“I can’t talk about the ‘crisis’ of the indie film industry. There is no crisis,” began Ted Hope‘s Saturday morning Film Independent Filmmaker Forum keynote speech at the DGA in Los Angeles. With those words, Hope acknowledged the elephant in the room, then proceeded to have it forcefully escorted from the auditorium.
The elephant, of course, was Mark Gill‘s infamous “Yes, The Sky Really is Falling” speech, delivered three months prior at FIND’s Film Financing Conference, which kicked off the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival.
The ripple effects of Gill’s speech can’t be overestimated. Virtually every panel and speaker during the two-day Filmmaker Forum addressed the perceived doomsday prophecy, beginning with Hope, who spoke optimistically of a “truly free filmmaker” who must “choose whether we decide for ourselves whether a film is worthwhile or whether we let those same corporations decide” and stressed that the existing corporate business model for independent films has never properly served “the films that filmmakers want to make.”
Hope, the producer of films like “Happiness,” “American Splendor,” and the recent “Towelhead,” made the point that net neutrality is one of the key issues affecting independent film, and it is a timely issue–one of the Presidential candidates is for it, while the other is not. The producer elaborated by comparing net neutrality–an issue of equal access–to the MPAA’s screener ban five years ago (which Hope led the charge in opposing).
“Knowledge is power,” said Hope. “And not ownership.”
Other producers and filmmakers echoed Hope’s sentiments about the near-extinct Indiewood distributors and the need for new, bold forms of distribution. With the growth of online viewing and VOD, the collapse of the mini-majors seemed to be inevitable in the eyes of many Forum participants. The message seemed clear: specialty units at studios have been, in the words of Overture Films‘ Danny Rossett, “looking for a growth rate that isn’t sustainable.”
In speaking about those same distributors, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, Sasha Gervasi (“Anvil! The Story of Anvil“) put it bluntly: “They’re dinosaurs treading the earth.”
On a panel specifically addressing the Gill speech (moderated by Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson, and including Steve Golin of Anonymous Content, UTA‘s Richard Klubeck, Rossett, producer Ron Yerxa, and David Lynch‘s longtime producer, Mary Sweeney), Seth Willenson, an independent consultant with a career in the film industry going back almost 40 years, offered another perspective:
“Sony Pictures Classics doesn’t feel that the sky is falling. They just don’t have the money to finance your film stupidly.”
Now, what about the future?
“We’re living testament to how much fat there is in the system,” said producer Jody Savin, whose self-distributed “Bottle Shock” has been one of the financial success stories of 2008. Various marketing and distribution gurus have helped bring the film to over 1000 screens, using unique tactics, like organizing event-based screenings with various wine organizations.
Randall Miller, the director/producer of “Bottle Shock” (and Savin’s husband), offered this example of his commitment to his film: “I was with the guy who hung our massive billboard next to the 405, which gets seen by thousands of people each morning. The day before, I bought that guy a sandwich at Vons.”
Lance Hammer, an alumnus of the Film Independent screenwriters and producers labs, though not present, was a frequent topic of conversation. His Sundance award-winner, “Ballast,” will be self-released, opening October 1st at New York’s Film Forum. Though the film gained distribution with IFC, Hammer ultimately opted to distribute it himself–with the help of industry veterans like Steven Raphael. Many people are looking to the festival darling as a bellwether for independent distribution.
VOD came up quite a bit, and producer Jason Weiss, whose film “Humboldt County,” which premiered at SXSW and was picked up by Magnolia Pictures, has worked with the innovative distributor as his film appeared on VOD several weeks before it was released in theaters (and was shown for free on HDNet two days before its theatrical opening around the Pacific northwest and in Austin). Weiss mentioned that the VOD numbers would not be known for three or four months, though.
The Demi Moore/Michael Caine heist film “Flawless” was mentioned a number of times as a VOD success story, having made around six million dollars that way–before a small theatrical release that earned it another 1.2 million dollars.
With a 700 billion dollar Wall Street bailout plan being voted on by both houses of Congress this week, the economic crisis was on everyone’s mind.
On a micro-budget filmmaking panel, Brett Spackman, the producer of the border smuggling film “Coyote” (which recently played at LAFF), offered this story about his film’s casting process: “We got a lot of our cast from Home Depot. They’re day laborers. We paid them their rates.”
Jay Duplass (director of “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead“) chimed in, “Home Depot: go there for all your equipment–and casting–needs.”
When asked to define micro-budget filmmaking, Duplass said, “A micro-budget movie is one where if it fails, or sucks, you don’t cry. Or don’t not make another film.”
But even a micro-budget film requires a budget, and most of the directors on the panel self-financed their films or received financing from family and friends. Azazel Jacobs, director of the currently in-theaters “Momma’s Man,” said, “If you ask people for money you have to be prepared for things to get weird.”
Mary Sweeney, who has produced every David Lynch film since “Lost Highway” and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for writing the screenplay for “The Straight Story,” recently completed photography on her directorial debut, “Motel, Gas Station.” Sweeney initially budgeted the film for five million dollars, but wound up shooting it for “far south” of one million, using actors from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
“The audience is being underserved,” said Bona Fide‘s Ron Yerxa (“Election,” “Little Miss Sunshine“). He continued by talking about the need for an upheaval in the culturally flat landscape–referring to the industry-wide effects when “Easy Rider” was released–and that in discussions about a broken financing/distribution system, one must acknowledge that, “If you look at it rationally, you wouldn’t do much. You’re getting people to join you on a juggernaut of an irrational journey.”
The final panel of the Filmmaker Forum–featuring John Sloss of Cinetic Media, WMA Independent‘s Rena Ronson, Michael Lawson from mPRm, Submarine Entertainment‘s Josh Braun, and moderated by the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, Rich Raddon–discussed the trends of the 2008 festival circuit.
“If there was a flaw, it was the studios making 20 million dollar independent films,” said Ronson (whose company represented “Ballast,” “Sugar,” and “Frozen River” at Sundance ’08).
“Fox Searchlight buying a film for four million dollars can’t lose money. Video is too good,” added John Sloss. “Paramount Vantage making movies for 50 million loses money.”
All of the panelists seemed to have their eyes on the future. Sloss’s company recently hired SXSW‘s Matt Dentler at Cinetic Rights Management, which focuses on sales for digital platforms.
Josh Braun, whose Submarine Entertainment sold a number of documentary and narrative films that premiered at this past January’s Sundance (including “Baghead,” “Man on Wire,” and “The Black List“), had the closing words, which seemed to exemplify the hopeful mood of the weekend:
“Don’t be depressed. It’s not so bad. Every year there’s new films we get excited about. That’s reason to be optimistic.”
ABOUT THE WRITER: James Ponsoldt is an independent writer and filmmaker.