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January 31 at 8:15am

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.

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  1. aina abiodun / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Ted–You bring up a very important point here, one I think most filmmakers are wondering about right now. Sadly, the US's (and now some European countries') lack of institutional support for artists whose commerciality does not meet the standards of the purely profit-oriented machine that constitutes the “entertainment business” means that an entire generation of film artists and their collaborators will not be able to create sustainably, as you put it. Crowdfunding as a means of continuing the work will rarely cover the full scope of a project, as exciting as it is to discover and deploy. So while it is not so much a hobby, filmmaking is certainly not much of a career for those who must earn to survive. The inevitable result, as we see in other arts, is that film will become mostly the provenance of the wealthy who can afford to do it, and the single-minded artist who accepts that sh/e doesn't get paid but does it regardless. The work will continue but those are the terms. We live in a society that does not value the role of art in evolution of culture enough to publicly support it. Fundamentally, we are dealing –along with other artists across the disciplines–with a philosophical issue that plagues the age and society in which we live. Aina (http://www.filmfuturist.com)

  2. nwrann / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    I find it difficult to accept this article at face value when just last week you were celebrating the sale of MMMM to a distributor at Sundance. What part of that sale fits into the Truly-Free-Film paradigm? What part of that sale supports your thinking that indie-film should not be a hobby? Although I question some of Kevin Smith's tactics and plans (like a $4 mil prod budget) at least he is doing something about ensuring that he has a future and direct pipeline to his fans. You could have been building that yourself. isnt that what all these blogs are about? Finding ways to save indiefilm by discovering new ways that filmmakers can directly connect with fans to sustain their work? Yet you don't practice the words that are written here and then you worry that indiefilm is a hobby and still
    Losing an unsustainable audience. Am I wrong?

  3. Ted Hope / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Hey Nwrann, I truly believe in a TrulyFreeFilm model — but it needs to be built. As a producer my responsibility is jointly to my filmmakers and investors. With MMMM the win of being with a world class distrib and bringing a large ROI can not be ignored. I also feel that as a producer it is my responsibility to both my community and industry to try to expand the possibilities for the artists, art, and business. That is what this blog is about — not about building a direct pipeline to an audience (although that is one of that strategies for building a TFFculture.
    Indie Film — the business — has always been opportunistic and entrepreneurial; as much as one has dreams and desires, you have to strike at what is best for the individual work (and it is not always the same for the community). Further, to fully practice what I preach here, I would need to abandon a great deal of the work and relationships I have already built. My dreams and desires remain to make great movies that can not be ignored, that advance both cinema, the world, and the communities I cherish — but it is rare that anyone has such opportunity. In the meantime, I move in multiple directions at once, trying to create opportunity for many as well as myself.

  4. Hue Rhodes / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    I think “by any means necessary” takes on a new meaning here. I live in Manhattan, I have a small family, and I'm a filmmaker. I wrote and directed “Saint John of Las Vegas” which was in theaters last year and of course, I cannot support myself via indie film. But what I can do is protect the imperfect circumstances that let me advance my career. I came from technology, and have gone back to it for a good chunk of my time. What that means is that I can write a feature once or twice year, vs. once every three months. It means I have to work on projects that lend themselves to short spurts. It also means I exploit social media and other technology that favors my background. My model is sports – I raced cycling competitively for years. There are people who make the Olympics and still work almost full-time. Whether or not sports is their “hobby” or not I can't say – but their level of excellence is unquestionable. In an ideal world I would only work on film. But I'm grateful to be in the business at all, and I'm happy to have a strategy that keeps me in the game.

  5. Ted Hope / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    It's a great plan Hue, and by no means does “hobby” mean we can't achieve excellence. It's always surprised me that with all the academic institutions that have film programs, how few dole out practical advice. You could be a case study! Seriously, how do we keep aiming for art in film when we can't pay the bills. It can be done, but it most likely means adjusting our lives so we can earn a steady income in a different field.

  6. Mark Savage / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    The tenor of nwrann's post made me angry because he's criticizing and questioning an aspect of Ted's business that is essential for survival. Correct me if I'm wrong, Ted, but the most telling part of your response is your statement that you “move in many directions at once, trying to create opportunity for many as well as myself.”

