Indie Film’s Not Dead

Taking the motto of the punk rock movement, Indie Film’s Not Dead.

punks-not-dead-posters

There has been a flurry of articles lately about the soon demise of Independent Film and I disagree.

WHAT IS INDEPENDENT FILM?

Indie film are films made outside the studio system.

WHAT IS THE STUDIO SYSTEM?

big six

“The Big Six” make up the studio system. They own smaller companies but they are controlled, owned and funded by the larger studio entity. The Big Six are: Paramount, Warner Brothers, Sony, Disney, Universal and Fox.

Because of this wide brush of a definition, Indie films are 75% of the movies that are released to the box office. (FYI about 600 films are released to the box office each year)

Now that’s a lot of Indie films, why is this a problem? Why aren’t Indie Films making money consistently? Because the Big Six dominate at the Box Office. Look at any week on Box Office Mojo and you’ll rarely see a non-Big Six title in the top 10. Why? Money + connections. The Big Six have the money (or at least spend the money) in the millions on advertising so you know when the next big tent-pole movie is coming out – TV, internet, Billboards, magazine, entertainment shows etc. They also have the steady connections to the theaters and the media to get their products across all platforms so you know about it and can see it not too far from your home. They over-saturate the market hoping you’ll come to the theater and see their movie opening weekend. Case-in-point Avatar. Avatar was officially budgeted at $237 million. Other estimates put the cost between $280 million and $310 million for production and at $150 million for promotion.

Robert Hardly of No Film School writes: 

For the past 30 or 40 years, independent filmmaking has sustained a viable business model, at least for the most part. Far fewer independent films were being made, and there were far fewer methods of distribution. As a result, great independent films could make their way through festivals, get picked up by distributors, and make significant theater runs, thus turning profits for all parties involved.

I disagree that Independent Filmmaking has ever been a viable business model. I was in film school just after the Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez made a splash. Here was the model as it was explained to me at UCLA and in the countless books I read.

#1 You either go to film school or you make your own damn film school. Kevin Smith got too many credit cards and made a movie, Tarantino sold scripts, Rodriguez made a ton of short films then became a lab rat to fund a feature.

#2 You make the damn movie by any means necessary and you submit it to all the high-profile festivals – Sundance, Cannes, Toronto. These aren’t cheap and yes, they were hard to get into even in their day-and-age.

#3 Right place, Right Time, Right Person. I call this the 3 miracles. If your film is selected you then hope for the right festival, and the time where no other buzz worthy movies are showing at that same time, and the right person with decision making ability see’s your film and wants to buy it.

#4 Someone buys your movie and BAM! Millions of dollars!

What part of any of this is really in your control? Unless you are putting in the money to make the movie, you don’t have control. And if you put your own money into the movie you are controlled by how much money you have to put into the movie. You can make the movie as good as you possibly can but factors of shitty sound, a poor print, a drunk actor, all this (and more) can effect the overall product. Then you have to relinquish control to festivals hope that they will accept your movie that you are paying them to consider. It’s not like the commodities market where you can by a table at a trade show (at an equal price to everyone else) and see what the public considers to be marketable and viable. The festival will determine your films worth by acceptance, screening time and location. Now, you can try to network your butt off and get the big-wigs to come to your screening but how much in control do you have them saying “yes” to your project? None.

Indie film was never a viable business model. When you look at the number of films submitted to Sundance and how many were picked up for distribution. 12,146 films were submitted in 2013.  21 were picked up for distribuition. Even if you just look at feature films, 4,044 features were submitted. That means 0.5% of the feature films submitted got distribution…And you’re paying for this “opportunity!”

Manohla Dargis in an article from the New York Times says:

There are, bluntly, too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies pouring into theaters, distracting the entertainment media and, more important, overwhelming the audience. Dumping “product” into theaters week after week damages an already fragile cinematic ecosystem.

Indie films are not damaging the cinematic ecosystem. The film business of spending millions of dollars on ridiculous sequels and remakes and lack-luster story lines is what’s ruining the film business. Add to that, I need to take out a loan to take my family just to go to the theater when I can buy the damn thing for 1/3 the price on Blu-ray and see it large-and-in-charge in my living room in just a few months OR wait just a few more months and see it on Netflix for a subscriber fee that I’m paying for regardless.

The way we watch movies and the way we value entertainment has changed. We have WAY more things to distract us now and quiet simply the film business doesn’t know how to deal with that. They don’t like the fact that it takes so much money to move the needle and get eyeballs. They want their 1950’s way of filmmaking and theater go-ers back. A time where the ONLY way to see a movie was in a theater. Many of the studios owned theater chains. Later there was movies of the week on TV. There was no home video market until the 1980’s. The video rental boom was fantastic for studio’s. A new release of a VHS was priced at $100 a copy for 6-9 months and retail stores filled their shelves with new releases to rent them out a few bucks a pop. Studio’s didn’t have to care on how many rentals (eyeballs) they just needed to care on how much buzz there would be for a certain title to get rental houses to buy lots of copies to fill demand. The sell-though market was the last ditch effort to make money on a title. They marketed as “you want to own this piece of history” and Disney titles and limited releases of Star Wars collections sold very well.

Where studio’s went wrong was DVD. I worked in one of the first dozen test stores for DVD’s. I went to a meeting at Warner Brothers where Toshibia showed us what this new technology could do and how the store I worked at (Suncoast) could sell this to people. When it was determined that DVD’s would be released in a higher quality than VHS and be at a price point that was attractive to consumers 6-9 months after a theater release, I knew it would be the end of the rental market. Why would you rent when you could buy a higher quality the same day?

