With 23 Sundance producer credits under his belt, Ted Hope is intimately familiar with the trials and tribulations of a career in this industry. Recently, the morale of the indie film community has seemed to hinge on Hope’s various career turns: first, what appeared to be a public defection from producing, followed by a brief stint at The San Francisco Film Society and now as CEO of the streaming site Fandor. At an IFP Independent Film Week panel, Hope sat down with Marc Schiller, founder and CEO of BOND Strategy and Influence, to discuss the state of the union for indie film.
Here are some highlights from their conversation:
We’re reinventing what the business of indie is.
“To define ‘indie’ in terms of film culture, I would say indies are passion-driven films. You can see what’s a product and what’s aspiring to be something more. You can certainly make indie films within the studio system now–Paul Thomas Anderson, for example–but it’s not the business model.”
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The big paradigm shift is the movement away from a culture of scarcity.
“When I started making films, there were under 200 films released in the US. That number has grown at least sixfold. We now live in a culture of abundance. It used to be that you had to make films for the mass market. In a world of abundance, which comes about because the barriers to entry in terms of creation, production, marketing and distribution have dropped to allow open access. Audiences become creators. But the industry has not really changed.”
The business is now one of the niches on a grand scale.
“To me, that’s a huge change. What that actually means, as creators: We now are allowed to ‘fail.’ You don’t have to have as much financial impact. You can create something for less. You can change the model from product-based to relationship-based, with the audience. I made a movie once that nobody wanted [Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet”]. That was the greatest gift that ever happened to me. We made this film on Avid–the first feature film supposedly to have been cut on Avid–so the pixels were the size of golfballs. Sales agents looked at it and said, ‘Ted, there’s no business here. You made a film that has no market. It’s gay, it’s Chinese, and it feels like a film from the forties, except that it’s gay and Chinese.’ The first time we got to see this movie was at a press screening in Berlin. I was expecting tomatoes on the screen. Instead, not only did we get a standing ovation, but everyone was actually standing on their chairs. I’ve never seen that before or after. It went on to win the grand prize. James Schamus and I decided to sell it ourselves. It was a $700,000 film. In a week, we did $3 million worth of business.”
You need to know your audience.
“You should know what the size and access points and behaviors of audience are. When you look at that, you understand the market. You can estimate what a proper budget would be. We created an industry that’s driven by a lot of hot air. Consequently, creatives have been told to expect more than they will get. That’s a difficult relationship for a producer to enter into. Confronting reality is not what we’re trained to do.”
Artists and technology evolved much faster than businesses and market.
“We’re smarter than the crowds are. The industry could not pivot quick enough. This is where we are today. We have to find a new way to do business as we transition from a culture of scarcity to abundance. There is no template. One of the best things that anyone can do is look at what’s not being done. Try to understand why that might be. As a creative, it’s your responsbility to look at the big picture and understand where you can fit.”