Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Ted Hope
December 4, 2013 9:39 AM
10 Comments
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Ted Hope's List of 30 Really Bad Things About the Indie Film Business in 2013

Ted Hope.

Film producer Ted Hope, who is stepping down as executive director of San Francisco Film Society at the end of this year, recently listed over 30 "really good things" that happened in the indie film business in 2013. But the year in indie film wasn't all roses and sunshine. Hope emphasized the good in his prior post and now he takes a look at the bad. He's given us permission to republish 15 of his "bad things" below, but you can read all 30 "really bad things" here.

I have given my thanks so now it's that time of the year when I get to complain about what's wrong -- and what hasn't yet been fixed.  I have done this before (several times), but this is that post on where we are right now. Like always, I suggest you don't forget that lists like these only make the foolish despair.  After all, we can build it better together.  Let’s take this post as an action list. All are opportunities to truly ToDo. It does not need to be this way.

1. The film business lives in Bizarro World, thinking we do something for the love of it, but in fact creating something far far far away from what we actually love -- and thus making it so much harder to do what we love in the process. We have turned our strengths into our weaknesses. The worst of course is we now take it for granted that this is how it is and this is what the film biz needs be (if you are not fully following me here, I suggest you click on the link above).  It's not and it doesn't but I don't hear a whole lot of folks saying we need a complete systems reboot of the whole film ecosystem (see #2).

2. It's not enough to just think outside the box.  The box is a trap and a false representation of a reality.  We have to break the box, probably smash it to bits and then build a better box together. The red pill or the blue? We have chosen the wrong one and we fail to recognize the cultural factors weighing on film culture and build for that.  Recognize the false construct and see through the matrix.  This is the reality. And we are now poised to forever be slaves to it, versus living in a far preferable world where we would use these truths to deliver a better world (as we should).

3. The corporate suits see NO business in art.  They have removed the bowtie from the building. It should be Schamus. They have determined that blockbusters are the safest bet, even if yields a Lone Ranger regularly.  Studios will make films for the world, and what travels is not beautiful.  Expect more loud, fast, dumb.

4. Film is no longer the penultimate pop culture art form.  Be it video games or television, it seems pretty clear that cinema has lost the battle, both critically and commercially. Sure there is plenty of good stuff to watch and play, but when they kicked out the throne, it meant the next generation of possible saviors also just opted for another field.

5. Successful artists can not support themselves through their work.  We've known for a long time that most of us can't but it did seem like once someone had made it, they were safe.  Those days are over too.  We have our poster boy in David Byrne speaking up and out that "the internet will suck all creative content out of the world". What we have now does not work for anyone but the global corporate powerhouses.  Our culture is threatened.  We can no longer permit the wholesale exploitation of our creative classes.  There needs to be a global action.

6. The interests of the artists & the "stores" that sell our work are no longer aligned. The largest distributors and stores have no real incentive to actually sell good work, yet the best way for artists to survive and create a regular supply of great work is to be fairly compensated for it.  Okay, this may be far more true in the music business, but they experience everything the film biz does, only a few years ahead. And there the business is either to sell computer products or gain audience base so you can flip it and make a mint.  Read this.

7. Superabundance not only applies to content but also to platforms.  There are now more than 500 video on demand services available in the EU dedicated mainly or wholly to feature film. Options and choice are generally a good thing, but it can also lead people to shut down and not take action. Ultimately we need to know where to go to connect us with what we want.  We need to create the promise of a good experience and not further confusion of the what, where, and when.

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10 Comments

  • Greg Shaw | December 13, 2013 5:26 PMReply

    Ted, I agree. In fact, this is the only article on IndieWire that actually makes sense. It doesn't help that anti-indie film journalists like Jason Guerassio (whom indiewire publishes from time to time) has consistently attempted to destroy all outlets left for indie filmmakers to go to, in an effort to beef up the power of organizations like TFI and Sundance Institute whom have no interest in truly independent cinema.

  • gabriel | December 5, 2013 12:17 PMReply

    Story remains KING. Look at all the movies with great story and character but no explosions that made money this year. The Heat and Don Juan come to mind.

    Make a good movie, and even if it doesn't make money, people will notice. Funding for a second film, be it from crowds or private investors, will come more easily from that foundation.

    I disagree about Hope's assertion that the long tail is gone. If your movie has great plot, dialogue and characters, it may take awhile, but it will make money eventually, one way or another. Especially if you attach a monetary value to publicity. Think of it like an advertisement.

    Many problems abound, many obstacles for low budget indie movies. I see theater ticket prices as a major problem. Why can't theaters charge 3 dollars for matinees, and make up for the lower ticket price with higher ticket sales? Absurd! No, they simply MUST charge 8 dollars for a matinee?

    But the biggest problem? People make bad movies. Lack of good writing. If you are a good writer, write something audiences will respond to that takes place at one location, a la Reservoir Dogs, and shoot it for almost nothing. There. Problem solved. If it is good, a festival will pick it up, and EVEN IF you don't land distribution from the festival screenings, you can utilize the opportunity to network with others in the industry.

    It just takes an investment. For 5-30k you can launch your career. IF you have a well crafted story.

