Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Straight Talk (from the hip) Courtesy of a Mad Pulp Bastard

Time for some straight talk.

There's a lot of consternation in the air of media-making land. Things are changing fast and they are leaving a lot of people in their wake. Everything producers, filmmakers and distributors thought they had mastered has gone the way of the dodo bird and left them with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

With the collapse of many 'indie film' divisions at the studios (Ha! Can't believe I just wrote that), whole systems have been swept away leaving a lot of questions, and thanks to the internet and social networking those questions are being bandied about, dissected and redefined at a rate that would give Johnny Quick "speed envy."

Recently, producer Mike S. Ryan expressed his opinion on the state of indie film and how he sees we are going wrong with much of the online discussion of distribution, self-distribution and their role in "independent film." he seems to feel that many of the unique filmmaking perspectives will be crushed under the weight of discussion regarding crowd-sourcing and DIY, and that we should instead be fostering unique point-of-view instead of concentrating on business issues.

I couldn't disagree more so I decided to copy and paste his essay from the internet and go over each and every point he tries to make. I have to confess that I'm a tad angry here - not only at Ryan who gets so much wrong on both a factual and philosophical level - but with myself for allowing his words to get to me. I think part of it is the feeling that this guy has a great platform (Filmmaker magazine) to empower filmmakers to do something and instead he whines about how "unique voices" may be left out. In today's digital age I cannot accept that as a valid argument.

So here is the essay with my comments interspersed throughout. It is my hope that this sparks something within the community of mediamakers.

Producer Mike S. Ryan challenges the current preoccupations of our independent film scene.

Call me crazy, but I don't think distribution is the greatest problem facing independent cinema right now. Distribution is a problem, but it has always been. Returning investment is perennially difficult, but even when we had a few exceptional profit leaders most films lost money. The brief heyday of what seemed like a profitable indie industry was just a bubble, like dot-com and real estate. Bubbles typically self-inflate with the hot air of the people inside, spewing gas to mask secret truths. In the case of independent film, it is this: uncompromising, quality work that exists outside the mainstream has only ever been profitable for a few.

Distribution problems will always exist. What has changed is that filmmakers are realizing and discussing their responsibilities to said distribution. It's the realization that distribution is not a brass ring nor a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but a stage in a movie's development that has prompted this eruption of interest in DIY, distribution, audience connection and so forth.

Non-mainstream by definition is a niche - a tributary off of the Rio Grande that is mainstream awareness and interest. What has been the problem is the perception perpetuated by distributors and embraced by would-be film moguls is that a niche film product deserves mainstream attention and success.

The mainstream will not embrace a movie that deals with a subject matter not to its liking or interest, and no amount of money thrown at the problem through star casting, expensive production values or huge advertising and marketing campaigns is going to change that. Period.

It's therefore the responsibility of indie filmmakers to evolve beyond the old ways if they are to continue to produce work they want. They need to connect with their audience.

Today most of us in independent film are looking for new ways to justify investment in our movies. DIY output deals, VOD and niche marketing seem like the new hot ideas. And recent successes with new platforms are a true sign of hope. Our expectations are adjusting to reality; innovative, passion-driven films are finding their audience again. What concerns me, though, is not the slow, vague emergence of new business strategies but the idea that filmmakers need to adjust their ideas to conform to these so-called new models.

No, filmmakers need to temper their expectations as to what a return on investment could be. There is a huge emotionally-driven undercurrent of entitlement out there amongst independent filmmakers that they somehow deserve to have a Brinks truck back up to their porch and dump a load of cash on them JUST BECAUSE THEY MADE A FILM. It is this sense of inflated ego and self importance that inflated the bubble you speak of above.

It is this sense of easy money, entitlement and so forth that has led many an investor down the path of ruin. Deservedly so, because they thought to cash-in on film. Really the only people who have been making money are the distributors and the financial institutions who have been taking their cut of the deals being set up.

Filmmakers don't need to adjust their ideas to conform, but they do need to understand that what they like doesn't necessarily conform to mainstream success. They shouldn't be thinking indie film is some key to the executive washroom at the studio. Film is a job like any other, and should be treated with as much financial, business development and marketing scrutiny as any other business. It is this scrutiny and the development of the world wide web which has led us to the point we find ourselves: filmmakers taking control of their careers and the entertainment products they create.

