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Ted Leonsis Takes on ‘High Priests’ of Film Industry at Middleburg Film Festival

Ted Leonsis Takes on 'High Priests' of Film Industry at Middleburg Film Festival

A debate over the role of the traditional film industry in an increasingly democratized medium unfolded at the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival in northern Virginia.

In the festival’s Oct. 26 keynote address, Ted Leonsis, film producer and founding chair of Indiewire parent company SnagFilms, decried what he saw as the “high priest” model of production and distribution, which he says prevents new creative voices from being heard.

“The high priests – the studios of the world, the newspapers of the world – are fundamentally failing a large generation of the next creative-class individuals,” Leonsis said. “Because in a world where everyone is a filmmaker, everyone has a story to tell, and now has the tools to do it … still, the distribution system is analog.”

Speaking without notes, Leonsis framed his talk in the context of his own experiences producing independent features. In 2007, his production “Nanking” came off a debut at the Sundance Film Festival to see release in two theaters over Christmas weekend, a strategy Leonsis said was a misfire, chalking up to the “analog” mindset of the distributor. He said his latest production, Joshua Rofé’s 2013 documentary “Lost for Life,” will benefit more from becoming widely available online.

Part of the bottlenecking of creativity is due to the patriarchy of Hollywood management, Leonsis said, adding that opening up the creative floodgates would help to alleviate that concern.

“For the most part over the last 50 years, filmmaking has been in the auspices of older white men,” he said. “White men were the directors, white men were the producers, white men ran the studios.

“As we democratize the production and distribution of film, we’re going to see more and more women, more and more young people, more and more people outside of the United States.”

Leonsis said Hollywood can improve its standings in the ever-expanding international market by empowering more independent-minded filmmakers to make movies about more than “fantasy and sex and violence and computer graphics.” Films like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” he said, “will start to change the way the rest of the world sees us as a country,” because it uses technology “as a backdrop to tell a deeply personal, well acted, unbelievably directed film.”

He called for a further democratizing of the production and distribution of films, noting that by counting iPhones, iPads and similar devices as production equipment, “there are two billion people who are potential independent filmmakers.”

Leonsis, who provided financial support to the Middleburg Film Festival, also name-checked festivals like Sundance as “the anti-definition of populism: Someone curated and designed and was a gatekeeper, saying, ‘These films were worthy to be seen.'”

Minutes earlier, Middleburg Film Festival founder Sheila Johnson had expressed her desire to see the event grow into “the Sundance of the East Coast.” Speaking to Indiewire after Leonsis’s talk, Johnson said she agrees with her funder’s views and wants to find a way to limit Middleburg’s size while broadening its influence.

“Sundance has become a monolith,” Johnson said. “What I want to keep here is the intimacy, so that people can feel free to be able to walk to every single venue, to be able to touch and feel the composer, the director, the producer, to be able to make those connections.”

Yet one area of Sundance she’d like to keep for Middleburg is its selectiveness: “We want to be very, very selective in the films we bring in, because we want to keep the quality going,” she said. The slate of films, which numbered more than 30, included several big-name Oscar contenders, among them festival opener “Nebraska,” centerpiece selection “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and “August: Osage County.” The town has no permanent movie theaters, so one of Johnson’s primary goals is simply to bring prestigious works to Middleburg.

Few locally produced independent features were represented, a choice Johnson said was entirely quality-based. “I love supporting local, but it’s got to be [about] the quality. I think in Washington we have too much mediocrity,” she said.

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