Monday, June 30, 2008

My Response To NY Times Article On "Independent" Film

Dear Times Business Editor,

I'm writing in response to David Carr's article "Little Movies, Big Problems" (June 30, 2008) to voice my frustration at the NY Times publication of an article about independent film that is so clearly NOT at all about independent film. The article's central voice, Mark Gill, is NOT and independent filmmaker. He is a smart and talented film executive who cares about film and makes films outside the studio mainstream. But he still makes them through a traditional studio paradigm, and therefore, is not a meaningful authority on independent film.

The perspective of the article is from that of a classic studio paradigm where success is measured in terms of commercial theatrical box office. That paradigm is indeed dead for truly independent cinema, or at least, completely irrelevant, and has been for quite some time - with the occasional media-inflated exception that then somehow becomes the expectation. That studio paradigm not only offers a very narrow conception of an independent film's financial viability, but in fact, negates the true financial health of independent film as a whole. Many truly independent filmmakers have turned completely away from the commercial theatrical paradigm because of the expense of it versus that path's potential return. Financial return flows to independent filmmakers in a multitude of other ways - festival screening fees, private theatrical screenings, retail DVD sales, foreign sales, digital downloads (although this is a nascent technology that offers very little financial return at the moment) and, most dynamically, DVD sales via the internet.

Also, to continue mentioning Sony Classics or Warner Independent - the boutique arms of major studios - as "independent' is maddeningly erroneous. Without arguing for the definition of independent - which is a great on-going argument in its own right - films produced and/or distributed through major studios are clearly not independent films. Even if the films were produced independently, when they are subsequently released by one of these boutique arms, they are then swept up into the studio marketing/distribution paradigm. And again, that is a paradigm based far too narrowly on theatrical box-office performance.

But worst of all, the ridiculous conclusion that the poor theatrical box office of independent film spells a crisis born of over-production is not just specious, it is absolutely bone-headed. It's analogous to saying that the health of the art world should be measured strictly in dollars and cents, that those dollars should only be measured in terms of gallery sales and, finally, if those sales are weak, it must be because there are too many people painting pictures. I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as the article I read was to me.

The 5,000 films made per year, to which Mr. Gill refers, do not compete for the commercial theatrical audience's attention, only the six hundred or so that actually get a commercial theatrical release. And that alone does little to measure an independent film's success. Besides being only one small, increasingly meaningless, aspect of an independent film's total financial health, it ignores all of the non-financial goals of an independent film. Now, I know this article was written for the business section, so independent film's financial viability is a key issue, but there are other goals that eventually feed into independent film's total financial picture. A lot of these 5,000 films are made by first-time filmmakers learning their craft and/or building audiences for their work. In a way, this is independent film's R&D process. And it works quite nicely in a very organic way.

So, what is the source of the crisis facing the commercial theatrical success of so-called "independent" films? There is no simple single answer - and especially not one so ridiculously off-base as there being too many films made. These days, potential audiences have a staggering array of media choices that compete with the commercial theatrical release of any film (not just independent films). Major studios have contributed to the crisis by fueling the creation of a celebrity-obsessed, event film-hungry commercial theatrical audience. And their boutique "indie" divisions themselves have further added to the problem by bidding furiously for celebrity-driven mediocrity at festivals and then dumping those films onto an unsuspecting public packaged as visionary "independent" films.

But I suspect that the biggest problem is the studio's (and their boutique's) unwillingness or inability to adapt to a radically changed distribution/marketing landscape. Chris Anderson's "long tail" theory, may be over-hyped, but it is, nonetheless, what is most applicable to independent cinema, these days. It negates the blockbuster mentality and subscribes to the idea of providing a broad spectrum of offerings to the public - a little of many things, rather than a lot of one thing. This demands marketing to niche audiences in a highly specific way, and delivering films to them in any way that best suits that audience - rather than the studio or filmmaker. Perhaps studios and boutique "indies" simply do not have the infrastructure to distribute/market films in this way. If so, then perhaps it is indeed best to leave independent cinema to truly independent filmmakers.

From my perspective, independent cinema is alive and well, both creatively and financially. And it will remain that way as long there are truly independent filmmakers who find the means to create films and the resourcefulness to connect them to an audience.


  1. J.
    Well put in a number of ways. There is a talented producer, named Marco Polo C. in Mexico City who chuckled at the Hollywood system. He laughed because it is one of the only industries where "professionals" sport a badge of honor based on how much money the film that they were "associated" with made. No restauranteur discloses to the public how much money he grossed in an effort to charm them into dining at his or her place. Instead, it is about the food! and the ambience! and the location! It is not an appeal to a false authority ($$).

    Of course, some may argue that many industries do report their financial health on Wall Street.

    Still, the stock exchange is a regulated, sanctioned, and controlled arena. This is far better than when Hollywood films announce their box office "draw" on billboards and magazine stands.

    "Making" it in the Hollywood industry has become synonymous with "winning the lottery". Maybe this is because there is no rhyme and reason to the industry - just like a lottery. There's no calculus, a lack of authority.

    I like how a marketing department will turn down a difficult sell so that they don't have to think as hard. I thought the very nature of a marketing department is to conjure up a brilliant ad campaign for things that people don't need - like Listerine did. Instead, the fat and lazy PR departments in Hollywood rely on the star system and the same late night and print press junket.

    Come on studio bosses... hire some real gun toting ad cowboys/cowgirls to do the dirty work. Don't keep hiring your nieces and nephews or a friend of your wive's hair stylist.

    By the way, people still run this industry and when you put incompetent people in leadership positions (much like our last two presidential elections) you will find that the whole team will suffer.

    Nepotism is killing our industry. Give the job and invest the money to those who are proven and deserve it.

    The star system is killing our industry. When a star can make 40 million a picture for "acting" and a teacher in the public school system can barely make 40,000 for saving children's lives - we are a poor and ridiculous society. Hell, in 2008, the top five stars probably out grossed all of the budgets of those 5000 independent films put together. Top heavy economies will always topple. The people at the bottom will be out of touch with those on the top - and those on the top will cling to their power ignoring those on the bottom. The poor will be unable to afford what the rich want to sell. Thus, these economies burn the wick at both ends, and we all know what happens then - lights out.

    sorry, now my discussion is getting larger and widening it's scope. Either way, thanks J for making us think and holding a critical discussion in defense for all Independent filmmakers.

  2. Well said Jacque and Arm, couldn't agree more with both of you. I am glad Indiewood and its crap is dead or dying. People have been making great films before Sex, Lies and Videotape, and will continue to do so. The Thinkfilms and Magnolias, and Warner "Independent" should all do the decent thing and commit harakiri. Its never been better for truly independent films. I say we should take control of not only our production but also distribution, and find our audiences and build a true community.

  3. well said. I would go further, and say we are in the middle/start of a renaissance in motion picture making. Never have the tools been so affordable, with so many able to pursue their visions out of love of the craft/art, not simply as a career move (not that their is anything wrong with getting financially rewarded, but it's secondary to the love of the craft).

    As with the music industry, distribution is opening up. A whole new world is on the horizon. How will the large studios adapt?

  4. Absolutely true. I work at Warner Bros. and I always thought that the name "Warner Independent" was the most ridiculous name they could have picked. There is nothing at all independent about Warner Bros. The biggest of the big studios.