Half Empty

Photo by J E Theriot

Why the Long Face?

Over the weekend of June 19th, my wife and frequent collaborator Alicia Conway and I attended a two day indie film financing/marketing/distribution seminar put on by the Los Angeles Film Festival at the Grammy Museum in downtown LA. Entitled “Seize the Power: A Marketing and (DIY)stribution Symposium,” it promised to educate (or more accurately, re-educate) us about the current landscape of indie film. Now anyone who’s been paying any attention to the indie world over the last few years has seen a marked dip in the number of indies that find wide distribution, and anyone who’s tried to raise money to make one of these films in the post-collapse economy knows that if it was hard before, it’s first period calculus after all all-night frat pledge party now. A headache within a headache.
The indie filmmaking business model is broken at best. There was a “traditional” model which basically consisted of the two prongs of theatrical distribution and home video. It’s no real coincidence that indie film began to flourish in the late 1980’s, a time when pretty much everyone finally had a VHS player and/or premium cable service, and the various unions had finally negotiated deals which allowed practically every movie to be released on videotape. The business had reinvented itself even further in the late 1990’s with ultra-cheap and higher-quality DVD’s, and films which didn’t merit screenings at movie theaters could still make assloads of cash on the cheap plastic disks. Billions of dollars in revenue were generated, art-house movie chains and indie wings at major studios were created, and Sundance became the great launching pad for a new generation of filmmakers.

Endangered Species. Photo by CP Storm

And now, that appears to be either completely over or on indefinite hold until such a time as banks and investors have more money to lend, audiences decide indie film is worth their time, distributors and manufacturers learn to beat pirates at their own game with cheap, easy, ubiquitous distribution for all, AND the right indie voices decide to speak up through a culture clogged with a lot of fun, free things to do. Indies are told to not expect a theatrical release at all anymore, and that most the profit from home video has left the building. So for those of us who believe in a world in which indie film isn’t permanently replaced by “cat hits guy in the nuts” videos on YouTube, where’s it all going? That’s what Alicia and I were there to learn.

Gimme Some Hope, Ted!

And at the symposium, the first speaker out of the gate was mega-indie producer Ted Hope (“The Wedding Banquet,” “The Tao of Steve,” “21 Grams,” etc.) who explained to us why none of this mattered anymore. In fact, Mr. Hope explained to us that after September 18, 2008 (the day financial firm Lehman Brothers bit the dust, taking a giant chunk of our economy with it) the model for indie film (not to mention much of our financial system in general) vanished. So don’t talk about indie successes from years past like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or “Saw” or even my own beloved “The Blair Witch Project.” Zip it. Even post-crash movies like “Paranormal Activity” and “Precious”don’t really matter much because they were produced before the crash. None of them are useful as business models, and without a viable model there is no financing. The money just isn’t there the way it used to be. Then Hope said something that could not have resonated with me more about the current state of affairs, and the indie community’s stuck-ness in regards to getting on with the job:

“Our fear of the future is still greater than the pain we feel in the present.”

Nothing could have summed up how moving forward on a project in an uncertain economy feels than this statement, and it goes so far beyond the simple realm of filmmaking and infuses every corner of our cultural paralysis today.

The rest of Hope’s message was largely positive, about what filmmakers could and should do, and made it clear that the job has expanded into new realms, forcing indie producers to wear more hats than ever before. And although Hope couched it as positively as possible, suggestions like getting at least 5000 Twitter or Facebook followers before even attempting to make a movie, planning to cut the 12 trailers and designing the 25 posters that his experience says every indie will eventually need sounds more daunting than ever before. That’s while you’re in the process of working several non-filmmaking fronts to create, reach, re-reach, and ballsack-tickle your film’s audience because the indie has fly solo on that as well. Being unencumbered by studio bureaucracy also means being disconnected from their marketing arm. It’s not bad news, but telling indie filmmakers – who are used to working on the edges of already-depleted resources – that they need to get off their butts and do more work (and presumably raise more money for said outreach) is a lot to take in, even if it means that we’re in more control of our destinies than ever before. Chalk it up to “fear of the future.”

And, well, that was only the first hour and a half, and Hope wasn’t able to get through his entire presentation – and the rest looked equally amazing.

Nobody Promised Us a Rose Garden

Much of the weekend followed the general thrust of Hope’s presentation with varying amounts of inspiration depending on the topic of the individual speaker. Indies need to do it all themselves, home video is a mess, get ready to make a film AND a transmedia campaign, etc. The weekend was like a hot dog- eating competition for my brain – whenever I thought I had just gotten one idea down, another three were right behind it. I took a lot of notes, shared many heavy sighs with Alicia and our friend Rob, began plotting an intricate web of strategies for a horror/thriller film project I’m excited to get off the ground, and ate really expensive lunch and dinner around LA Live. So here, looking at my notes two weeks later and after digesting all of this information, are the things at the symposium that really resonated with me; both positive and negative.

