The State of Independent Film: 2013


Today and throughout the week at Moviefone, we’re celebrating the unsung, hard-won, I’ve-maxed-out-my-credit-cards-to-finance-this world of independent filmmaking. We’ll publish features that explore, expose, and explain today’s independent movies. We call it “Independents Day.” Get it? It’s clever, right? We thought so. Read on.

What’s the state of independent film today? The answer is a matter of perspective; there’s a lot of bad news out there, and a lot of good news as well. Short answer: Independent film is in a chaotic state of flux because the business model that made the indie renaissance of the past quarter century possible has collapsed into a shambles. The good news: Whatever rises from the ashes will offer new creative opportunities not yet dreamed of and will be better for indie filmmakers and audiences. The bad news: It has to be better, or else indie film will wither and die.

For a long time, it was hard even to define independent film. After all, the 1990s success of distributors like Miramax and festivals like Sundance sent Hollywood into a buying frenzy, absorbing the independents or launching their own in-house indie divisions. With few truly independent studios left, indie cinema became less about who was raising the budget and more about a set of artistic criteria. Indie was the kind of movies that won Oscars — dramas built around characters instead of plots, around ideas instead of feelings, voices instead of actions, faces instead of special effects. Indie was what you watched when you didn’t feel like an action blockbuster. Of course, by defining itself that way — in opposition to mainstream movies instead of in affirmation of its own principles — indie became just another genre, a set of hardened conventions just as rigid as those of action blockbusters.

In the past few years, however, Hollywood decided there was no money in the business of making small arty films, and the studios shuttered their indie divisions in order to place all their chips on expensive, formulaic action spectacles. In a way, the shakeout was good, since it left the indie landscape with some truly independent distributors once again, from the Weinstein Company to Lionsgate to FilmDistrict. But those firms have had to cope with some harsh new realities.

Again, it was good news/bad news. The bad news: The DVD aftermarket that had been the bread and butter of indie and mainstream film alike stopped growing and plateaued. The good news: the conversion of cinema from celluloid to digital promised big savings in distribution; a cash-strapped indie studio could now ship a movie print to theaters as a $125 hard drive instead of a $2000 set of film reels. The (additional) bad news: the price of converting from 35mm projectors to digital ones cost up to $100,000 per screen, an expense many independently owned art-house theaters have been unable to meet. According to estimates by the National Association of Theater Owners, by the time the conversion to digital is complete (over the next year or so), as many as 10,000 screens, or one out of every four venues in North America, could go dark.

Digital was supposed to make everything easier. It was supposed to democratize filmmaking by making it much cheaper, but it hasn’t. The bad news: Filmmaking is as expensive as ever. The good news: it looks a lot sharper.

Part of the reason production money is still hard to come by is that the traditional sources have dried up — not just the studios, but also the venture capitalists. That’s the bad news; the good news is, they’ll still finance your movie if you can attach a star to it; in the absence of the other known qualities that come with studio filmmaking, having a star is the only remaining reassurance that your project has some commercial viability and will recoup its investment. The film-critic establishment that might once have helped star-free movies get noticed has been decimated by cheap opinions flooding the Internet and by massive layoffs throughout the print journalism business. (Bad news.)

Kickstarter was another thing that was supposed to democratize the process by leveraging the Internet to make crowdsourcing your funding easier. That should have been good news, but In fact, sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo only made it easier for celebrities with filmmaking aspirations to raise money for their pet projects. And only certain celebrities. Zach Braff, who already has some indie cred from “Garden State,” raised $3.1 million from fans to help make his next movie, “Wish I Was Here.” Melissa Joan Hart, on the other hand, had an idea for an indie romantic comedy called “Darci’s Walk of Shame” but abandoned her effort to raise $2 million via Kickstarter after receiving just $51,000 worth of pledges. Imagine how much harder it is to use Kickstarter to raise money if you’re less famous than the star of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”

That’s the bad news; the good news is, plenty of indie films still get made, but (bad news) it’s still hard to get them shown outside the festival circuit. The prohibitive cost of digital projectors for independent theaters has seriously damaged the exhibition side of the business. Then again, the art-house cinema business had already been sliding for years, along with the mainstream multiplex business, as moviegoers abandon moviehouses for the comforts of their home theater systems.

Still, the change in moviegoing patterns is opening up new avenues for independent distribution. (Good news!) Netflix has made indie films available to people who don’t live anywhere near an art-house theater. And video-on-demand has done the same, sometimes making movies available on the same day they’re released in theaters, or even a few weeks beforehand. Movies like J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” have proved that the pay-per-view cable business hasn’t harmed the theatrical fortunes of movies released in theaters and VOD on the same day; if anything, the VOD release serves as good advertising for the theatrical release.

In this respect, the indie world is actually ahead of the mainstream film business. Exhibitors have balked when studios have tried to release movies on VOD and in theaters on the same day, fearing that VOD would harm a 3,500-screen wide release, but they’ve been fine with it for platform releases of indie movies opening at first on just a handful of art-house screens.

And the studios, whether they’ll admit it or not, need a thriving independent scene in order to survive themselves. After all, indie has long been the farm team system to the studos’ major league. Hollywood routinely taps filmmakers and stars who excel in the indie world to step up to big studio blockbusters, even though mainstream film calls for radically different skill sets. Director Marc Webb went from making the small but fiercely beloved indie romance “(500) Days of Summer” to filming the megabudget “Amazing Spider-Man” movies. Greta Gerwig went from queen of tiny mumblecore features to romantic lead in the big-studio remake of “Arthur.” Sure, the studios may misunderstand or misuse the talents that made these people indie successes, but they still depend on them to inject fresh creativity into what product that would otherwise be completely formulaic and stale.

At a time when even powerful Hollywood moguls like Steven Spielberg are so flummoxed by the changing landscape that they issue doom-laden predictions about the “implosion” of the film industry, it’s worth noting that what’s collapsing is just one way of doing business. It’s not the only way or even the best way, and some new way will inevitably take its place. In a world where we can all carry movies and the screens to watch them on in our pockets, it’s not yet clear what shape that new way will take. It’s probably something we can’t imagine or recognize right now. But independent filmmakers and the distributors and exhibitors who serve them will eventually figure it out — because they don’t have a choice but to figure it out.

Indie exhibitor Russ Collins wrote a long blog post responding to Spielberg’s pessimism, taking the long view that the current industry woes, for indie film as well as mainstream, are part of a longer history of continuous change and evolution. The current growing pains will also pass, Collins suggested. As he put it,

Change brings with it opportunity, and there is great opportunity for the Art House to flourish. Why? Because there are more movies made now than at any time in human history. This means all vital channels in which cinema can be presented can succeed – they won’t, but they can. And the community-based Art House has a distinct advantage because, as we have known for a little over 100 years ago, seeing a movie on a big screen, in a darkened room full of strangers is a profound and moving experience. Many humans, many of our neighbors seem to need the experience of gathering communally to experience stories and receive information. The Art House is that place, because it is the community’s living room, or better still, the communal campfire where people can learn, be entertained and transported by stories that are spun by that most brilliant of story tellers – the motion picture.

For more of Moviefone’s Independents Day coverage, head here

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