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by Ted Leonsis and Rick Allen
January 18, 2014 10:35 AM
8 Comments
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Embrace The Onslaught: How More Films Can Mean Better Viewing

Cultural Weekly's Sundance Infographic Cultural Weekly
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.
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8 Comments

  • Robert Maier | January 19, 2014 9:51 AMReply

    "Unless views are substantial, the revenue per film is modest. "
    What the heck is wrong with modest revenue?
    And I hope there will still be an audience for large screen presentations with an audience to get people away from their mind-shrinking mini-screens. I can't imagine watching a thought-provoking, life-changing film on my phone, peppered with ads for toilet paper, SUVs and watery beer.

  • jean vigo | January 18, 2014 3:15 PMReply

    Let's simplify this: look at those numbers of submissions and then look at the "acceptance" rate for features: assuming the Premieres and Spotlight films were not submitted, but handpicked by the programmers, then it's roughly 2 percent.

    That's pretty darn hair-pulling for a programming committee do get to 80 or so films in the sections from 4,000. And that's a damn tough job.

    1. It's made easier by allotting a significant amount of "acceptances" from "alumni" and the usual suspects - sepcifically certain producers who have an almost 1.000 batting average in the films they "submit."

    2. Because the selections are VERY alumni slanted (which is logical for the mission of any festival to invest in furthering the careers of its discoveries. Of course!), there is a tendency that, because these alums are indie elite (let's not kid ourselves), they will attract all the US buying activity at Sundance.

    3. Now, look at the ultimate results, once the dust settles. Reviews and responses trickle out and then barely 15 or so films a year (largely docs) actually receive the kind of accolades that jumpstart new discoveries and further careers. For every Fruitvale Station, there are 5 that go into oblivion.

    4. So, why, out of 4,000+ feature submissions and 80 or so selections - pretty insanely selective - are only a 15 or so considered "playable/watchable" (just to be pedantic about it)? Are the other 3,900 pretty awful? Because I've seen "awful" from the selections over the years.

    So, maybe the truth lies somewhere in-between. Dargis may onto something without being clear as to what she is trying to communicate. So, is Leonsis (but, let's not forget, Leonsis IS one of the wealthiest people in the US; that's an elephant you can't just dismiss, and it SHOULD play a role in the discussion of financing, distribution and monetizing of the US Indie Cinema, since he participates in it; he's no outsider 'dabbling' in it)

    What I'd like to see is the usual "alums" and "suspects" take their films and make an effort to premiere them ELSEWHERE.

    The problem is that 90 percent of buying US indies is vested in 1 festival and its programming folks. By amassing a huge behemoth of a MORE market/LESS fest atmosphere, the result is a lot of flights, bookings, hustling, and running around to make bigger mistakes in buying up lousy films. REMEMBER: the Sundance audience is mostly industry and other filmmakers, NOT your "general audience." So, therein lies the mistake. Add the fire that critics are afraid to lose their Sundance creeds by getting too critical of a lousy film….

    The producers/writers/directors/actors need to premiere films by premiering them in other fests akin to a roulette table. It will give for a better litmus test as to the possibilities of a new film and increase the chances it will succeed and not get lost. It's a good sign that SXSW has grown as a 'discovery' springboard; albeit, too long in coming, but it's here. More fests must compete for the dissemination of the "better" premieres to HELP financial success. The "group/herd mentality" for a non-profit, yet superbly oiled, marketing brand (see sponsors, photo-ops) works to a point, but it is NOT maximizing the underlying issue - pruning the best films.

    I have NO axe to grind with Sundance; far from it. It's just the age old discussion of whether it's getting too busy-business/herd-thinking, and the objective quality judgements become skewed.

    The answer: the filmmakers who 'know' a Sundance 'acceptance' is all but guaranteed NEED to PREMIERE their films at other US fests. Just because something works - like our government - doesn't mean it can't find ways to improve.

