Does indie film have a future? Blockbuster culture, critics, social media and the next Philip Seymour Hoffman

Where's the new Soderbergh or Linklater? It's easy to make indie films, but hard to finance, sell or promote them

Published August 17, 2014 8:30PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "Hope for Film"

Imagine a world where a filmmaker could go to a studio and say, “My team has five million followers. Through crowd-funding, we’ve done 25,000 preorders for the video that we haven’t begun to shoot, and I want to be your partner in the producing and marketing of this movie.” How could that not be enticing? And we’re almost at that point. This is the beginning of the third way. And you can already see it peeking out from under the horizon. Each day, it grows larger, better, and, perhaps for some, more threatening.

You’re already seeing people thinking about how to motivate their followers and friends. The Hollywood studios find social media—and the greater transparency that comes along with it—incredibly terrifying, because it has the potential to create negative buzz for their heavily invested products. Yet I find openness healthy. We police ourselves better than any outside force ever could, provided we feel part of the community and not outside of it. Let people in, and they generally will reward you for it.

Yes, the Internet splinters people into niche partisan groups, but it also leads people to be more invested in the things they hold dear. People need to vote and speak out about the world that they want. I think we need to encourage this sort of behavior. We have been a quiet, dormant populace for far too long. And all of this online discussion helps change that.

Can social media translate into real audience build? Since making "Super," I am often reminded that the movie didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Some people may be gloating that despite our social-media activities, we still had difficulty putting butts in seats. But our social media on that film remained focused on our first core circle—which was geared primarily to get our movie made and then to get our investors’ money back by licensing it to distributors. And we will be able to do that, eventually. We sold the film to IFC Films for $1 million ($750,000 for U.S. rights and $250,000 for Canadian rights) for a period of 10 years; we also preserved the right to sell DVDs and digital downloads off our websites.

But after making the distribution deal, we faltered. The marketing of the actual release neglected to focus on social engagement and remained centered on old methods of traditional advertising and press. There should have been wild-posting of our posters all over the cities where our film was playing, and flash mobs of people in superhero costumes on the streets. We needed to create an event around the release of the film, but people didn’t feel that level of urgency. We neglected to create a sense of participation or collaboration that is rewarding for an audience.

Is social-media activity just the domain of the superfan and politically obsessed, or is it something that’s more widespread among the general populace? People trust the people they’re closest to.That’s the great crime in the firing of so many film critics in America over the last few years. Local audiences trusted those local critics; after years of engagement, the critics had developed a relationship with their audience, which came to know when to take something with a grain of salt and when to follow their advice like a close friend. Those critics may blog, but blogging does not have the same authority as when they were the voice of their local community.

Today, we have to figure out the alternatives to those critics. Who are our filters? Who are our curators? What can we do to help sprout new ones? I personally find curating a necessary responsibility of producing and participating in film culture, but it’s a flag waved by the few. It’s a pressing problem that will continue to worsen if we don’t act.

I know that if I have a screening for friends and family, I get a more positive reaction than I do from a screening in front of a bunch of strangers. So to extrapolate from that, the more numerous my friends, family, and followers, the more positive reaction to my work—unless I’m slacking on my art, and if I am, I deserve to be thrown out. I don’t mind the hordes policing the elites. If that’s the cost of the close-knit, bottom- up social-media universe, then I’m all for it.

For the first time, we have the potential to establish a broad middle class of creative individuals who support themselves through their art, aligning and collaborating with specifically defined audiences, and not having to conform to the limited dictates of the mass marketplace and its controllers. We now have the promise of a world that will deliver us better and more diverse work in a manner that is more accessible, collaborative, and participatory. With social media, we can now bring people together like never before. With a new focus on engagement, audience can also become community.

We—creators, entrepreneurs, and audiences—have to choose the type of culture we want and the type of art we want available to us. Do we decide for ourselves whether a work of art is worthwhile, or do we let the corporations decide? Who is our community, and how will we reach one another? We have to choose how we can all best contribute to this new system. And as we act on those choices, we have to get others to decide which content they want, too. Then we all become curators. We can all promote the culture we love, and we can reach out and mobilize others, not acting on impulses but motivated by our own shared knowledge and experience. And we must recognize that having as many others as possible share in that knowledge will make everything better: the culture, the business, and our pleasure in participating in it. We are walking into new territory, and we’d do best to map it out together.

