Independent filmmaker Ted Hope calls filmmakers to action on the first of many disasters the New York film industry MUST pro-actively attack.
"I love New York City and hope I never have to call anywhere else my home. I am regularly reminded of all that I love about this town and the reasons why I first moved here. I never expected it to be easy to make movies here, but I did think it would be a positively progressive pursuit. Unfortunately, I am consistently reminded how all of us who make their living creating motion picture content are easily broadsided by that which we should be most cognizant of: the policies and regulations that affect our ability to earn a living (let alone create good work).
Whether on the local, state, or federal level—or simply in the standard practices in our industry or the polices of the tools (Facebook, various video posting sites, etc.) we utilize—we appear collectively to be ignorant of crucial issues until after they occur. Sometimes after-the-fact is not too late, as was evidenced over five years ago when New York producers joined together to break the MPAA’s anti-trust-violating “Screener Ban.” Yet in these harsh economic times, it is even more crucial that we are vigilant about what is going on around us, and wherever possible we must quickly join together in a unified response against those that attack our livelihood.
All New York filmmakers—and those dependent on them—got a quick lesson two weeks ago, when we learned that the New York tax credits had run out of money. It hit everyone as a shock, but did it really need to? It couldn’t have come as a surprise that $500M was gone—or that it was being spent far quicker than expected. This wasn’t some sort of Madoff swindle. It was something that was easy to calculate or predict if you knew what films and TV shows were shooting in the state. But it seems that no one was doing that calculation. I wasn’t. Our politicians evidently weren’t. And neither were our industry’s leaders, organizations, or guilds. What’s up with that?
Nonetheless, I was particularly impressed with how quickly the community responded to this problem. Derek Yip, a production accountant, authored a petition, and Alex Zablocki quickly created a Facebook community (Save New York State’s TV and Film Tax Credits), gathered over 8000 signatures and forwarded them to Governor Paterson. Unfortunately, the fact that we allowed ourselves to be in this situation in the first place gave our West Coast brethren the added impetus to finally pass some film tax credit laws of their own. Our ability to attract new productions—and all the jobs and additional revenue that come with them—has just been significantly diminished. Each passing week—as the question of whether the New York credits will even be reinstated goes unanswered—the chances of productions running away to other locales increases.
It has long been my dream to create an ultimate film love letter to this city I call home. My producing partner and I recently had the good fortune to become involved in just such a project. It covers the city and puts some of my favorite elements and dream locations on display. Just as we have started to pull it together, the tax rebates have run dry, and we now have to think of taking it to Chicago or Los Angeles or even Canada! It is a sad day in Mudville, but the tears are particularly resonant as this is neither a super low-budget nor a big studio film. The project in question is the kind of well-budgeted, specialized film geared towards an international audience that I pursue. It is the kind of film that sells New York to the world over, all the while hopefully establishing a new group of New York filmmakers and actors that continue to bring our city residual good will. Well, it could be that kind of film, or it could do that for another city and state.
When I first decided I was going to make movies, my first decision was to move to New York City. It was the history of great New York movies by great New York directors that brought me here. The NYC culture was like honey to a bee for me. When I was about to graduate from NYU film school, I was worried about my future (oh, how little things change). I was worried if I would be able to get to make the kind of movies I wanted to. Within a two-week period, I encountered Fran McDormand and The Coen Brothers (who I realized were my neighbors), Spike Lee (promoting She's Gotta Have It in front of the theater where it would soon premiere), and Jim Jarmusch (entering the same subway that I rode daily). These shoulder brushes meant the world to me; they were the filmmakers who were making the kind of films I aspired to, and they seemed to be living lives very similar to mine. If they could make it work, maybe I could too.
I have found this city to be the greatest creative inspiration for me, but who can really afford to remain here anymore? It is expensive to live here. It is expensive to shoot here. The tax credits were the great leveler: they brought full employment to the filmmaking community, and they brought the costs of filming down for the financiers.
The cycle of each generation of NYC filmmakers recruiting the next is in jeopardy—and with that we can expect fewer films will be made in our city. Filmmakers will always be able to make the super low budget films here, but will they be able to make the ones that are decently financed enough to catapult them to the world stage? Will they even be able to afford to live here?
Those initial encounters with New York’s great new wave of filmmakers filled me with hope and kept me wed to our mean streets for several decades. I have never taken a movie to Canada (or to any location for that matter) simply to make it cheaper—only ever because the story demanded it. I steadfastly believe that local producers can make a much better movie, dollar for dollar—hell, even dollar for ninety cents!—in New York, regardless of whatever other hassles the city may require. Yet now, when we are faced with both astronomical costs of living and a thirty-percent budget discrepancy, it is not just making a movie cheaper that is the question—it is an entirely different movie one has to consider. Sadly, there is no comparison.
