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in Filmmaking
on Sep 1, 2008

In the last weekly newsletter I wrote the following:

Last week Filmmaker gathered a small group of producers, sales reps and a distributor to talk about what some are calling a crisis in the funding and distribution of independent film. Our panel mixed generations, comprising veterans who remember independent film in the ’70s and ’80s as well as relative newcomers who have begun producing in the post-Pulp Fiction/Blair Witch era. I won’t go into all the details of our conversation here because the comments will run as a roundtable discussion in the next issue of Filmmaker. One thing was clear, though – we talked for about two hours and could easily have gone on all night. And while we jumped around a lot, skipping from production issues to distribution ones, we kept circling back to a few basic questions about today’s independent film scene. Has the money that sustained independent film in the ’80s and ’90s left the sector entirely or are we just at a low point in a cyclical business? Have the desires and viewing patterns of our audiences changed permanently, or can they be reawakened by better films and a more concerted effort to build a sense of community around independent film? Is the recent departure from the independent sector by several studios a blessing because it will create opportunities for more nimble players or a curse because it is destroying opportunities for films to be acquired? Are filmmakers fighting a rear-guard action in their quest for theatrical play, or should they accept the small-screen logic of the Internet and perhaps even change their work accordingly? I’m waiting for the transcript so I can begin to edit all of this, but, in the meantime, if you have any thoughts you are always welcome to email them to me at editor AT filmmakermagazine.com.

One filmmaker — Marc Maurino of White Light Film Works, who directed the short film Trigger Finger — sent in the following reply, which I know many people who are contemplating a career (?) in independent film will relate to.

Considering my own future as a director and getting a first feature made, the idea of a microbudget feature with no-stars, while potentially artistically rewarding, doesn’t seem to be something that I can imagine leaving my very stable day job and risking my house for; likewise, even getting something off the ground at the next level, i.e., $2-5M with a name or two doesn’t seem a guaranteed route to financial stabilty or, with any certainty, distribution.

I naturally consider the dizzying array of possibilities available via the Internet, webisodes, serials, and streaming ultra-short films, but since I aspire to directing features, and creating work that both prepares me for and displays my aptitude to do so, I’m about to go out to festivals with a 20 min. short, featuring multiple characters, storylines, arcs, and plot/subplot; in short, not a realistic work for streaming, but, under the “old economy”, perhaps is a calling card . . . but a calling card for what, and to whom?

Presumably and predictably, I’ll ultimately look for a producer who can help me shepherd the short and loosely-related feature script to the same dwindling cadre of financiers who seem to be leaving the game in droves. And as hard as it is to get financing at all, even at the microbduget levels, as an adult (ie, no longer single in my early 20s), I have a few other challenges.

With the family and the mortgage, to be frank, I can’t devote two years of my life to produce, post, and then nurture (ie, self-distribute, tour, etc.) a project unless I can guarantee myself, quite literally, about 250K (ie, give up my government health insurance, 401(k) matching, car, and biweekly paycheck.) I’ll be focusing on trying to leverage the short plus loosely-adapted feature script (in the vein of Gowanus, Brooklyn/Half Nelson, Five Feet High and Rising/Raising Victor Vargas, Frozen River/Frozen River) but I wonder/fear if that is the “old model”, not to mention that I just referenced some insanely talented and fortunate directors.

So barring the fortune to mimic their patterns, I’m also looking at breaking in to television directing–perhaps equally if not more difficult–but beyond these two models (and I use that term loosely, because they are more just hopeful paths) I am, along, perhaps, with the rest of the aspiring director corps, wondering what the future holds.

I’m fairly certain that keeping costs down in order to maximize the profit margin on any possible distribution deal/DVD/foreign territory sale is mandatory, perhaps moreso than ever before. But I’m also trying hard to think outside of the box, and imagine a successful future as a director which is not contingent on multi-million-dollar budgets and distribution deals.

One model I think about a lot is the theatre–my wife works for and is an actor at a major regional theatre (Shakespeare and Co.) which this summer has mounted some fantastic productions (Othello got glowing reviews in the NYT) and all of which will end tomorrow. They employed a slew of actors and technicians, paid the rent on a sprawling campus and multiple theatres, had multiple 400-seat sellout crowds, and have not gone bankrupt doing so. I wonder if the indie film community would be served by looking at theatre models while also looking at digital/Internet venues, and what that might look like . . .

For instance, could a no-budget feature recoup its costs via a 3-5 night a week summerlong run at a regional exhibition space, bolstered by word of mouth and regional press and marketing, ie, the same thing that draws a crowd to The Ladies’ Man or The Goat Woman of Corvis County, just to mention a pair of non-Shakespeare plays that are performing well this summer?

Of course, I don’t know. These are just the things I’m thinking, and I don’t know if you usually get more erudite or solution-based responsed to your postings, but you certainly have gotten me thinking–the question no longer is just “how do I break in?”, but also, “what am I breaking in to?”

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