    Is the writer suggesting that Ted should refuse a distribution deal that increases his potential ROI simply because it doesn't fit with the writer's narrow definition of “free film”? Like all of us, Ted needs to make a living and keep his investors happy. His multiple directions clearly encompass the pursuit of traditional distribution channels and the exploration of new ones, as evidenced by this blog.

    The fact that Ted regularly contributes to and created this blog is an action that says much about his intentions. His diverse body of producing work is proof that his agenda is not a pure commercial one or anathema to the concept of film being produced and distributed freely.

    The hobby culture question is a fascinating one and it's given me much food for thought. I believe Ted is merely delivering a message that he's well qualified to deliver. I don't sense any betrayal of a free film philosophy within it.

    For me, filmmaking began as, and, to some extent, remains a hobby, even after twenty-five years of doing it. Picking up a Super-8 camera in my teenage years, I was driven by a passion to tell stories with picture and sound. That passion has never waned. I've made eight features (small and not-so small), worked for three distributors (Orion Pictures, Village Roadshow, and Absurda), and moved in multiple directions such as TV commercial direction, DP'ing reality and docos, and editing. I've met few film directors who survive purely on directing features. Perhaps .01% of directors in the world manage this.

    If a hobby is a passion, then making films is one of the toughest and most passionate hobbies in the world. It is also the passion that enables the hobby to take flight when money is scarce or non-existent. It is the passion that gets the script written before financing is sought. It is the passion that drives the project when money is not forthcoming. By necessity, we move in multiple directions in order to survive. If we only relied on directing and writing fees, we'd end up on the streets. But because we are passionate about our “hobby”, we do whatever's necessary to give our projects life. When Ted Hope sells his latest project to a traditional distributor, it puts on a smile on his investor's face and keeps other avenues (“free film” avenues, for example) open for just that little bit longer.

    I hate to say it, but most filmmakers who have not been through the process a number of times live in states of high delusion. They're under the impression that filmmaking will and should sustain them. I've seen the reality of returns versus costs and the sums aren't pretty. On top of that, we now have a market that is paying substantially less — if anything at all — for films that are costing more than ever. Production costs have not dropped to accommodate returns. This situation has further “hobby-ized” the business, but there is an upside if you face the reality.

    “Free film” , to me, has many roads out as well as in. The costs of producing films/digital stories well outside the traditional system — within a “hobby” framework — have plunged. You can buy an exceptionally good digital camera, sound gear, lighting, and edit suite for under $20K. If you work with passionate hobbyists (small crew, actors, editors, composers) whose sole desire is to make good work with the upfront understanding that there will not be substantial money to be had, the possibilities are endless.

    How is this achieved?

    You work with people who are also deriving income from multiple sources. Working on your feature in a key role is their opportunity to embrace work denied to them by current economic situations and lack of credits. You gather a passionate group and they work with you when they can. You deliberately make films with short shooting schedules so the time spent on them doesn't conflict with income-producing work.

    Although I have made films with healthy indie budgets, I will die before I let lack of funds stop me from making films. My solution has been to make three films this way in the past two years while pursuing finance and producing partners for larger projects that I can not make under a “hobby” structure.

    The indie film business has changed drastically and will change again. As filmmakers, we must continuously re-invent ourselves and re-consider the best ways to get our stories onto the screen (whatever size that screen may be).

    For most of us, filmmaking is an elaborate, challenging, demanding hobby, but when the rewards are the euphoria we feel when our stories touch hearts and minds, the process is worthwhile.

    But let's not be under the delusion that it will sustain us financially. One in a million people who jump from a plane without a parachute survive. I refuse to build my career on exceptions like that.

    In times like this, we need to find a way to fuel the craziest of hobbies. If you won't do it, don't expect anybody else to. And if that is your attitude, you're not a true filmmaker, and you'd be better off getting into a field where the money is good (like accounting or law).

  7. Hans Glickman / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    The expectation that art makes money is one pretty much restricted to filmmaking. No established poet expects to make a living selling poems. Classical musicians with astounding abilities, and tens of thousands of hours of grueling practice behind them, starting before kindergarten, can at best hope to live by giving private lessons. Most published novelists need university positions to survive – that or gainfully employed spouses.

    We could ask why indie film is generally so unprofitable and not often liked (too much art? too little art? too predictable? not predictable enough? to much intelligence? too little intelligence? a public inferior to the product? a public superior to the product?), but that's another kind of question.

