Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Independent Filmmaking and the Bad Economy

“Fifteen years ago, the Sundance Film Festival got 500 submissions. This year, they received 5,000. Virtually all of these are privately financed. There’s only one problem: most of the films are flat-out awful (trust me, I have had to sit through tons of them over the years). Let me put it another way: the digital revolution is here, and boy does it suck.”
- Mark Gill, executive of Warner Independent and Miramax, speaking at the Los Angeles Film Festival financing conference.

In case you haven’t noticed, the American Economy isn’t so hot. Well, actually, the global economy hasn’t exactly been amazing. It’s freighting enough to have to stop and consider what this means for most of us middle class Americans. Unless you are the guy in the huge, gas-guzzling SUV thumping some indistinguishable bass-line for the current pop radio hit that pulls up next me on the street while I’m on my bicycle (yes, my good old mountain bike) on my way to the bank to cash my all-too-small paycheck from my last freelance video editing gig, you too probably have lost some sleep over the economic slump.

Now, take into account what it means to be a new independent filmmaker these days . . . and things get even bleaker. In fact, just the other night, I was making myself a quesadilla on my griddle when I accidentally allowed my left wrist to touch the griddle’s hot edge. It burned me quite badly. Now I’m worried that it will leave a scar and people will just assume I tried to slit my writs (although in the wrong direction to be effective). And could I blame anyone for assuming such a horrible thing? It’s 2008, I’m an independent filmmaker, and I self-finance my projects through freelance video work. And if you know anything about such freelance work, you know that some times it rains, other times it dries up.

To make matter worse, Mark Gill—whom I quoted above—recently addressed an audience of filmmaking professionals at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I had a chance to read the whole speech at: http://weblogs.variety.com/thompsononhollywood/2008/06/laff-mark-gill.html, and that’s where I’m drawing my quotes from for this entry.

The economic crunch is taking its toll on the film industry as well. According to Gill, Disney has gone from releasing 47 films in a year not too long ago to putting out only 12 films this year. Many of the “independent” branches of the studios have either been shrunk or dissolved altogether. Fewer independent films are getting distribution, and those that do end up with smaller releases and tiny marketing budgets. Some films, which might have had a shot at theatrical distribution in the past, now can hope for a straight to video release at best.

“Here’s how bad the odds are: of the 5000 films submitted to Sundance each year— generally with budgets under $10 million—maybe 100 of them got a US theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That’s one-tenth of one percent,” explains Gill. He goes on to say, “Put another way, if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.”

There’s much more grim news in Gill’s speech. Though, I will point out that this perspective, while valid and utterly frightening, is also coming from a world where the world “independent” has been basically robbed of it’s original meaning. At the end of the day, companies like Warner Independent, Miramax, Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, and so forth, all get their money from the big studios that own them.

Still, one thing remains the same: The film industry is actually quite small. If Disney’s struggling, you better believe it that we’re probably all struggling. If the big companies are cutting back on both the productions they engage in and the number of films they pick up for distribution, the odds of starting a career in movies and being able to make a living as a filmmaker are shrinking. How ironic to be living in a time when filmmaking seems so accessible (with digital technology so readily available), and yet making a career of filmmaking is becoming more and more difficult.

So, how do I respond to this, given my current status as a mildly accomplish filmmaker who is still a nobody in the eyes of the industry? Well . . . I do what any sensible independent filmmaker does: I load up on caffeine, try to get some work done on my current film project while juggling paid gigs, promoting the short films I already have made and am trying to get into festivals, seeking more opportunities to work on other people’s films so I can gain more experience, and working on new scripts and ideas.

Being a new filmmaker feels a little like not having a life outside of filmmaking. In order to have any hope of making a splash in the film world, I invest an awful lot of time into thinking about how to approach marketing, filmmaking, film festivals, investors, production companies, distributors, and so on, and on, and on, and on. Heck, I even have goofy blog about filmmaking called Cin-Posium. Maybe you’ve heard of it? The point is, my brain can’t stop. I need a hobby. But there’s that voice in my head that says, “no a hobby would only take away precious time and energy I need to dedicate to making a career in film.”

But there’s another voice as well coming from some dark corner on my mind. It’s a version of me dressed in a suit, sipping a gin and tonic, staring at me smugly. He says, “You’re wasting your life. You’ll never have money to buy a house, you’ll never be able to afford visiting your homeland again (I’m from Brazil, in case you missed that part), you’ll never even finish paying off your school loans.” The creative portion of my brain, that neurotic and simultaneously overly confident and utterly insecure part of me, just nods and mutters, “Yeah. You’re probably right.”

But then I snap out of it. Becoming a filmmaker has never been easy. Those who manage to make films often have to juggle many elements of their lives in order to do what they love. Yeah . . . doing what you love. Mark Gill had something to say about that, actually:

“The single biggest change should be to only make movies that we absolutely love,” Gill expressed in his address. “Not ones we like. Not ones we need to do as a favor. Not the ones we do because they seem like a good ‘piece of business.’ Not ones we do because we think, hope, or wish that ‘the kids’ will like them. Not the knock-offs of the ones that worked at the box office last year. In a word, we should only pick the films we’re passionate about—and that have an audience.”

Ah, yeah. The creative portion of my brain sits up suddenly, starring at the smug bastard version of me in a suit, and responds, “But what about this film I’m working on right now? It’s really important to me. I have to tell this story. I love this story.”

Gill counties his advice to filmmakers, “If you want to survive in this brutal climate, you’re going to have to work a lot harder, be a lot smarter, know a lot more, move a lot faster, sell a lot better, pay attention to the data, be a little nicer (ok, a lot nicer), trust your gut, read everything and never, ever give up.”

Never give up, huh? I guess there are many ways to waste one’s life. Spending my whole life working a job I care little for just so I can ensure I have a nice house, new car, big screen TV, and . . . oh, whatever the hell it is that rich people spend their money on . . . well, that just doesn’t remotely bring to me the level of satisfaction that getting to do what I love doing—actually, getting to do what I believe God has wired me for—brings.

But what does this ultimately mean in practical terms for new filmmakers. I still have hope. Mark Gill pointed this out, “And if we do it [make good films] for less, we can afford to make something that’s not a moronic, homogenized piece of lowest-common-denominator drivel.” You see, Gill argues that we need to take the approach of making fewer films better.

My hope is to combine this thinking with Gill’s other bit of advice that I should be making only films I love. You see, if you are getting to do what you love doing, it’s not such a bad thing to spend an awful lot of time thinking about it, learning about it, expanding your knowledge base and connections. Sure, the competition is tough, and economics are making my chances of success even smaller. But, I can take this as either a sign that I need to go pick up an application at Starbucks, or I can see this as the very thing that will help me seize my full potential. Who knows, if I had it all handed to me—the ability to make any film I wanted to with any amount of money—I’m afraid I’d take it for granted. I might squander that gift. I might settle for making mediocre films instead of seeking to excel in every aspect of filmmaking.

I believe it was Paul Schrader (the screenwriter for some of my favorite films, such as Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ), that said that the interesting artists are not the ones for whom the doors are thrown wide open, but the one that kick down the doors themselves.

So, what keeps me going in light of a terrible economy and excruciating odds stacked against my making a life-long career in filmmaking? I love what I do, I love creating my own opportunities, and I love kicking down doors. The rest, that thing people worry too much about . . . you know, the future . . . well, that’s not in my hands anyway, is it?


Mark Gill's speech as posted on the blog Thompson on Hollywood by Anne Thompson. She is the depute editor at Variety. You can visit her blog at: weblogs.variety.com/thompsononhollywood

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