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It’s Time to Rethink What Success Looks Like for Small Movies (Column)

SXSW: Even Mark Duplass admits that "nobody really cares about the film stuff" — but microbudget filmmakers are still finding solutions.

“Jethica”

Let’s talk about the tiny movies in America.

Not the streamer productions around $20 million that benefit from Hollywood resources, nor the dwindling middle class of features lucky enough to secure independent financing for $5 million-$10 million. This is about the bootstrapped, maxed-out-credit-card moviemaking that exists through the sheer will of its creators. The ones with the microscopic cast and crew (and often the cast is the crew), the minimalist narratives mandated by minuscule resources — the personal and potentially alienating visions of singular moving-image artists who somehow manage to bring their movie dreams to life. What happens to them?

As SXSW convenes for its first in-person edition in two years, that question is particularly apt. It describes many of the films that will premiere at this festival, and they arrive with a reality check: Major streamer entities aren’t invested in these tiny movies at a time when said streamers have never held more sway over the future of the moving image. Bear with me, though, because all hope is not lost; it just requires a different set of expectations.

For the last two decades, SXSW Film has been a key launchpad for low-budget filmmaking and played a key role in establishing major talent such as Barry Jenkins, Lena Dunham, and Greta Gerwig by programming their early work. The latest festival is still dominated by small-scale cinema, even as it rubs elbows with a formidable set of TV shows and higher-profile studio films that use the festival as a marketing launchpad.

As television continues to dominate the cultural conversation, these movies look smaller than ever, and current circumstances raise serious questions about the future of the undistributed titles in this year’s lineup. That’s no fault of the programmers, whose predilection for discovery remains formidable. But even an idealist like me can tell that it has gotten a lot harder for small-scale festival breakouts to find supportive homes. Looking at the goalposts for success requires squinting through rose-tinted lenses. As one industry-savvy reader of this column wrote me earlier this year: “All the current measuring sticks seem a lot more like measuring twigs.”

My cheeky response was that if you find enough twigs, you’ll build a house, but even I realize the limitations of that view.  I was struck by how another DIY optimist with far greater insights on this subject also had his doubts: When even Mark Duplass is concerned about finding audiences, there’s reason for concern.

“There definitely is a feeling among my peers that our options for where we can put our movies is shrinking a little bit,” Duplass told me by phone this week. “It’s really tough.” 

Duplass tends to proselytize more than despair. A few years ago, I wrote up his SXSW keynote as “8 Improvised Tips for Success in the Film Industry,” notes from a galvanizing speech based on his experience. Mark and his brother Jay directed their first Sundance short for $3, came to SXSW in 2005 with their $1,000 debut “The Puffy Chair,” made friends in Hollywood and cracked the studio system. They later scored a deal with Netflix that allowed them to produce films for the streamer. Mark said that ended as Netflix moved away from investing in nimble, improvised filmmaking like “Blue Jay” and “Paddleton.”

“Language Lessons”

Berlinale

“I have a lot of sympathy for everybody right now and a hard time blaming anybody for making the changes they need to make to stay alive,” Duplass said. “Do I wish Netflix still valued little movies? Hell, yes. I’d be really happy making movies for them and putting them on their service. Those movies get millions and millions of viewers. But 10 million viewers is not enough. They need ‘Red Notice.’ I get that.”

Last year, Duplass co-starred and produced in the Zoom-based pandemic drama “Language Lessons,” which made its stateside premiere at SXSW’s virtual edition. “If it was released two or three years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind that Netflix would’ve bought that movie,” he said. “They passed on it. They said, ‘We love it, but it’s not what we’re doing now.’” 

Instead, “Language Lessons” landed with boutique outfit Shout! Factory, which gave the movie a modest theatrical release last year before it crept onto VOD platforms. Duplass said he was satisfied with that result, if only because the opportunity for upstart filmmakers has dwindled.

“I try not to get attached to the way the industry is and hoping it would stay that way so I don’t get my heart broken,” he said. This year, he’s attending SXSW as the producer of two very different projects: “Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off,” which the brothers set up at HBO prior to its completion, and acquisition title “Spin Me Around,” an ensemble comedy directed by Jeff Baena. 

