Eager filmmakers, journalists, and fans from around the world are now in Park City, Utah, for this country's best known film festival: Sundance. A testament to the commitment of Robert Redford and long the launching pad for independent films, Sundance also marks an unofficial start to the New Year for film, and provides clear proof of the medium’s popularity. It also has set off a debate about whether the profusion of filmmaking (or at least of films shoe-horning their way into theaters) is a positive trend.
The New York Times' influential film critic Manohla Dargis argues that it is not; her recent piece has sparked both agreement and outrage. (We found responses by Anne Thompson and Thom Powers to be particularly valuable.) But as film producers and founders of SnagFilms – a digital platform dedicated to bringing great films and journalism to fans and the industry – we think Ms. Dargis’s criticism and some of the ensuing conversation largely misses the point.
In a society where images now have a greater cultural impact than words, the number of aspiring independent filmmakers continues to grow. Sundance submissions have grown from 9816 in four years ago to 12,218 this year, while the number of acceptances has stayed flat; Ted Leonsis has pointed out that it is easier for your child to be accepted at Harvard than for your film to be selected for Sundance.
Clearly, more films don’t necessarily mean better films. Manohla Dargis takes this argument a step further, asserting, "There are too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies" for audiences to sift through. Ms. Dargis proposes that fewer films should be bought and theatrically released, and inferentially at least, that fewer films should be made. Here, Ms. Dargis is like the legendary King Canute, trying to order back the tide. The wave of films made each year will continue to rise; the real challenge that the industry now faces is how to connect each film to its maximum interested audience.
Ms. Dargis proposes three arguments. First, she believes that the New York Times's policy of reviewing all New York theatrical openings wastes critics' time on mediocre films. She then argues that the majority of the 900 films reviewed in 2013 should not have been released in theaters, but instead should have gone straight to on-demand services where they likely will earn the majority of their revenue. Finally, Ms. Dargis argues that the poor theatrical performances of independent films prove market oversaturation, and that the studios have inevitably gobbled up the best of the indie lot.
We think Ms. Dargis is peering
through the wrong end of the telescope.
She overlooks the inevitability that more films will continue to be
released due to three factors. First,
both cameras and editing software will follow Moore's Law, and become
increasingly sophisticated and relentlessly less expensive, allowing an easier
path for more people to become visual storytellers. Second, that process is accelerating
globally, and the various factors shrinking our world also mean that audiences
are increasingly welcoming content made well beyond one's home country's
borders – a global audience that filmmakers can reach via the web in seconds.
It is no wonder that at this years Sundance Festival, there were more international film entries for the feature film competition than from the U.S. And third, the moving image dominates modern culture. We live in a society where more time is spent viewing than reading, and there is a belief that anyone can make a movie. Technology has made that belief a reality.