  8. Last Name: Allen / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Movies are the only 'product' in America that charges the same 'ticket' price, no matter the quality or cost of production. Caddy or Kia, 'Transformers' or 'Winter's Bone,' it's $10 bucks.

    One way indie film might be helped, if not saved, would be to try and create a more relevant tiered box office pricing system that encourages wider, mainstream exhibition. AMC et al might be more willing to host more indie films at, say, $5 or $6 per ticket if it meant a sharp increase in ticket sales (which it would, since much of the indie film audience is as poor as the filmmakers,) which would also mean an increase in concession sales. Maybe a bigger piece of the pie would help, too – 60-40 to the exhibitor for indy films, lets say, instead of the reverse, as it is now for 'studio' films.

    There are other ways the indy film and the mega-exhibitors might work together to fill seats – why not a half-price coupon for an indy flick with every 'Pirates of the Caribbean Part 12' ticket purchased? Or 2-4-1 indy weekdays?

  9. Jason / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    I always compare filmmaking to real estate investing.

    In real estate, you can invest for capital gains (develop property and sell) or you can invest for cash flow (develop property and rent out.)

    For most of us, our initial concept of the indie biz was driven by a capital gains mentality. In the past, we created our titles with one question: “how am I going to sell it?”

    Now it's different.

    Now it is OK to think about each movie project as an investment for the long term. Each subsequent title properly executed, targeted and marketed is one more opportunity to add to your stream of cash.

    If you're willing to source your audience and do the work, then technology allows you to create a product and access distribution marketplaces that are non-discriminatory and well trafficked.

    Is this business guaranteed? Is any business guaranteed?

    Indie filmmaking has become a small business.

    Jason Brubaker

  10. nwrann / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Ted & Mark, thank you both for responding to my post and continuing the discussion. Both of you hit the nail on the head in illustrating the issue that I have with the contradiction between “creating a sustainable [indie] film industry” and celebrating the sales of indie films to big distro at Sundance. Both of you mention ROI and with phrases like: “the win of being with a world class distrib and bringing a large ROI can not be ignored” & “refuse a distribution deal that increases his potential ROI simply because it doesn't fit with the writer's narrow definition of “free film”?” you imply, and reveal your belief, that an ROI is not possible using a self-distrib or truly free film model.

    You state: “It is going to take a lot of thought and experimentation to get us on track towards a sustainable film industry”. The fact is that you're Old Guard and for all of the words that you post on this blog, your actions don't confirm that you believe in them. You make your movies (good movies) and sell them to traditional distributors and keep the cycle going that has existed for 3 or 4 decades. That's a process that rewards a handful of filmmakers. That's a process that is sustainable for an even smaller handful of filmmakers. And then you make this statement: “As long as we are willing to drive the transactional price point to zero, artists will not support themselves by their practice?” The 'transactional price point”?? Are you referring to the price point of selling a film to a distributor? If so, that transactional price point is already 0 for 99% of the filmmakers out there. Who is this post geared toward? that other 1%? An elite few? Is that the community you refer to which you have a responsibility? Is that the film industry that you want to sustain? Just those few people every year who actually get profitable big distro deals?

    The audience mindset is (and has been built up this way for years by Hollywood): “If it's self-distributed it must be shit.” Yet we all know that there are dozens of great films out there that get passed over for distribution every year. Every time a quality independent film makes headlines for selling to big distro the ability for other films to successfully self-distribute is damaged, it reinforces the idea that only good films go to distributors. Well what if one day a good film was self-distributed? Ed Burns helped out with “Nice Guy Johnny”. Kevin Smith will help out too. Audiences need to know that self-distributed movies are OK, selling to distributors doesn't help.

    For a few years when sales were down at Sundance et al Self-Distro was king. There were a million experts running around with all of their ideas and seminars and conferences and it was all that anyone could talk about: “Holy shit! This is the future!” Then a few sales happen at Sundance and everyone runs toward the shiny thing. Now self-distribution is out of the conversation (except for Kevin Smith) and set back another 5-10 years. True sustainability, where filmmakers (more than 1%) are able to make a living from their films as a career and not a gamble, comes from being able to confidently and consistently sell your products to your customers, rather than HOPING to be one of the select few tapped for distribution. The only way that happens is to change the audiences' (paying customers as well as exhibitors, VOD buyers, Comcast etc) mindset. Celebrating every distribution deal doesn't help.

