Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Ted Hope
May 6, 2013 12:14 PM
15 Comments
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Adjust Your Expectations: Ted Hope's 17 Things to Know about the Broken Film Industry

Ted Hope.
Indie producer Ted Hope, now the Director of the San Francisco Film Society, recently announced their Artist to Entrepreneur program to help filmmakers make the right choices when distributing their film online.  Part of the assumption behind the A2E program is that the distribution model today is seriously broken, so Hope took to his blog to explain to filmmakers 17 things about the film industry that all filmmakers -- of any type -- need to know about the business today.  Though many of the items on this list may seem disheartening, when taken as a whole they can be empowering for the enterprising filmmaker who can accumulate the means to produce outside of the system.

Yesterday, we launched our A2E (Artist To Entrepreneur) program at the San Francisco Film Society with OnRamp (The Direct Distribution Lab).  This is a pilot lab of a pilot program designed to give filmmakers the necessary entrepreneurial skills to achieve a sustainable creative life amidst this changing paradigm.  We will be working out some bugs but hope to launch the second iteration as soon as possible.

As part of the lab, we have a first day of big ideas and case studies that hopefully will give the participants the foundation for a design for living and thriving on their art.  As part of that I have prepared three brief lectures focused on what every filmmaker needs to recognize about the business, the culture, and their practice if they want to have a sustainable creative life.  Split between the three categories, I came up with fifty things you should know.  I will provide them to you over the next week or two, but I wish you all could have been there.   It’s always different when you are in the room.

Today, I will unleash what I think it is necessary to recognize about our industry if you are a filmmaker looking to survive from the work you generate. 

WARNING: taking any of these points out of context, could create unnecessary fear or depression. If you want to tackle reality, you need to know what ground you walk on.  Some truths are hard to accept but once you do, you can move forward and to a different place.  Adding Film Biz realities to Culture truths, and building Best Filmmaker Practices on those understandings could provide a Design For Sustainable Collective Creation.  Or at least that’s this Hope’s hope.

  1. Filmmaking is not currently a sustainable occupation for any but the very rare.  It is not enough to be very good at what you do if you want to survive by doing what you love.

  2. Presently speaking, artists & their supporters are rarely the primary financial beneficiaries of their work – if at all. Filmmakers are not sufficiently rewarded for their quality creative output under current practices.

  3. The film industry’s economic models are not based on today’s reality.  They are predicated on and remain structured upon antiquated principals of scarcity of content, centralized control of that content, and the ability to focus the majority of consumers towards that content.

  4. Film audience’s current consumption habits do not come close to matching the film industry’s production output.  America remains the top film consumption market in the world, and is thought to be able to handle only around 1% of the world annual supply – consuming somewhere between 500-600 titles of the annual output of approximate 50,000 feature films.  We make far more films than we currently know how to use or consume.  We drown our audiences in choices.

  5. The film industry has not found a way to match audiences with the content they will most likely to respond to.  It doesn’t even look like this is a priority for the business.  Everything is spaghetti against the wall, marketed in the same way & only to the most general demographics of race, gender, & income.

  6. In order to reach the people who might respond to a film, the film industry remains dependent on telling everyone (including those who could care less) about each new film.  It is a poorly allocated dedication of resources.  We spend more money telling those who will never be interested, than focusing on those who have already demonstrated support.  There is no audience aggregation platform exclusively for those who love movies, no place where all people who love movies engage deeply about films – if there was, marketing costs could shrink.

  7. Digital distribution is an emerging market and will continue to evolve over the next decade.  The value for titles for the long term has not been specified for digital distribution; currently only short term value is derived – and as a result films are licensed without full understanding of future worth.  We are doing a business of ignorance.

  8. Predictive value of films is primarily currently determined by an incredibly imprecise method:“star value”, a concept that grows less predictive by the day.  Ask anyone and they will tell you that people do not go to movies anymore to see specific stars but interesting subjects.  Granted, that is not a scientific method, but we know it to be true.

  9. The “fair market value” of a feature film’s distribution rights in the US that multiple buyers want has dropped astronomically: from 50% of negative costs 25 years ago, to 30% 15 years ago, to 25% 10 years ago, to 10% today.