The Duplass brothers benefit from a setup for their production company that, as I wrote in this column last month, more filmmakers deserve: They have a first-look deal at HBO. However, as if to illustrate to the declining interest in feature-length storytelling, that deal only extends to their TV projects. The siblings chased that opportunity years ago when they pivoted from the middling success of their studio films (“Cyrus,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) to the episodic space (“Togetherness,” “Room 104”).

Duplass didn’t mince words about what he and his brother predicted even back then. “Look, the truth of the matter is that the money’s in TV and nobody really cares about the film stuff,” he said. 

His experience with “Language Lessons” led Duplass to recognize that newcomers could benefit from lowered expectations. His latest advice to them: “Don’t be scared of taking a gamble on a smaller company that’s trying to make their name on your money. They might not give you an advance, but they’ll definitely put you on VOD, and while Netflix might not make you an original film, these smaller distributors are always making deals with those services.” 

Duplass said he and his brother often invested in movies with little expectation of profit, if only because they budgeted them to avoid major loss. That includes “7 Days,” which won the Independent Spirit Awards’ Cassavetes prize last weekend. “I try not to make a movie for more than I think I can sell it for,” he said. “We didn’t make a lot of money on that movie, we’re barely breaking even, but don’t feel bad if you didn’t kill it with your investor. There are other ways to define success.” 

Of course, Duplass has been collecting healthy paychecks as both director and actor for years and is in a position to shrug off questions of sustainability. I also spoke this week with veteran Christine Vachon, who has the documentary “Under the Influence” at the festival this year. She said that her company Killer Films — one of the great risk-taking entities to emerge from the ’80s/’90s indie film boom — had become extra-sensitive to audience demands.

“When you’re financing a film independently, unless all your financiers have the same last name as the director, you have to think of the audience from the get-go,” she said. “Otherwise, how do you assign value to the film you want to make? The only way to do that is to try and figure out who that audience is. We listen to the marketplace and it doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear.” 

As I looked at some of the hidden gems in this year’s SXSW lineup, many of them came across as personal filmmaking projects rather than anything engineered to meet the demands of that marketplace. SXSW is a good context for recognizing the value of making movies for yourself in order to make them good, but that commitment requires extreme compromise.

Consider Peter Ohs. The Ohio native has an oddball delight in this year’s Visions section called “Jethica” that he shot for under $10,000. The story takes place in the middle of a desert where a woman attempts to escape her stalker, only to find herself haunted by his very annoying ghost. Ohs’ slow-burn deadpan style and playful supernatural flourishes suggest the spirit of early Jim Jarmusch by way of “An American Werewolf in London.” Ohs made the movie with a Mike Leigh-style approach, developing the script over the course of the shoot with a handful of actors. As he told me over Zoom this week, he pulled it together with no expectation of an end result. 

“I’ve disconnected from thinking about it career-wise,” he said, noting that he makes a living as a freelance editor. “If things start to cost too much, it becomes less fun and it feels like there’s a pressure for it to become something that can make money.”

He was disillusioned by the experience on his first feature, 2017’s “Everything Beautiful Is Far Away”: The budget got in the way of the freedom to make the movie his way. “If even the low-budget SAG movies cost $200,000, how are they going to make that money back?” he asked. He soured on the idea of filmmaking designed to reach mass audiences. “I often say to myself that smaller is better,” he said. “The idea of trying to reach everyone is not something I think anyone should do.”

He uploaded his last feature, “Youngstown,” to Amazon for rental, where it entered anonymity pretty fast. “I got a wire transfer from Amazon for $75,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t feel one way or the other about what happened. There wasn’t an active plan, either. I am just trying to get better at making movies.”

“Jethica” has sales representation from Visit Films. “I’m supportive of where they can take it,” Ohs said. “But I’m not attaching my ego to any of it.”

There is value to Ohs’ philosophy: He’s getting results. With “Jethica,” he grabbed a camera, found his set on Airbnb, and developed the narrative with his cast over the course of a month. That was all he needed to make a movie that works not in spite of its limitations but because of them.

“It’s a constant struggle, the carrots that are always dangling, and it still feels hopeless sometimes,” Ohs said. “But if you can push those thoughts away and remember it’s a nice activity, then ultimately it’s a good use of time and energy.”

