Rebelling Against the Independent Film Industrial Complex
The hyper-industrialization of the independent film space and the shift away from in-person screening to the vertically integrated streaming-sphere means that content curation is increasingly more general (massified), with fewer people participating in the process of sharing films with the public. In general, the U.S. A-list film festival circuit, where independent voices used to be able to thrive in more ragtag and aesthetically diverse ways, is now mostly a self-reflexive bourgeois echo chamber of sanctimonious gatekeepers serving corporate interests and neoliberal logics.
Something has to change.
Perhaps it’s time to turn away from the independent film industrial complex and toward a community-based practice that engages audiences at the local level. Third Cinema has always focused on this approach, which is more relevant now than ever. Perhaps the mainstream independent cinema pipeline is no longer the most effective to amplify politically and socially challenging voices and visions. We need to activate audiences and communities who have been historically left out of the cinema space! The bourgeois leanings of circulation and exhibition practices rely upon logics of exceptionalism, consumerism and leisure that drain the vitality of film to integrate it into a pre-ordained value system. Impact is the industrial word for this, yet impact is often simply an add-on for films that still operate under traditional logics. Where are the spaces and what are the actions we can take to create a more sustainable ecosystem for films truly pushing the boundaries of this medium?—Keisha Knight
In early May 2023, I interviewed my colleague Keisha Knight, founder and director of a U.S.-based distribution initiative, Sentient.Art.Film, where I have worked as a distribution associate since 2021. With the help of our production associate, Tony Nguyen, we were in the midst of launching a community screening series across the United States–Mexico borderlands just as the Trump-era ban on asylum-seekers was coming to a close. Mere days after Biden sent 1,500 additional troops to the border, we were showing Jakob Krese and Danilo do Carmo’s Lo Que Queda en el Camino (2021), a German-Brazilian co-production that follows a mother and her family as they travel from Guatemala to Tijuana as part of a migrant caravan. Partnering with local film and arts organizations in Texas and California, including ENTRE Film Center and Archive, Laredo Film Society, The Hill Street Country Club, Casa de Luz and Echo Park Film Center (EPFC) Collective, we sought to build a film space that could center migrant womxn and facilitate discussions on the role of gender-based violence in the ongoing migration crisis. On a phone call between Los Angeles and Amsterdam, we discussed the state of the U.S. film festival circuit and the future of film distribution.—Sophia Haid
Haid: I realized we’ve been working together for a year now, and I still don’t know about a lot of your work before Sentient.Art.Film. I understand you also have a background in film programming. Could you tell me how you came to distribution?
Knight: When I was getting my master’s in Media Studies from Pratt, I had just been in Indonesia and then Vietnam for about four and a half years. In Vietnam, I was working as a human resources manager for a language company. On the weekends and at night—when I wasn’t singing in bars—I was adapting a Vietnamese story called “Chí Phèo,” by Nam Cao, into a screenplay. I was talking with line producers and people in Ho Chi Minh City and got this international creative team together. Everyone was ready to go, and there was no money. The reality is, I was an inexperienced aspirational producer with a background in artist support and small-scale film production who assumed, like many before me, that if the idea was brilliant, the money would come. I suppose I expected it to appear in some miraculous fashion since there was so much magic in the team and the story we wanted to manifest. It was a huge, humbling failure for me. Meditating on the collapse of this made me begin to think not about the funding of film production itself but the huge distance between the project (which was no more) and the end we had all dreamed of experiencing: a beautiful grassroots international film circulating throughout the world.
I tried for a moment to make my way into anything at Sundance, because Sundance seemed like the beginning and end of all things independent film in the United States. I was so far outside of any kind of U.S.-based indie film system at the time, even though I had been working with filmmakers and microbudget projects for years.
I returned from Vietnam, was invited to apply to Pratt Media Studies and began my M.A. there in fall 2016. I decided that I would develop both my theoretical mind and industry sense, so I set out to get every internship in distribution I could manage outside of my studies. I was a 30-something-year-old intern, but I didn’t care because I wanted to understand exactly what this distribution thing was, and I was willing to be humbled to find out. I randomly went to Kino Lorber on the right day and got hired as a production intern. I would sit each day and help make the DVD chapters and arrange the deliverables for production. I eventually interned with Anthology Film Archives, GKids, Gunpowder & Sky and the New York African Film Festival, where I became part of their programming team. I basically took a tour of the indie film landscape in New York. At the same time, I was reading this incredible radical anti-capitalist and Afropessimist theory (Wilderson, Hartmann, Forensic Architecture, Povinelli, Preciado, Marcuse) for my master’s program. Encountering this theory later in life rocked me in unexpected ways. This, not money, felt like real power. It was an interesting industrial/academic balance that I still keep to this day. The academic can often fly into ephemeral solipsism; the industrial can grind dreams into dust. It’s important for me to have both, though I’m still figuring out this balance.
