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The Really Bad Things In The Indie Film Biz 2012
By Ted Hope
I can’t always be optimistic. My apologies.
I did start this HopeForFilm / TrulyFreeFilm blog in the hopes that community action could improve things for us all. My original lists of 75 problems of indie film remain relevant, alas; and with this latest addition we are almost at 100 such challenges.
But don’t be bummed, every problem is an opportunity, right? To quote the great Walt Kelly of Pogo: “We are surrounded by unsurmountable opportunities.” We just need the will, the strength, the hope, and the power to change them. 12 Steps to progress?
I admit, even blessed by my last name, even I can’t be always be optimistic, at least not if I want to also speak the truth. Sometimes throwing a brick is an act of love; you know what I mean? And granted I’ve thrown a lot of bricks at this indie film thing. What can I say? There’s a great deal really wrong with our culture these days and a hell of a lot that can hurt our business. We have to work together if we want to build it better.
Let’s get started and call these “opportunities” out (in no particular order); maybe they are not so unsurmountable after all:
- Filmmakers are unable to earn a living even when they consistently make successful films. Budgets have been dropping over the years — and fees go down with them. Movies are few and far between in terms of years for their makers and without overhead deals or teaching gigs, it’s hard for a creator to stay focused on film unless one is wealthy. And of course, net profits grow more of a joke daily (although they don’t have to).
- The acquisition price for US rights hovers around 10% of the negative costs — and no one complains. Sometimes doesn’t it seem like a cartel where all buyers got together and said “let’s just offer less”? If no one breaks rank, other than occasionally, all the buyers benefit — and the only thing that can drive things is passion — and the markets are supposed to be devoid of that. We are better than just letting a market race to the bottom. We should be able to recognize that the health of a culture is dependent on those that create and innovate being able to live a financially secure life.
- “Oops, I Farted” is the dominate “specialized” title of desire in these United States Of America. Art film be damned. The gaseous (fictional) title is courtesy of producer Mike Ryan who used it as shorthand for what he saw as most companies’ acquisition strategy: the audience-friendly falsely-transgressive youth-focused star title. Art film is dead. Distribution companies don’t just aim to give people what they want. They also lead as everyone knows that people generally like what they want (The White Hare syndrome). Where are we being led?
- This is the last year of celluloid. Here’s HwdRptr on it. What could be a better signifier of this than the fact that Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year. People are writing sad eulogies & fond remembrances. Nostalgia arrives in the same year as a passing these days.
- Although women directors proportionally make up the as many directors as men do in documentaries, they are not even close in narrative features. This is true even if the Sundance competition is proportionally represented in terms of gender for the first time ever. It sure took a long time to reach this point. And how much does anyone want to bet that it slips back fast? And what of all the festivals that are not so progressive? Sure, folks say it really needs to always just be the best films, and I am not arguing for quotas anyway, it’s just that we need to acknowledge that the system does not grant the same opportunities to everyone. And further, equal opportunity has never come close to providing equal outcome . We need to further the discussion of why there are not more women, youth, and people of color in positions of power in the entertainment industry. After all they are the top consumers; it would make sense they know better what the people really want.
- Great reviews — even in the most important newspaper in the world — have no effect. It used to be that indie & art film was good business because it was completely review driven. You did not need to do much advertising if the critics gave you love. Those days are dead and gone. Two films I produced this year, DARK HORSE and STARLET got excellent NY Times reviews, but fat lot it did them. DARK HORSE even hit the trifecta with awesome reviews in the New Yorker and New York Magazine (Time and LA Times too), but fat lot of good that did. Granted there are many factors to a film’s lack of real cultural impact, but still: it once was that reviews like those films were worth a huge weight in gold. And not they are not. Critics were once our guide through the cultural landscape — and that is how we selected our films. Maybe it is time for a change, but for now we not only haven’t found it, but losing what we once had makes it even harder to distribute what once was recognized as quality.