  10. International territorial licensing of American independent feature films has dropped by approximately 60% over the last decade.  Major territories no longer buy product.  Most have given up on “American Indies."

  11. Everything that has ever been made, has also been copied. The logic of a business based on exclusive ownership or limited access to something can not sustain.  In the digital era the duplication of data is inevitable.  The unauthorized copy will never go away.  People can choose to try to avoid unauthorized versions but they will be made or shared.  This does not have to always be a bad thing either.

  12. Competing options for film viewing have diminished the comparative value of theatrical exhibition. A consumer can not justify the cost of a movie ticket when that ticket costs more than the cost of a month of unlimited streaming.  Home theaters’ quality surpasses many theaters, and the seats are always better.  Soon 4K Televisions will be the norm while movie theaters are stuck in 2K.

  13. The film business lacks a long range economic model for exhibition.  What is the business of movie going? Exhibition gathers people together to sell them a 15 cent bag of popcorn for six dollars.   We can profit from a large group’s interest in more and more meaningful ways, but the infrastructure is not yet designed to expolit this.

  14. The film industry foolishly rewards quantity over quality.  Producers are incentivized to forever take on more and the films’ quality suffers as a result.  The best work is not rewarded.  Once upon a time, filmmakers got overhead deals and that made some difference, but those days are long gone.

  15. Movies have a unique capacity to create empathy for people and actions we don’t know or have not experienced.  Science has shown that the imagined releases a similar chemical response to the actual experience.  If this empathic experience is virtually unique to film, can it be utilized more?  I think so, tremendously so in fact.

  16. Movies create a shared emotional response amongst all those that view it simultaneously.  What other product can claim that?  As a unique attribute, how can you emphasize that more?  Shouldn’t that be the takeaway that your audience remembers and shares?

  17. There has never been a better time for most creative individuals to be both a truly independent filmmaker and/or a collaborative creative person.  The barriers to entry are lower, the cost & labor time of creation & distribution are lower than ever, and there are more opportunities and methods that ever.  We just need to abandon the old ways and unearth the new ways.


What’s your response to these?  I personally think it would be great if the answer could always be: “I am going to do something about that.  And I am going to get a little help from my friends.”  Every single one of these can change; it may require a complete move from doing things the way we do them now, but they can get better.  If you want to make movies, and make your profession filmmaking, I think you will have a tremendous advantage if you recognize the world we are living in and the power you have to improve it.  I think these points are the obvious truths that we can use to drive us forward.  And there are more.


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15 Comments

  • Justin | August 14, 2013 5:41 PMReply

    I completely agree. It's only for the elite and the rest of the "lucky ones" will get to do some crappy job on a reality show for 8 weeks and then be back on unemployment. Also I don't see this changing any time soon because these big huge stupid comic book movies continue to make tons of money. Until indies make alot from digital distribution then they won't even get the major distributors attention. I think I've got to look into other fields and mediums.

  • Kristian | July 30, 2013 1:39 PMReply

    A bunch of great insights into what is going on with film distribution for sure but as one comment explained the creme does rise. I just don't believe that there are films worthy of attention that are not getting it. That as indie filmmakers there are even hundreds of great works sitting in closets or on the shelf because the industry does not care. I don't believe this to be true. I believe all you have to do is make a great film and you will leap the log jam, it happens every year. If that doesn't get you running in your dream direction, make a another. And really what is the the log jam made of? How many jewels from any genre are floating there sight unseen. People need to understand that we all can't be in the NBA, I am not even talking about a star, just a player that contributes and gets paid decent. Most should not be filmmakers or content creators, and until the technology was made so cheap, less of us could think we were, therefore that log jam was not so dense.

  • Kristian | July 30, 2013 1:38 PMReply

    A bunch of great insights into what is going on with film distribution for sure but as one comment explained the creme does rise. I just don't believe that there are films worthy of attention that are not getting it. That as indie filmmakers there are even hundreds of great works sitting in closets or on the shelf because the industry does not care. I don't believe this to be true. I believe all you have to do is make a great film and you will leap the log jam, it happens every year. If that doesn't get you running in your dream direction, make a another. And really what is the the log jam made of? How many jewels from any genre are floating there sight unseen. People need to understand that we all can't be in the NBA, I am not even talking about a star, just a player that contributes and gets paid decent. Most should not be filmmakers or content creators, and until the technology was made so cheap, less of us could think we were, therefore that log jam was not so dense.

