INTERVIEW: The Independent's Patricia Thomson Moves On; Looks Back at 14 Years Covering Indie Film and Video
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 05.29.01) -- Patricia Thomson has seen it all. Her tenure at The Independent Film & Video Monthly includes everything from "sex, lies, and videotape" to "The Blair Witch Project" to the hundreds of experimental, documentary and below-the-radar works that have remained a staple of the essential indie film magazine over the years. Starting in March 1987 as the publication's Managing Editor and taking over as Editor-in-Chief in June 1991, Thomson's vast experience can be seen in the posters on the walls of the conference room of the AIVF (Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers), which houses and funds The Independent: magazine covers ranging from "Hoop Dreams" to "Welcome to the Dollhouse" to testimonials by everyone from Todd Haynes to James Schamus -- a brief history of the American independent movement told in images and headlines.
After over 14 years of diligently covering the business and art of making movies, Thomson exits her post this week (handing the baton to former Inside.com reporter and The Independent contributor Beth Pinsker). While the magazine will continue its mandate of educating neophyte directors and providing the increasingly diffuse independent film community a focal point, its leading and longstanding editorial voice will be moving on.
While Thomson will continue to contribute to the magazine as well as other publications, she will spend half the year in Italy running La Dolce Vita Wine Tours (www.dolcetours.com) with her husband. With a wide smile, she explains, "I'll be sipping wine, hiking through the vineyards, talking to wine makers, seeing how cheese and olive oil are made, going to summer opera at the Roman amphitheater in Verona. . ." Who can blame her for leaving?
indieWIRE sat down with the journalist (who also has a master's degree in Renaissance Art History) to discuss covering the independent film world for the last 14 years, the changes, the constants, and going against the grain.
indieWIRE: So how much has changed in the 14 years you've been covering independent film?
Pat Thomson: In the last issue of the magazine in the year 2000, we looked at the last two decades of The Independent and pulled out quotes. And what struck me about this was no matter how much things change, they remain the same. Filmmakers want to know how to get money to make a film; what do I do with my film once it's in the can; who are those distributors out there; how can I get to them; who is in television that I can sell my film to; was I supposed to shoot film stills? There are issues and practicalities that are constant.
iW: Still, in the last decade, independent film has definitely exploded, just in shear amount.
Thomson: It's changed a lot. But I think there's always going to be filmmakers and videomakers working far outside of the mainstream -- and with or without support, they're going to do what they do. But certainly the infrastructure has changed enormously. The early '90s was a big turning point, because that was the time that the infrastructure that had been built up in the '70s and '80s started collapsing due to the attack from the right wing. Those were the years of Mapplethorpe and Serrano, and Jesse Helms and Al D'Amato, with Public Television and the National Endowment for the Arts -- both of which are key funders for independent producers. Now we see this pale shadow of what that used to be. But not only that, we have seen a generation of filmmakers who have come of age who have no consciousness of how it was at one point and accept what they've got now.
What's disappeared are, for instance, many media art centers. Those that still exist don't have the funding to bring in as many filmmakers; they don't have the funding to put on exhibitions; schools don't have the same level of funding for lecturing artists; the individual grants are no longer there. So those little $5,000 start-up funds that would be the trigger for many first film projects are no longer there. That was a good seal of approval for many artists; without initial funding, they couldn't have gone on to get funding from other foundations and individuals. Now, of course, we don't know what films were not made, because of the absence of those things. I think it's harder to make a living as a film artist today than it used to be.
In its stead, however, there are others that have come up. The whole cable system in America. HBO's "America Undercover" has been around 18 years and Cinemax's Reel Life, a little less. They basically have $20 million in production funds, plus Court TV, A & E, and MTV are getting into the act, so there are funds out there, but you have to play the cable rules. So the sand is always shifting, and people are concocting different strategies to get by.
That said, actual production is easier, because of the whole digital revolution. One could argue that you don't really need the media art centers as much as you used to, because it's so much cheaper. You can buy your camera, your editing software; you don't have to go to a post-production house at 3 in the morning and scrape by that way. The media art centers were very important because of training, but I do think the Do-It-Yourself spirit on the production end of things has enabled many more films to get made. But there's still the bottleneck problem.