Post-screening, filmmakers are used to hearing from potential distributors: "Great film, but we're not seeing the poster." In other words: "We're passing because we don't know how to market this." These distributors don't believe they can interest a mass audience in original, unclassifiable films. Today that marketplace concern has not only become more intense but is almost accepted as a justified reaction to difficult movies. And it's not just distribution execs but also the press and even other filmmakers who retreat to this mind-set, dismissing innovative work that seems alien to our commercial marketplace.

You're going to fault a company for asking a responsible question like this?

If only someone had walked up to Ford and said, "Great car, but we don't see the market for the Edsel."

If a work is difficult then it should come as no surprise that the mainstream is not going to embrace it. It's up to the filmmaker and the producing team to demonstrate the audience exists if they seek mainstream investment or distribution.

As crafty as this business is, at the end of the day it is a business. You don't deserve distribution. You earn it either by making a film the mainstream companies are willing to invest their time and dollars in - or - you distribute it yourself. The sense of distribution entitlement you project is outlandish and ill-conceived, sir.

Don't try and change the viewpoint of the distribution companies and make it their job to foster independent viewpoints by distributing films. One: they're bad at this. Distribution companies are sales companies whose product just happens to be film. They could just as easily be selling cars. Distribution companies sell what their buyers tell them they want. Two: It's a short term solution to a problem and would take many years to change. Better to make each filmmaker independent and self-supporting so he could turn his back on the traditional (inequitable) systems. This allows them to be in control and as they say, "agile, mobile and hostile."

Roger Corman was famous for mocking up one-sheets before his films rolled camera. Today, filmmakers are told to have Constant Contact lists of their target audiences on their hard drives before their first days of filming. The required strategy is to first launch a Facebook page, make your fans your "audience" and allow their swelling numbers to serve as your green light. And, then, as you shoot, make sure these fans don't get away by marketing your film through Twitter updates, blog posts, and other forms of social-media messaging.

Okay. Just to be clear here - you're talking about the same Roger Corman who distributed movies like Cries and Whispers, Amarcord, The Harder They Come, Fantastic Planet, The Story of Adele H. and The Tin Drum? That distributed these foreign movies to Drive-ins and on HBO obtaining greater revenues for the filmmakers than what would have been obtained if they had simply released them on the art house circuit? That spotted a market niche and decided to exploit it while still producing exploitation movies like Caged Heat and Night Call Nurses?

That Roger Corman?

The guy who is executive producing an online serial for Netflix directed by former protegee Joe Dante?

The guy who was recently honored with an Oscar for his lifetime achievement in film?

THAT Roger Corman?

Would that we all act as responsibly as he has in creating ground-breaking work and fostering a business-like, marketing-first attitude toward our film endeavors.

This is indeed a great strategy for certain films - but not all films allow for such easy niche preconceptions. While defining a film's possible marketing plan early can be helpful, a promising marketing plan should not justify a film's existence. And, more importantly, the lack of one should not designate a film as worthless.

Not worthless, but suited to the market in which it aims to succeed. If you have a film that fills a certain niche and no other then the potential investor knows what the potential return on investment is.. This is all part of the process and should be given its due, though I agree that it isn't the end-all, be-all. It's a signpost.

Developing content and nurturing auteurs should be our top concern, not figuring out distribution models or revenue schemes. The whole purpose of independent film is to make films that aren't prefabricated to hit a target audience of someone else's devising.

No, indie film's purpose is to allow filmmakers to make films that are designed to hit the target audience of the filmmaker's choosing. If the filmmaker chooses to make a film for a small market then so be it. But again, just because a filmmaker makes a film doesn't mean it deserves distribution attention. Independent should not only be the aesthetic, but it should be the modus operandi of the filmmaker. By its very definition, it means outside the mainstream, and by vocation should eschew attention by distribution companies. If you seek distribution companies then you aren't independent. You are part of the very system you supposedly turned your back on.

In fact, it's that kind of market-centric thinking that puffed up the bubble with derivative films; it's those goals that made indie go flaccid in the first place.

Yes, derivative films that all attempted to be "art." Films that were overpriced, over-produced and lame ducks out of the gate by having such a high overhead that there was no conceivable way that a profit could be derived from the film's exhibition - at least for the filmmakers and their investors. Indie film financing - both on the production and distribution side - has been a house of cards on par with the housing crisis. It has been near-criminal enterprise and should be investigated thoroughly. They gamble and deceive and inflate to the woe of all involved.

