Indie Film Today: Retiring or Resurging?

by | July 3, 2009 | DIY

This post came from The Indie Auteur blog and was in response to an ongoing argument on the future of indie film. Stephan’s mentality of “do something about it or stop complaining” struck a chord with me. Article is re-posted below:

It’s Always A Hard Time To Be Indie
by Stephan Vladimir Bugaj

A recent post on John August’s blog, titled “A hard time to be an indie,” inspired me to inaugurate this blog with a post about the idea that it’s a particularly difficult time to be an Indie filmmaker (John quotes a speech by James D. Stern, which is also worth reading). It was a particularly synchronous post by John since I recently just attended the first annual Produced-By Conference, where a number of Producers were singing a somewhat different tune (or, perhaps a similar tune, but in a different key).

One point that several Producers made at the conference is that it’s always “a hard time” to be an Indie filmmaker, and that it’s an unusually bad time merely because it’s a hard time for the whole industry, and the whole economy. Their perspective, as working Indie Producers, was that if your passion is for Independent Cinema then you have to make a go of it when the time is right for you as an individual filmmaker — because the time is never “right” for entrepreneurial filmmaking.

A perspective I found especially compelling was that the demise of Warner Independent and similar big studio “Indies” is not a death knell for Independent filmmaking, but rather a resurgence. The speaker’s point was this: your competitors with the deepest pockets just got out of the market, leaving the entire playing field to the real Independents.

Right now the big studios only want to make huge budget tentpole films, and as many of the veterans at the conference pointed out — this sort of thing has happened before. Every ten years or so, the big studios focus on tentpoles and only are dragged back into smaller films when a few Indies are both sufficiently critically and commercially successful to draw the attention of the big studios back to making “cinema rather than flicks.”

However, the prevailing attitude among both speakers and attendees who work as Indie filmmakers was that Independent filmmaking is suffering from overblown expectations stemming from too much money being spent on making small films during the recent Sundance-fed Indie film spec-market bubble.

In other words, they felt too many $1-5million films were having $8-16million (and similarly on up the scale) spent on their production. Furthermore, in a crowded media marketplace an advertising arms race is on, which makes competing for audience attention so expensive that films like $7.5million Juno rose to box office numbers upwards of $100million only atop marketing budgets upwards of $50million.

This has set Indie filmmakers’ expectations very high. “A Sundance Film” has become a trope, an anti-commercial approach as cliché as the Hollywood formula. As John states:

Yet the fact that we can say a script “feels like a Sundance movie” belies this intent. It’s shorthand for challenging, quirky, maddening and (if we’re being honest) non-commercial. We want these movies to exist. But we need to be honest about their prospects.

We do need to be honest about this. The financial expectation a filmmaker sets for his or her self when describing their story as “A Sundance Film” is Juno (approx. $140m off $7.5m) or Little Miss Sunshine (approx. $96m off $8m), not the equally excellent but quite different La Mission or Death In Love (both approx $2m budget, and both still seeking distribution). Only Indie spec market hype has taught us to assume our projects are the next Juno (and budget accordingly), not the next La Mission.

Spending $58million plus on a $4million film (or even one that’s legitimately an $8millon film) hoping to turn it into a $10omillion blockbuster by sheer force of marketing is a luxury only a huge corporation has (well, had).

You can’t afford to compete with that. Sure, it’d be nice to get picked-up by Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics, but it’s a lot easier to do so if you’ve understood your audience and convey that fact through your story, your pitch, and your budget. Even if you don’t win the Indie filmmaker lottery and score $8-16million in up-front financing for your first feature and a subsequent negative pick-up by one of the majors’ boutique shops, you can still make a great movie — maybe even one that makes enough money to let you do it a second time. Making a $2million film, or even a $250k film — or even a $50k film — isn’t a failure, it’s a huge success, even if other people are getting to make $10million films. Selling it is even better, and that’s going to much more possible if you’ve chosen your scope and budget based on an understanding of an actual audience.

Which gets to part of what John (and James Stern) are saying that ties into a point about Indie filmmaking that was also made repeatedly at Produced-By. John puts it this way:

Every filmmaker would like her movie to break out of its niche and gain wider exposure and acceptance. But Stern’s point is apt: figure out your base, and develop a marketing plan that succeeds even if it never goes beyond that. If this sounds more like planning a small business than planning a movie, that’s sort of the point.

At the Produced-By conference there was an Indie Distro panel where the panelists recommended, in light of the current attitudes of the corporations that run the big studios and exhibitors, that Producers start thinking about the business of Distribution — even becoming microdistributors themselves. John’s post briefly touches on alternate distribution (V.O.D. in particular) as a potential savior of Indie filmmaking (a topic that was much discussed at Produced-By), but in suggesting that you consider budgets, distribution and marketing during script development, John is basically suggesting that filmmakers (his audience is primarily aspiring Writers and Directors) think more like Producers.

Why should you think about parts of the process that “aren’t your job”? Because Independent filmmaking is entrepreneurship, and in any small business everyone involved needs to think about the bottom line when doing their jobs because there’s no huge corporation providing a cushion in case of failure. Most investors in truly Independent films are not in a position to throw their money away, and they want to see both a tenable budget and realistic expectations of return.

It’s pretty easy to understand the basic principle at play here: you want to spend less money on making your film than you reasonably believe, based on analysis not dreams, that you can make off of it. That’s the surest path to being able to make a second film, and a third, and a three hundred eighty seventh. Should you then get lucky and make $150million domestic gross off your $7.5million dollar film, that’s fantastic. But your $7.5 million dollar budget should be based on an audience analysis that gives good odds for $10million gross, not a reliance on winning a $150million box office lottery (in other words, don’t create unrealistic expectations in your backers).

And while Writers and Directors need to consider these things much more than perhaps they have in the past, Producers should ultimately still be responsible for thinking and acting like Producers. A good producer is responsible to both the creative team they’re a part of, and the financial team that is hoping for a return on their investment so they can work with you again. And if you don’t have the skills and drive necessary to Produce your own films, you really need to find someone to work with who is dedicated to the Producing craft.

Non-Producers still need to do what John and the others are suggesting and “keep their audience in mind from a project’s initial conception — even if that audience isn’t a typical mainstream audience.” Filmmakers need to aspire to making films that are personal, yet universal — not personal through smug inscrutability. And if your vision requires making a film with an extremely narrow appeal — budget accordingly.

And to be a good Producer you not only need to keep that audience in mind when working with the rest of the creative team to develop the voice, style, and scope of your film, but you’re also obligated to determine the realistic size of the target audience, and create budgets and marketing plans based on that.

Thinking about your audience is not anathema to great storytelling and filmmaking — or even art. By choosing to be a filmmaker and/or artist, you’ve chosen to communicate your ideas and stories to others rather than keeping them in your head, so you’ve already decided to care about speaking to an audience in terms of structure, theme, tone, visual style, and so on. It’s all about reaching an audience. And understanding the business dimensions of your audience, or developing a relationship with a Producer you trust who does, will enable you to craft projects that are designed to be successful both artistically and financially.

So to paraphrase several folks at the Produced-By conference: It’s always a hard time to be an Independent filmmaker. Are you going to do something about it, or just sit around complaining waiting for some big studio to give you a handout?