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Michael Lynne at The Indie Summit: “Stay independent”

Michael Lynne at The Indie Summit: "Stay independent"

The following are Michael Lynne’s opening remarks from Friday’s Independent Film Summit, presented by MoMA & indieWIRE (with Zipline Entertainment).

As someone who grew up in the independent film world and helped shepherd a company from “Reefer Madness” to “Lord of the Rings,” it is a pleasure to be here today.

I think it is ironic that I have been asked to kick-off this Independent Film Summit, having been a principal in perhaps the most successful independent film company in history – which has nevertheless become one of the biggest victims of the consolidation of film production and distribution that has so negatively affected the independent film universe. Fortunately, we are living to fight another day in our new production company, Unique Features.

There are however, several very telling points which can be made in this regard:

1 – If you are independent and value the freedom which that brings – stay independent. There is no free lunch – if you are owned by a major studio, you will ultimately be governed by major studio guidelines and major studio decision-making. It is kind of a Faustian bargain. When New Line agreed to be acquired by Turner Broadcasting, we had access to wherewithal for production and distribution substantially beyond what was available to us as a free standing public company. The ambitions which we had for New Line could be accelerated by years. But there was a catch – as Ted Turner said to us about six months after the merger when we referred to him as our partner – “Yes, guys, we are partners in a way and we are definitely friends – but you did sell your company to me – let’s just keep that in mind as we go forward.”

2 – Independent filmmaking emerged in a significant way in the early ’80s with the arrival of New Line, Miramax, Cannon, New World, Tri-Star and others. Each of those companies had a game plan and a strategy for the space they would occupy in the industry landscape. It was an earlier time of irrational exuberance and lots of capital and very expensive debt was available. The anticipation that we were on the brink of a new generation of film companies, was palpable. Obviously, some of those companies have left a significant film legacy, but the truth is, and this is very telling, none of them today, if they exist at all, exist in the same ownership configuration in which they existed then. And none is truly independent now.

3 – Just as there was an opportunity then for independent, maverick organizations to make films for underserved audiences and to create new paradigms, the same opportunity will undoubtedly come out of the very difficult times for independent filmmaking today as fresh, out-of-the-box thinking on content and delivery, from passionate and talented filmmakers and producers, finds its way through the ambient noise of the establishment to a public hungry for the new. It may be one of us in this room – or it may be a kid with a dream, a digital camera and a fire in his or her belly.

4 – We should be prepared to rethink all of the commonly accepted practices and pre-conceptions about film production and film distribution. There is and will be less funding available for the production of independent films and for the release of those films. (In fact, there will be less funding available for the production and distribution of films in general.) We will see the conventional timing and formats for film viewing re-invented to a meaningful degree. Where films are seen, when they are seen, who pays for them to be seen, are all going to change dramatically in the next 5 to 10 years. Some of those changes will make the process easier and some will make it much harder.

5 – Tough economic times may favor movie-going in theaters, but it won’t solve the shrinking DVD sector and, on balance, it has, and will probably continue to, encourage the production of safer product for a more mainstream audience looking for escape from their stressful private situations. Obviously, that has never been the basic mission of independent filmmaking. The real challenge is to work toward creating films that are original, thoughtful, even challenging, but which nevertheless can capture the imagination of audiences who will always be responsive to something new and unexpected and yes, to films that are entertaining, in the broadest sense of that word.

6 – As an industry we’ve tried to preserve the idea of windows of distribution, ordering the availability of our product by distribution channel, starting in about every instance with the theatrical distribution window. And I don’t know a filmmaker who doesn’t want his film seen in a theatre on a big screen with beautiful sound. But we should be prepared for the possibility – not clear how far off – that there will be 50 or 60 million flat-screen HDTV’s capable of receiving digital downloads around the world. And someone will have the quintessential tent pole which can be ordered for $40 a household before theatrical release. The stakes are high – maybe 2 or 3 billion dollars on one night high. Of course theatrical exhibitors will have something to say about that. But it will also be an opportunity for more niche product which can be targeted to a specific segment of that digitally connected audience, on an incredibly efficient and lucrative basis. For independent films, we are talking about a version of the long tail, which one day may be a real lifesaver for these special films with discreet audiences who can then be identified and addressed directly.

7 – All in all, there is a lot to consider. We are in a very interesting moment in time. It is a time of complicated issues but of enormous potential opportunity. Of course, everyone knows the famous William Goldman quote about our industry: “Nobody knows anything.” It is cautionary, humbling and probably entirely true. And we should all keep that in mind as we continue our conversation today. The fact is, there are no real experts on the future of our business or any business – although I think I’ve found one expert. He’s a true visionary who understood totally the risk of being too certain about what lies in store for us. So in addition to William Goldman’s sage advice, let’s keep in mind what Yogi Berra said (which applies very much to our topic today): “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Michael Lynne, a co-founder of New Line with Robert Shaye, with whom he also co-founded the new production company, Unique Features.

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