- The NY Times and others are going after the film and television tax credits. These tax credits create jobs and spread wealth. These tax credits keep our #2 national industry afloat. Film is a migratory industry and these jobs will flea if they suspect tax policy is not stable. When the press goes after something in such a one-sided fashion, we have to wonder what really is afoot. Further, we have to start to get serious about combatting such wrong-headiness. We need to truly quantify the spend nationally in indie film. If anyone wants to help fund this effort, I would love to undertake it at the San Francicso Film Society (hint, hint). For more on this, see #13 below…
- People don’t go to the movies anymore — particularly young ones. My tale of my 12 year old son (“I don’t like movies, although I love many that I have seen”) got quoted globally. Sure, I need the statistics to back this up, and I hope you send them to me, but we all recognize that youth attendance is dropping. Isn’t it time we woke up from our dream, and started making films that had real youth appeal?
- Virtual print fees suck (VPFs are how digital projectors were both financed and indie films are shut out of national chains). We had to turn down dates for DARK HORSE due to them. Sure we have a DCP but between the traditional film rentals you a pay an exhibitor and the VPF most indie films can’t expect to make money. Let’s say you pay 60% to the exhibitor and anticipate only a $2K gross. That leaves you with $800. And guess how much the VPF generally is? So you get nothing. And it is not just in the US that the structure does not work. Ditto for the UK.
- Even worse than not having any transparency in VOD numbers, there is not enough outcry about the lack of transparency in VOD numbers. How can we make all of this public?
- VOD is still treated as a second-class citizen as VOD premieres can’t get reviewed in major media outlets. I am thankful we have On Demand Weekly, but when will the major media publications get wise to it? And why is this not happening now? Is it that they fear they would then lose the advertising for the movies? Would they not be opening up a new advertising revenue source? What’s wrong with this picture?
- The US reports box-office revenue figures but not attendance. How do we know how our business is and culture is doing if we can’t get access to the numbers? When will we truly have transparency in all things? I thought information wanted to be free. We were promised jet packs.
- We have yet to begin a real effort to quantify the spend on indie film, both directly and indirectly. If we don’t harvest the data our work generates, we don’t control the power that is rightfully ours. Since the only thing that talks in this town is money, we need to be able to speak accurately about how we create jobs, benefit communities, and generate wealth.
- The Digital Disaster is digging in deep. There are many aspects of this, but we particularly bury our head in the sand when it comes to preservation of digital works. Recommended best practices for digital data is to migrate it from your drives every 3 months. If you don’t do that, you can not be assured you will have an archival quality copy. As of five years ago, very few cinema makers finished their work on celluloid — which could preserve work for over 100 years. So in the race for technology to save us, we traded 100+ years for 3 months. Hooray, right? Read this.
- To quote A.O. Scott of the NY Times: “By the end of this year, The New York Times will have reviewed more than 800 movies, establishing 2012, at least by one measure, as a new benchmark in the annals of cinematic abundance.” Grand abundance is not a bad thing; choices are wonderful when you know they are there. I even argue from a cultural point of view, this abundance is splendid. The problem is we still haven’t evolved our culture or business infrastructure to adapt for this change. We still rely on the methods of promotion, discovery, consumption, & participation that were built in the era of scarcity and control. Without pivoting our methods towards this new reality, more movies don’t get seen, more movies don’t recoup, and more frustration abounds. Items #1 & 2 on this list are a direct result of this one.
- The industry undermines the possibility of creating a sustainable investor class. We all know about the Harry Potter “net profits“. I have to admit though Napoleon Dynamite was a surprise; how can the creators only get 12.88%? Even it being legal, it’s not right. The best thing any of us can do for our industry, culture, and community is to make sure that those that create, as well as those that support them, are able to be rewarded for the work they create. We are so far away from this being a reality, yet I see and hear so little discussion about it. This should be an urgent matter on all of our leaders’ lips.
- There is not enough money to teach media literacy in the schools. We are bombarding kids with content and yet we don’t give them tools to decipher it. let alone defend themselves against it. It’s great all the conversation that Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up, but it only underlines the support we must give our children.
- Blog commenting burn-out is the law of the land. Comments were my favorite things on blogs. I used to get a lot here. Now we get “likes” and tweets. I started blogging because it seemed to me to be a community building tool. When it is one sided it is not community. Maybe it is me. Maybe I am writing in a style that no longer encourages commenting. Or maybe it is the community itself. Or maybe all the comments just end up on the facebook page. Whatever it is, it was more vibrant when people participated.
