Monday, December 15, 2008

From Community to Collective

For the past several months, I have been following all the trades, all the blogs, all the boards, all the magazines, and all the market studies devoted to Indie Film and all its many arms, and out of all the information out there, all of the facts, all the opinions, I've seen three quotes that sum up the three mindsets of Indie Filmmakers; "Indie Film is Dying," "Indie Film will rise again," "don't bother making films if you can't make something like The Dark Knight". Maybe it's the fact that I just finished a long stint doing basically the same thing for a distribution company (which will remain nameless because if things continue to go south there, it may be a resume killer), or the fact that I have a film shooting later this year and want to be in the know on everything as a responsible person, but I've been following and cross checking, re-referencing so much, missed so much sleep and cancelled so many dinners, I should market myself as a R&D guy for filmmakers. I have spent countless hours calling every contact I have in distribution and acquisitions to find out what festivals the companies have a presence at, what is selling, who is buying, and what is it being bought for. None-the-less, I have found some interesting results.

I recently expressed my thoughts on the matter a few weeks ago, but was unable to articulate it as well as I could have because I wrote it late in the evening during a battle with kryptonite-like insomnia. Before I spoke up again, I decided I had to become an ephemeral encyclopedia of the Indie community at large so I could better state my thoughts and understand the situation as a whole. With the community having so many arms, being so scattered and, by its very nature, so private, it is hard to gauge the full scope of events unfolding before us. There are only a few of us that have a better grasp and understanding of the situation at hand. Those of us with the drive and passion do seek out all that is in order to prevent what we fear will be the end of us as filmmakers, and thus, the end of our identity; yourself, Ted Hope and Indieoma currently being some of the few at the top of the totem.

On December 11th, Scott posted a link to Mike Curtis's blog, which had a very interesting post; "The Death of Indie as a Business Model". It was one of the better reads I've come across in the past several weeks, and in it, he address Ballast.

Ballast is a film that, among ourselves (the indie community), has met high praise and enthusiasm that I think equates the mentality of active Obama supporters in the two weeks before the election. However, it is in that "ourselves" where we become self-defeating and Kingloud's comment about it being a film that doesn't belong in theaters has a sad, sad hint of truth. We have to be honest with ourselves, most of the people that see Indie Films are those already within the Indie Community. The kids I went to High School with in Rhode Island, the people at the malls in Providence, the tourists in Times Square, or the patrons of a suburban Burger King are probably never going to know that Ballast exists, let alone see it. I asked around, this is what I found.

(Using three films as gauges; Ballast, The Squid and The Whale, Juno.)
*out of 50 people in each of the previously mentioned locations.

A) Have you heard of a film titled Ballast?
- Times Square: No – 50 / Yes – 0
- Providence Place Mall: No – 50 / Yes – 0
- Suburban BK: No – 50 / Yes - 0

B) Have you heard of a film titled The Squid and The Whale?
- Times Square: No – 45 / Yes – 5 (2 of the 5 has seen it)
- Providence Place Mall: No – 48 / Yes – 2 (Neither of the 2 saw it)
- Suburban BK: No – 50 / Yes – 0

C) Have you heard of a film titled Juno?
- Times Square: No - 3 / Yes – 47 (36 of the 47 have seen it)
- Providence Place Mall: No – 6 / Yes – 44 (40 of the 44 have seen it)
- Suburban BK: No – 5 / Yes – 45 (38 of the 45 have seen it)

(Also worth noting is that most of these people didn't know exactly what the term "Indie" means, and the most common answer was "artsy." The films most of them saw this year were; Wall-E, The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder, Wanted and Death Race.

Each of these 3 films (Ballast, The Squid and The Whale & Juno) were made with 3 very different budgets. Each had a different target audience, while still hoping for as many people to see them as possible. Juno, economically speaking, was the big winner, especially in the mainstream. Each production knew how to use the technology and resources available to them and chose what they thought would be best for their goals.

Ballast is a film of self-distribution and no high profile talent; Lance Hammer knew exactly what he was doing in that regard, and he was right, the performances are wonderful. But Kingloud's comment holds water, compared to the films that most people saw this year, Ballast, unfortunately, does not have wide appeal. However, Hammer wasn't targeting the mainstream for his film. He was completely aware of what his project was and had a pretty good idea of who his audience was going to be.

The results of the poll were even more interesting when you put them into context as to how these people know about the films they see beforehand; TV Spots and Trailers. Only about 10 out of everyone polled knew of a film related website, and the answer for that was always Rotten Tomatoes. So how can an indie film compete with the Iron Man's and Michael Clayton's?

The Indie community supports itself, but that system is starting to break down, and the community is starting to fall apart, let alone the number of people who consider themselves to be in it and (without knowing it) find themselves changing the definition of "Indie". With all of this going on, it's easy to see why a great deal of people fear that Indie is dying out. We have to fix ourselves to fix the real problems. I try to attend as many film festivals as I can, and have been doing so for the past six years or so, and I've noticed, as I'm sure we all have, a changing dynamic.

The general feeling of support and camaraderie I once saw at festivals is fading into that of self-preservation. Yes, we would all like to see our films attain somekind of recognition at festivals when we submit them, but not everyone is going to win every time. Personally, I attend festivals for two reasons; 1. To experience the films that my peers are creating and learn how they're creating them. And 2. To meet and connect with my peers. Over the past few months, people have been increasingly introverted and less conversational. One director I talked to said that he was happy he was accepted into the festival, but was pissed that this once "Indie only" festival has now begun to screen studio projects (a trend that seems to be on the rise) and he is feeling pushed out and powerless, going on to mention that the "Independent Spirit Awards" are now just the "Spirit Awards". One of the studio films submitted to the festival actually won the audience award, and after seeing the director again after the announcement, he was devastated, not because his film didn't win the audience award, but because one of his peers didn't.

