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No God No Master

I love being an independent filmmaker. Not for the few and far between accolades I’ve received for the movies I’ve made, but for the opportunities independent film has given me — a chance to have a voice and share that voice with others. I imagine this is why so many choose film as a profession.

But independent filmmaking as we know it isn’t what it once was, when stepping behind the camera meant you had arrived at a certain level and achieved a certain distinction in your career. Directing movies was once reserved for those who had made previous achievements in the industry and earned their way into the director’s chair. Today, a hand-held digital camera and home editing system is all you need to make a film and to call yourself a director — a few thousand dollars out of pocket and you’re on your way. The sheen has worn off the shiny new car and now we’re all driving Buicks.

So, what does this actually mean for independent filmmakers? On one hand, it’s made filmmaking possible for those who otherwise would never have the opportunity. On the other, it’s watered down the landscape and made it harder to recognize filmmaking talent. One thing is for certain — it’s made it more difficult to define independent filmmaking as a viable occupation. Recently, I sat down in a New York café with John Sayles, director of 17 independent films and a two-time Academy Award nominee, who was about to address a group of film students across the street at the Directors Guild of America. When I asked him what he was going to talk about he replied, “How independent filmmaking is no longer a profession.” An admission made by one of the founding fathers of the American independent film movement, it was a sobering moment. I had imagined my mentor would deliver a speech that would send all of those wide-eyed students onto the streets with cine cameras in hand, hopeful that their next creation might meet the standards of the great John Sayles. But it wasn’t to be — not in today’s world of independent filmmaking, not in this film economy. The best they could hope for was admission into one of the hundreds of film festivals that have cropped up in recent years — where their visions might gain ground and their film careers might get launched — long odds and still we’re willing to make the bet. But Sayles is a realist. Struggling to get his own projects to market, how could he tell others there was a future in independent film?

These are the times we live in, when making the movie is only half the battle. The other half is distribution and the roads are becoming fewer by the minute. There was a day when you could possibly get your film into one of the premiere festivals, where it had a chance not only to be seen, but also picked up by a distributor. This window has been steadily closing as of late and distributors have wisened up. They’ve found a way to usurp the independent film movement and make it their own, producing low-budget artsy movies that attract major stars. Why acquire an unknown when you have the means to distribute your own independent film? The darlings are still out there, winning awards at Sundance and enjoying midnight screenings at Toronto, but they’re struggling for attention. Most are relegated to the smaller circuit of festivals, garnering reviews and hoping for a chance to put a few notches under their belts. “An Official Selection” between the laurel wreaths looks better on the screener than no selection at all. Selling the film and recouping its costs is another matter.

More than a trend, this film economy is looking to hang around for a while. It doesn’t know and doesn’t care what it costs to produce. It doesn’t recognize what you spent on a union cast and crew — these are no longer valid concerns for distributors who still release films the old fashioned way. They’ll take your film, if they take it at all, any way they can get it. For many, crowd funding has become the solution. Make the film for next to nothing and don’t call it an investment. Donors will take care of the costs and donors are forgiving. There’s nothing wrong with it, but crowd funding has its limitations. And then there’s cyberspace, where the world of online content providers and digital media distributors has begun to flourish. Again, at least for now, this world too has its limitations. Traditional distribution has all but dried up. Independent filmmaking is no longer a profession; it’s a passion with no guarantee of success. It’s enough to make Debbie Downer suicidal.

If you’ve read this far, you’re thoroughly depressed. But there’s a cure and here it is — elevate filmmaking to a new level. Challenge yourselves to be daring and don’t settle for mediocrity. Quit thinking your kitchen-sink drama is the next Oscar winner and make a film that changes the way we look at films. Listen to your peers and learn from the greats whenever you have the chance. Above all, watch the movies of yesteryear and glean from them. Quit talking about your film and make it. Find the money and produce it any way you can. So what if it’s financed by donors or by investors, we still have an obligation to make good films. There’s too much crap out there and it’s flooding the landscape. There are too many festivals making us believe we can all be filmmakers. It’s not the festivals’ fault; it’s just how it is.

We can make better films and this should be our battle cry as independents. Otherwise, we’re trading our profession for fleeting moments at faraway festivals that don’t add up. These moments don’t make us filmmakers — they make us journeymen. We can do better than that. We can make films that can change the landscape and attract distributors, but we have to make them together.

© 2016 Filmmaker Magazine
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A Publication of IPF