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Should We Accept That Indie Film Is Now A Hobby Culture?
By Ted Hope
I don’t intend to get down on hobbies here; I love building model rockets with my son, but I don’t harbor any fantasies about earning a living from doing it (well, I do have a plan for a BowlOfNoses Summer Camp, but…). Thing is, there once was a time when all my friends earned a living making and sharing independent features. It didn’t feel like a hobby then, but now it does. I wonder if anyone still earns a consistent living making indie films?
Okay, the sales markets of Sundance & Toronto have increased my hopes that the economic situation for filmmakers will improve and, yes, “earning a living” is a relative phrase. True, many still are paying most of their bills from working in the film biz, but I suspect that either it is at a level 50% lower than it was three years ago, or else the company that pays them is earning substantially less than they were years back and just hasn’t passed the losses on to their employees beyond staff reductions. Yes, there are still some folks who hit a vein and get a windfall, but don’t mistake that good fortune as a career. I have seen highs and lows, but I don’t see consistency any more.
It’s not all doom mind you. Some people are adapting well to the current situation, working on lower budgets, and creating a variety of forms — but the earnings are at a much different level. The need to find ways to subsidize one’s creative passions has become more urgent than ever before. Speaking fees and consultancy gigs have become a necessary part of my balance sheet. Academia is growing more appealing by the day.
People used to toss off that Indie Film was the province of the rich or the young, as a way of saying that there was no long term survival path, but that was said most frequently by those that somehow had managed to embed themselves in the process — and thus contradicting their statement by their very existence. Those days are gone though. Indie film is only a viable stopover station and then only for the young and the rich. I am at a loss of how someone can earn enough to live in NYC making the kind of movies I did for the last two decades. It requires something completely different.
I wish it was as simple as scaling down. As budgets come down so do the stories and the styles by which they are told. Miracles occur on a regular basis and we are all treated to some beautiful work, but generally speaking, we are watching Norma Desmond’s words become our reality. As Indie’s stories get really small, not only does the audience follow suit, but the hope of a recovery becomes slimmer and slimmer. Part of the appeal of cinema is that it exposes the expansive nature of our lives — and that still is hard to do on a six or five figure budget (but not impossible).
There are many reasons to think, even to believe, that there is an alternative to this dark vision. Mike Ambs was right when he mused that the short form online crowd was building their side of the bridge much faster than the indie film side. As true as that may be, it ignores the fact that that progress is rarely done professionally. Yes it is done passionately, but it still requires those so driven that they have found an alternative way to afford a creative life than financial support from the industry they focus on.
When people speak of “profit” as the holy grail when speaking of “saving” indie film, they focus on the money because they want to survive. When people choose to make indie films, I don’t think they are ever really hoping to get rich, they just want to be able to survive doing what they love. Granted, very few are willing to live at subsistence levels in order to be an artist, but they still want to make a living, and hence they need to “profit” from their work. And right now I would wager that less than one percent of those that create indie films, “profit” from their work.
What is going to happen to the swarm of experts we’ve developed over that last two decades when we ultimately accept that the business is dead? As long as we are willing to drive the transactional price point to zero, artist will not support themselves by their practice? Do you really want to earn your living exploiting those whose passion prevents them from creating consistent work? Just because some are privileged enough by their reputation or wealth to aggregate libraries not by compensating at a respectable value, but by being the only legitimate option, does that mean that they should?
It is going to take a lot of thought and experimentation to get us on track towards a sustainable film industry of diverse and ambitious work. It is going to take a lot of patience. It is going to take a lot of collaboration.