    Which brings me to another point. Cultural exchange. I'm personally working on a few concepts for low budget movies with multicultural casts. Global audiences want to see more Asians and Latin Americans in movies. Aim to appease these audiences. Include multiple languages in a script. Cultural clashes. Robert Rodriguez has accomplished this. Another example is End Of Watch, a movie in which (Angelinos especially) audiences of multiple ethnic backgrounds found characters and situations they could relate to.

    Sure, understated mumblecore dramedies filmed in Vancouver with all white Canadian casts will struggle because there are only so many freshly minted urban hipsters in the world. Diversity has emerged as the name of the game, so think about what audience you cater to.

    Hope seems stuck in the past. Saying technology is a net bad for film, and lauding a bygone era and dated distribution models. He mentions everything BUT story in his list. I think before blaming an excess of newbie DSLR cinematographers and a saturated VOD market, we should take responsibility for our own demise, step back to square one, grab a coffee and start typing. If you build a good story, they will come.

  • gabriel | December 8, 2013 7:38 PM

    Speak for yourself. I have numerous ideas for films that could get made for 30k and have elements like action that boost production value and audience appeal, while also having strong characters and drama. I am confident in my writing ability. If you need a million or more dollars to tell a good story with audience appeal, maybe you should consider a different line of work.

    There are tons of good actors and directors and cinematographers in hollywood. Much fewer are good concepts and screenplays.

  • Stuck_in_the_past | December 6, 2013 12:50 PM

    Hope is not the only one stuck in the past. The absurdity you promote here is as old as the ambition to make a movie in the backyard.

    1) most "great stories" can't be realized on personal filmmaking budgets. It's no coincidence most low budget films feature 20-30 year old associates of the filmmaker talking on couches in Brooklyn and Vancouver.

    2) "great story" is something of a blind in the movie world, when it's not an outright lie in the mouths of producers and the usual seminar whores. What works in the novel or on stage frequently won't work on the screen. Material which would be a joke in a novel, or which is ridiculous even in a film script, sometimes works very well on screen, if there are sufficient resources to realize it credibly. It shouldn't be news that the story has to be suited to the defects of the medium, satisfy mass-market tastes and be within reach of the budget. Getting everything right here is something which rarely happens, in part because nobody can predict how the ingredients will cohere; and when successful films are often anything but "great".

    3) looking at production over many years, there don't appear to be any actual writers in indie film, for structural reasons. Talk of "great stories" is cheap for non-writers. It's a more complicated than that, as the lack of "great stories" clearly demonstrates.

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  • HumbertH | December 4, 2013 2:44 PMReply

    Perhaps it's much simpler than Mr. Hope supposes. Movie-making is far more accessible to the would-be "artist" than traditional art-forms which demand representational skills. Many people can do what successful directors do. Even more people can do what successful producers can do.

    We know the medium will only support a tiny number of practitioners, which has always been true of the movie business; cheap production technology won't change that fact. We also know that those few are not necessarily the best, since (once again) making movies is something many people can do. Just look, for example, at the number of successful movie careers preceded by a parent's successful career. Or the value of a pretty face, or of prior fame. Mr. Hope's own period of success was an anomaly, based on selling his product to deluded distributors. That market hysteria, with little basis in actual audience returns, couldn't last, and didn't.

    Unkind though it is to say, the raft of indie filmmakers who have, or did, make good over the last 20 or 30 years have not proven to be indispensable talents. Many people today are making films every bit as good as those which launched brief or enduring careers in the 1990s and often with far less money, and could no doubt equal or exceed the better funded movies those early films once made possible. But of course, there's no longer any novelty in it.

    This is in part of a crisis of mediocrity, and of Amerindie's exhausted naturalism, to which Mr. Hope still appears committed, but also of budget. Mr. Hope addresses neither in any meaningful way.

  • jrose | December 4, 2013 12:25 PMReply

    "If they pass on your film, or your script, they rarely call, or write a personal letter. I have seen the biggest of film festivals do this to some of the most successful of filmmakers."

    YES. If I spend $60 entering my film into a festival, the least they can do when they reject it is send me a letter explaining why it didn't make the cut. If you can watch 3,000 films, you can slightly personalize 3,000 letters. Of course, this will never happen. But these days they don't even mail or email their form letters, they just send out a message on Withoutabox. The only thing worse would be if they never let you know at all.

    If festivals, agencies, etc. had any balls, they'd force the 20-year-old intern who actually looked at -- and passed on -- your project write the rejection letter: "Hi, I'm a sophomore at Cal State Northridge, and I think your movie stunk."

  • Christen Kimbell | December 4, 2013 10:56 AMReply

    "I rarely see people in the business do that extra something unless there is something in it for them. Everyone asks and few offer. I have witnessed this firsthand, and seen and heard of it with my collaborators. It is a shame, a downright dirty shame."

    I agree, completely and wholly and totally. This is one of the main things I work on changing, at least with the people I surround myself with and work with, as much as I am able. We cannot make films in a vacuum, we cannot accomplish anything big alone. We need to be surrounded by a community of skilled craftspeople who care about each other. And, slowly but surely, this is becoming true. At least in my case.

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