The Changing Face of Independent Film @ Woodstock Film Festival, October 3, 2009
October 3rd, 2009, @ Noon
Utopia Studios, Bearsville, New York
L-R: Peter Saraf, Scott Macaulay, John Sloss, Ira Sachs, and Richard Linklater
Scott Macaulay, Editor, Filmmaker Magazine
Richard Linklater, Director, Me & Orson Welles
John Sloss, Founder, Cinetic Media
Ira Sachs, Director, Married Life
Peter Saraf, Producer, Little Miss Sunshine
"I don't think we're back to 1985. I think we're back to 1975. Which is okay, because we have all these new tools. It's the best time ever to be a filmmaker," Richard Linklater stated at the beginning of the panel, "The Changing Face of Independent Film."
Independent Film has seen a real sea change in the last few years. As John Sloss pointed out, "It isn't that the people have lost interest in these types of movies. It isn't that piracy has become the norm. It isn't that DVD revenues have fallen off a cliff. For some reason, the studios have pulled out of the specialized business." Many studios have either downsized or eliminated their specialty divisions, choosing instead to focus on in-house productions. A lot of fingers were pointed at the studio system, who were accused of perverting the idea of what an independent film is:
Linklater: The culprit seems to be the studio's specialized divisions, who basically have taken a singular vision, an expression, and commodified it. Then [they] jacked it up, and it's gotten to a point where these films are getting $20 Million spent on them, and giving them specialized screenings. They've blotted out the possibility of pure independent film, and audiences finding independent films.
It used to be, "That's a cool little film, let's give it a go. If it makes $2 Million at the Box Office? Hey, congratulations! Big Success! Now, they're turning down all these wonderful films that can't make $20 Million. They have the mentality of , "We can't even bother!"
Linklater also lamented the loss of a current cultural dialogue that would raise the profile of smaller independent films:
Linklater: Even in my hometown (of Austin, TX), there have been four or five films from local filmmakers that I think, "20 years ago, this film would've gotten distribution, this film would've had a cultural impact. I'm thinking of Alex Holdridge's In Search of a Midnight Kiss. Wonderful movie! Where's the cultural impact? That's what I think we're missing right now.
I think we're living in very commercial times. It's just sad. Obviously, there's a graph going like, "Oh, there were commercial times where everyone cared about art." No, it's just been getting more and more commercial. I'm afraid. It used to be that you had films where it wasn't about commercial success, it was about what it was about, and what it meant to people. And it qualified to be part of a bigger cultural conversation that went on. Now, newspapers and magazines are like, "Should we cover this?" And they'll be like, "No. It's just a little film. It's not going to make a big impact."
Macaulay: What the crisis is is that of meaning and value to people, having them enter the broader cultural dialogue.
Peter Saraf, producer of Little Miss Sunshine took an issue to the demonization of the so-called "Indiewood" film, and those who irk a living from it:
Saraf: I kind of argue the idea that success is a bad thing. Maybe there's been an over-commodization and an overcommercialization of a lot of independent films. A lot of us have made a living, and that's not such a bad thing, to have a certain amount of commercial success. I think we're in danger of de-humanizing it.
I produced a movie that has often been identified as part of the problem, Little Miss Sunshine, and it's one of the films that have caused a lot of outsized expectations of what Independent Films should make. I went to every specialized division for years and begged them to invest, to co-finance to even just commit to distributing the movie. There may be a lot of things that we could point out and blame, but I don't think that success is such a bad thing.
Scott Macaulay and Ira Sachs reflected on the pitfalls of the relationships that Independent Films had with the studios:
Sachs: There was too much money, too many films being made. I think that a scarcity of capital would eliminate the films that shouldn't have been made anyway. Granted, we don't live in a perfectly economically efficient paradigm. But I do think the scarcity of capital, and I've observed this, is forcing everybody to sort of drill down and maybe go back and perfect what they're doing. It's allowing the quality films to still get made.
Macaulay: One good thing, I think, coming from this crisis is because the market is in some ways evaporating, is that some of the more pernicious effects of that market will hopefully go away, too. I think that a lot of us who got started in Independent Film were passionate, and then the business component came in, and sort of began to second guess the work, or think about the work in a certain way.
It's like, "Well, if I'm going to make a film that's going to be bought by one of these companies, it's got to be a little like this, or I might have to cast this type of person in it, or the screenplay should have these formal attributes, and in many cases, it made some great films. But there are tons of films that aren't so great, or films that should've been done in another way, or shoehorned it into the wrong form. Hopefully, these bad representatives of Independent Film will be gone.
The panelists see a silver lining in new technological developments, such as Video On Demand, but also mentioned how difficult it is to make money with On Demand and cable without the studio's pre-negotiated output deals. However, former specialized division employees have been setting up their own independent agencies to assist independent filmmakers with P&A and other services. No longer do studios and specialty divisions have "the secret sauce" that enables them to feel that they can get a movie out to the public better than the filmmaker can. Former New Line executive Russell Schwartz, for example, has set up a new company, Pandemic Marketing, to deal specifically with the marketing of movies. Panelists speculated that P&A may become an essential part of a movie's budget in the near future.
Linklater: I tell people now when they're trying to raise $250,000 to make their film, I tell them, "Raise another $150,000 for P&A, even if you end up doing it yourself."