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Geoff Gilmore: Evolution v. Revolution, The State of Independent Film & Festivals

Geoff Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival. Image provided by the festival

This first person article by Geoff Gilmore was first published in January, ahead of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Everyone speaks today of this being a moment for change. And yet the truth is for independent film, change has been constant. As the Director of the Sundance Film Festival over (nearly) the last two decades, I've witnessed an ongoing and constant evolution. Indeed every passing year has seemed to proclaim the end of an era and the beginning of a 'revolution'! And each year it seems independent filmmakers expand the realm of the possible. As viewed over an extended period of time, there certainly has been remarkable change. The numbers of films produced as compared to the mid-1990's has quintupled - there has been a complete change in the marketplace in terms of films distributed (doubled), companies competing (tripled), and the standards for success, (A million dollar gross twenty years ago vs. ten million a decade past vs. twenty-five today). Most importantly the overall visibility and significance of independent film and its players, that generation of filmmakers that produced the Coens, and Tarantino, P.T. Anderson and Todd Haynes, Errol Morris and Michael Moore and the rest have had a distinct impact on American film culture and its industry. All of these changes are significant and real.

But after thirty years of independent film, have we reached an end? Is the independent arena creatively moribund and/or has the audience itself changed either because of a generational shift or simply a transformation in public taste? Perhaps more critically, are the changes with financial or structural models that fueled the independent arena's growth now outdated or passe? For over three decades, video/DVD and cable were the revenue safety net for independent film and equity financing its fuel, and that may simply no longer be the case. So where are we now? I know most media and journalists seek definitive answers. All I know are the questions but I think they are instructive.

Perhaps I'll start with what I know best, film festivals and the business of film markets. The numbers and range of film festivals globally has grown exponentially, but in terms of the business, there really are still just a handful of festivals that service the various national and international film industries. Essentially those key film festivals e.g. Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, (and perhaps for specific arenas, Pusan, San Sebastian and Dubai), have become primarily industry events, existing as platforms for film for various and sundry purposes such as film sales, publicity, critical and jury accolades, filmmaker and talent opportunities and media exploitation etc. But when festivals are evaluated purely as markets we tend to overlook what is most crucial, the quality and inventiveness of the filmmaking and the emergence of new filmmakers, actors, writers and other creative forces.

Two years ago more films sold out of Sundance than any year since we've begun and then last year sales were less than half of that previous year. In most people's mind the films last year were at least as good, interesting and successful as the year before, if not better, yet one festival was regarded by media pundits as a success, the other as a failure. Even the idea that the performance of films in the marketplace should be regarded as part of the festival's purview suggests that the hype and buzz of festivals is of our own making. Is it? I tend to think that's not what a festival's primary mission is. That said, festivals have changed and the industry aspect of their existence is entrenched. If festivals are to remain relevant to what has always been their lifeblood (young people, new talent, and a new generation), their mission must continue to evolve. To this end they need to expand their accessibility and their creative focus and they need to take risks, to create the atmosphere for that aforementioned expansion of the sense of the possible. If festivals don't continually rethink how and what to showcase for the future, even without abandoning their traditional cultural purpose and aesthetic standards, then the festival world will go the way of the dinosaur.

But what are the possibilities for change? Are festivals healthy? Well yes and no. It's not at all clear that a new generation will embrace festival attendance and exposure in the same manner of the last generation. And as festivals have evolved, is their cultural mission dissipating in favor of more manipulated industry function? Can festivals keep their integrity and even expand their meaningfulness to a range of constituencies? As they move into the future, will cyberspace and other forms of outreach (broadcast, cable etc.) become more a part of festival events in the same way of most sporting events? Will new forms of media become a part of so-called film festivals? As always the answers will be driven by the artists but festivals have to keep their eyes and ears open to freshness and diversity. Indeed the answers to most these queries are the portrait of our future.