Where does all this leave us now? We can look at the bright side and see how fast our community responded, but we know that is not enough. We can look at the hard reality and recognize the precarious position we find ourselves in: with new competition from California and other states, and a huge shortfall in our state budget to contend with. We can look at the obvious and see the huge economic benefit the tax credits have brought the state, and just hope that this is enough to put us back on the right track. We can look at the huge residual benefits the New York film industry bestows on our city and pray that our officials reciprocate the favor. But will any of this be enough?
There is so much work to be done advocating on our industry’s behalf, and seemingly very few doing it. How can we all make part of this work part of our daily lives? How much should we rely on policy to protect and improve our industry? Surely affordable health care, education, and housing would go a long way for all of us to pursue our craft.
With the system as it is, it is a wonder we have any artists left: students graduate from college with heavy loans weighing on them and there are no jobs for them to get. They return to grad school, hoping that the employment situation will improve in two years, but they increase their debt significantly. They finish graduate school with a now-colossal debt and unable to afford health care and housing. The only sensible pursuit seems to be the high-paying gigs in finance or the corporate world. We are depleting our creative class and corresponding culture before it has had a chance to flourish.
There is nothing resembling government funding for the arts to begin to entice artists to enter the field. To compound our problems, Saturday comes along and the last thing audiences want to do is spend money on a film funded by the corporate committee hellbent on chancing last year’s hits—or made by the children of privilege who did not have the financial burden the rest of us did. These movies don’t resemble our reality. Even art film audiences feel they might as well steal a movie off the Internet, since they are forced to live out in the middle of nowhere (in the housing they can afford) and the corporations don’t see fit to offer screenings in places other than the dead center of major media markets anyway. If we don’t find a platform and delivery system to solve this dilemma, the consumer will decimate what’s left of our industry as they did the music business.
Don’t get me wrong: there are many reasons to be hopeful for the future of independent film. In fact I listed 52 of them on my TrulyFreeFilm blog at the start of the year, and have had a good number of other folks chime in with additional reasons. Nonetheless, the challenges before us are too great to ignore. Beyond the rudimentary requirements of health, housing, and education, our industry has a great deal to worry about:
-Net Neutrality—Our ability to access and distribute work and ideas, organize around it, is dependent on this core democratic principle.
-Media Consolidation—The lack of an antitrust action has created an environment that is virtually impossible to compete in.
-Labor Union Stability—The unrest of this year across the guilds has helped no one.
-Copyright Law Revision—The rules are antiquated, protecting corporate interests over the creators, while limiting the audience's access to new art forms.
-Copyright Protection—The blatant disregard for artists' rights across the Internet make a bad situation even worse.
-Government Funding For The Arts (or lack thereof)—The only work artists can expect to be compensated for are the most blatantly commercial endeavors.
-Social Network Rules—The Draconian control different networks exert over user content does not bode well for community hopes of sharing information and content.
-Data Portability—Everyone’s right to the information their work generates is a necessary principle if artists are ever going to have a direct relationship with their audiences.
-Demystification of Distribution and Exhibition Practices—The last twenty years were about demystifying the production process, but there will be no true independence unless the cycle is made complete.
-Exhibition Booking Policies and Practices Revision—Distributors require exhibitors to book on full weeks, restricting their ability to become true community centers, providing their audiences with what they want, when they want it.
-New Blood Recruitment for Distribution and Exhibition—Since virtually all of the specialized distribution and exhibition entities are run by people who came of age in the days of pure theatrical exhibition, they yearn for a return to those days and are resistant to new practices.
-Ratings Structure—The current system is not applicable to the diverse work being made today.
-Loss of Film Critics’ Old Media Platforms—Our critics were our curators, letting audiences know what to see when, and now most have been fired. Where will our new curators be found? We’ve started HammerToNail to help audiences find the best in true indie American narrative work, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
-Filmmaker Re-education for this New Media Universe—Let’s face it, we are all a bunch of Luddites. Until we recognize what tools are available and how to use them, we are depriving both ourselves and our audiences from the quality of work we all deserve.
-Creation of Indie Film Promotional Portals—How can we see good work when we don’t even know it exists?
-Broadband Availability and Strength—America lags behind the rest of the developed world not just in terms of broadband penetration, but also in the quality and level of that broadband service.
-Digital Film Archive—As more and more filmmakers move to a digital medium to both originate and finish that work, how will this work be preserved for future generations?
-Indie Film History Archive—The history and process of how this work we are now creating will be remembered will be impossible without some joint effort to preserve it.
The list goes on. The questions are: Who is going to lead? Where will the structure come from? How can we prevent disasters before they occur? And what are we going to do about it on an individual basis? It is not enough to just sign another Internet petition after the disaster strikes." —Ted Hope, February 22, 2009