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Indie Film is Alive

Ted Hope (Photo by Matt Sundin, 2017)

“It’s going be called ‘Indie Film is Dead,’” I remember Ted Hope saying to me back in 1995. He was referring to an article he was submitting for that fall’s magazine, a many-thousand-word takedown of the business practices and internalized logic of the specialty film business. Hope, a prolific producer who had worked with Ang Lee and Hal Hartley, was a frequent contributor to Filmmaker in our early days, writing pieces like one on how to interview a production designer or another on the job of the production manager.

But this piece would be different. Here’s the lede:

“The marketplace is nasty and brutal, remembering only the latest successes and never forgetting its failures. It allows for no room for taste beyond the mainstream. Truly unique films cannot get screens, let alone hold them for more than a week or two. There is virtually no American audience for art films, political films or non-narrative films. The specialized distributors have morphed into mass marketers, not niche market suppliers. Monopolistic business practices drive most corporate strategies.”

The critique that followed was nothing if not direct. “Backend is bullshit,” read one section heading. “Finishing funds are designed to exploit filmmakers’ desperation,” read another. Soothing the sting was a companion piece we laid out directly opposite, “Long Live Indie Film,” a list of good ideas that were either taken up in the ensuing years (“Create arthouse movie palaces”), solved by technology (“Develop a direct-mail publicity system”) or are still the occasional battle cry (“Stop competitive indie film festivals”).

With xeroxed copies passed around the industry, “Indie Film is Dead/Long Live Indie Film” created a splash, and not just because of what it said but because of who said it. In addition to being a producer, Hope was also a partner with James Schamus in the legendary independent production outfit (and, later, international sales company) Good Machine, which was in the business of making films to sell to the very same independent distributors whose business practices Hope was in the process of assailing. The irony was not lost on Schamus, who, after reading a draft, quickly penned a “Dear Ted” response we published as well, a spirited rejoinder/rebuttal that ended with the only half-joking sign-off, “So, in closing, let me thank you, as your business partner, for alienating every distributor with whom we attempt to do business here in the States.”

During the ensuing 22 years, Good Machine was sold to Universal and became Focus Features. Hope went on to launch a new production company, This is That; headed up the the San Francisco Film Society, as well as video streaming service Fandor; launched a passionate blog, Hope for Film, centered largely around DIY distribution and “true independent film;” and penned an identically titled memoir that contained both tales from his career in the film business as well as business philosophy and advice. And now he’s head of motion picture production at Amazon Studios, where, I’ve heard, his penchant for industry critique was what brought him to the attention of that disruptive tech company.

At Amazon, Hope and his colleagues — who include head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price; VP, Worldwide Film, Jason Ropell; head of marketing and distribution, Bob Berney — acquire and produce films that receive traditional theatrical releases within a three-month window before traveling to Amazon’s Prime streaming service as well as to other TV, cable and VOD platforms. With successes including Manchester by the Sea, The Lost City of Z and The Big Sick, Amazon’s is a model that combines elements of independent film’s past — well-supported platform releases via theatrical partners — with data science and the alternative concepts of value, recoupment and monetization that go along with a company boasting a half-trillion-dollar market cap.

For this 25th anniversary issue, I asked Hope to take a look back at that old article in our online archives — which is still a great read — and consider its issues within the light of all that’s followed.

Filmmaker: I remember your article “Indie Film is Dead” causing a bit of a sensation in those pre-internet days. Looking back on that now, how did the following years surprise you? What did you get right, and what do you feel you missed?

Hope: Well, it is still true that indie film is dead in that truly idiosyncratic voices, super-specific storytelling focuses and barometers of success other than commercial ones haven’t been more widely accepted. But if you told me when I wrote that article that a film like Moonlight would win the Best Picture Oscar, I would have fought even harder in the following years to get such bold work made! It seemed like we weren’t ever going to reach this era, when such a personal, artistic, outsider story would resonate so deeply with everyone. That film is the quintessential uncompromising indie fulfilling the promise of that article: a small story with a local focus that’s formally adventurous, character-based and auteur-driven.