But what about the present state of independent film? Is the independent film arena truly struggling or are the production and distribution of independent films as difficult as they always have been and always will be? Maybe we can address this by asking several questions. First of all, there is the question of audiences - their tastes and motivations. A close second is the range the difficulties (both familiar and new) inherent in distribution. Many people say there are too many independent films produced given that the pipeline for distribution is so narrow. Even though more films are reaching the theatrical marketplace, the subsequent competition for audience and the perceived failure of many works in that theatrical arena creates an outlook that independent film is in crisis. Is it true? Again the answer is complicated.

Audiences are changing. The over thirty-audience is the target for much of the independent arena - whereas the new generation represents an interesting contradiction. There is no question that the current college audience is much more sophisticated about cinema- about art film or international and independent work- than was my generation 30 years ago. But frankly they seem to have less interest in it. Or at least they have a greater range of activities to engage in and thus are more selective and demanding about how they are going to spend their hard-earned dollars. It's difficult to say whether the new generation will continue to harbor the passion for film that we had. Independent film has broken a lot of ground and had a lot of success in the last two decades. But what was innovative then is now familiar. Whether new audiences can be intrigued by innovative independent work, coaxed by critics, and motivated by marketing, whether they will be interested by new subjects and artistic invention, remains to be seen.

Structurally the biggest issue facing independent film is the theatrical distribution bottleneck. As long as theatrical exposure is the driving force to a film's revenue streams in the so called ancillary markets, video/DVD, pay cable etc. then the expense of that theatrical release, the crowded marketplace and the competition with studio and specialized divisions of studios for that same filmgoer, creates a unique challenge. And if specialized distribution and the potential of new technologies, i.e. the Internet, are the answer, the question still remains how to reach filmgoers - how does marketing on the Internet succeed whether it's viral, social community or niche, and when will revenue streams from new distribution mechanisms actually be significant?

Theatrical admissions have trended downwards for a number of years and the importance of consumer preference and choice, of filmgoers seeing films when and how they want, is essential to success for the film industry in the future. The "long tail" of availability, the keeping of films in the market for longer periods of time is especially important for independent film. And that a film's release is ordered by an antiquated theatrical universe is one of the fundamental obstacles facing the independent arena. Indeed why are films "seasonal" instead of "evergreen?" The practice of dating films, i.e. assigning a year of release, strikes me as a holdover from the marketing past. How and where films will be made available depends on the establishment of new outlets and new strategies. It simply makes no sense that most of the year's quality films are all released against each other in a cutthroat fall campaign. In the future perhaps festival platforms could further serve to give films long-term visibility. At the very least new web venues, transformed marketing strategies and dynamic new concepts for consumption are at the core of making films available.

Finally, the question as to independent film's health rests with the real driver of success - the films themselves. Each year, the Sundance Film Festival presents a spectrum of new independent film, features and documentaries, mainstream and edgy, international and domestic. I can't emphasize enough how sure I am that the overall aesthetic value of independent film has over the years continued to evolve, develop and mature. Some of the best filmmakers in the world got their start at Sundance, and many of the world's new filmmakers have been affected and influenced by a generation of work that is ambitious, innovative and embodies the personal qualities of storytelling that is independent film. Each year independent filmmaking is rich with the promise of discovery - a new festival's program, new filmmakers and stories. And that itself is a real cause for optimism and hope.

Geoff Gilmore is the Director of the Sundance Film Festival.

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13 Comments

  • zulla | June 17, 2009 10:45 AMReply

    Look, the music industry spent way too much time and too much energy litigating against teenagers and propping up a dead body, when they could have recognized early on that the “album” model is finis, CDs are ancient history, and the vast majority of the music consuming public wants their music a la carte, not as part of a 12 course prix fixe.

  • zulla | May 18, 2009 9:51 AMReply

    Facing that kind of blocked gateway, young indie filmmakers have found alternative channels, namely the internet. Technology has given them the access to a global market. It’s enabled filmmakers to sell and market their films online, find and build audiences, and even book films in theaters.
    _____________________________

  • zulla | May 18, 2009 9:49 AMReply

    Look, the music industry spent way too much time and too much energy litigating against teenagers and propping up a dead body, when they could have recognized early on that the “album” model is finis, CDs are ancient history, and the vast majority of the music consuming public wants their music a la carte, not as part of a 12 course prix fixe.
    _____________

  • zulla | May 6, 2009 12:36 PMReply

    I love independent films. They are much better then holywood movies.