What I expected was that it would be a bigger gap between theater and DVD release. Instead it got shorter. Studio’s wanted to capitalize on the existing buzz they created for the theatrical showing and get more of a bang-for-their-buck and release times got shorter. Making me wonder – why go see it in the theater when I can own it in just a few months. This is killing the theater market, just as it killed the rental market.

So what the studio’s did by embracing DVD is cut out the need for Indie filmmakers to have to have a theater run or a rental run – the two hardest and expensive damn things to get. Do they still want it? Oh course because it comes with prestige and idea of fortune and glory but without a promotional campaign behind it, it’s just a lot of money spent.

Enter DVD sales and the internet.

DVD was cheep to make from the start (don’t let them fool you.) The machines were priced expensive but once bought, the materials and the cost per item was less than $1 and they could sell them for $25-$30 each easily. They paid for themselves quickly and that was the idea. Buy lots of machines at once “because you’re gonna need them.” Oh and who owned the technology again, Toshiba and Warner Brothers, that’s right.

Once filmmakers got their hands on making their own DVD’s they had control of selling their own product, or at the very least showing other people their product.

Another way to show people their product was the Internet. A wonderful highway of information for short films, feature films, fan films – there is and was no limit and the gate keepers were gone. 

I would like to believe (to paraphase Jurassic Park) Filmmakers find a way.

Talk to a filmmaker, any filmmaker and ask them if they were ever told that they can’t make a movie; that they can’t have success at it.

DVD, the Internet, and low cost technology gave them a way to tell their story. The stories that studio’s don’t tell because they won’t fit into their tired formula to make billions.

We can’t move backwards. we can only move forward and that means get back to basics, like Indie filmmakers have been doing – tell a memorable story.

That’s where filmmaking came from in the first place. We went from acting out plays on stages to acting out plays in front of a moving camera. We learned to cut out the boring bits (well, some of us) and enhance a narrative by using visuals.

Ever play with an infant and notice her watching you, studying you, trying to figure you out? We never stop that as adults, we study people. We watch others navigate the world so that we can choose to make those same steps or try a new path. Movies are a way of placing yourself in a situation that you might never get the opportunity to explore. For two hours you can feel like you are part of a team of Avengers and save New York City without ever getting hurt, you can take the punches with Rocky and leave without ever having a bruise, you can even imagine what it was like to sit with Rosa Parks. Movies are a way of studying what it means to be human.

So it’s hard for Indie filmmakers to make millions. SO WHAT?! If that’s what you got into this business for please, go be a lawyer, agent or get a real skill and be doctor or an engineer. If you’re in Indie filmmaking it’s because you want to tell a visual story. Your story, and you want to tell it your way. And if that scares the Big Six, screw ‘um, they created this mess, it’s up to the indie filmmakers to show them what the public really wants to see. People want to see a variety of stories and they don’t want to pay a ton of money to do it. In fact they’d love to pay nothing. And that’s what happening. There is a plethora of free (or the illusion of free) entertainment that fulfills that human need to study people.

So really people haven’t changed, their opportunities and their access to free/cheep entertainment has changed.

Indie film won’t die, there will be even more of it!

Until.

Until our artists need to make a steady buck. And there’s the rub.

My dad always sums up entertainment this way. “It’s a want, not a need.” People will pay a lot of money for what they need – food, shelter, education, transportation. But they will only pay the minimum for something they want.”

That’s the real problem we are facing.

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One thought on “Indie Film’s Not Dead

  1. Vish says:

    It’s funny that you said if you want millions go get a real skill and be an engineer. I am an engineer and while we make 6 figs we don’t make millions. I got into engineering because I like making things. Of all the professions it’s the most creative, and visually so. But, I have always been a storyteller by design. That role has been in my family for generations, perhaps even back to tribal days. Thus, filmmaking is a logical evolution for me as a storyteller and a maker/engineer. Most people don’t understand this, but most people suppress the idea of being multi-dimensional. Regardless, it is totally possible, though rare, to be both an engineer and a filmmaker. In fact, I submit that it is only because of my profession that I can sustain my passionate addiction to filmmaking. The reality is that VOD is not viable as a model for sustaining filmmakers. SVOD is the main model and ad supported is the alternative, neither of which pay filmmakers very much. The alternative is to raise enough to make your money on the way in. Soft money and asset back securitization via. bonding and MG’s are hard to get and require much larger budgets. With the film tech as affordable and powerful as it is now it doesn’t even make sense to pursue the soft money/asset backed strategy unless you are a seasoned producer with major attachments. So most of us are unlikely to raise enough to make our money on the way in. Even crowdfunding is overhyped. Most films don’t get successfully crowdfunded and those that do average around $16K. With budgets like that there is no money to make upfront.

    So there’s no money in indie film, how is it sustainable? It isn’t! Most of us do it because we are compelled to, like most artists. And, like most art forms only the cream rises up. From a production standpoint it’s 1 million monkeys. Any amateur with a cheap camera can and will try to make a film, but very few of those amateur efforts will be of any merit and thankfully most will be discouraged from trying again. But, indie film seems to be headed in a direction where lots of it will be made and released online for little more than bragging rights. Personally, I’ve released 2 films online (one with a distributor), both of which did will on the festival circuit. Sales haven’t been that great, but the minute I let one of those films go for free on youtube I saw the power that film still has. It finds it’s audience dynamically and garners large numbers of eyeballs who give eager feedback. If only youtube could monetize these films with higher CPM rates we could actually see pipeline of monetization come into focus. But, until that happens my next film will be kept off the web. I love the live screening process and intend to explore that for a while. During that time it will be back to engineering to fund this addiction. They say things are cyclical, though I’m not sure that applies to tech, but culturally speaking. So I think culture will move away from tentpole films and back to indies for a while at some point in the future. If we keep making these films I believe some of us will finally get recognized at large.

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