  • Film & journalism professional | January 18, 2014 1:19 PMReply

    I agree that Manohla's looking at this the wrong way, and I find a lot of strength in the arguments Ted and Rick share. However, I wish that Indiewire had asked them to follow a rule of traditional journalism: stating conflicts of interest right up front, like a vested stake in one of the content platforms being discussed. I love SnagFilms and I consider Indiewire to be a really useful news source, but I find troubling the bias against traditional exhibition and for online/VOD that seems to stem from that partnership. For instance, a recent article about VOD in which the author included a comment about how distributors are actually seeing little to no decreased cost on the exhibition end with the jump from 35mm to DCP. That's a startling fact to those who follow this story, tossed out with no attribution or further explanation, seemingly because it strengthened the case for online/VOD as the future of independent film watching. Running what is essentially an ad for Snagfilms under the guise of an editorial doesn't serve your website or your readers well.

  • Rick Allen | January 18, 2014 4:03 PM

    Your comment about an earlier statement regarding our relationship with Indiewire & SnagFilms is fair, and the fault is mine and not Indiewire's - with the disclosure of our role in SnagFilms in the second paragraph and the Indiewire ownership referenced at the end, I thought we made the conflicts clear. Based on your comment, I think I should have flagged this up front. Thanks for pointing it out, and apologies for the shortcoming.

    If we had made that point clearer, would your last sentence still hold, in your view? We certainly did not write this as an ad for SnagFilms - we were taking on a central debate in the industry now, given the Times article. We do think that digital windows for films are exciting, but that's really a secondary premise to our essential point that the production of more independent films can be a positive development for the audience and for those filmmakers.

    And I really want to register a strong disagreement with the notion that Indiewire (or for that matter, SnagFilms) is biased against traditional exhibition. The vast bulk of Indiewire's coverage is about theatrically released films. Snag has released films theatrically. Ted & I think each film should consider all release windows (although for most, theatrical release will not be financially feasible).

    One last request - can you shoot me the link to the VOD article you're referencing? I don't remember seeing it and I'd like to read it, especially in light of your criticism. You can do it here or email me to rickallen@snagfilms.com.

    Thanks, Rick

  • malodour | January 18, 2014 12:48 PMReply

    When the writers of this article start investing their own money to produce celebrity-free movies with little prospect of theatrical distribution, or they're prepared to compete in the theatrical marketplace with 10 other "indie" movies opening the same day, THEN we'll know they really believe the marketplace has an endless hunger for yet more movies and that images have far more to say than words.

    However, as long as their business model is largely parasitic -- read indiewire, you too can become a famous filmmaker -- or their business is based on a fee-for-service model, the call for ever more film production is anything but persuasive.

  • MALOUDOUR | January 18, 2014 5:54 PM

    Mr. Allen:

    Nothing is more frustrating than being preached to by billionaires, whose primary business is not making movies, and who do not invest a significant percentage of their capital into movie production, about the endless possibilities for indie film today.

    Yes, the Snagfilm partners have invested in a few films, on a philanthropic basis, but most people in this business can't incur losses and expect to keep working.

    Maybe there's a future for VOD; Snagfilm would be the expert on that question. But until Snagfilms begins financing production and making it's money back, it would seem to have little to say about the actual commercial potential of indie film, particularly at current levels of production.

  • Rick Allen | January 18, 2014 3:50 PM

    We wrote this piece to stimulate discussion. But I do wish the anonymous writer of this one had checked his facts. We've done exactly what you're calling for, although I'm not sure why it's a particular badge of honor: most recently, Ted underwrote and we have produced Lost for Life, about individuals serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. Important issue, no stars, no theatrical prospects and not commercial in aim or likely results. (the trailer is up on SnagFilms). We also produced A Fighting Chance and Kicking It, neither of which were star vehicles (you can judge for yourself - both films can be viewed at SnagFilms) all of them possible because he invested his own money in the films. And we've certainly have competed in the crowded theatrical marketplace - Ted did it when Nanking was released by Think Films over the Christmas holidays in 2007.

    Beyond that, the notion that Indiewire is parasitic, or that it's premise is that reading anything can make one a famous filmmaker is wrong on its face. And finally, there is no part of our business that operates on the fee for service model.

    One last note - we are not calling for more film production. We believe that the trends noted in the article will lead to there being an increasing volume of filmmaking - and we don't think that is a bad thing.

  • spam | January 18, 2014 12:07 PMReply

    Speaking as a viewer who does not specifically follow independent films for their own sake, a glut of them tends to devalue my estimation of them. More movies = more mediocrity, and even the good ones will get lost in the tidal wave.