It is because of this near-criminal enterprise that we are swinging back toward the filmmaker's taking control of the product they make. Taking their audience. Taking their message and eliminating the middle management leeches wherever and whenever possible to ensure the highest return on investment (meaning that the film is seen by the biggest audience possible that has an interest in the film).

Any tools that accomplish these tasks can only strengthen the sense of independence within each filmmaker and cannot be a bad thing for the fostering of independent viewpoint and expression. Yes, maybe the distribution talk is a bit overdone. Guilty. But since distribution and marketing are the backbones of making money in this business we can be forgiven a bit for the intensity and breadth of the discussion.

Audience-driven content posing as truly independent film has numbed the audience that is hungry for innovative work. Powerful statements told in direct, aesthetically challenging and possibly uncomfortable ways are what mark visionary work. The outer margins are where true visionaries live, and the fact that these artists may not reach the mainstream is not sad; it should be embraced. I'm not interested in dragging everyone I know to the new Bela Tarr film. Bela Tarr is not for everyone (his work is actually for very few), but it is exceptional work, and it deserves to exist, despite the fact that Bela does not have Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Again, that's fine - but don't expect the audience to flock in droves to the cinema to see Bela Tarr. Nor should one expect a financier to lay down money just because Bela Tarr exists and has made a film. Bela Tarr is entitled to nothing that Bela Tarr doesn't work toward achieving. Existence does not predicate reward.

Movies have always been audience-driven content. If the audience says they like a film or filmmaker then guess what happens next?

I've heard it said that because filmmakers like Todd Solondz and Jim Jarmusch don't have readily-defined young audiences reachable through all these various wired platforms that their work is considered less relevant today than the latest viral sensation. Frankly, I find that a sad and scary opinion.

It is sad that innovative and opinionated filmmakers with unique perspectives on storytelling like Solondz and Jarmusch haven't embraced the possibilities of various wired platforms for storytelling. Filmmakers who do not evolve wither and die. If indeed they aren't relevant then whose fault is that?

I worry that the traditional gatekeepers - the festival programmers, the critics and the producers - are starting to ignore the cultivation of true visionaries by wholeheartedly drinking this niche transmedia Kool-Aid. If gatekeepers start to agree that the only way to make indie film relevant again is through new forms of community outreach then there is a chance that films that alienate and aren't crowd-sourced huggable will be passed by.

Have you ever been on the internet?

There's EVERY color of the social spectrum that's out there. Even those of the "non-huggable" variety... freaks, geeks, weirdos, of all shape and sizes. That is the one equalizing tool that needs to be embraced because it allows those who feel themselves to be outside the mainstream and hungry for something different the opportunity to actually connect with work that embraces the same philosophy and aesthetic.

I fear that in the rush to embrace new methods of promotion and distribution that worthy yet seemingly unpromotable films will be completely ignored. If festivals get behind day-and-date VOD or free YouTube multiplatform releasing then isn't there a chance that these fests will pick films that best lend themselves to these new screening platforms? Films catering to easily distracted Web surfers and not contemplative theatergoers? Likewise, are there producers passing on strong work because it can't be broken into Webisodes and streamed on YouTube?

Some films do not lend themselves to viewing on computers, phones or in loud crowded rooms. The extreme margins is where the true groundbreaking work is done; it's always been that way, and no amount of crafty virile Twitter DIY distribution chatter is going to change that fact. Films that make their marketing campaigns their highest priorities are audience-driven films and these are the films that have historically alienated viewers hungry for visionary work.

And it is on the internet where niche audiences will be able to find these "extreme-margins" films and screen them . You miss (by a country mile) the fact that many television screens are being wired into the web via set-top boxes. People will be watching these films everywhere THEY want to - on their mobile phone, laptop, computer or television. That's far more screening capability than all of the theaters around the world combined. Again, your attitude suggests that the best and only true cinema is screened theatrically in front of an audience.

The truth is theatrical screening is one very small drop in the bucket of an indie film's outreach to audiences. You don't make an audience come to you - unless they are sufficiently enticed to do so - you go to where they are and invite yourself into their lives. Theatrical screening is now and always has been a group activity. It is now up to indie filmmakers and distributors to realize that those types of screenings are at the tail end of the distribution cycle - ESPECIALLY for your films that don't fit into the mainstream.

I am not into indie film because I like being part of an indie "community." I don't help make bold, boundary-pushing work because I want to connect to or be part of a group of outsiders. Though this group can help spread the word, it's not the reason I work on these films. I am into indie film because no other medium can express my feelings about the world. It's because I don't get what I need from mass culture that I seek it in the margins. I don't crave mass acceptance nor do I dream of it. And I would hate to see the young artists who would otherwise make the boundary-pushing work of tomorrow not do so because they haven't impressed gatekeepers with their viral marketing plans.

