Indie film is dying -- unless it isn't

Yes, distributors are closing, films are tanking and insiders are muttering that doom is nigh. But the best filmmakers always survive.


Andrew O'Hehir
June 24, 2008 2:27PM (UTC)

All winter and spring, people in the independent-film business have been murmuring politely behind their hands and pretending not to see the 800-pound walrus in the corner of the room: The indie industry is undergoing a sudden and largely unexpected meltdown, or in the business-speak recently employed by Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard, "a periodic market adjustment."

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Nobody's ignoring it anymore, not after Saturday's address to a Los Angeles Film Festival conference by Mark Gill, CEO of the independent production and financing outfit the Film Department and former president of Miramax and Warner Independent. Gill's speech, entitled "Yes, the Sky Really Is Falling," was followed by a thoughtful Sunday column from the Philadelphia Inquirer's Carrie Rickey, cataloging everything that has gone wrong for small films, and the companies that make them, in the last six months.

It's a short but bloody history: Warner Bros. shut down its Picturehouse and Warner Independent subsidiaries and slashed the staff of New Line Cinema by 90 percent. Paramount Vantage, another "studio specialty division" that was born just two years ago, is being reabsorbed by Paramount Pictures. ThinkFilm, a true independent distributor, is being sued by vendors who say they haven't been paid and is under fire from documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who claims the company botched the release of his Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side." Think's future is in doubt, as is that of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which has reportedly downsized itself by half. According to Gill, who ought to know, at least five other indie distributors "are in serious financial peril." (I could probably guess who three or four of those are, but it's indecent to speculate about other people's livelihoods.)

At the big winter-spring marketplaces of Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, the apparent indie boom of the last few years turned awfully tepid, awfully fast. There were lots of terrific smaller-scale films at those festivals, but hardly anything that looked or felt like an international art-house hit on the scale of "Pan's Labyrinth" or "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- the movies that enable indie distributors like IFC or Miramax or Sony Classics to take chances on riskier fare. And as Rickey details, it's been a relatively weak year at the box office, with expected hits like "The Counterfeiters," "The Visitor," "In Bruges" and "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" failing to cross over to mainstream moviegoers (or at least not in sufficient numbers).

Perhaps your heart does not bleed overmuch, amid the general economic and spiritual turmoil of our country, for a few middle-sized motion pictures that failed to meet expectations -- or for a few dozen movie-industry executives forcibly ejected from the corporate suites of Manhattan and Burbank. First of all this isn't really about them, although most of them are decent and knowledgeable people who care more about movies than about money (or they wouldn't be working on the weedy intellectual fringe of the entertainment industry). It's also insufficient to retreat to some 2002-style panegyric about how a digital democracy is dawning and these old-school gatekeepers must perish in the tar pits of economic history for a new model to emerge.

That argument has a pseudo-Marxist ring of historical inevitability about it, but it's mostly wrong. Nobody in the film business questions that the current mode of distribution for independent film -- in Rickey's article, Emerging Pictures CEO Ira Deutchman calls it the "post-studio, pre-Internet era" -- is somewhere between transitional and dysfunctional, and that some version of electronic home delivery is likely to dominate the marketplace within five to 15 years. But as God is my witness, we need gatekeepers! If anything, we need them in the digital era more than ever. At least in the short term, the current marketplace implosion is likely to have a highly undemocratic effect on both filmmakers and film lovers, delivering still more practical control over what we watch and when to a shrinking group of ever-larger entertainment conglomerates.

Even as the potential moviegoing public has become distracted by an explosion of electronic options and devices unimagined a generation ago, the marketplace has been swamped by a poisonous glut of new movies. As Gill explains, in 1993, the Sundance Film Festival received roughly 500 submissions. For 2008, that number had swollen to more than 5,000. The reasons for that are various: The cost of producing a small-budget motion picture has fallen sharply in the digital age, and the success of a handful of indies in the late '90s and early 2000s drew investors large and small to pour countless billions of dollars into filmmaking.

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It hasn't turned out to be a sensible investment. Gill calculates the odds of losing all your money on an independent film at 99.95 percent. Most of those 5,000 movies, in his words, are "pre-ordained flops," made by people "who forgot that their odds would have been better if they'd converted their money into quarters and taken the all-night party bus to Vegas." First of all, there's the simple fact that the market can't support more than 10 percent of those movies in a given year, and probably a much lower ratio than that. In 2007 a reported 603 films were released theatrically in the United States, the vast majority of them coming and going almost unnoticed. Everyone in the business agrees that number is unsustainably high; a more reasonable level might be 250 to 300.