    You say “I truly believe in a TrulyFreeFilm model — but it needs to be built.” and clearly you want it to be built by someone else, rather than you risking your ROI on it, because, let's face it, you have no faith that it would actually be profitable.

    And that is why indie film is now a hobby culture. Because there is no infrastructure developed where a producer can sell their goods directly to their customers and all revenue is based on hoping to get that big sale. That's not a business model, that's a fantasy. That's a hobby, a painted duck decoy that wins the grand prize.

  11. Mark Savage / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    nwrann, I certainly don't consider myself part of an elite, and the fact that I'm currently making films under a “hobby” structure is evidence that I do believe in direct distribution because I intend to sell and market these films via a dedicated website. There will be no middle man.

    My point about exceptions may not have been clear. Selling a film to a traditional distributor and getting a decent advance is an exceptional situation these days. As you say, most films don't go that route, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of good films get little or no distribution whatsoever. This is sad and tragic, but it's the way it is.

    Successful self distribution of a good film is inevitable, but one of the greatest challenges, amongst many, is being able to direct enough people to the on-line source/place holder of the movie. It's all very well to make your movie and create a web hub for it, but you need substantial traffic. Without the traffic, there's no money.

    Sites such as iTunes have the benefit of public awareness. People go there with the expectation that that's where the music and movies are. The downside is iTunes doesn't pay much of a cut. So you have to toss up the minuses and pluses of sharing revenue but getting traffic, or not sharing revenue and having to drive traffic (without al ot of funding to do so) yourself.

    The “Free Film” thing, to me, is a philosophy that has more to do with free-ing up the options than, literally, offering work for free. We can't do that. Besides, it's already being stolen via torrents, newsgroups, and P2P.

    The infrastructure you speak of exists in skeletal form, and it's the internet/VOD/Etc. How you “build it” is about how you learn to use it to reach your own goals. You're right, it's not a business model, but few traditional business models ever apply to the exploitation of “art”.

    Filmmaking, for the majority, is a hobby culture, and that's not surprising because its economics, even for studios, are pretty insane. But there have never been any guarantees given that filmmaking would or should sustain a filmmaker. That's not anybody's entitlement.

    But, if we're going to take money from an investor, our duty to them is to explore and exhaust the options.

    Ultimately, film investors don't just do it for the money. They wouldn't invest in films if money was the only object. There are other, more complex human reasons.


  12. nwrann / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Jason Brubaker's model is the ONLY sustainable indie film model that I have seen. Any other model is Hoping, Wishing, Fantasy.

    Film as a small business works like this: my movie costs X dollars to produce, market & Distribute. Therefore I need to sell X number of tickets, DVDs, downloads to break even.

    That's the same as a coffee shop, a tire store or a widget factory.

    Traditional indiefilm business looks like this: my movie costs X dollars to produce so I'm HOPING, WISHING, PRAYING that someone important likes it and buys it from me for X dollars.

    Which seems more like a hobby and which seems more like a career?

    This year with all the “deals” at Sundance, the people who rely on the fantasy business model are all getting excited at the possibility that they might ACTUALLY sell their film. And they might be able to get more for it. The reality though is that their film has no better chance of selling today than it did two years ago. It's still all based on a wish rather than reality. “oooh, I hope mr. Weinstein likes my movie.”

    Get real, make it a business, succeed.

  13. nwrann / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Mark, I've got news for you, if you're producing a film and selling it directly to customers you're not working under a “hobby” structure you're working as a small business. When someone invests $500,000 to open a coffee shop/roaster and sells their roasted coffee to customers we don't call them a hobbyist, do we? So why is it any different if you're doing the same thing with a different product.

    However, if you produce a film and cross your fingers that someone with deep pockets and connections drops a wad on it then you are a Producer. If nobody bites, then you're a hobbyist. That is what Ted's post is about. Those are the hobbyists that he refers to. That is the hobby culture. And he's concerned that the “transactional price” is getting lower and lower. When that transactional price sits below the break even point everyone with this Wishing business plan is a hobbyist. And guess what, that transactional price is dropping.