I didn’t actually know what curation or programming was until I started working at the African Film Festival. What I learned from Mahen Bonetti—founder of the New York African Film Festival and still an incredible mentor—is how not to be a snob. I think that snobbery and more “academic” styles of curation have their place and community, but there are other types of curation that also have their place. What I learned from the New York African Film Festival, and from Mahen in particular, is that curating for a community usually means you’re not curating for yourself. A film can be a place for conversation or a sort of ritual where the film is almost just the background.
Haid: Yeah, that’s something I’ve aspired to do through our series at the border. In building a network with local groups, this project has also been a way of programming in response to the U.S. festival circuit, where we struggled to find a place for Lo Que Queda en el Camino even after the film showed in Europe and Mexico and won the prestigious German Camera Award, in addition to special mentions at GIFF and DOK Leipzig. Why do you think the festival circuit in the U.S. didn’t embrace the film like the European circuit did? What does this say about the current state of the industry?
Knight: Lo Que Queda is something the U.S. film festival circuit basically rejected, yet it’s a film that has power. Festival programmers really weren’t seeing it, I think mainly because of the conversations around authorship, but we knew somebody must see it. And we put it around to people. First of all, I showed it to you, you felt it. We showed it to all of the potential partners, and they felt it. So we’re like, “OK, this can be something that can circulate in a different way.” At least, we felt that it could find an engaged audience.
Sometimes, I don’t exactly know what the curatorial perspective is with festivals because it often feels like the circuit is talking to itself, which is why we have to start to elevate these other ways of films being in the world. Oftentimes in the U.S., we become extremely provincial and forget that the conversations we’re having are not necessarily the conversations other regions are having. For example, Lo Que Queda en el Camino is not explicitly taking into mind the discourse around authorship picked up by the U.S. doc field, but the filmmakers are absolutely thinking and activating it in their own way. It seems on my darkest days that the majority of the field can only see films through this very narrow, risk-averse, contemporary nonprofit public media window. A film has to check all the boxes and have its politics legible in particular ways in order to even get past the first layer of review. There is a tightness I think we have to actively resist. It’s not that this is “bad,” it’s just small, and I want to exist in a media ecosystem that has a bit more serious play in it along with what we have now.
Haid: And that tightness tends to foreclose the possibility of imagining other forms of solidarity. Everything you’ve described about filmmaking and curating for a community to some extent shows how these lines between production and distribution and exhibition are kind of false. In working as a distributor, would you say you have to think in a curatorial way?
Knight: Well, that’s the thing. What’s the basis for your curation? What’s the foundation of what you perceive the audience will go to see? Films that will put more money into your pocket? That’s what makes me so frustrated right now with distribution. It is pretty much impossible to be an independent distributor in the current framework. There is a certain model that you have to follow in order to be financially sustainable. Basically, you have to create a catalog large enough to create enough profit for the distribution company. This means that certain films will get a lot of attention and certain films won’t. You can’t have a filmmaker-centered model that focuses on curation and filmmaker sustainability if you want to be able to survive as a distribution company. It’s just not sustainable in any financial way because you have to always treat your films like some mass market cattle. You’re not curating because you think each film is precious. You’re curating because the bulk of these films together will eventually get you enough money to keep going—unless you’re one of the more curated platforms and distributors, which are either obviously legacy or just had a lot of money to begin with.
A solution here could be more infrastructural support for distribution. We see an example with French films that have support from the French state to distribute in the U.S. This is not an adequate solution, though. Distribution is not a single-player model. We also have to think about the exhibitors, the filmmakers, not to mention the audiences. I think a huge shift is thinking not about “distribution” per se but about different modes of audience creation and different sites of curation. For example, could we support ciné club culture? Could we support independent cinemas whose curators are actively programming for their communities? Could we support independent distributors who have a track record of elevating artful and boundary-pushing, “difficult” films? No film is “difficult.” I haven’t gone evangelical yet in this interview, but I believe the ritual of cinema is something deeply important to our culture. A film is not just a film, it’s a cipher, a vortex, a prayer, a testimonial, a call to action, and all of these things have different situations that can allow them to bloom. Perhaps we need to support the cinemas and exhibition spaces so that they can open more capaciously.
