the theater's second floor. There are video and more traditional film cameras, film and video projectors, boom mikes and flood lights, sound recorders and light stands.
Five computers and editing software sit on tabletops, on the edge of a roughly 15-by-25-foot open space that can be used for holding auditions or projecting the finished films. Workshops also will be offered there frequently, on topics ranging from pre-production planning to legal issues to self-distributing the finished film.
The Cage itself is up a flight of stairs from the workshop space. Although surrounded on three sides by walls, the Cage bows to tradition with the fourth wall, where the CAmm folks have installed a silver-colored chain-link fence. The effect evokes something film students have come to know over the years -- to know and sometimes fear.
"I have had plenty of experience with the 'Cage Jerk,' " Anchor says with a laugh, recalling the autocratic, grizzled, decidedly noncooperative types that have traditionally manned the cages.
"We don't want to have a conventional, elitist cage," says Phil Davis. As manager of the Cage and Media Lab, he'll be in charge of distributing the equipment. "We want to be as friendly, open and approachable as possible."
Early reviews have been positive.
"The facilities are incredible," says Matthew Porterfield, whose film Hamilton was the big hit of the 2006 Maryland Film Festival and received some glowing notices during a limited theatrical run last year in New York. "They have a lot of really nice cameras available."
Porterfield was one of about 150 people who showed up Friday night at the Creative Alliance to christen the facility. The real opening is set for tomorrow, when the first of two monthly orientation sessions is held, beginning at 7:30 p.m. (Attending one is a prerequisite for renting the equipment.) The equipment and facilities will be available beginning Friday.
"They have cameras that would really work on anything from a small music video to animation, documentary reportage, all sorts of things," says Porterfield, who shot Hamilton in his native East Baltimore using a 16 mm camera. "They have cameras that would suit any independent filmmaker, no matter what the project. You could shoot a feature on that HD [high definition] camera they have there."
Everything is designed to provide what is essentially a one-stop shop for amateur filmmakers, and not one that's limited to just material goods. Bring a lot of people together with shared interests, organizers hope, and the result will be an atmosphere of conviviality and shared expertise.
"One of the big things is not just offering technical support," says Davis, "but on top of that, the idea of being able to find people to work on your movie with you."
Until now, filmmakers who couldn't afford their own equipment -- and with good HD video cameras selling in the thousands of dollars, that includes almost everyone -- had to depend on the kindness of others. Many had to travel out of state to find a decent deal.
"For Hamilton, we ended up renting both our sound and camera packages from New York, and our lights from Pittsburgh," says Porterfield, who estimates that 10 percent of his film's $60,000 cost was taken up by equipment rentals. "Having something like this available at the time would have made a big difference."
Although enthusiasm for the new facility has been running high, Davis suspects that the true measure of success won't be realized for a while.
"We're waiting for the first film to come out where we were involved from the beginning, from preproduction through production and marketing," he says. "That's the goal. Once we get one of those, we'll know that we're headed in the right direction."
The Creative Alliance is at 3134 Eastern Ave. Equipment and facilities rentals are available to members only; annual dues start at $35; $25 for students. Information: 410-276-1651 or creativealliance.org.