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Industry Beat

by Anthony Kaufman

Communication Breakdown: Has the Pandemic Produced a Culture of No-Reply?

by
in Columns, Issues
on Oct 11, 2022

On March 2, 2022, Mynette Louie, producer of award-winning films like The Tale and I Carry You with Me, tweeted out the above complaint, railing against what anecdotally appears to be a lamentable industrywide trend of financier ghosting. Filmmakers and producers across the spectrum of independent film shared similar grievances, pointing to a culture of “no reply” where executives, funders and gatekeepers are either impossible to reach or, after engaging in dialogues, disappear without a trace. 

While such behavior has always been the case in a business dominated by overworked individuals—with some in the industry notoriously difficult to get an answer from (A24 and certain agents are widely acknowledged offenders)—a combination of factors, from corporate consolidation and inbox overload to a pandemic-created virtual business culture and economic uncertainty, has arguably made the situation worse. 

“I think it’s insane,” says one indie producer with a reliable track record. “It blows my mind that some people in this business just don’t respond after multiple attempts. When that happens, I still need answers and will have to hound them, so it’s just a temporary and annoying waste of my time.”

One independent writer-director, whose film premiered at Sundance 2021, recounted a recent experience in which a record company representative invited her to create a treatment for a music video. “I spent days putting a vision and deck together,” she says. “He thanked me for the deck, but never followed up, even after I solicited him for an update.” Another filmmaker, working on a documentary feature, was engaged in talks with a major nonfiction funder in the early spring, and was strung along for months with emails suggesting a potential commitment (“We are very interested,” “We will look forward to continuing the conversation”) that eventually petered out into silence.

Even industry veterans have encountered the shift. When James Schamus—writer and producer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, producer of Brokeback Mountain, writer and director of Indignation, and former CEO of Focus Features—left the studio world, he says he wholly expected his calls and emails would be returned at a slower rate. “But as I now hear constantly from my peers, and as I have also experienced at times,” he says, “what’s now considered a normal way to pass on a project is, simply, to ghost people.”

Schamus points to some of the societal factors that have contributed to the worsening of the film business’s communication skills. He likens the current work culture to the same state of “online distraction” that comes with the “attention economy.” Our attention, and its scarcity, Schamus explains, becomes the main economic driver. “The Uberification and precariousness of even our executive class have led to a complete loosening of protocols and rituals that previously helped enforce a culture of at least surface courtesy,” he says. “Now, my friends who work inside large companies are just flooded with emails, messages, Zoom meetings, Slack discussions and all else. One way folks are at least trying to put off what feels like inevitable burnout is by simply dropping huge chunks of incoming communications that don’t immediately signal productivity within the corporate culture.”

Since COVID, says producer Riel Roch Decter, Zoom meetings have “made things even less personal, so people feel even less of a need to respond with any sort of kindness or consideration. If someone drives halfway across town to meet you in your office and a real-life personal connection is made, maybe that makes the funder or gatekeeper feel a little more of an onus to treat the person decently.”

Wider changes in the entertainment business itself have also contributed to the behavior. Whether it’s the younger generation of millennials who grew up with more socially acceptable ghosting practices in charge or a greater concentration of power now in the hands of a few companies, “what’s happening is that those execs are legitimately overwhelmed with pitches,” writes another experienced executive-turned-producer. “And relationships matter less than they used to, because so much is just driven by money.”

Indeed, for more and more executives, working through one’s daily list of calls—or emails—to return, or making sure a junior staff member gives a prompt-ish reply to every project in the submission log, are less markers of professional pride than they once were.

Independent filmmakers are especially feeling the cold shoulder in the current climate. “I feel like people are less motivated to care, at least when it comes to indies,” writes one independent producer, citing in particular a bottoming out of the film festival market, where sales fees for most films are hardly enough to motivate agents. “If you’re a studio exec or an agent or anyone that has both big and small projects,” he says, “you’re probably using your limited energy on the big projects/clients.”

Louie also suggests pandemic-era financial precariousness may be to blame for “freaking financiers out and prompting them to constantly change their mandates. Or perhaps they are losing money in the market, crypto, whatever, and they’re too embarrassed to tell filmmakers that their situations have changed.”

Another producer, whose first feature premiered at Sundance 2020, notes that the first two years of the pandemic were particularly difficult in this regard because there were underlying questions about the theatrical business’s very survival. A lot of ghosting, he and others suggest, may be a result of executives unsure of whether they would be keeping their jobs—perhaps they had even left their positions over the course of an email exchange. While the situation may be improving in 2022, the diminution of in-person events and live networking for so long has meant that he has had to hustle particularly hard to connect with people. “I feel like folks who had projects in the works just prior to the pandemic are getting financed,” he says—leaving those which emerged over the past two years, during largely virtual days, in the lurch. 

As part of a more aggressive communication strategy, this producer has developed a whole new coordinated approach. For every email in which “you’re throwing something into the void,” he says, he follows up via text. He uses free CRM email software Streak to monitor when exactly emails are opened (or not), and if he doesn’t hear back in two or three weeks, he follows up via text again. “I’ve just had to be more proactive now,” he admits. 

One prominent sales agent suggests “it’s both harder and easier” to connect with people. While he acknowledges no one checks their voicemail anymore, and text messages can get lost among multiple simultaneous text conversations, he says, “I’ve never been able to get to people more immediately and quickly, and people can get to me easier. All they need is my cell.” And if he doesn’t respond to some people, he suggests these are the same people he would not have responded to in the past. The only difference now is that “maybe their feelings are hurt more because if they text me, they know I’ve seen it.”

While some filmmakers are hesitant to text and pester because of a well-founded fear of putting off a gatekeeper, others suggest that the way forward requires more patience and allies—such as other producers or supporters who are more readily in reach—than ever before to solidify a film business relationship. 

“It’s definitely like telling someone you don’t want to have a second date,” says one filmmaker about the blow-off trend. “People struggle with being honest about their disinterest, so they just go silent instead [until] you eventually get the hint. But I definitely prefer respectful transparency and frankness and wish we could all work on that as a culture.”

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