Astonishing ourselves

Why most American independent films don't have a future -- and why that's a good thing.

Published January 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Ladies and gentlemen, the rules have changed.

Five years ago, if you scraped together the money to make a nice little movie -- not a breakthrough in cinema history, but not a turkey either -- that movie had a future. It might get accepted at Sundance and other film festivals. Distributors might see it at those festivals, and bid against each other for the privilege of distributing it theatrically. It might play at theaters in New York and L.A. -- and if people liked it there, then it might broaden out to other major cities, and to the college circuit. It might find distributors in foreign countries. And it might play on cable and video, by which time you the filmmaker might already be making your second feature.

That's how it used to work -- not all the time, of course, but a good percentage of the time. And that's why I say the rules have changed -- because it rarely works that way anymore. Most of the independent films being made in America right now will not have a future. They will not be accepted at Sundance. They will not be the objects of a bidding war. They will not receive theatrical distribution in the U.S. They will not play around the world. Many of them won't even end up on cable and video. They will just sit there, collecting dust and debt, while their makers try to figure out what went wrong.

What went wrong is that the market is flooded.

What went wrong is that there are too many studio movies competing for theatres, and too many distributor-funded niche movies competing for the space left over.

What went wrong is that there are too many submissions to festivals, and too many slots already reserved at those festivals for directors with established names.

What went wrong is that there have been too many magazine articles about independent filmmakers who became millionaires, and too many people who believed everything they read.

What went wrong is that there are too many aspiring filmmakers who have been so focused on their own projects that they haven't realized the rules have changed.

The day of the nice little movie is over. Kaput. Finito. Dead. The nice little movie could flourish only in unique conditions, and those conditions don't exist anymore. There's no more "American Playhouse" to show them on television. There are no more independent video companies who are starved for product. There are no more art-house cinemas who can't get enough smart movies to fill their screens. For every one of those sectors as well, the rules have changed.

How did this happen? Well, for one thing, the independent film world is a victim of its own success. There was a time when independent films weren't expected to make a lot of money. But then came a string of films from "sex, lies & videotape" to "The Crying Game" to "Hoop Dreams," all of which proved that independent films could sometimes make a great deal of money indeed.

There was a time when the primary alternative to a big studio movie was a foreign film. But the success of American independents -- and the development of a steady independent film audience -- has driven foreign films to the margins, and created an institutionalized industry that funds its own mid-range movies.

There was a time when distributors acquired most of the films they released. But now these companies have pipelines to fill, and they can't rely on the unpredictability of filling them with acquisitions. Sure, they're still acquiring -- and a company like Artisan can still pick up a "Blair Witch Project" at Sundance and hit the jackpot -- but those jackpots are rarer and rarer all the time. That's partly because there's real money at stake now, and that makes people cautious.

And when I talk about independent films, I'm talking about independent films. Films that aren't funded by distributors. Films that don't necessarily have stars in them. Films that don't necessarily have happy endings. Films that break new ground in subject matter and in cinematic language. Films, whether narrative or documentary, which take us into waters where bigger ships can't navigate. When people talk about the boom in American independent cinema, they're talking about something that happened years ago. What's booming now is something else entirely. There are a remarkable number of interesting movies playing in theatres right now, but it's the result of the old independent boom being absorbed by the mainstream, which has been immeasurably enriched by it.

What worries me is how -- and whether -- that cycle can repeat itself. How will the next generation of independent filmmakers make themselves heard? What are the new rules? If the nice little movie is dead, what can an independent filmmaker do to break through the wall of caution and apathy?

Here's what we can do -- what we have to do. We have to change our thinking.

We have to make movies for today -- and tomorrow -- not for yesterday. We have to look long and hard at the projects we're developing, and ask ourselves if they're nice little movies -- or something more. And if all they are is nice little movies, then we should take a deep breath and prepare to make something else instead.

When I was at Channel Four in London at the beginning of the '90s, the British film industry was in far worse shape than the American independent film industry is now. When I considered a project to fund, I would ask myself, "If this film works, could it possibly help to save the British film industry?" If the answer was no, I rejected it. If the answer was yes, I advocated it. I wasn't always right, of course, but I know I was at least asking the right question.

We have to ask ourselves a version of that question now. If this film works, could it possibly help to save the American independent film industry? Could it break through the wall of apathy, and reawaken audiences to what movies can do? Could it influence other filmmakers? Could it create such a stir that your parents hear about it -- and not just from you, but from their friends?

Whatever you think of "The Blair Witch Project," it fit those criteria. So did "Reservoir Dogs." So did "She's Gotta Have It." So did "Paris Is Burning." What made these movies stand out? I can tell you in two words -- artistic ambition. I can tell you in one word -- daring. These movies were gambles. The filmmakers were doing something that you hadn't seen a million times before.

Folks, every movie that breaks through from here on out is going to need to do that. Instead of making nice little movies, we're going to have to take outrageous chances. We're going to have to go out on a limb, and then saw the limb off. And if your film can't do that -- if it isn't unique enough, if it isn't extraordinary enough, if it isn't dynamic enough to compete with all the other movies that are out there -- then be prepared for oblivion, because you won't even get the chance to find out.

Here's the funny thing -- I'm actually happy about this state of affairs. I'm happy that the nice little movie is dead. I'm happy that the bar has been raised. I'm happy because this may just be the kick in the pants that American independent filmmakers have needed for years. One of the primary reasons that there's a growing underground mountain of undistributed independent movies is that too many of them are just plain ordinary. Or worse, they're unoriginal. This is another way that American independent cinema has become a victim of its own success: We're imitating ourselves.