The other big shift is the role of Sundance, not just as a festival, but also with the workshops -- the whole package. It's stepped in where the decentralized media arts world has fallen away. Perhaps the total numbers of people that Sundance has managed to reach is less. However, I do think they are a key player in training filmmakers and writers, helping them step into the real world of filmmaking, making the connections and learning their craft. I support it, but it can only help a small slice of people.
iW: How do you feel the image of "independent film" has changed? The Independent preceded all the film publications out there now: Filmmaker, Moviemaker, Res, Script, Scenario, etc. What is your sense of the shift in attention towards independent film?
Thomson: There's been an increase in the numbers of filmmakers -- a lot of that in the area of feature film filmmaking. Sundance is at the center of that phenomenon. There has been a definite movement toward the mainstreaming of the industry. Even calling it an industry -- you can call it that because there is a level of attention from the players in Los Angeles that didn't exist 10-15 years ago. The lines between the independents and studios have blurred; the studios are opening up their little shops and appropriating what they can, but I think we're also seeing now that they may be tiring of their toys and may throw them away. I just read in our report on the LAFF that the festival director said that that curve might have passed. A few years ago, people thought "independent" filmmaking was the sexy place to be, and not so much anymore. Certainly, people in this business, if you look at the numbers, can't be happy about how these films play in theaters. What continues to surprise me is when young filmmakers will invest so much time and energy and money into an idea that is essentially stale. But they keep doing it. I'll stop right there, before I get into trouble.
iW: Because it is an "industry" now, how has that changed your experience of covering it, has made it less amenable, less community-oriented?
Thomson: I, like many people, use the word film community. And that's such a misnomer; there are many communities, even within a given city. And I was trying to remember what it was like 10 years ago, whether there was more of a feeling of community. I certainly do believe that there is an element of the shark, of the hardball player that has trickled down into this industry. When the lines are blurred between the studios and the independents, and people start hiring publicists and getting lawyers, and negotiating for covers. We do flow a little bit below the radar. Frankly, we would walk away from somebody demanding that [a cover]. Getting access to filmmakers who I know I could walk up to and they'd be happy to talk to me, but because I have to go through layers, is infuriating. That was the case with Ed Burns. He was an AIVF member. I saw "The Brothers McMullen" at Sundance; I bumped into him at a party; I said, "I'd love to interview you," he said, "Fine." Then there was a layer that got in the middle, which really prohibited access during the festival. And it was just so ridiculous. This is one reason why I've enjoyed working at The Independent because for the most part the people that we cover are happy to talk to you, to be written about, to discuss their ideas and their work. They're not jaded. They still feel like they are part of a community.
iW: I know that you make sure to cover experimental film and other work that is not mainstream. I wonder if you think as independent film does become more of an industry that 1.) is there still an audience for coverage of experimental film and 2.) is there still a strong life for those kinds of films?
Thomson: At The Independent, we have felt that it's part of our mission to not forget experimental film or activist work or youth media or all those things on the fringes. Particularly, as there are more and more film magazines out there that are not covering those areas. It has been tempting, certainly, to go with the flow and become a magazine like all the others that really focus on the fiction feature film world, but then we'd be like everybody else. Certainly, when you're talking about a readership of non-filmmakers, that would be an obvious direction to go, but we see our audience as filmmakers, who are members of AIVF, which includes those experimental filmmakers. So it is important for us to keep that torch burning. Yes, I do think there is still a readership, because those filmmakers are still out there. They face the same challenges that they've always faced. Are they going to bring in "numbers" to the box office? No, but the work they're doing is valid and important. And we've always tried to work it into the mix, just like we try to work documentary or public television into the mix. We've made decisions in the life of the magazine that aren't always the decisions we'd make if our interest was in simply getting larger circulation or newsstand sales. We're as conscious of our covers as anybody else, but we're conscious of going against the grain.