    Which is a major reason why NOW IS THE TIME to create that infrastructure where self-distributed film is treated with on an even playing field. What I'm talking about when I say “infrastructure” isn't just the ability to upload my film or burn DVDs and get a UPC code. There's more to it than that. There's the mindset of audience, that's part of the infrastructure. There's the mindset and policy of exhibitors whether it's Comcast, Showcase Cinemas or iTunes. Try getting access to one of those exhibitors without a middleman or without blowing all your dough on 4-walling.

    I wish you the best of luck when you put your film up for sale on your dedicated website, but like you said, it takes a herculean effort to direct people to your website. Wouldn't it be better if you could be found on a website that's already trafficked? I speak from experience when I say the MOST important thing for getting your film purchased is EASE of USE. What's easier: hearing about your movie (which means you have to reach out to the audience so they hear about it), going to your website, downloading the movie and then watching it (where? on the computer? personally I'm not a fan of that). OR How about if I turn on my TV, use my Comcast cable clicker, Scroll through, Click your movie title on the VOD menu, sit back and watch it from my couch on my big TV. I can, literally, stumble upon your movie and buy it for $3.99.

    Those gatekeepers have no reason to play with self-distributors. And every time a film gets publicity and celebrated because it was sold to a distributor the possibility of real, big self-distro gets kicked further back, because self-distributed films suck. that's what the public (audience, exhibitors) are told so that's what they believe.

    Let's call it what it is, Film is a Product and we need to stop referring to it as “art”. Sure, it's an art form and it is artistic and a great film can be art, but what we're talking about here is a product. Just the same as prints of VanGogh's Starry Night are a product.

    And when I refer to Truly Free Film I refer to Ted's Keynote here: http://letsmakebetterfilms.hop

  14. Mark Savage / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Yes, much better to put film on a website that is already heavily trafficked, but the infrastructure for that needs to be as firmly embedded as something like iTunes if producers/directors can even hope to recoup something substantial.

    Personally, I'm not a fan of downloading onto a computer, either, but the upcoming generation are. Few of them, based on those I know in that age bracket, watch films on cable or VOD. We're also fighting against a mindset that sees movies as freebies.

    There's no correct answer right now.

    The concept of using a remote cable clicker to search a menu and select a title is a workable one, but I fear that cable companies will start prioritizing Hollywood movies over indie flicks.

    The indie flicks (define indie?) need a dedicated place within the infrastructure so they won't be butting heads with the more mainstream, cash-backed releases.

    I wasn't referring to films as “art” in a literal sense and you know that; I was making a point about business models and how they're not so cut and dried with product that is a lot less tangible than coffee or car tires.

    Who is telling audiences that self-distributed films suck?

    I don't think most audience members know who the distributor even is.

  15. doghouse / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Don't bang your head, nwrann, looking for consistency. This is what happens when decent, amiable people with the best of intentions, some highly skilled at what they do (Ted would certainly have to count as one of those, no?) normalize an art form down to a transactional level. Inevitably, from that point on, most of what gets talked is nonsense.

    It should be pretty clear by now that there *is* no Truly Free Film, and no proven model to support it. The best advice anyone could give to an American who isn't admiring of the values present in American indie film and who doesn't worship at blogs like this one, is to forget the whole thing. Go into an endeavor or an art form which requires real talent, real originality of mind and real intelligence – that is, if one has real talent, originality of mind and intelligence. Or contrive to do the filmmaking on one's own, without these people, and adjust expectations accordingly (expect nothing). The notion that mature dramatic filmmaking acceptable to audiences — much less visually exciting filmmaking — doesn't require resources well beyond the personal means of most individuals is one of the more enduring Truly Free Film and indie film fantasies (or swindles, depending on how you want to look at it).

    There is, however, a bright side: if the American indie producing establishment loved you, and Sundance Labs loved you, and you accepted the greatness of your betters and never insulted anyone, and you sat in respectful silence as the New Paradigm was explained to you, and told every producer how much you “love” his or her films, and you could get through an interview with Charlie Rose without throwing a chair at his head, you'd likely never make a film worth seeing anyway – whether or not it sold at Sundance and whether or not the producers of the day wanted to work with you.

    This is a normal and typical devolution. It happens in every field – politics, banking, soybean farming, etc. Simply put, we're ruled by mediocrity. For that matter, art film peaked at least 30 years ago, and American indie film, in authentic form, didn't last 15 minutes. When Eddie Burns and Kevin Smith, 10 or 15 years later, are still being held up as models, you know that something is terribly, comically, wrong.