We have to be sure to fortify ourselves for the long haul. And the best way to prepare for that journey is to recognize that it’s going to take some time. I remember that on so many occasions, I have gotten excited over the changes I was sure were to come. Some did. Some didn’t. Social media has not been the great leveler I first dreamed it to be, just as the foreign-sales model for indie films did not prove to be a long-lasting option for as many filmmakers as I initially had hoped. Most importantly, we need to learn how to keep our stamina. Then one day, the brick wall that we keep running up against will miraculously open and let us through. And it will happen a hell of a lot sooner if we can hit it with the force of many and not just by ourselves. Because of Twitter, Facebook, and my blog, I am attuned to others’ struggles, particularly those just starting out, and their tribulations and solutions give me strength to know that if one option does not work, if one practice falls short of what I hoped, I will have the perseverance to keep going. As the famous activist cry goes, “The people, united, will never be defeated.”

* * *

I thought I’d live in New York City producing independent films for the rest of my life. Ever since I moved there, I had always seen independent film as my profession and considered it a privilege to be working on movies in a city that I loved. But as the 2010s began, filmmaking essentially became my hobby. I was starting to fill my time with a host of other activities. Whether it was public speaking, writing blog entries, tweeting, communicating with people, or curating movie screenings at the Goldcrest Screening Room or Indie Nights at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, these other activities were immensely satisfying. But they weren’t generally making me any money, and when they did, it wasn’t nearly what producing films had generated at its height.

I didn’t consciously pursue these changes, but I never felt that producing should be limited to the creation of films; I always believed that it should also be about helping the film communities sustain themselves. It also helped a lot that I dug doing those things. Even as I watched my income drop over a four- to five-year period, I didn’t think I needed to do a complete 180-degree
shift. I was still getting good movies made, although there was no denying they were being seen less, having less impact, and were less satisfying, as a result. I was also starting to feel that I wasn’t being realistic about the changes that were coming to the industry. Or perhaps how these changes had already arrived.

One of the reasons I love the independent-film world and always enjoy discovering new directors is that I love change. I love having new experiences. Bouncing back and forth at different budget levels, different locations, different subject matter keeps me charged. But I realized that I personally hadn’t changed in a long time. I was in a rut. And there is so much about indie film producing that annoys the hell out of me now. Many of the core business concepts that the whole industry is predicated on are antiquated, such as controlling content through centralized distribution, focusing on a mass-market audience, relying on transactional impulse buys, and hoping that audiences can focus their attention on one thing. And we are not taking advantage of all the innovations of the last few years, be it the great drop in cost to create or the ability to target audiences directly, derive hard data around audience engagement, or connect and collaborate with people all around the world.

I might be able to stomach all of that if it wasn’t for my sense that so many filmmakers and film industry professionals seem so often to be just in it for themselves. Very few people seem able to think beyond their own individual film. I never get emails that say, “I’d like to help you, Ted.” Or “Let’s team up and try to tackle this problem.” I’m no saint, but I try to offer such help regularly. I do introductions and recommendations. I advise and consult. I have written blog entries dedicated to the need for transparency. I do this, because I need it. We all need support groups. Besides, it’s sound business practice. We’re all in this together. My success is predicated on other people’s success. My knowledge comes from the sharing of mistakes in addition to the successes that I myself and other people have made.

When we formed This is that, we were confident that we could get U.S. distribution slots for two films annually with budgets from $7 to $25 million. This was an ideal budget for many reasons, not the least of which was it afforded a salary you could run a company on. A typical producer’s salary is somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of the budget (albeit often with a cap on that to limit how much in total you can make), but people often mistake that fee as an annual salary. The reality is, you are working three to five years on a project, sometimes far longer. The $7–$25 million film was still called low budget by the mainstream industry back when we formed the company. But these films actually had midsized budgets—low enough that you could take creative risks, but high enough that you could compete at the Academy Awards if you delivered the goods. Then, as some distributors folded, the cost of marketing continued to rise, fewer films were released, and the number of available distribution slots for those midsized outside productions shifted to one per year and then to one per two years. Now I’d say an independent producer couldn’t make that $7–$25 million movie more than once every three to five years. If we weren’t making the larger films, it also became difficult to justify the smaller films, because our fees couldn’t cover our overhead.

So much of what we built This is that on was the idea of a cooperative effort. When we had overhead deals, we could front the rent for a larger office space and then sublease to other producers. It not only gave us a better location, but also gave us a collaborative atmosphere to work in. But after the economic collapse, tenants withdrew, and all of a sudden, we were paying full freight for an office space we couldn’t afford.

