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in Filmmaking
on Sep 26, 2009

Indiewire and MoMA jointly organized a summit at MoMA on September 25 to discuss independent film and its future direction in a time of economic crisis and technological change. That the two groups could assemble a fairly astonishing collection of about 70 distributors, producers, directors, festival reps and others from the community at one place at one time is testament to the strength of the organizations but also the widespread sentiment that our business is changing and that what is yet to come will be defined by our collective actions — or, possibly, non-actions.

Some of the attendees, listed here in no particular order, included: Rick Allen (Snag Films), Michael Lynne (Unique Features), James Schamus (Focus Features), Ted Hope (This is That), Tom Barker (Sony Classics), Ira Deutchman (Emerging Pictures), Tom Quinn (Magnolia), Ryan Werner (IFC), Arianna Bocco (IFC), John Vanco (IFC), Jason Kliot (Open City), Joana Vicente (Open City), Michelle Byrd (IFC), Paola Frecerro (B-Side), Geoff Gilmore (Tribeca Enterprises), Eileen Newman (Tribeca Film Institute), Robin Bronk (Creative Coalition), Pam Koffler (Killer Films), Anne Hubbell (Kodak), John Sloss (Cinetic), Victoria Cook (Cinetic), Dina Kuperstock (CAA), Josh Braun (Submarine), Raj Roy (MoMA), Josh Siegel (MoMA), Peter Broderick (Paradigm Consulting), John Penotti (Greenestreet), Ira Sachs (director), Chris Eigeman (actor/director), and Peter Saraf (Big Beach). (Apologies to the many, many other people who attended and who I have not listed here.) Anne Thompson and Eugene Hernandez acted as moderators.

The ground rules were that the event could be written about, attendees could be listed, but that quotes could not be attributed without permission. Although I’m sure that many of the people there wouldn’t mind if I quoted them directly, I’m going to adhere to the rules and paint a broad-strokes picture of the event by listing some of the questions that were raised.

1. Crisis, What Crisis? Less funding available for independent film; a retreat from the market by private equity for at least three years; no new mini-major start-ups on the horizon; the inability of any of the “old” indie companies to remain independent over time; studio emphasis on and audience acceptance of pure escapism at the multiplex; a shortage of trusted voices who will guide consumers to indie product in the digital marketplace; the difficulty of making a living as an independent producer; and the limited appeal DIY models have for filmmakers who may not be businessmen or who may not have the energy following picture lock to self or hybrid-distribute — all of these were cited as indicators of the current crisis. But there were other points of view. Some challenged this conception, asking if the studio specialty business is really all that broken and noting that while DVD is shrinking, other ancillaries, including cable pay deals, are still robust. Are studio specialty divisions still maintaining healthy profit margins, or are they dispensable vanity labels able to be jettisoned when their corporate parents feel their bottom lines contracting? Seen another way, is the crisis simply a crisis for the indie film managerial class, who are no longer able to maintain their standard of living from the percentages thrown off from transactional indie product? And with regards to private equity, one participant pointed out that there is equity out there originating in other industries. Many of these investors are willing to invest in the sector but have been burned before and are thus looking for new deal structures that respect the value of their investment.

2. Who are We? One of the most trenchant observations occurred when one speaker asked everyone in the room under 30 to raise their hand. Only two hands went up. This was a graying crowd. When new ways of viewing were discussed, while there were exceptions there were also a lot of “My 19-year-old likes to…” And as much as we were gathered under one roof to discuss a common problem, resonant was one observation that we are, in fact, all different. Everyone in the room has a different business plan from everyone else in the room. There are some for whom independent film is more of a business, and others for whom it is more of an art. And when assessing the effect of the crisis, one could simply point out that bad businesses went away and good ones stayed.

3. Who are They? There is a new audience who sees things differently. What we in the room consider “good” may be different from what that new audience does. How do we factor that audience into our decisionmaking? Are peer-review mechanisms, where the audience guides a curatorial process, the answer? Or is the opposite the case: that independent film cannot flourish without critical and curatorial voices trusted and empowered by the audience? Are we lagging in our research of the new audience, our pinpointing of what interests them and what they want in specialty film? Does a younger audience still care about the theatrical experience? And is the young audience hardwired by now to accept that they pay hundreds for their latest handheld device or thousands for a new plasma screen but won’t pay anything, or only pennies, for content? Has the iTunes pay model taken hold, or is it still an uphill battle to monetize film in the digital space?