  • zulla | May 6, 2009 12:33 PMReply

    Good Article

  • zulla | May 6, 2009 12:31 PMReply

    Audiences are changing. The over thirty-audience is the target for much of the independent arena - whereas the new generation represents an interesting contradiction. There is no question that the current college audience is much more sophisticated about cinema- about art film or international and independent work- than was my generation 30 years ago.

  • janekk | January 15, 2009 5:02 AMReply

    That's it in a nutshell. Now, how do we change the system so independent filmmaking can work as a viable industry? As a filmmaker, I am trying every angle to get my films out there. It's a very haphazard approach that exists in a vacuum. But what else can we do when there isn't a working system in place with enough support for every filmmaker?

  • pr_gmr | January 15, 2009 12:02 AMReply

    A great, honest, smart article by Geoff Gilmore. As an indie filmmaker now ready and piecing together my first feature film, I'm asking very similar questions. Personally, I feel the answers will come from the next generation of strong, driven and ingenious independent filmmakers. Myself, I hope to stand to this challenge.Thanks for the thoughts, Geoff!

    Armando Valle

  • Mark Lipsky | January 14, 2009 6:54 AMReply

    There actually *is* a distribution company with a new idea. indieWIRE wrote about Gigantic Digital here: http://www.indiewire.com/article/gigantic_releasing_moves_indie_film_distribution_into_new_era/ Our next release, Morgan Dews’ “Must Read After My Death,” will open in February on screen in NY & LA (as well as a few other markets) and day-and-date nationally via Gigantic Digital. In other words, this is a first-run film that will be accessible to a couple of hundred million more moviegoers than any 3000 screen studio release.

    Yes, there’s the issue of how folks will know it’s playing on Gigantic Digital and we’re working our asses off addressing that with the media. Our basic argument is a comparison with an office worker who happens to be telecommuting rather than working from their cube. The work they do from home is no less valuable than the work they do from the office. Same concept. If a new, first-run film happens to open online in Dallas or Seattle or Boston rather than in a bricks and mortar theater, why wouldn’t the local media alert their readers, viewers and listeners to its ‘local’ premiere? Especially when the streaming quality is as good as it gets, when the presentation is commercial-free and when the ticket price is just $2.99 for 3-day unlimited viewing. Why not review it and write a feature about it if they like it?

    It’s a harder sell right now than it should be but we’re fighting that fight. We’re actually doing something about the awful state of things rather than just talking about it. Will it work? Yes. In February 2009? Maybe. I hope so. I hope we’re only a tiny bit ahead of the curve rather than way ahead. But this *is* the future for independent films. You know, films by directors who aren’t household names. Films without movie stars. Films without millions in studio (or studio-lite) dollars behind them. Films in a language other than English. Films that would otherwise never be seen by anyone in today’s (and tomorrow’s) onerous theatrical environment. Our success will be your success. Pray for us.

    OK, maybe just wish us well.

  • documentarydiva | January 13, 2009 10:25 AMReply

    A prescient polemic from one of the best minds in the field. Release dates, in whatever form the release takes, are very important for film history. Quick-when was a film first shown to an audience? Why not then a very little bit less of the "new" at Sundance, and a tiny bit more of its own spectacular history?

  • jane p. | January 13, 2009 10:22 AMReply

    lziskind, lots of good comments there. In re. the music industry, there are two flaws in the parallel you draw. One, is that aggregating the audience into one venue for a live show is actually the only thing keeping many bands afloat. Music is now mostly accessed digitally, and because it is impossible to stop the rampant illegal downloading, it is currently the only way the artists/owners can control the revenue. So ticket and merch sales (which affords both a trophy from the event, the purchase of which is also perceived by the consumer as supporting the band instead of the company releasing them) is currently making up a large piece of the music industry's actual revenue stream, particularly in the case of small and midsize acts. For them, the event is critical to their success.