- There is so little that reads as truthful in the press. It was so refreshing to read this interview with Terry Zwigoff on The Playlist because he told it as he sees it. And that is so rare. It is a shame. Imagine a world where people recognized it was okay to share how you felt — oh what a wonderful world that would be.
- We limit culture by the limits of what we support. I got to make movies because a few folks recognized that although they didn’t personally like my films, there not only were those that did, but also that my films were furthering the cultural discussions. The success — and now necessity — of the various film support labs for screenwriters, fiction directors, and doc directors are invaluable, but they are also limiting. American documentaries are generally all social issue, personal triumph, and pop culture surveys as that is what our support structures encourage. Ditto on the fiction tale of triumph over adversity. And I love all those forms, but there is so much out there that is still being overlooked. And we even neglect the commercial forms. Where are the labs for horror films or thrillers, the genres that actually work in the marketplace? Where are those that really are trying to advance the cultural dialogue? Is there a way we can start to pivot to widen our reach? This may sound like something minor to most, but I do think we are doing our culture and community by not supporting more of what the audience wants. Can this be a symptom of the gatekeepers thinking they know best? How can we give the community a bigger say in what gets advanced?
- The bifurcation of the have and have-nots, I mean the tentpoles and passionate amateurs, has created a possibility gap. Indie film was once a farm team for the studios. David O. Russel, Ang Lee, Quentin T., Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, and many many more of our current greats all came through true indie work. The next wave is being deprived of access to all the colors on the palate. The drop out of the mid-range picture means that some of our greatest hopes for the future will never get to mix for the Atmos Sound System, will never get to play with something beyond the Cannon 5D camera, will never get the opportunity to build out a full story world architecture. We are going to limit our dreams of the future by not giving new waves of artists access to experiment with all the tools that are available.
- Narrative film, despite firmly embracing micro-budget limits, has no staged-financing structure yet implemented. Although I definitely want to do something about this, there are very little options available for filmmakers other than raising all their money upfront. Now, many may argue that is irresponsible to shoot a film without full financing in place, one only needs to look at the doc world to see the positive results from staged financing. Doc films have proportional representation in terms of gender in the directorial ranks; could this be related to staged financing? Since indie will always be an execution dependent art form, wouldn’t it make sense to have a structure that allows for proof of principal?
- Investors have nowhere to turn to get better information regarding non-traditional film investment. When they can only turn to the agencies for “expert” advice, they only get one side of the story. Yes, they can hire high-priced consultants, armed with all sorts of numbers, but where do they usually find these consultants? Why from the agencies of course! The agencies have tremendous insight for sure, just as these consultants do, but it is hard for change to take hold, when all our advice comes from the same source. Imagine if we had a real investors’ summit, led by folks outside of the business or power centers? Imagine if we had services in place to train new investors in specific areas of what might become their expertise. Imagine if we had the structures in place which allowed these same investors to collaborate across projects.
- Where are the leaders in indie film? I was very inspired by both Joana Vicente’s & Keri Putnam’s move into not-for-profit commitment. Without them taking a first step, I probably would not have been willing to put down my project-producing magic wand for a time, and focus on rebuilding infrastructure for a time. But frankly I expected many more at this point to be committed to giving more back. Those that have made a life time of non-profit counter-balance that a bit, but I expected more. I started the blog because I thought if I spoke up, others would too. There have been many positive contributions to the blog, and yes new leaders have emerged to some degree, but frankly I would have expected more producers, directors, executives, and screenwriters to step up and say that we have a tremendous opportunity before us and we best act on it or else that window will close. I still believe it to be true: if you are not on the bus, you are part of the problem. There may be 99 Problems but make it clear that you are not one.
Just remember: Lists like this only make the foolish despair. We can build it better together.
And if that is not enough to get you through the night, I did write a couple of antidotes. You can always read “The Really Good Things In The Indie Film Biz 2012“
If you want to move into the future, here are the Really Bad Things In Indie Film 2013.