Thousands of films are submitted to the bigger festivals, like Sundance, Cannes, AFI, each year, but a lot of them are just clutter deluding the pool. I've noticed that in every blog, writers have been careful not to directly "attack" such films, but its vital that we recognize them for what they are; amateur films made by amateur filmmakers with no idea of what they're doing and no competent and experienced production team. The common thought among these people is "oh, I saw Crash, I have money, I'll make a film, I have friends who have worked on a local commercial or two, they know what they're doing." And I think the reason not many address this situation is that they don't want to feel elitist, or detrimental to themselves, because when we do that, we're no better the studios holding all the strings. If the bloggers attack one indie, they attack them all. The truth is, that's not the case. We have to continually encourage those who wish to be part of our community, but we also have to help them with objectivity and honesty. "it's a great idea, Mr. New Filmmaker, but you're not going to be able to pull it off effectively if you don't have X, Y and Z, but this is how you can get it."

It is almost certainly and solely because of this increased and readily available technology that the number of films being made each year increases, which increases the submissions to festivals. The indie film community must now start to become a collective. We need start opening more lines of communication. We must find not just new ways to reach our audiences, but new ways to reach our peers. There were blogs I only recently discovered that have been around for years, but I simply didn't know of them for whatever reason, and now that I've been subscribing to them I find myself with more and more viewpoints. How do we reach more of our peers than we already do? I don't know. I don't have that answer, but I'm looking for solutions.

But what about the rise? The studios are known for not taking an interest in films without "star power" or different budget tiers and production values. But, should one make a film with known and recognizable actors, with great sound and cinematography (or at least familiar to bigger audiences; the camera work in "Blindness" and "Cloverfield" seemed to confuse and turn off a lot of people I was at the theater with) and if the film does very well at the bigger known festivals then studios and distributors have no problem buying it up. The comment made by Curtis's friend who he quoted 10 million to as a figure and retorted back 20 instead, is fairly accurate. Studios just don't make movies for less than 10 million, or at least that's how it was a year ago when I went through that ringer, I guess its 20 now, but again, if your film does well, comes with a built in audience, already has great reviews, then its feeding time at the zoo for the bigger fish.

So long as the people who make the mainstream films control the mainstream media and advertising, it will be an almost impossible task to compete. There are smaller distribution companies out there, even catering just to indie films, but its clearly not enough. We have to look at what's working, and what isn't. Filmmaker Magazine has held what I consider to be the best attempt at asking these questions in its previous issue with a roundtable consisting of several filmmakers, and Ted Hope posted a video of a discussion about DIY. These are wonderful steps in the right direction. We're starting to see people form a collaborative whether they know it or not. I'm not saying the indie community all needs to gather in a circle, hold hands and divide up the work they get (that would actually be counterproductive) I'm saying that the current indie distributors and the indie filmmakers need to put personal goals aside for a short time and start working with each other to generate more ideas and do more analysis.

Sure, in some way we are all competing with one another, but we can't afford to ignore each other either. We can sit at a table, say our hellos, give updates on what we're doing, and yes, it is a very big step in the right direction, but we need to reach out to each other independently of pre-arranged discussions. We need to start to engage each other again at festivals. We need to comment on the blogs of our peers, offer thoughts to those who have questions; we have to police ourselves, because if we don't, the bigger fish will.

It helps to have a marketing plan and know who your audience is. One thing I'm surprised I don't see more filmmakers doing is finding somekind of social or awareness that is somehow connected or has something in common with one of the characters or themes in their projects. We know that if the film is decent enough, it does work, there is evidence all over the place; the most recent example being The Visitor, which reached out to a few groups dealing with amnesty and immigration. And as far as an audience is concerned, how Hustwit dealt with Helvetica, screening it with Design firms and schools for input and reception, that's a shining example of how to do it yourself. The film is on Blu-Ray, how many Indies can say the same? The most unfortunate thing, in my eyes, is that some filmmakers don't know the scope of their project, don't know what it is they really have, and that's a hard thing to do for most of us anyway, but if we really put the time and effort into it, we can find a goal, and find ways to reach it, whatever it is, whether it be more star power in hopes of a wider release, or more audience engaging content to stick to just a niche.

No matter what happens, the coming months are going to be uncertain. No one, NO ONE knows how things are going to turn out, how distribution will look in 2010, how festivals will change their politics, how accolades will be given out, there's just no way to know, unless of course, we shape the course ourselves. As a group, we look at the resources we have and find someway to make them work for the whole while still preserving our integrity as separate filmmakers, and oh yeah, its gonna be hard.

Studios are always going to be around, and Indie Films are always going to be around in some for or another, what's truly at risk, is their integrity. I have been at too many a pitch sessions and meetings to ignore the fact that first time filmmakers languish in giving over some creative control to a studio to fund the film, but, from once being on the inside looking out, I can honestly say that the studios are scared to death about the future. They are constantly worrying that we as indie filmmakers will find some way to circumvent them for distribution, that films like Ballast and The Dark Knight will one day play in the same Cineplex at the same time and they only have the rights to one of them, and I do believe that day will come. I honestly do.

People like Scott Macaulay and Ted Hope are leading the charge. Filmmaker Magazine is probably the widest spread medium that covers the indie community as well as it has been. I know that they will help steer us in the right direction, and because of their passion and our peers, I feel safe enough to be brave in these tough times, safe enough to make bolder films, to be part of something that holds up a mirror to society and says "yeah, that's you". And for that I am thankful.

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