  • Kristian | July 30, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    A bunch of great insights into what is going on with film distribution for sure but as one comment explained the creme does rise. I just don't believe that there are films worthy of attention that are not getting it. That as indie filmmakers there are even hundreds of great works sitting in closets or on the shelf because the industry does not care. I don't believe this to be true. I believe all you have to do is make a great film and you will leap the log jam, it happens every year. If that doesn't get you running in your dream direction, make a another. And really what is the the log jam made of? How many jewels from any genre are floating there sight unseen. People need to understand that we all can't be in the NBA, I am not even talking about a star, just a player that contributes and gets paid decent. Most should not be filmmakers or content creators, and until the technology was made so cheap, less of us could think we were, therefore that log jam was not so dense.

  • Kristian | July 30, 2013 1:37 PMReply

    A bunch of great insights into what is going on with film distribution for sure but as one comment explained the creme does rise. I just don't believe that there are films worthy of attention that are not getting it. That as indie filmmakers there are even hundreds of great works sitting in closets or on the shelf because the industry does not care. I don't believe this to be true. I believe all you have to do is make a great film and you will leap the log jam, it happens every year. If that doesn't get you running in your dream direction, make a another. And really what is the the log jam made of? How many jewels from any genre are floating there sight unseen. People need to understand that we all can't be in the NBA, I am not even talking about a star, just a player that contributes and gets paid decent. Most should not be filmmakers or content creators, and until the technology was made so cheap, less of us could think we were, therefore that log jam was not so dense.

  • Steve | May 12, 2013 12:36 PMReply

    These things have always been true in the performing arts... And now it's happening to film in the digital age... Sure, great change is underway. But it'll all sort itself out. It will become a different kind of business once again.

  • Laurie Kirby | May 11, 2013 4:01 PMReply

    All points are valid and with long-tail, the splintering of all interests (be it sports, music, politics-you get the point) will continue to foster a more fractionalized society. That is a reality we cannot avoid. As the number of filmmakers grow, and the attenuate methods of marketing & distribution, so do their specialized audiences. Thus, to Ted's point, it is best to harness what exists rather than fight it. That is part of the price we pay to live in a free & capitalist society. Cream will hopefully continue to rise to the top & as the divide between the rich & poor continues to grow, so will the studio film budgets (although fewer are now being made) & indie film budgets. Digital technology has leveled the playing field & increased the product so with more competitors fewer will survive and thus will be forced out of the system for lack of resources. From my little corner of the universe, I think film festivals do play a wonderful part in providing a forum for good filmmakers to have a home and a collective experience that exists no where else in society.

  • Brendan | May 10, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    Spelling was atrocious no backlight on my notebook, sorry!

  • Brendan | May 10, 2013 3:19 PMReply

    I am a consumer not a film maker. You are right it is all about subject and interest. I believe there is a huge market for content that exists outside of the current distribution models. As I sit in Africa we are monopolised into only being able to watch content on 1 satellite providers network. The licensing agreements are tied up we pay we watch. Piracy is huge. BUt only because you cannot even get decent content on iTunes. It is all old content. Something that really blew me away was a film by Stacy Powell called Boned Brigade an Autobiography. They actually used Bittorrent to promote the Movie and gave away some content and bonus material. I purchased without flinching. It isn't about price, it's about freedom to choose, and this happens in many country outside the US I am sure. I say find new channels to go direct to consumers. Stacy sent us a full rundown on progress of the making of the movie and it was a bunch of people experiencing it together, twitter blew up with praise for the Movie. So much opportunity for you guys is all I am saying.