Then there's the fact that while enthusiasm, access to technology and an eagerness to become famous may be widespread, talent and craftsmanship are not. As anybody who's ever served on a film-festival selection committee learns the hard way, most of those movies should never have been made in the first place and definitely should not be inflicted upon the public. There has indeed been an explosion of ultra-low-budget filmmaking -- just try to wade through the self-produced movies available on YouTube -- but so far it has not revealed a nation full of unheralded Orson Welleses in embryo. If anything, it has produced a deluge of abysmal crap that makes the genuine discoveries harder to see. As Gill acidly observed: "The digital revolution is here, and boy does it suck."

Is he just an old-economy pterosaur cynically trying to fend off the evolutionary trend that will make him obsolete? Sure, maybe. But that doesn't make him wrong. However independent films will be distributed in the future, I suspect a two-tier economy will be involved. There will still be a professional film industry that produces and distributes a relatively small number of movies that cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, whether they reach you in theaters, through a cable box, on your computer or iPod or through some other pipeline not yet devised. There will also be a purely digital universe of films that cost almost nothing to make and almost nothing to watch -- sort of a purified, film-school version of YouTube, minus any dreams of media stardom or celebrity coke parties.

There are two contradictory ways of looking at the current crisis, and as is customary with these things, they're both partly accurate without quite grasping the big picture. On one hand, this rapidly snowballing market crash seemed to come out of nowhere. Indiewood movies, meaning those distributed by the studios' specialty divisions, have dominated the Oscar nominations for the last three or four years. Just last fall, Miramax and the now-defunct Paramount Vantage shared the production and distribution of "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," the year's two most acclaimed American films. You might have heard about a little Fox Searchlight release called "Juno," which approximately everyone in the country saw twice. It looked as if the mid-level quasi-independent film was conquering the adult moviegoing market, turning the big studios into teen-oriented sequel factories and driving smaller, more adventurous art-house cinema to the margins of the margins.

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On the other hand, even if nobody saw this coming, we should have seen something coming. The national economy has slipped into what looks like a protracted recession, the supply pipeline is clogged with crap, the future of film distribution is literally up in the air and the audience is distracted, distraught and fragmented. Newspapers, broadcast TV, the music industry and other media have suffered precipitous downturns. What a great moment for dark and quirky motion pictures! Seen in that light, a market crash was an enormous duh, and perhaps a necessary correction, as they say in business school. Maybe all that stock-market money had to go down the toilet to get the industry focused on making fewer and better films, a solution that would make many of these problems go away.

Of course my judgment, like that of Mark Gill and Carrie Rickey, may be clouded by my desire to make a living: If independent film disappears as an economically viable industry, I'll have to find something else to write about. Be that as it may, I'll sign on with their guarded optimism; as the president always tells Congress during the State of the Union address, the "economic fundamentals" beneath the whole enterprise remain strong, and down cycles give way to up cycles just as surely as rain produces flowers. Gill cites marketing data suggesting that 10 percent of the public tell pollsters they prefer independent films to mainstream fare, which if anything is a historic increase. (Indies traditionally account for 5 or 6 percent of ticket sales.)

Does that polling data actually mean that one in 10 Americans would rather see Werner Herzog's new Antarctica documentary (doing very well in limited release, thank you), or revisit Kieslowski's "Three Colors" than stand in line for Christopher Nolan's latest Batman flick? Or does it just reflect a momentary semiotic uptick in the number of people who want to appear hip and sophisticated? I think we know the answer to that question, but there's a trickier one out there: How does the economic, social and cultural climate surrounding filmmaking affect the work? And in the age of the iPhone and the Wii and the whatever else, are there still budding Fellinis and Tarantinos interested in creating spellbinding visual narratives that demand your full attention for 90-plus minutes?

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Sure there are. Sony's Tom Bernard told Rickey that the obituary for art-house movies "appears every 17 years, like the locust." The indie booms of the '80s and '90s crested and collapsed in their turn, but the best filmmakers always survived -- and without fail every year moviegoers turn some totally unlikely release into a big hit. As far as the old-fashioned movie experience is concerned, Gill is probably right that in a few years we'll have half as many films released in half as many theaters. This will be a sad transition for many of us, sure. But the movies weren't killed by television, they weren't killed by VHS and DVD, and they can't be killed by whatever's happening now.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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