  16. James Fair / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Firstly I believe Ted's original post had all the hallmarks of a deliberate provocation to spark debate, and he has successfully done so, and no doubt has a grin on his face as he sees the comment posts increase.

    nwrann – your argument has validity although I genuinely believe that your position would be different if you were in Ted's shoes. I certainly wouldn't accuse him of hypocrisy on the basis that he didn't self-distro his film. Similarly, I don't believe he has sold out or contradicted himself by celebrating the deal it made. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you are arguing that he should have pursued self-distro on the basis that he advocates it upon TFF, and because he got a traditional deal it diminishes the respectability of self-distro in the audiences' mind?

    I'm not sure I agree that self-distro is a diminished product in the audiences' mind. The problem isn't the perception of self publishing anymore (Clay Shirky argues we publish then filter, not filter then publish), it's the difficulty of cutting through noise and finding good stuff. Ted's deal helps him in this respect because someone who has apparatus and systems in place to do so will propel his film in ways that self-distro won't manage. I believe you understand this, but feel that he shouldn't therefore support that system because it will damage the self-distro goal of leveling the playing field.

    However, I'm not convinced that smashing the traditional distribution model is in the self-distro's interest. Pareto's power laws still pervade in my supermarket – 20% of the shop makes 80% of the profit, and as we've seen with Borders Books, Movies and Music, carrying the 80% that makes 20% profit isn't sustainable. Therefore, I agree with Ted's post that we are hobbyists. That is until we cross over into the more lucrative side of the power law – the 1% that takes 99% of the profit. Furthermore, as someone who has successfully done so, he remains a great ambassador to have for indie filmmaking.

    If you want to smash the power law – and truly level the playing field, I believe that you are not wrestling with the audience, you are wrestling with the human condition. Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Art De Vany argued that contagion is what makes a film – “it is hard for us to accept that people do not fall in love with works of art only for their own sake, but also in order to feel that they belong to a community.”

    Reaching that community, as Ted has always said, is the goal.

  17. James Fair / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Please don't take offence doghouse, but your long-winded post argues to 'expect nothing' and offers nothing progressive to the dialogue. The cynicism is a bit pointless because being a troll on a website is certainly a lot easier than being a filmmaker. Ted and nwrann have offered interesting points and because I believe that TFF is a meliorist experiment as opposed to a utopian one, any contribution that takes us forward should be welcome.

  18. nwrann / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Welcome to the convo James,
    “Please correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you are arguing that he should have pursued self-distro on the basis that he advocates it upon TFF, and because he got a traditional deal it diminishes the respectability of self-distro in the audiences' mind?” :: I'm not arguing that Ted SHOULD or shouldn't do anything. He is free to make whatever choices he feels are best for his career, his films, and his life. I am pointing out that he does not appear to believe in a lot of the stuff posted on his own blog though. He at least doesn't believe in many of the ideas presented here (particularly the ideas presented in his TFF Keynote Speech) that he will actually act on them. I do however, believe that as long as there are celebrated distribution deals, self-distribution is diminished in the audiences mind as “not being good enough to get picked up”. and by “audience” I mean potential customers and exhibitors.

    “it's the difficulty of cutting through noise and finding good stuff” :: No difficulty there, I'll just let the distributors find the “good” stuff for me. Everything else must be garbage. There's an immediate segregation.

    “I believe you understand this, but feel that he shouldn't therefore support that system because it will damage the self-distro goal of leveling the playing field. ” :: Again, Ted can do whatever he wants to do. I don't fault him for getting a sweet distro deal, and he can and will continue to support that system. The issue that I have is that he has built up this site and a reputation around himself, with the words that he puts here: “This is where we are right now: on the verge of a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE, one that is driven by both the creators and the audiences, pulled down by the audience and not pushed onto them by those that control the apparatus and the supply. We now have the power and this remarkable tool for something different,” & “We must redesign the business structure for what the films actually are. We have to recognize that a Truly Free Film Culture is quite different from Studio Films and even different from the prestige film that the specialized distributors make” & “Presently, we are divided and conquered by a system that preys upon our dreams of success, encouraging us to squander collective progress on false hopes of personal enrichment. We follow the herd and only lead reluctantly. If we want Truly Free Films we have to stop dreaming of wealth, and take the job of building the community and support system.” ETC ETC. These, and more, are all quotes from his Keynote and every one of them rails against the current lopsided of big distro snatching up a handful of films and all others being diminished. In 2008, when nobody was buying shit at Sundance these words were a rallying cry, yet Ted continues to support this system that he preaches against. It is clear to me that he doesn't believe in the words that he has on these pages. He can support that system if he likes, the system that he so eloquently trashed in 2008 when nothing was selling.