We experimented for a while with a virtual office, doing meetings in coffee shops and bars and working out of our kitchens. But the month after we had both the number one film at the U.S. box office (Anne Carey’s production of "The American") and the first film sale at the Toronto International Film Festival (James Gunn’s film "Super," which Miranda Bailey and I produced), we shut down This is that. Despite those triumphs, it became clear to us that the business no longer made sense. Even if "The American" was a box-office hit, Anne had worked on it for twelve years and cut the company’s producing fee by two-thirds to make it happen.

So if I did not believe there was a business model to pursue these bigger films, I thought I’d focus on the smaller films while the world changed, and then see where we were. But the situation didn’t improve. The downturn lasted more than three years. And the indie world wasn’t changing for the better; it actually got harder to finance or sell those films. And yet, it was becoming easier, at least on a technical level, to make interesting movies on increasingly smaller budgets.

The optimist in me believed that both the indie-film culture and the indie business would bounce back, that this was just a blip caused by the economic crisis and that people (and the industry) would again hunger for quality tales told well. So I set myself a three-year goal of trying to make five films, regardless of budget, provided at least two had a budget of at least three million dollars so that I could earn enough to support myself and an assistant. I achieved this goal, with "Super" and "Dark Horse" hitting the “high” budget marks. And then there was "Collaborator" and the movies under a million—the critics’ darlings "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Starlet." We also financed a sixth film, "The Side Effect," but it was never shot (an experience I never dreamed I would have and never want to go through again). But the challenge for those microbudget films was how to earn a living while doing them, because they generally lack any up-front fees for the producer. I realized I had set up my life as something that I could no longer afford. I had a family. I had a house and mortgage. I had to pay for health insurance. Sure, I was still making good movies happen, but was that enough?

Unfortunately, those low-budget films left me emotionally, creatively, professionally, and financially wanting. It wasn’t like producing "The Ice Storm" or "21 Grams," films that had the budget to deliver the fullest of visions. Or even "Adventureland" and "The Savages." Although these movies didn’t feel luxurious at the time, we still never had to compromise on them and they had significant promotional budgets behind them. Or "Happiness" and "In the Bedroom," films that— thanks to the influence of critics at the time—had much greater penetration into the cultural landscape than their budgets would have predicted. Making some kind of impact is one of the reasons I love to make movies, after all. When good films don’t get seen, something is wrong. So I looked back at the prior three years and thought, “Wait a second, this isn’t making me happy. My investment of labor and emotion should give back more. I want more from all this.”

I also had to come to terms with my dissatisfaction with just helping get good movies made. I wanted to make great movies—those that couldn’t be ignored. And I started to wonder if maybe I could generate more movies, of a more interesting nature, if I didn’t have to preserve my own hand in their day-to-day making.

Back in 2010, I posted on my blog a list of seventy-five things that I thought the film industry could do to make itself better. But little happened as a result. I had hoped that my post might spark a fire among other filmmakers. I couldn’t be the only person in the industry who realized how screwed up everything was and how, by working together, we could build it better.

But there were no concentrated efforts to figure out ways to allow filmmakers to retain the licensing rights, and the resulting financial upside (if ever), to their films (if filmmakers are not going to be paid up front, it should be common practice to at least give them a reasonable hope of future payment); to connect with audiences in a deeper, more sustainable way; or to ultimately move to a more prolific level of production. (And there still hasn’t been any mobilization on these issues. We still don’t share information or work together, though I hope that this will change someday.) I did work with another filmmaker, Jon Reiss, to design a new model to help integrate audience-building and engagement, as well entrepreneurial practices, into a filmmaker’s toolkit. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get much traction with it. The IFP in New York embraced a small part of the plan, and Jon has been running that minilab ever since, with positive results, but it wasn’t the massive shift we were hoping to launch.

Without a business model fitted for the times we are living in— one that allows for filmmakers to have a more sustainable living and for investors to receive risk-appropriate returns—budgets will continue to shrink, which has a profound effect on the types of stories that are told, and how they’re being realized. When microbudget movies become the majority of what indie film is, and they’re less appealing to traditional distributors, then our cultural institutions must take a real hand in audience building and aggregation, film appreciation, the marketing and distribution of artist’s work, and, ultimately, the protection of artist’s rights.

Excerpted from "Hope for Film" by Ted Hope with Anthony Kaufman. Published by Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint. Copyright 2014 by Ted Hope. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Ted Hope with Anthony Kaufman