The article was written in 1995, which was the tail-end of, let’s say, a five-year period corresponding to the rise of the small-scale, auteur-driven independent film. It was perhaps the most inclusive time in independent film’s rise in that it felt like audiences might respond to these films, the media was covering them and they also traveled internationally. By 1995–2000, you had the slow collapse on the international side.

By the time you got to 2000, your international value had dropped four times with a film that didn’t have a U.S. release. Then, from 2000–2005 was the drive toward sales-focused, market-driven indies. These were films that tried to please the audience first — not a sin, by any means — while still having some markers of outsiderness. From 2005–2008 was the slow collapse of the U.S. specialized film infrastructure. And then there was the DIY exploration era, the birth of the Netflix platform and the rise of streaming, which is where we are now.

Two big changes I didn’t have the foresight to see in 1995 were the unlocking of the utility of movies and the reducing of friction in their consumption through streaming. Those are related and transformative to the entire field. If you go back to the pre-VHS era, five years before I wrote that article, you didn’t know when you’d get an opportunity to consume a movie. Movies were more an experience than a product or a transaction. But when you increase the life cycle of a film, the ability to access it, the first thing that happens is that it becomes more commodified and its experiential elements become diminished.

Filmmaker: Can you talk more about these ideas — “unlocking the utility” of movies and the role of streaming?

Hope: Once we shifted to the era we’re in now, the era of abundance and access, you have to rethink what the experience of watching a movie is. And in a connected world, the experience offers many other ways to unleash the utility of a film. A streaming platform cares about customer acquisition and retention. A subscription-only platform is going to make money through its subscribers and for its investors by its stock price; those two are closely related. So, by looking at these models you start to think about how movies [can be monetized and exploited] in these other ways.

We have always recognized the core utility of cinema as being about a path to a happy marriage. Cinema is a great date. You sit in a room full of strangers having a shared emotional response, and you can talk about it passionately when it’s all over. Popcorn and dating. But we missed one core aspect of what the cinema business can be if you have a direct relationship to the consumer. The entire industry was built without that element, and now streaming platforms have that relationship. It is transformative, and it increases the utility of cinema and the data it generates. And now theatrical exhibition is driven by online ticketing, and each of those interactions increases an understanding of a customer’s profile and preferences, which is worth a lot to anyone who is selling stuff. So, theatrical exhibition begins to share some of the same model today as any online business. Sure, price is still a barrier to consumption, but it is an entirely different (and premium) experience.

These ideas became fascinating to me before I moved to San Francisco, but they, and the hope of a DIY film culture, drove me there. This was all “tech talk” — the film industry never talked like this — and it made me wonder how movies could measure up. For example, in the world of documentary and social impact, movies can work to bring people together and spur action. For so long, all the exhibition part of the business cared about was selling a 15-cent bag of popcorn for six bucks. Getting people together to drink soda and eat popcorn — that was the utility. But a lot more can happen.

Filmmaker: What would you say that the utility of movies is at Amazon?

Hope: Jeff Bezos said in The Hollywood Reporter/i> that we make movies to sell shoes. I don’t think that’s the only reason we make movies, and I don’t think he does, either. But it’s true to the degree that movies bring people to the platform and keep them there, and if you’re on the platform you buy more things. And that’s not unlike getting people to sign a petition after they see a documentary. They are both examples of utility.

Filmmaker: And how do you think streaming and the instant availability of films is changing our film culture?

When you have barriers to consumption you are going to take fewer bets. You are going to watch fewer styles of films. We have to suspect that ease of access and diminished friction will increase everyone’s taste, but the Internet has allowed for increased taste, empathy and awareness. It also allows people to burrow deeper into their own private silos, but for me, ease of access has meant that I watch a greater variety than what I watched before. I suspect others are doing the same, and with that our media literacy grows and our appreciation for a greater variety of storytelling techniques and subjects increases. But I wonder, without the gold standard of the theatrical experience and the deep love of cinephiles, will it be able to expand? For me, watching in the theater is worshipping at the altar — it deepens one’s love, and it affects the decision-making tree. What video title you’d take off the shelf at Blockbuster required a more rigorous thought process than what happens today when you look at a streaming interface. Similarly, when you can get the milk for “free,” I think it starts to taste differently and we start to demand a new taste. When we can fill our time effortlessly, the value of time transforms, too. As our access to the abundance of films and series increases, our bar of what is worthy rises.