4. What’s the Model? What will be the most viable models for indie film exhibition and distribution going forward? The traditional staggered window release pattern? The new day-and-date and VOD models? Affiliated networks of non-theatrical venues? Should distributors be “platform agnostic,” releasing individual releases on the platforms that make the most sense for them? What about releasing films in virtual screening rooms with chat windows alongside, so individual viewers can become a connected audience? And when it comes to revenue, should we accept that there is in the purely independent world no connection between the economics of production and the economics of distribution? In a wired world, why can’t there be a way to make sure some tiny sliver of revenue flows back to the filmmakers and producers every time a film is viewed? Or, is that just a quixotic idea? Whether it is or not, right now many producers feel slammed, working for fees they would have worked for ten years ago with many only months away from quitting the business. Is independent film distribution really just about data mining, being able to collect as much information about your audience base as possible and then being able to target them individually? Is the only play with true upside at the moment the aggregation play, which seeks to license large numbers of films in order to monetize them as digital libraries, and, if so, what does that mean for individual filmmakers who are stuck with pennies on their production dollar?

5. What about the Work? Is independent work stronger than it was five years ago, as at least one person claimed? (I agree with that, by the way.) Or has the magic associated with American independent film gone away, having been replaced by exciting work from overseas and superior writing on cable shows like The Wire, True Blood and Mad Men? Is our biggest failing our inability to deliver to our audiences the freshness they look to us for? Shouldn’t we be worrying less about the business aspects and more about talent, storytelling, and making sure that well developed and original work is created and then can enter the system?

6. The IFC. As the biggest buyer of specialty films in the current marketplace, there was some discussion of the IFC, its model, and its effect on both the perception of specialty film in the States but also the eco-system of producers and funding. Are the low minimum guarantees (five and sometimes low six-figure) paid by IFC decimating the pricing system of the U.S. specialty acquisition market? Or are they just indicative of where that market is right now? What about the upside — the directors who now have viable careers following the release of their IFC-distributed films and who are seeing royalty checks? Does the fact that European producers are often able to accept these low advances because their film production is heavily subsidized by state funds and official co-production treaties point to a larger issue for U.S. producers having to do with the way our government spends our tax dollars — on foreign wars as opposed to providing single-payer health insurance that would create more security in our lives?

7. The Empowered Filmmaker. It’s not an option not to be a distributor was one sentiment expressed about the new DIY and hybrid models. Conventional distribution is a “Plan B” for many filmmakers, who must assume from the outset that they will be involved in the distribution of their work. But how will filmmakers attain the detailed knowledge needed to distribute their films? Who will teach them the nuances of each market? Veteran filmmakers like Louis Malle and Stanley Kubrick, who were each knowledgeable about the specific theaters they played, were remembered, but the exhibition business has changed. How are filmmakers today going to pick this up? Do they really need to? Should they want to? Can’t they just partner with others who will do this? More than one person expressed the opinion that not every filmmaker is a businessman or simply would rather “trust the expert” when it comes to releasing.

8. The Takeaway. I’m not sure there was one, except for a last line uttered by one participant: “We should do this more often.” A huge number of issues were tossed around and while some participants took the occasion to go into their stump speeches, others authentically seemed to be grappling with the dynamics of the current moment. The comment that we are all different and all have different business models was incredibly apt. Ultimately, we are a diverse group clustering around a collection of content, but the answer of what we’d each do with these individual piece of content varies greatly.

While leaving, a colleague turned to me and said, “Half the people seem to be frustrated the model is changing and the other half are trying to be part of the change.” That’s as good a summing up as any, except to remember again the demographics of the room. The majority of the people there are the folks who, for better or worse, created the the marketplace definition of “independent film.” There is a host of younger producers and directors who have embraced this definition and are trying to launch their own films and careers, or who have rejected it and are reshaping independent media to new formal ends. I’d like to see representatives of both those groups, to hear about their struggles and their reaction to the trail we have laid, if we do all decide to do this more often.

UPDATE: Just after posting I came across Ira Deutchman’s notes on the same event. Read him here. And, Anne Thompson has posted her excellent wrap-up, complete with some direct quotes for which she received permission.

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