  • Arthur Vincie | May 8, 2013 2:44 PMReply

    This is a very thought-provoking and useful list. There are a few ways "out" of this that immediately come to mind, and that are being practiced already:
    1. Work on other people's films besides your own! Over the years, in between those rare directing jobs, I've worked as a line producer, UPM, production coordinator, electrician, PA, and in plenty of other capacities on other people's projects. You get a salary, you learn, and you contribute to others' work. Almost everyone I know in NYC wears multiple hats.
    2. Teach! You don't have to be a professor. Blog about your experiences, sit down with interns and PAs, write a book, guest lecture, show clips from your film and talk about what went wrong and what went right. This helps build and strengthen filmmaking communities.
    3. Try Other Mediums! Some of my friends compose music; others take stills; others shoot video that will become part of theater projects; others write novels. You can sustain your creativity during film career downturns, reach out to people in other arts, and grow/help others grow.
    4. Learn The Business Side. It's not always fun, but knowing what things cost, what rights and clearances are, and how to think from both a logistical and creative side, can only help you and the people who work with you.
    5. Distribution Means Going Where Your Fans Are. This is what up-and-coming rock bands have understood for decades. My horror filmmaker friends have also understood this for years. They head on roadtrips to genre festivals, conventions, bars, fan clubs - anywhere they can set up a table or a screening. They don't make a ton of money but they definitely are reaching a lot of people (how many is hard to tell, since they don't do per-screen averages at cons). Instead of selling popcorn they sell t-shirts, soundtrack CDs, DVDs and BluRays, digital copies. It doesn't look like distribution, but it certainly is - and it may even be more effective and have more long-lasting impact.

    Anyway, thought I'd share a few ideas. Thank you for posting your list and for your continued championing of indie films!

  • Marian | May 10, 2013 6:53 AM

    Arthur, I think your additions are ace and awesome. Thank you. And want to endorse your shout out to horror filmmakers; I've learned so much from the Viscera Organisation, their energy and wonderful lateral thinking.

  • Melvin Harris | May 7, 2013 8:47 PMReply

    I completely agree with all points here but would like to add that Susan Johnson is absolutely right about the crowdfunding sites!

    One is missing though. Seed and Spark is a company poised to address a great meany of these concerns.

    I do not work for them... I repeat. I DO NOT work for them, but I support them because of what they are doing for us as independent content producers. If these 17 truths are self evident, and there needs to be a new paradigm, or at least a massive shift toward modernization, companies like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and especially Seed and Spark are the ways to get there.

    We have a unique opportunity to engage directly with the consumer which is an answer to the point, "The film industry has not found a way to match audiences with the content they will most likely to respond to," and we have the responsibility to think like lean startups and create an infrastructure that can support and expand our model; These 17 points can help us make rational, intelligent decisions and find our way to solvency, or at the very least, a wider audience.

  • Deleuzean | May 6, 2013 4:42 PMReply

    This is a very interesting set of points. I want to briefly take issue, though, with, "Movies create a shared emotional response amongst all those that view it simultaneously." I think this is only partially true, and even then it is a "best case scenario." I think across the audience for the same moment of the same movie you will find a variety of emotional responses. How else can we explain how some movies are beloved by some but reviled by others? How can we account for audience responses to Antonioni's L'Avventura... "Released in 1960, the film was booed by members of the audience during its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (Antonioni and Vitti fled the theater); but after a second screening it won the Jury Prize." (Quoted from Wikipedia.) Even the same film can incite a variety of responses upon different viewings. Also: one man's trash is another man's treasure and all that. This is even more applicable to independently made movies that generally show something more personal from their makers. I guess what I'd like to interject is that maybe sometimes it's better to think about movies as purveying experiences that audiences can be invited to have unique and variable responses to, rather than pushing what I think is sort of the current marketing industry party-line of "go see movie a, b or c if you want to feel emotions x, y or z."

  • Andrew | May 6, 2013 2:13 PMReply

    "Movies create a shared emotional response amongst all those that view it simultaneously. What other product can claim that?" We should mention professional sports, live music concerts, and stage theater. There's still a ton of strategies that can cross pollinate between these products. We should identify the strengths and weaknesses in their industry and figure out how we can customize those ideas to film producing and marketing.

  • susan johnson | May 6, 2013 1:27 PMReply

    Absolutely. Which is why Kickstarter and Indiegogo are SO IMPORTANT today. Match audiences with material they are likely to respond to. Movies are unique in their ability to create a SHARED EMOTION RESPONSE - which like it or not educates. There are no overhead deals. "Fair Market Value", isn't. We have a lot of work to do...is anybody listening?