BETWEEN THOUGHT AND EXPRESSION LIES CONVERSATION
Before this post, a full disclosure: I have sat on numerous panels in the last year, including Woodstock, SXSW, the Conversation NYC, and the IFP’s Script to Screen. Many of these panels have had something to do with “new models” or “the future of independent film.” My panel at Script to Screen was different because it was simply a one-on-one with writer/director Terry George, and it gave me some of the best advice: when trying to write seriously, disconnect your internet router and pack it away.
In my experience sometimes panels can be really stimulating and provocative, and sometimes they can be full of hot air. I remember once, a long time ago, being excited by a New York Festival of the Arts panel at NYU scheduled to feature both Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci. I bought tickets but when I arrived they had been replaced by Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. No slouches, but the panel, also featuring Martin Scorsese, turned into a long and rambling “recalling the good ol’ days of NYC exhibition” gabfest (“Marty, remember that old place down on Grand Street…”) instead of what I imagined would be more provocative and political discussion.
Still, I have gotten things out of panels. Once I was approached following one by a pair of first-time film producer/financiers. They had money they wanted to put into film and did I have anything? I sent them a script and they put $1.8 million into it.
Over the weekend I was sent a link to Vadim Rizov’s “When the Conversation Stops” over at GreenCine by a filmmaker who said he totally agreed with it. If you haven’t heard about this piece, which caused a mini ruckus on Twitter over the weekend, Rizov calls out the current wave of panels, how-to seminars and networking events aggregated under the mission of defining new business models for indie film as a gigantic time suck.
On the other hand: the professionalization of indie film — accelerated by the proliferation of innumerable internet technologies designed, one way or another, to promote networking, all shooting it out with each other — has led to a kind of parody of normal Hollywood business gossip. The assumption seems to be that now that the vast public has been trained to care about box-office receipts, maybe previously tough-sell indies can reach the same status by marketing themselves aggressively, even before they come out (an especially bad idea: the “story” behind your movie is just as important a tool as, say, a positive review).
Hence the increasing popularity of panels and conferences designed to reassure participants that they’re doing it right. The problem here is that the collective noise behind “business” will drown out discussion of the films themselves. Vladimir Nabokov once snidely noted that “Intellectuals do not join collectives,” and the same message could be valuable for directors: when you’re producing and directing and spending more time hyping your movie and yourself rather than thinking about the work — even if that’s the only pragmatic paradigm you’ve been offered — something’s probably gone wrong somewhere.
(Ironically, my lunch-time seminar at The Conversation, which I shared with Eugene Hernandez of Indiewire, was: “How to Prevent the Artistic Identity of Your Film from Being Overwhelmed by Social Media Chatter.” I can’t say we came up with a solution. But we did talk about it.)
Despite the fact that, as noted, I have sat on some of these panels and have thus contributed to them some amount of hot air, I’m glad Vadim wrote this piece, and I recommend you read it. Unlike him, I don’t want to “spit bile” at these events. But I do worry that some people are attending them in the belief that a “new model” will be explained. For the majority of independent filmmakers there is no new model and there will never be one. What there is is a set of tactics and strategies specific to this historical moment that can be employed in different percentages and with different degrees of dedication by filmmakers whose work is, ultimately, quite different from one another’s. For filmmakers unaware of some of what’s going on (and there are more than you think), these events can be good to attend — even if the filmmaker winds up later rejected that received wisdom.
One thing that some (including me) can find dispiriting about all these panel events: as Rizov notes, the business talk can drown out any talk of the art. Well, every industry has its trade events. The thing is, directors aren’t expected to go to ShoWest (at least the ones who aren’t publicizing a film aren’t). Executives, theater owners and bookers attend these things. But in the independent film world directors are told to wear many hats. They have to do their own development, fundraising and now marketing and exhibition and thus can be bored/alienated/overwhelmed/disinterested by these conversations they believe they should be attending. There is another side to these events, though — one that has been cited on the various comments threads at the links included here. You meet good people. The conversations — useful and sometimes consoling — you have with them aren’t reported on blogs, but they are as much a part of the events as all the official stuff. Also, it’s not like these events are only full of directors. There are producers, curators, distributors and VCs there in addition to people who are approaching new media content from the game, journalism and mobile industries. For some, that cross-pollination is exciting; for others, it’s simply noise and a distraction from artistic focus.
At the Conversation NYC, I ran into a friend who I really only see at these events. We went down the street for coffee, and I said to her (wearing my producer hat), “I’ve gone to so many of these events recently I feel like I just need to stop talking and actually make some stuff.” “I’m hearing that from a lot of people,” she replied. Like the internet router, sometimes the conversation has to be disconnected. Or: praxis is the hardest part.
If after reading Rizov’s piece you’d like to continue with his line of thought but with more revolutionary fervor, check out Michael Tully’s “Take Back Manifesto,” which cries: “We call for a ban of the conversations/panels/symposiums/etc. about ‘How To Market Your Indie Movie In The New Media World!’ until at least 2012, when these troubles will naturally work themselves out.”
UPDATE: Over at the IFP blog, Laure Parsons has related thoughts anchored by a response to Smriti Mundhra’s piece at Truly Free Film in which she quoted Ira Deutchman (who, in turn, was quoting a third party) saying that independent film “is not a business but a hobby.” Parsons’ piece is entitled “At Least Hobbies are Fun.”
But there is a reality, it seems to me, that is missing from the discussion. Selling independent films is not and never was a “business model” (or- if you wish- not a ‘good’ business model), in the context that making these films should be the basis for a lucrative career using the principles of an MBA program. A good business model takes into account what the consumer wants and tries to give them that. It does not find something that one personally likes and then tries to make other people care about it, which is something more like patronage.
Because of the economics around film, and the way independent film distribution evolved out of foreign film distribution, there was some perception that independent films had some kind of commercial viability in aggregate and that if you just came up with the right formula, you could find a pleasing margin.