  • The most positive news seemed to be around the burgeoning fields “crowdsourced” financing, with a brilliant presentation by Yancy Strickler of Kickstarter.com. The basic idea of a company like Kickstarter is to make art the way NPR makes radio – get people to donate money to you to do it in exchange for some kind of premium like a DVD or an executive producer credit. Thusfar, the largest chunk of change raised using this approach is about $200K. Not enough for most people to make a living making movies like this, but the idea is still young.
  • Bob Moczydlowsky from Topspin demonstrated how to build commerce right into a webpage that allowed artists to use direct-fan marketing to their advantage. Although Topspin was built for musicians, its popularity is beginning to build among filmmakers.
  • Video-On-Demand (VOD) may be the wave of the future, but it’s no replacement for the money that was made on DVD in paradigms past. Gravitas Ventures’ Nolan Gallagher gave an impressive presentation at the “New Digital Distribution Initiatives” panel, and will certainly get a call from me when I have a film to sell, but on the panel that covered VOD the largest VOD take mentioned was $300,000. Good money, and a good part of a financial recoupment plan, but certainly not the kinds of numbers that make investors in $1M-plus movies excited to belly up to the bar.
  • Cory McAbee was pumped into the room, “Apple-1984-Commercial” style (the first of several, thanks to Skype) and discussed his concept of “live event theatrical” screenings of his films “The American Astronaut” and “Stingray Sam.” McAbee is an indie filmmaker second, live musician first and he was able to tap into each creative vein to multiply both. He also discussed something extremely smart, the idea of a “$20 Society” wherein people will willingly pay money for something they like, provided the price is fair. McAbee also was the first person ever to mention out loud that pirate sites actually DO make money even as they give away content that doesn’t belong to them – a subject I am already looking into.

  • Sean Percival of some obscure website called myspace.com gave some of the best advice for optimizing the online presence of anything. He alone is responsible for the most notes I took all weekend, and if Percival decided to teach a class in how to use the internet to get your word out, I would make everyone I know take it with me.
  • Colleen Nystedt of MovieSet gave an impressive presentation of her service which is part unit publicist for filmmakers, part social networking. Their idea of using every asset you can to build an audience while shooting is a good start, and it will be fascinating to see where this service goes. She gave another great quote for the weekend: “Production is the new promotion.”
  • Peter Broderick‘s presentation, “Crowdfunding: What You Need to Know” was a turning point in the weekend, and not in a good way. The former Next Wave Films mogul provided the audience with the most dire advice of the weekend. “Don’t make indie films because you don’t know how to do anything else,” said Broderick, “make them because you can’t stop.” He then proceeded to wow us with more big-screen Skype, discussing the current flavor of the week in crowdfunding: “The Cosmonaut.” It is a feature currently being prepped in Spain, which will be entirely crowdfunded and distributed for free under a Creative Commons license the day it’s released. I will withhold an opinion of this approach until the film is finished. I should also cut Broderick some slack – the presentation he gave at the DGA’s “Digital Days” seminar last year energized me for months about the possibilities of self-distribution.

  • Henry Jenkins, a super-smartypants on the subject of transmedia broke that idea down to the subatomic level and blew my mind in the process. Although he approaches his subject from an academic point of view, Jenkins’ presentation applies to anyone with a message working today.
  • Presenting with Jenkins was filmmaker Lance Weiler of “The Last Broadcast” and “Head Trauma” fame – and although Weiler’s transmedia ideas are groundbreaking and brilliant, they tended to leave me with a feeling of “so what?” I think filmmakers and viewers alike love a little transmedia but when the experience eclipses the film it supports, there’s trouble. Still, Weiler’s wiley approach to community-building has moments of genuine brilliance.

Bring it Home

The weekend was capped with the bleakest presentation of the two days. Luckily by then, about a third of the attendees had trickled out and weren’t there to see the boots-on-the-ground, rubber-meets-road, wristcutting reality of where indies sit right now. Entitled “How Did They Do It?” [punctuation theirs], Film Independent’s Josh Welsh spoke via Skype to “Bass Ackwards” producer Thomas Woodrow and “Children of Invention” producer Mynette Louie. Yes, these are the people deep in the trenches of indie film, making personal, acclaimed, even Sundance-accepted films, and they’re fighting a losing battle. During this presentation I didn’t write down a single note – I sat there with my mouth agape watching Louie talk about traveling with the amazing-looking “Children of Invention,” selling DVD’s out of the back of a car, playing festival after festival, and proud that after a year and a half that they’d made back a third of their budget (estimated under $500K). Louie, who seems to be an enthusiastic producer with a promising career framed that as the “good news.” I heard a voice near my chair whisper, astonished, “THAT’S the GOOD NEWS? Then what’s the bad news!”