    It follows that if and when digital film downloading becomes a format that people are actually willing to consume (i.e., the day it is easy to download movies and watch them on your television) is the same day that theatrical screenings will become at once more unnecessary to the consumer, and more essential to the filmmaker/owner. Already, films are being shared via torrent downloading. It's inevitable. What's the answer? I wish I knew. I think it has to do with re-branding the theater-going experience. But that's not my area.

    My second quibble is with your statement that music consumers want their music a la carte. Okay not a quibble: I largely agree. The problem I see is that this stifles many artists. Are we really going to lose "concept albums?" That would be a sad day. No more Ziggy Stardusts, or Dark Side of the Moons? Many artists create albums as cohesive works. It will be sad if "the market" - teenagers and young adults who are probably going to steal the music anyway - dictate the format of music in the future. Maybe I'm just being sentimental.

    I see the gatekeepers being very conservative. Not in their taste necessarily (but certainly there as well), but in their conception of what film and the film industry are. I believe this is Gilmore's general position as well. The film industry needs to re-imagine itself. And where he and I disagree, is that I think the old guard should give up the ghost, and make way for a new generation who is actually still passionate about film, and who is willing to decide if the film festival is platform for art, or for commerce. I'd like to point to American Teen as exhibit A there, and I'd like to ask Gilmore what aim they were furthering by programming a crassly commercial film that feels about as passionate or as genuine as a franchise film - which it basically is, the franchise being reality television. Sundance feels like a particularly confused festival. By and large, the consensus (at least in my circle) is that the films last year were NOT better than past years, that in fact there was a real lack of integral films, and that in all the art/commerce straddling, clarity of voice and vision was lost. The muddling and all the dealing is an absolute turn-off to the audience, who are hip to all this now. That's what the gatekeepers aren't getting. The audience doesn't trust them anymore. And why should they? They truly don't know what they're doing.

  • lziskind | January 13, 2009 1:53 AMReply

    Geoff,
    You make two important points:
    1. the major film festival have become industry distribution marts, which gives them diminished relevance or appeal to the film-going public. Which, as you imply, means that the focus is on commerce, not art.
    2. Alternative distribution channels created by new technologies have changed the game.

    I think there are at least some conclusions that can be made. The virtual extinction of art film houses, couple with the rising competition and cost of acquiring indie films (think of what the early film of the Coens, Soderbergh and Jarmusch sold for) means that no matter how much artistic merit a film has, unless it's commercial enough to make money for the distributor, it doesn't have a prayer.

    Facing that kind of blocked gateway, young indie filmmakers have found alternative channels, namely the internet. Technology has given them the access to a global market. It's enabled filmmakers to sell and market their films online, find and build audiences, and even book films in theaters.

    It's not the films that college students are less interested in. It's the theaters. As far as they're concerned information, media, and entertainment should be able to be accessed anytime and anywhere. That's your "long tail", Geoff. Films distributed digitally online aren't dependent on a limited run in limited locations. They're available indefinitely, 24/7. It means that if I make a film about something that's commercially unmarketable, say about the life cycle of a beehive, there's still an audience for it somewhere. Bee nerds around the world. So I don't need to aggregate my bee-loving audience in a single theater on a single day. They can download the film one at a time, all over the world, at their convenience. Longtail.

    Look, the music industry spent way too much time and too much energy litigating against teenagers and propping up a dead body, when they could have recognized early on that the "album" model is finis, CDs are ancient history, and the vast majority of the music consuming public wants their music a la carte, not as part of a 12 course prix fixe.

    I think it's the job of film production companies, distribution companies, and film festivals to first admit that the old model isn't working any more and it's never going to be the same, and then put some time, money, and effort into figuring out how to dance with the new girl.

  • indie-guy | January 12, 2009 5:09 AMReply

    Geoff,

    You did a great job of putting things in perspective and laying out some of the fundamental questions facing us going forward. I see this moment as being about challenging every aspect of the traditional marketplace to find new ways of looking at things. Your notion of giving up the idea of release dates is the type of idea that I mean. We should be thinking about everything from release patterns, what constitutes a theatrical release, pricing structures...throw it all up in the air and pretend we are creating a new business...because by the way, that's what we need to do. In the meantine, thanks for keeping your focus on the movies.