Filmmaker: One of the key points in the “Indie Film is Dead” article was that the structure of the business as well as its marketing imperatives wound up pushing independent film toward safer, middlebrow work. How would you rate that observation today?

Hope: Filmmakers, agents and producers still seem first and foremost focused on past market performance as the driver for new projects as opposed to distinction, notoriety and an individual, unique voice. I look for those that can capture all the latter, and that movement I wrote about in the article to the middlebrow and the mainstream is really closely related to a reliance on past market performance when making greenlight decisions. I think of the success of the Oscar films this year as being about the market becoming hungrier for distinct visionary work. If you built the comps for Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea and Arrival — or what Arrival really was as opposed to what the studio might have thought they were getting — they all performed three times beyond the comps. You don’t get to $47 million DBO on Manchester by the Sea by basing it off of prior comps. So, it always requires us as artists and entrepreneurs to try and take a close assessment of where the audience is because the art should be ahead of the market.

And it’s easier to do that when you are in a place where the culture, whether that’s corporate or community, believes in that, where it supports it and allows it. The Amazon culture is partially about recognizing the value of being an early adopter and it encourages that thinking. Sometimes, the biggest support organizations in the film sphere get stuck; as much as they try to protect individual voices, it’s easy for them to get caught up in a market conversation as opposed to pushing and leading and seeing who gets there first. That’s something the startup tech culture healthily brought to the film space.

Filmmaker: Your Hope for Film blog, and then your book, advocated that filmmakers work at building a new independent film ecosystem and to find DIY ways of distribution. Is that something you still believe producers should do?

Hope: I think a producer’s job is to manufacture opportunity and to essentially recognize how, when you’re an independent, you can build sustainable economic models on the backs of the more dominant economic system. James said something in his article in that same issue about how independent film has never been independent — it’s always been a leech or a parasite. I think that is still true. One of the things I tried to do on the blog, and in my book, was to expose the problem, but then I also wanted to talk about concrete actions — to look for opportunities, to build involvement and to execute. That challenge is still out there. I wish others were doing similar blogs. Filmmaker and No Film School do a good job, but I wish there was more of a forum for the big ideas.

Filmmaker: Why do you think filmmakers weren’t able to build their own more vibrant support and distribution networks following the pullback of the arthouse divisions in the mid-2000s?

Hope: I misread how much capital would be needed and how it would come about, which would be as capital from different primary enterprises. For these companies, movies wouldn’t be the dominant function. For Apple, it’s hardware; for Google, it’s ads; and for Amazon, it’s everything. For the ones yet to come, I’m not sure what they will be. But this huge influx of capital means an artist looking to make individual work on a sustainable basis, which is a hard thing, is more achievable now than ever before. Of course, everyone believes that they are the exception to the rule, and that then becomes their practice, but you do see filmmakers now turning out on a consistent basis work that is getting picked up in some fashion.

I would say what I experienced in the 2010–2012 moment were the challenges to that DIY model — how hard it was, and how little support there really was for a systematic, systems-based approach. Without that support, it didn’t seem like we were going to get there fast enough given the rise and dominance of new platforms creating completely desirable opportunities. Today, you hear people say, “I’m selling to Amazon” or “I’m selling to Netflix,” and that’s their strategy.

Filmmaker: Is that a good thing?

Hope: We’re giving global reach to a wider variety of storytelling approaches and subjects, and there’s opportunity for lots of different entities to build sustainable businesses — or new sorts of businesses — on top of that model. Eventually, my personal goal is to turn the making of visionary work with the capital support needed to deliver top-level execution into a sustainable business model, which I don’t think we’ve ever really had. For me, at Amazon, that’s within reach. If I can do that, I think it is a scaleable thing for more than 100 films a year. And that’s just on one platform. Good sustainable ideas multiply, creating variations on a theme, generally at least six times over. With that sort of competition that would be 600 high quality, ambitious films a year for diverse audiences. I believe that that’s entirely viable. We haven’t even glimpsed “Peak Content” yet!

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