The Aftermath

Monday, June 21 I woke up feeling like I’d been punched in the balls. Like I’d had a bucket of ice-cold urine dumped on my head (and not even fresh urine!). The world as I’d seen it – or as I’d hoped to see it – was done. Ted Hope was right when he said the sky had already fallen, the dream had ended, and it was up to us to pick up whatever pieces we could find to build a new indie model. The good news – and I do believe the news is actually good – the pieces are beginning to coalesce into less of a repeatable “model,” and more of a marketing-and-distribution schmorgesborg where each of the offerings won’t fit every film especially, but there are enough ways to get the job done that resourceful producers will find a way to work them. The big hole is still financing – something that might only follow (as it did in the late 1980’s) a pattern of successful releases.

So have we traded in the two-pronged approach to distribution for the garden-weasel-in-a-trash-compactor-pronged mix of direct sales, VOD, event screenings, Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, and mindbending ARG’s for every film moving forward? I wish I knew – and I really REALLY don’t know – but after I went through the five stages of grief over the indie world I’d once known, a world that may be lost forever, I took Ted Hope’s advice and began plotting out my next move. Thoughts linger in my head like “what if the wrong movie makes the right model and we all miss it?” but thinking that way is unproductive. When it works, it will be the right model, and everyone will line up to copy that model, testing its veracity.

So will it be a future of fewer indies or more? Ubiquitous VOD or paid Netflix streams or AppleTV or what? Are we looking at the death rattle of the American Independent movement or the birth of something more connected to its audience and ultimately more sustainable? I sure hope so, because I really can’t stop doing this.


12 comments on “Half Empty

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ben Rock, Ben Rock. Ben Rock said: Half Empty: http://wp.me/pQLLB-aL […]

  2. Great. Thanks. That wasn’t too depressing.

  3. What a wonderfully descriptive albeit terribly depressing view of the state of financing indie films. But wait, I know I left my rose colored glasses around her somewhere… perhaps some solace is that everything goes in swings, right? Of course it will probably look completely different than you expect, and you might be 95 years old before the swing comes back the other way, but one day it will swing back around. Ok, that wasn’t much more positive was it…

  4. Really well-stated, Ben.

    I see a lot of potential for the expansion for media on the horizon. I just don’t want to see indie film die because we couldn’t figure out how to keep its heart beating long enough to discover the cure. Unlike Cory Doctorow, I value movies and don’t want to let most of them disappear.

    The trick is going to be to locate and seize all the parts of this situation that offer opportunity before we sink under the big, obvious parts that are popping up as adversity. I don’t know how to make this machine work yet, but I haven’t lose hope that we’ll get it up and running.

    I’m still proud to be the type of creator whom Peter Broderick refers to when he says, “There’s only one good reason to make indie films now: because you can’t help yourself.”

  5. Thanks for the great post. Very comprehensive regarding the future (and present) of movie making and how to prosper. Make sure you check out my article in the next issue of Movie Maker. Hopefully this will help with the “how to” aspects of digital self distribution.

    • Very interested in what you have to say and in your article. The big question is this: is there a way to make enough money on any kind of self-distribution that a filmmaker can repay investors and eek out a middle-class existence?

  6. Hi Ben –

    I started writing and realized my answer was long. It prompted an article on my website. Here is the link: http://www.filmmakingstuff.com/2010/07/mymoviebusiness/

  7. Thanks for taking the time and spelling this out so clearly! Everyone interested in how indie film can still be a viable business needs to read your article.

  8. Thanks Ben. You really got me thinking. This week, I plan on adding some more articles along the same subject. Maybe some tips we can all take to plan for the future.

  9. […] DIRECTORS SHOULD READ THIS BOOK: As my last, most dire blog entry outlined, filmmakers and creative types need to be thinking of other ways to subsidize their […]

  10. […] Indie Filmmaker Still Recovering From LAFF’s “Seize The Power” Symposium […]

  11. […] one day, if they haven’t already. Hope (whom I saw speak last July and then blogged about here) is an actual, real-world, for-realsies working producer with a giant list of credits. Hope speaks […]

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