Then don't seek out other people's money to finance your hobby.

The wonderful (and wonderfully dangerous) thing about the web is that by utilizing the free tools that are available you won't have to go through the gatekeepers. You can reject them entirely. Become independent.

There is a problem with independent film today, but it's not that filmmakers don't have access to the marketing tools they need. If we create strong innovative work audiences will come, and in turn, new forms of profit will evolve. But if we start by encouraging filmmakers to please as wide an audience as possible then we will destroy what is alive and essential about alternative cinema. New distribution strategies are inevitable, but we should not allow our search for new platforms to dilute the content or crush the dreams of our next generation of auteurs.

Again, have you seen the extremes that are available on the internet? The internet has allowed the niche audiences to survive, to connect. Every interest group is represented in some way, shape or form. We are encouraging people to connect with their audience. Again, I'm sorry but your build it and they will come attitude has NEVER worked - in any industry.

And this auteur label you use is just as much fertilizer as the "A film by" credit. No one in this business makes a film alone.

There are some brilliant films out there today that are having a hard time finding an audience. This isn't the filmmakers' fault. It's the fault of the youth audience whose minds have been melded by the corporate consumer-entertainment machine. What was potentially indie film's next greatest audience didn't materialize because it never learned about true rebellion, what counter culture means and where it is often found. It's often conjured up and cultivated under smelly overpasses by angry outsiders, not in corporate-sponsored high-tech think tanks by salaried media trend experts.

Films like Happiness, American Splendor, Safe, Gummo and, recently, Ballast are films that were not made to imitate a preexisting popular Hollywood model. These are films that were made because they resembled no other prior films. It used to be that bold unconventional visions like those were the raison d'etre of indie film culture. It was those visions that made indie cinema essential viewing for any self-respecting young anti-establishment non-conformist free thinker. Today those films would be considered "undistributable."

Today, those films would be shepherded by the filmmakers themselves and they would probably make more money for the filmmaker directly than with traditional distribution.

In fact, BALLAST was pulled from IFC by the filmmaker himself. The fact that the filmmaker lives in an era where he is capable of making that choice and following through with it is testimony enough for the use of the internet to connect audiences with a film.

Perhaps it's not the youth audience's fault, though. Even if they are looking for it, young people today actually aren't able to associate outsider perspectives with most current independent cinema. Market forces are so shaping independent content that we have castrated the whole reason indie got started in the first place. "Independent" alt culture helped kill itself by distracting its audience with the petty bourgeois aesthetics emboldened by a decade-long onslaught of overpriced Sundance-launched quirk. We need to get back to the heart and soul of what it means to be independent and stop chasing the mainstream dragon; it was a pipe dream to begin with. We need less sweating over what we think the audience wants and to focus more on the people who could care less and are busy right now marching to their own fucked-up, out-of-time drummers. The indie film industry as it has been defined since Sex, Lies, and Videotape is dead. Hallelujah. Let the inmates run free.

And filmmakers are pursuing that option through the use of internet tools. As this occurs more and more and becomes de rigueur of the process, filmmakers will find audiences who are ready and able to embrace their work - and they won't need "distribution" as we think of it today. They will be free to start their own companies or entities to pursue the work that interests them. It is your embracing an out-moded brand of thought that is yoking indie film.

No one is going to see groundbreaking cinema if they use a mainstream distribution system that is flawed and skewed toward serving the distributor's needs first and foremost. I implore filmmakers of all types to go out and make what you want to make - the stuff that interests you most - while connecting with those of a like heart. I implore filmmakers to be financially responsible to yourself and your investors by using your creativity first before throwing money at a "problem." I implore filmmakers to tell stories any way you possibly can - to use all of the buffalo - to create media.

I implore you to be truly independent rather than pay lip service to the independent ideal. If you don't we all know all you will end up doing is placing those lips on traditional distribution's ass.

By my definition, "indie" means not being afraid of rejection. If you are a filmmaker who has no idea who in the world would ever want to see your movie then there is a pretty good chance that you are on the right road to creating something truly groundbreaking. You are our true future.

The only way to "break ground" is to pick up the shovel yourself and start digging.

1 comment:

Angela N. Hunt said...

I love you.


*bookmarks this for permanent reference*