    “as someone who has successfully done so, he remains a great ambassador to have for indie filmmaking.” :: I think he makes a great ambassador the production side of indie filmmaking. I think he has a keen eye for talent and puts together some great pictures. But it looks to me like he doesn't actually believe in any of this bullshit when it comes to the “system” or distro he supports “those that control the apparatus and the supply”. And why wouldn't he, he just got a sweet deal for his film at Sundance.

  19. bruman / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    It is the law of supply and demand, I guess. As the barrier of entry gets lower with high quality, yet inexpensive tools at hand, filmmakers at all levels and experience can make their “Indie Film”. OK, it can be a good thing. It can also dilute the market and bring down the “value” of the art form of film making. Good product, good stories and good luck will prevail, but it is getting harder to cut through the clutter. I used to blame the music video as the start of the diminution of the ability to charge a good fee or rate for production. Why? Because every kid in or out of film school was willing to work for basically nothing to do a music video, especially for lesser-known acts. The big stars could get budgets of $1 million+ for fancy videos. Then there was a huge gulf in budgets to the $2,000-10,000 video, if you were lucky to get any budget at all. Too many people willing to work for free does not bode well for an industry where there is no license to practice, just some talent, wits and a bit of luck.

  20. bruman / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    I like your idea. Although, it can be somewhat analogous to making 12 year-old Scotch. Not much return for quite a while, then things start to roll. So one must be willing to do other things until there is sufficient cash flow to sustain a living at production of indie films.

  21. Robert / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    I just returned from Sundance and feel really good about indie films. We were a winner in the Canon Behind the Still contest and to see our little film on the big screen was worth the expense. We all have full time jobs and families but still made this little movie at night and on the weekends. I am nearing retirement in my full time job with the government-turned 50 this week and we are gearing up to shoot a feature on the Canon 5D.
    I can see myself doing this 100 percent of my time in retirement as my government job was making training films, PSA'S etc i feel that the skills transferred easily into dramatic movie making. We are looking at a horror script now which I feel if we can make it correctly will have a hugh audience draw. The most useful talent a filmaker can have is getting stuff done-period!

  22. Oneworldstudios / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Interesting article, as an indie filmmaker it definitely echoes some thoughts I've had for a while but not entirely. We started our company with a borrowed camera and a dream, just like everybody else. However, we decided to make films with a very focused audience in the belief that a good film made for a hungry and socially connected group could sustain itself without traditional marketing. That first film, a feature biker doc called Choppertown (and five subsequent titles) ended up supporting us entirely for the past six years. We even started distributing other films based on what we learned. Now we are venturing into the horror genre with I Am ZoZo, the first feature to be shot with Kodak's new Super 8mm stock. While in a different genre, we still hope to maintain what we call “group core identity”. This means making the film true to the core audience first, worrying about mainstream audiences as a secondary “bonus” goal. We hope our experience translates into the new genre.

  23. doghouse / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    James, I don't know how long you've been involved in the medium, or how much you're involved today, but these preoccupations have been a daily constant for at least 20 years.

    No matter what the prevailing market conditions, which have varied greatly over this period, we in the U.S. have yet to produce a cohort of world-class and/or profitable filmmakers working in non-Hollywood idioms. If the medium has made anyone famous, it's producers – an inevitable outcome in a market-based system like ours, where getting the film made at all is the real achievement.

    If you reject this history, or believe you're not bound by it thanks to the internet or some future technology, more power to you. OTOH, if we finally came to terms with this history, we might be able to change things or at least diagnosis the condition.

    But pretending this history doesn't exist is not likely to improve either the quality or the sustainable profitability of American independent film. If that view isn't sufficiently progressive, or strikes you as the work of a troll, sorry.

