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HOW DRAMA DIED AT THE FILMMAKER FORUM

by
in Filmmaking
on Oct 11, 2009

Film Independent‘s Filmmaker Forum is underway this weekend, and we asked writer/director Zak Forsman to attend and report back. Here’s the first of his posts.

I’ve just locked picture on my first feature-length motion picture and it seems I couldn’t be entering the world of distribution at a worse time. I strolled into the DGA in Los Angeles for day one of the Film Independent Filmmaker Forum optimistic and eager. I left it determined to batten down the hatches in preparation for stormy seas ahead.

Veteran producer Jeremy Thomas (Creation, The Last Emperor, Crash) keynote opened with the concession that these are tough times for filmmakers making art house cinema for “sentient human beings,” as he put it. While he rejected the notion that drama as a genre was untenable, Linda Lichter of the “Following The Money Trail” panel implored filmmakers not to use the word “drama” to describe their films — because it’s death. Consensus on the panel was that drama needs prestige and recognizable talent behind it to be sustainable. It also needs the cachet of being positioned as an event and is heavily execution dependent, whereas other genres (comedy, horror, et cetera) have the more attractive benefit of being inherently pre-marketed. Blame for drama’s demise was fixed squarely on the economic downturn.

Richard Klubeck of UTA stated that for the first time, the major studios are opening their books to prove DVD sales are down 25%. They are not doing this out of generosity but to reinforce their argument against paying above the line talent the amounts they have in years past. With that drop in home video revenue goes the conventional model of sustainability for the independents who often looked to break even on theatrical, but relied on DVD for their profit margin. Still, there was a sentiment that the downturn would create new opportunities. Magnolia’s experimentation with collapsed windows of release was mentioned, as well as the importance of embracing new, as of yet, undefined windows that would emerge in the near future.

The “Sweet and Low Budget” panel mullled over and decontructed the new economics of independent filmmaking. There was this urgent plea for indie producers: now, more than ever, one must define the destination and work backwards in determining budget level, tailored to the eventual needs of the picture’s distribution. The panel suggested that cast is even more essential to a film’s marketability than before, especially for first-time filmmakers. The good news is that producers are getting more access to name actors for less money due to a scarcity of projects. The panel ended with Heather Rae’s (Frozen River) assertion that a $50,000 nano-budget can liberate a production.

Elsewhere, there was a call to reduce production costs. It began with Jeremy Thomas’ recommendtion to follow ones own taste and passion, to challenge audiences with extreme material, beautiful actors, music and exquisite craftsmenship in the filmmaking – but to do it for as little cost as possible. In fact, it couldn’t get much lower than the $25,000 that Alex Holdridge and Seth Caplan made “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” for. A confounded and frustrated Caplan challenged this Filmmaker Forum for serving up panelists that make it their business to stand between filmmakers and their audience. It was met with enthusiastic approval and applause. Seth estimated their take on a $6 VOD purchase to be 45¢ and anticipated a day when the indie distributers and middlemen were all but forgotten. This call for direct distribution between filmmakers and their fans was echoed earlier in the day, again by Jeremy Thomas, who encouraged filmmakers to build a bridge to their audience by starting their own distribution companies.

And that’s what I aim to do. That is the path we are on at Sabi Pictures. The current strategy for releasing our pictures remains largely unchanged. We’re looking for a festival to announce a platform release — that being a theatrical tour with direct DVD sales, followed by licensing to foreign territories, retail DVD, premium cable, VOD, internet outlets. It is a strategy that can incorporate festivals and domestic distribution, but does not rely on them. The lesson that made the greatest impression on me came from the panelist-filmmakers who struck deals for distribution but found they were doing just as much bootstrapping and poromotion as they would have if they’d retained those rights and done it themselves – only the money was going to all the people standing between them and their audience. With our films “White Knuckles” and “Heart of Now” already in the black and paid for, I very much look forward to taking some risks on defining some unique methods for helping an audience discover them.

The day of panels ended with Michael London’s expectation for a recovery to take two to three years before money starts coming back into the industry in any meaningful way. That, to my mind, is plenty of time for some serious, lasting changes to take place in the independent arena. Enough time for filmmakers to shift from DIY to DIWO (Do It With Others), or to shift from an independent philosophy to an interdependent one. There is great potential in this downturn to revise the system, to re-window release patterns, to develop the promises of VOD, to connect filmmakers more directly to audiences, to develop community-driven discovery engines, and for serious, thoughtful dramas to claw their way out of the grave. — Zak Forsman

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