Ohs’ mentality represents a self-sustaining extreme of the filmmaking spectrum that’s immune to the industry’s disinterest. It’s not an approach that supports complex auteur filmmaking like “Hereditary” or “Pig,” projects that demand years of gestation and name actors to exist. Successes like these are also anomalies, and the mentality that all projects require extended development periods is a mentality that’s both disingenuous and anti-art. Many filmmakers could do better work if they just accepted the need to move fast and stay nimble.

There are some filmmakers at this year’s festival whose work could go over well with the arthouse buyers in town. I have heard good buzz about narrative competition entry “Soft & Quiet,” a timely real-time thriller shot all at once, and then there’s the aforementioned “Spin Me Around,” which features Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and others. Among the ones I’ve seen, though, one lively example has a name to rule them all — and an eccentric story to match it, one that makes the movie a victory for its creator no matter what happens next.

“Chee$e”

That’s “Chee$e,” a Trinidadian stoner comedy from filmmaker Damian Marcano. In recent years, Marcano has made serious inroads in television, with recent credits that include Adam McKay’s HBO series “Winning Time” and FX’s “Snowfall.” After SXSW, he heads to production on two episodes of the Paramount+ series “American Gigolo.” 

But “Chee$e” is nothing like those polished efforts: It’s a wily and unpredictable saga of Rastafarian islander who attempts to make a living peddling weed that he buries in the products of a dairy factory, all while dreaming of a better life. As the character evades the needs of his pregnant partner and runs from the law, his saga becomes an alternately hilarious and sad ode to desperate survival tactics. 

The history of “Chee$e” is as scrappy and audacious as its plucky anti-hero: Marcano submitted a 19-minute short with the same name for a contest run by Warner Bros.’ Stage 13. Initially, the studio ordered more installments, but it went into turnaround. While the short won Marcano fans like Adam McKay, who hired him for “Winning Time,” the project’s long-term prospects began to fade as his TV work picked up.

Eventually, the couple got back the rights to their footage, and during the pandemic, Marcano realized he had enough to turn “Chee$e” into a feature. The end result suggests what might happen if Cheech and Chong crashed the rapid-fire urgency of “Sweet Sweeback’s Baadasssss Song.” (You’ll notice there’s lots of unlikely pastiche in the festival this year.)

Marcano was thrilled to stitch together a feature film even if it didn’t pay his bills. While he was happy with the TV work, he felt that “Chee$e” was a more accurate reflection of his creative identity.

“I didn’t come to LA to just be on LA directing a show,” he said over Zoom this week in anticipation of his first trip to Austin. “How would Bob Marley feel if he was just a sample on an Whodini rap song? That’s how I feel on these shows. I’m a joyful sample that gets to bleed into these shows.”

That experience made him realize how much he could pull off for a pittance of the production budgets thrown around Hollywood. “I could make a film for the transportation budget on one of these shows,” he said. “I don’t want to be the Tyler Perry of the Caribbean.”

Instead, he fixated on making movies that could appeal to the 1.3 million people who lived on his native island. “I figured if we make this thing and everyone here watches it, what will people outside say?” he said. He was already plotting two more films to complete a trilogy of misadventures based around his “Chee$e” character and hoped to employ more island locals on both sides of the camera. “Rastas always say our wealth is in people,” he said. 

Movies aren’t dying, as I wrote several years ago; they’re just getting smaller. As SXSW takes off with high-profile opener “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which finds innovative directing duo the Daniels on the brink of another original hit, there are plenty of signs that midlevel filmmaking with commercial appeal lives on here and there. But the bulk of the SXSW lineup points to another opportunity, one that might scare directors keen on mass success, at least until they realize that the masses aren’t always worth the trouble. 

Aspiring directors: What can you make for next to nothing and still deliver the goods? The answer might be more satisfying than any long-haul solution. 

As the festival takes off this year, I invite readers to consider the opportunities of microbudget filmmaking designed for modestly sized audiences. As always, I also welcome constructive feedback: Is there still hope for small movies at big streamers? And if not, should all aspiring filmmakers just shrug off their passion projects, embrace their television future, and stop chasing cinematic unicorns? Feel free to suggest alternative paths, argue with my assumptions… or just call me an idiot, as long as you can back it up: eric@indiewire.com

Browse previous columns here. 

IndieWire parent company Penske Media is a shareholder in SXSW.

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