When it feels like there’s nothing to explore, that’s when I consider something dead or done. I was there with distribution. It really felt like people starting up these new distribution companies are actually just PR firms. I’m speaking specifically about independent films in the U.S. It’s very, very, very bleak right now, and I think a lot of that has to do with films not being able to find their way into the world. Funders have done a really good job of supporting the production, but suddenly, when they’ve finished production and it’s a cool piece, it’s like, “Have fun in the free market!”
Haid: Sometimes, it feels as if we have more in common with the guy who sells bootleg DVDs on the corner and is having face-to-face interactions with people than with the executives at Netflix, right? Especially because we don’t necessarily have access to megaplexes or the algorithms that build streaming infrastructures. I like to think that we have, or are trying to build, a different type of relationship to audiences. But anytime I tell people that I work in distribution, I usually get pretty cynical responses; people either don’t know what that is or think that it’s just a system built first and foremost to exploit filmmakers. It’s really sad.
With Lo Que Queda, often when I’ve talked about these screenings at the border, people’s first reaction is to not see this as distribution. They assume anything we do as distributors to connect with migrants and local film groups and show this film in nontheatrical spaces—shelters like the Holding Community Center in Laredo, bookstores like Tía Chucha’s in L.A. or community centers like La Unión del Pueblo Entero in San Juan, Texas—must function as a supplementary “impact campaign.” In reality, I don’t want our work alongside and in solidarity with migrant womxn and border communities to begin and end with the model of a finite campaign, but to be integral to how we are thinking and working in the field of distribution, where, for instance, things like access to childcare and trauma facilitation could actually be essential components of any screening. For me, the central and most exciting work of distribution is that kind of network-building and potential for knowledge exchange that far exceeds the films we are trying to circulate. For example, while we tried to have a survey for attendees to fill out, the more compelling and well-received part of our audience engagement, so to speak, was in having people write these postcards to share with audience members at other screenings, essentially creating an opportunity for attendees in Laredo, the Rio Grande Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego to be in conversation with one another in a way that is less about externally measuring the “impact” of our own role in that space.
I also wonder what happens to the films that aren’t amenable to the “impact” label. How is documentary film being co-opted by this language that comes from the nonprofit industry? It’s almost instrumentalizing film and filmmakers in some way that is hurtful to the art, but also maybe not actually helpful for the communities that these campaigns are trying to serve. Is this impact discourse useful for us even in its relative infancy within the industry?
Knight: I do think there is something about “impact” that seems extractive. It’s part of what my dad calls the “corporatization of everything.” It’s related to how nonprofits convince themselves that they’re outside of corporate structures, but they’re some of the most corporate places you’ve ever been in. What it means is that people believe they aren’t responsible for their actions, and there’s a normalization of this middle ground of non-relationality that kind of anesthetizes everything. It’s not actually based in community.
I was thinking about this word that you used: “instrumental.” Third Cinema is very situational because showing a Third Cinema film in Argentina had very different political stakes than when it was shown at MoMA in the 1970s. The politics of a film are really different based on place. The films that are supposedly the most political now in terms of representation still feel extremely corporatized in some way. Part of that is because cinema circulates in an atmosphere that is the bodies and lived experiences and lives and desires and wants of the audience. If the audience is anesthetized, of course cinema is going to be anesthetized. One of the first steps of distribution is in becoming a more political act, let’s say, by connecting the people who are actually doing things that are radical.
Like you said before, we don’t have access to the multiplexes. But I’ve heard that Indie Memphis, for example, has an agreement with a multiplex to show films outside of the festival. Those are the things that we need to hear more about, that can model other ways of organizing circulation that aren’t just a top-down thing. For Lo Que Queda, we’ve been activating these small local spaces. But it’s hard to measure success when it’s so dispersed, and it’s also dangerous to measure success by the most massively successful things, which inevitably creates this false standard.
Haid: Right. The metrics and scale of analysis really need to change alongside these more decentralized networks. The impact of a film can take decades to become visible, if ever. We can hope decentralization does more than push up against the politics of visibility and imagine impact as a rippling effect instead—a distribution model that can support new relationships between the local and transnational.