  24. Mike Liuzza (cinefile.com) / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Ted, just re-adjust your value system of what success means. You're so thoughtful in so many ways, but quite often I read you and it seems clear a part of you cannot disconnect from an older model, or from the past in a way that will help you visualize the future.

  25. Jason Brubaker / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Nwrann – Thanks for the response.

    Maybe it's a crazy notion to think this is the best time to make movies. But in the past, inaccessible distribution prevented us from actually making filmmaking a viable business. Now that we have a path to our audience without a middle-man, it's time for filmmakers to take action!

    Jason Brubaker

  26. James Fair / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    I would subscribe in part to your version of the history, but don't see the point in quoting a history when the future can be completely different. That's the whole point of a paradigm shift and the point of what Ted is exploring here. You're effectively saying “new technology but same old shit” and don't believe that a cohort of world-class and/or profitable filmmakers working outside of Hollywood idiom can exist – you most likely won't believe it until you see it. The problem is, by the time you are seeing it, you are too late to take advantage of it.

    The web is full of amateurs that can collectively fail a whole number of times until a pattern of success can be accumulated from the collective mass. A website like this charts the various different experiments that people are taking and enables us to benefit from the cumulative thought.

    My own experience is quite limited, but I recently made a feature film that got into the Audience Top 10 at the 59th Melbourne International Film Festival that used wiki-production techniques, methods that I had experimented with whilst studying film history at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in university.

  27. Ted Hope / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Do tell, Mike. I want to hear, understand, and learn. Help me visualize the future. That is another reason I started the blog and maintain it — I need others' help to visualize the future. Success for me is being able to do the things that I love. I want to make films and I want people to see them. I hope that they connect with people and inspire them into action of a positive form. I have made my home in NYC and now do not want to leave it, but as it is the most expensive city to live in, it requires I do things that allow me to afford to live here. I know that living here is not everyone's idea of success but to know that I could do that happily while making the sort of films I aspire to for the rest of my life would truly be success.

  28. Josephbargdill / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    The Indie market lacks in profit, because it doesn't follow what audiences want. It is a battle of creative art vs. “do I want to make money” Those two are like water and oil. Look into the young generation and what they want to watch, how they have moved back to graphic novels and youtube webseries. They are oblivious to pop culture that has anything to do with 20 years ago. Now understand what big studios do that grinds my gears. repeating the same crap from 20 years ago or doing a repetative series tent poles. The actual stories put out by major studios have so many holes and is not interesting to the younger crowed and now upsets anybody with knowledge of the last 20 years. Everything is recycled because the major studios does not want to invest in a risk.
    How can an indie film producer expect to make income? Start looking at the trends of what people now are watching, develop a story from the shirt tails of their likes, invest in low budget acting, because now it doesn't matter with the web series that are being developed. the younger generation does not care about the A list prick actor that they have no connection with. The other thing is that many producers do not understand with todays technology all equipment can be purchased between 5-10k and I'm including editing equipment and production equipment with same visual quality as major studios and networks. Being technically savy is also the next step for an individual wanting to shoot a indie film, not just wanting to tell a story and then relying on paying for equipment you don't know much about or having some one operate the equipment who will charge you arm and leg.

  29. sandra / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Hi,Mike! Thank you for the article! It's wonderful, I suppose! I completely agree with all you've said above. I recently saw Indie film “DID I SAY THOUSAND ISLAND?” it shows that you don't need a multi-million dollar budget to tell your story. you should see it. on http://www.torrentoff.com this movie in good quality

  30. Screenwriting from Iowa / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    “When I was writing Finding Forrester, I was writing it as a hobby.”
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  31. Bill Grundy / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Indie Film has always been hobby culture! Now we get to see the cream rise to the top. Those who have passion will continue to make films and will find a way to get them made. Those who want to make a living will find new careers. The more things change the more things stay the same.

  32. Sir / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    A worthy view, but how the hell are us filmmakers supposed to sell tickets and DVDs and downloads?

  33. Sir / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    Unless we become producers and big-time marketers ourselves, but that would be ridiculous, wouldn't it?

  34. nwrann / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    More ridiculous than wasting tens of thousands of dollars on a movie and hoping, wishing and praying that someone likes it enough to spend tens of thousands (or hundreds or millions) of dollars on it?

  35. nwrann / Jan 31 at 8:15am

    If you have the answer to that question you will be a very successful filmmaker. 

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