It used to be that only big studio movies were susceptible to the virus of imitation. When "The Sound of Music" broke box office records, all the studios said, "Ah, they want musicals with Julie Andrews! We'll give them 'Star' and 'Darling Lili.'" But audiences just wanted "The Sound of Music." They just wanted that particular movie. When "Star Wars" took off, the studios said, "They want science fiction! We'll give them 'Krull' and 'Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone!'" When "Dances With Wolves" took off, we got "Tombstone" and "Wyatt Earp." And so on, and so on.

But now, with the success of independent movies over the last decade, we're getting imitations of "Pulp Fiction" and "Clerks" and "Slacker" and "The Full Monty," and, soon to come, "The Blair Witch Project." And it should go without saying that people don't want more lo-fi mockumentaries on video; they don't want more stories about filmmakers lost in the woods; they just wanted that particular movie.

What saddens me is that these imitations aren't all coming from studios, from mini-majors, or from the production divisions of quasi-independent distributors -- they're coming from actual independent filmmakers. This was unimaginable only a few years ago, when there was no canon of successful independent films to look up to. But now, people are withdrawing their life savings and maxing out their credit cards to make movies that look like other movies. My wife, Sam Maser, is a festival programmer, and she sees more imitations of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino every month than you can imagine. It's painful to watch, because there's a big difference between imitation and influence.

Every filmmaker has influences. That's how you learn. But the goal should be to internalize your influences, to let them spark your own originality. It's one thing to work within an established genre -- but "Quentin Tarantino" is not a genre. I watched Todd Solondz learn this very lesson. Not many people know that Todd's first feature wasn't "Welcome to the Dollhouse" -- it was a movie called "Fear, Anxiety and Depression." (I know, because I was the executive on it for the better part of a year, at a studio that didn't end up financing it.)

"Fear, Anxiety and Depression" was like a Woody Allen movie. It was a lot like a Woody Allen movie. And Todd was one of many filmmakers who learned the hard way that there's no market for a Woody Allen movie that isn't made by Woody Allen -- because Woody Allen makes them better. Ironically, it was the failure of his first movie that drove Todd to find his own voice. "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness" could only have been made by Todd Solondz, and that's when people sat up and took notice of him.

As this story illustrates, not only is imitation not artistically satisfying -- it isn't even commercial. At least when the studios churn out films like "Disturbing Behavior" and "Urban Legend" to capitalize on the success of "Scream," they have the marketing and distribution muscle to get those films shown around the world. But if your film is the 17th Tarantino imitation Geoff Gilmore has seen this month, then you're not even going to get to Park City. In fact, you're not even going to get to the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, or South by Southwest. Slamdance had over 2,000 submissions this year. Not Sundance, Slamdance. It's film-eat-film out there. So you have to ask yourself before you make your film: Are you making "Star Wars" or "Krull?"

I'm not trying to harangue you. If you're here at IFFCON, then you're already ahead of the game. You're brave enough to expose your project to the marketplace, to see if it's viable. But we all know that making a satisfying and original movie will always be hard work -- and it won't get any easier in the new century, despite the very real technological revolution that is happening right now.

Three days ago, I attended a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, about whether digital technology would be the future of cinema or the death of cinema. The optimists talked about how the lower costs of digital movies would empower filmmakers; the pessimists talked about how the advent of digital projection -- and the ability to beam a movie directly from a satellite to a theater -- would give distributors more power than ever.

I'm neither an optimist nor a pessimist about the digital revolution. The best analogy I heard at the symposium compared the coming of digital technology to the coming of sound at the end of the '20s, or of color at the end of the '30s. As with those earlier revolutions, I think we'll lose some things and gain others. Still, the fundamentals of narrative storytelling have changed only by degrees since the days of D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein; the fundamentals of non-fiction filmmaking have changed only by degrees since Robert Flaherty and Humphrey Jennings; and they'll change only by further degrees in the days to come. That's why everything I've said so far applies equally to the brave new digital world -- maybe even more so.

If you think the marketplace is crowded now, just wait. Wait until streaming video becomes efficient and accessible enough for people to download feature films off the Internet. The nice little movie will be deader than ever. Sure, it'll cost a lot less to make your movie on digital video and post it on your Website. But when your competition is not just dozens, not just hundreds, but literally thousands of movies -- can you imagine how hard you'll have to work to make your film stand out? A cool-looking Website won't be enough. You'll actually need content.

And content, my friends, is what it's all about. By cheering the demise of the nice little movie, I'm not encouraging you to reduce your work to the same high-concept, lowest-common-denominator thinking that plagues Hollywood.

Trust me, I'm not. The movies that consistently surprise people, the movies that attract the most word of mouth, the movies that sweep the critics' awards and become dark-horse Oscar contenders, the movies that spark people to make other movies -- the movies that last -- all have some elements in common. They have strong individual voices. They don't underestimate the intelligence of the audience. They use the medium inventively. Most of all, they're about people, in a way that moves us -- in a way that makes us think about our own lives, and the lives of the people we know.

If you can move the camera with panache and always have it land in the right place, the way Paul Thomas Anderson can, that certainly won't hurt -- but the most impressive thing you can do is what Billy Wilder did again and again throughout his long career, as detailed in Cameron Crowe's wonderful new book "Conversations With Wilder." To make a great film, you have to create believable, three-dimensional people on screen -- and then let them do something that surprises us. Without the surprise, you have a nice little movie. Without the people, you have a music video. Put it all together, and you have the solution to our current dilemma.

Which is why, in a week when America Online merged with Time Warner, I'm thinking not of Steve Case and Gerry Levin but of Jean Cocteau. Half a century ago, Cocteau summed up the challenge that faces all of us, in two words: "Astonish me!"

If we can meet that challenge -- if we make it our mission to astonish the audience -- we might just astonish ourselves.

By Jack Lechner

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