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The Ti West Open Letter: What Does An Indie Success Story Looks Like?

Photo of Dana Harris By Dana Harris | Indiewire December 28, 2011 at 9:36PM

He says a happy ending will be if there's a high ratio of paying fans to torrent rippers. It's not the first time an independent filmmaker has made some version of this plea.
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Ti West, director of the well-reviewed horror film "The Innkeepers," will see Magnolia's Magnet Releasing open the movie on VOD this Friday, more than a month before it reaches theaters. And he's written an extraordinarily clear-eyed, fair and pragmatic open letter regarding its release.

This is how it breaks down:

    •    Please pay for the movie. In some format.
    •    Not because he will get paid, because he hasn't and almost certainly won't.
    •    Because if people don't pay for "The Innkeepers," there's no record of anyone valuing it, financially or otherwise.
    •    And if there's no record, there will be no more Ti West movies.
    •    But if you can see it in a theater, you should. It's a damn movie, after all.

And there you have it.

It's not the first time an independent filmmaker has made some version of this plea. But the timing is compelling against the current new-model success stories of Ed Burns' "Newlyweds" and Louis C.K.'s "Live at the Beacon Theater."

And all of it begs the question: In the 21st century, what the hell does an indie-film success story really look like?

A comedian with a critically acclaimed TV show makes $1 million outright for the first time, circumventing all the standard gatekeepers. A veteran filmmaker and actor self finances his movie and leapfrogs the critics' indifference, going straight to the fans.

They're impressive achievements. And in some respects they're hard to square against someone like West, who is (a) not famous and (b) can't afford to finance his own movies. (As Jen Yamato points out, West's last film barely grossed $100,000 in theaters.) As he plainly states,

As long as I don't own my films - something I give up in exchange for someone with much deeper pockets affording me the budgets to make them - this is how it goes. [Emphasis his.]

Still, this is the third time that West found distribution for a film (unless you count his direct-to-DVD "Cabin Fever" sequel, but he wouldn't), and from a top buyer. He says a happy ending will be if there's a high ratio of paying fans to torrent rippers. That way, he gets permission to make another movie -- preferably, another indie movie since he doesn't want to make "bland remakes/sequels or live action versions of comic books/cartoons/boardgames." (A fair assessment, as projects like those are how studios have often "rewarded" indie filmmakers.)

So let's give West his happy ending. He gets to make another indie movie. He finds distribution. But what can he do to prevent himself (and other filmmakers) from having to do this all over again?

West's letter follows.

SHOPLIFTERS OF THE MEDIA-WORLD UNITE

Dear Internet,

This Friday (Dec 30th) my film THE INNKEEPERS will be released on VOD an entire month before it's released in theaters (Feb 3rd). This means it will likely hit the Internet torrent sites within 24 hours and seed thousands of downloads in the coming days.

WHY I THINK YOU SHOULD PAY FOR INDEPENDENT MOVIES. It's not the money. Personally I don't care about the money. As sad as it is to admit it's very unlikely I will make a dime off of the release of the film. My previous film, "The House of the Devil," had a similar release and was very successful - That was in 2009, and to this day I have made ZERO dollars off of its success. I do not own the films, and by the time any profits would trickle down to little old me (writer/director/editor/producer) they would all have been mysteriously soaked up into vague expenses, random fees and outrageous overages. This is the nature of the business and I have come to accept it. As long as I don't own my films - something I give up in exchange for someone with much deeper pockets affording me the budgets to make them - this is how it goes. It's a trade off and I'm fine with it. I don't really care. What I do care about, however, is your support. I care very much about that.

Every time you purchase something you are making a statement. You are creating physical evidence that something has value. If something has a high value, then it becomes in high demand. So if you make a concerted effort to support lesser-known, interesting and esoteric things (Art?) then you are helping make those lesser-known things more popular. I'm sure we can all agree that there are incredible movies made every year that never get the attention they deserve - That's not the movies' fault. That is our collective fault for not being proactive enough to GO OUT OF OUR WAY to support them.

So yes, I want you to go out of your way and pay for my movie. Not because I'm greedy, but because if the movie makes money (whomever for) that's tangible evidence of a paying audience out there for movies like mine. For independent films. For something different. Not just bland remakes/sequels or live action versions of comic books/cartoons/boardgames. This is a powerful time for the consumer. With a small platform release like ours (VOD/Theatrical), it's been made incredibly easy for you to support the film...You don't even have to get out of bed.

I do personally benefit from you paying for my film. So do my friends and collaborators. Maybe not in a direct, financial way; but in the gaining of support from consumer/fans whose collective interest convinces rich people to keep giving us budgets (hopefully bigger ones) for the types of movies we make. These investors only do this based on the accountable value of a movie. Not the content. Hopefully everyone knows that by now, but maybe there are still a few ideological people out there reading this who think movies get financed because they are simply great stories worth being told no matter what their commercial appeal. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions...They don't.

How about this: If you went into a store and there were two similar products - one made by hand by someone local who you knew (perhaps a small business in the USA?) and the other just churned out by a machine (perhaps not in the USA?) - wouldn't you pay a tiny bit more for the one made by the person you knew? Especially if you knew it was actually benefitting that person? Wouldn't that be better than supporting the machine-made, impersonal, uninspired version? Wouldn't you want to support them?

Where we choose to spend our money should reflect what matters to us and what we want to support. If independent film matters to you, then do me a solid and pay for the film instead of downloading it. It's not a huge financial commitment, but it has a huge financial impact. I am not a corporation, I am not independently wealthy, I don't come from a family of the industry...I'm just a regular dude who made a movie and wants to keep on making them. I can't do that without your help, and it would be very much appreciated.

Lastly, if you live in a city where the film is being released theatrically, please go see it in the theater. It took over a year to meticulously craft the film with the intent of it being seen projected on 35mm on a big screen with loud surround sound. This was all done for your benefit. It is meant to be seen in a theater - It is after all...A movie.

Sincerely,

Ti
 
For theater listings and additional info about THE INNKEEPERS please visit:
http://www.magnetreleasing.com/theinnkeepers/
 

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit, Ti West, The Innkeepers