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in Filmmaking
on Dec 23, 2009

Anthony Kaufman’s current Village Voice piece, “New York’s Independent Film Community Goes from Boom to Bust: My Big Fat Greek Collapse,” has some good quotes that speak to the changes the indie film world has gone through this past decade. I’m not one to periodize things too much by saying that things were once X and now they are Y. Independent film has always been too multi-headed a hydra, and the business plans that a distributor talks about were often ones that didn’t have much to do with the majority of actual makers. That said, on decade’s end it’s clear that things are really different than they were. A few quotes:

Mark Urman on indie film’s participation in the often criminal credit-fueled asset inflation of the ’00s:

“We chose to believe that we stood apart from that [economic excess] because we were in an artistic milieu,” admits Urman. “But I’m sure if you looked around, we had our own Bernie Madoffs.”

Christine Vachon on the diminished number of buyers:

“It’s insane that you can count the number of companies buying [films] on one hand,” says veteran New York producer Christine Vachon, whose latest collaboration with Todd Haynes—the filmmaker who helped define American indie cinema with Poison and Safe—will be a miniseries for the small screen of HBO.

Ted Hope on the migration of indie film’s locus from New York to cyberspace:

“The center of independent film is not a geographical context,” he says, “but a communicative instrument: the Internet.”

But mostly, this paragraph resonated with me:

With the inevitable decline of the DVD, a glut of productions, and changing audience-viewing habits, it was only a matter of time before the Pollyanna-ish art-meets-commerce model that spurred on specialized cinema would come crumbling down. And without studio dollars to cultivate new talents, today’s indie filmmakers, many too young to remember when the industry was nascent, are struggling.

Having done this for a while and remembered all the previous booms and busts (my first time at the Sundance Producer’s Lab was in 1992, I believe, where one prominent, black-clad indie producer brought a whole room full of younger producers to near-suicide with his talk about the collapse of Euro government-sponsored broadcast financing for indies), I do think back, though, on changing expectations. Back then, the goals for producers were, in some order, these: a) align yourself with a prolific director who would self-generate material, or, at least, have a clear enough directorial identity so as to be easy to develop for, and whose work was in demand either by foreign markets or the new start-up specialty divisions; b) start a company/brand that would begin to attract material on its own and would allow you to bring on younger producer partners who could extend the brand and deal with filmmakers without the work falling entirely on your shoulders ; c) attract an overhead deal from a studio that was primarily interested in your company as a talent incubator as opposed to a profit generator. As the ’90s went on, another goal came into view: d) develop a separately-run income generating arm of your business — service work, commercial work, foreign sales, equipment rentals, etc.

All clear, sensible goals, but today the overhead deal pay-off — at least from industry distributors — is long gone, and, within the realm of the specialty film biz, there are few new directors who have effectively created their own markets. The imperative these days is to work on a more artisanal level, develop a fan base, and try to crack the same new models of distribution and audience building that the rest of the industry, large and small, are working towards too.

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