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Industry Beat

by Anthony Kaufman

Is TV Killing Indie Film?

Kate Winslet and Guy Pierce in Mildred Pierce

Is TV usurping independent film? That was one of the main takeaways in a recent Filmmaker Magazine article written by producer Mike S. Ryan (“TV is Not the New Film”). With veteran producers, writers and directors heading to HBO, Netflix and Amazon in droves; with audiences affixed to the latest show recaps; and with film festival programmers dedicating more slots to episodic storytelling, it sure seems so. But if you talk to working indie-film professionals, the question appears to be slightly off the mark. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking whether long-form storytelling is supplanting indie film, but how it’s enabling it?

“Is indie film dead? I don’t think so,” says producer Christine Vachon, whose longtime company Killer Films rebranded itself Killer Content last year. “We are producing even more independent features than we ever have.”

While Killer Content has shot pilots for Amazon and Adult Swim and is working “aggressively” with its film directors to develop TV series, Vachon says the company is anticipating another prolific year in film production. “I think in some ways it’s because we’ve perfected how to make movies for the right price,” she says.

In the heady, heavily financed days of indie film in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when every studio had a “specialty” division, companies like Killer had something of a safety net. When those companies shuttered, however, independent producers were left vulnerable. Today, it seems they’ve found another sugar-daddy in cable TV and VOD companies.

“The dirty secret about independent producing is that it doesn’t pay anything,” says Helen Estabrook, producer of Jason Reitman’s Labor Day and his new Hulu show Casual. “So you can say that all those people are moving to television,” she explains. “Or you can say they’re finally getting some money for their work.”

Andrea Sperling, producer of The Doom Generation, Like Crazy and Jill Soloway’s breakout Amazon show, Transparent, also welcomes the increased budgets working in TV. “There is so much more money,” she admits. And despite the notion that TV is a more restrictive environment, Sperling says Amazon “offers a great deal of creative freedom.” This may be the result of the strong competition among such companies — Hulu and Netflix included — to create distinctive content in order to pull viewers away from cable TV trailblazers such as HBO and AMC. “It’s like the Wild West out there, so they’re coming at it from a unique perspective,” Sperling explains. “Our executive at Amazon, Joe Lewis, describes himself as an artist, not an executive.” Likewise, former New York indie producer and artist advocate Ted Hope now leads Amazon’s film production arm.

Vachon agrees. “We are watching all these series where characters are allowed to be ambiguous and unlikeable,” she says, “so I think a lot of filmmakers are thinking, ‘I can either make my movie for a penny because it’s so provocative, or I can go to TV where the provocativeness is encouraged and embraced.’”

Stephanie Langhoff, producer of Jay and Mark Duplass’ The Do-Deca-Pentathlon and HBO show Togetherness, notes that TV also functions as a vital training ground. “Filmmakers can get paid more, they can get an education, and then they can always go back into features,” she says.

Indeed, Langhoff says pivoting back and forth between TV and film has been a natural practice for their team, as their stories have always been character-driven and dialogue-heavy. The popularity of Togetherness has also directly fed back into the Duplass’s production shingle. “I can say for sure that I get submissions of feature projects for us to produce from writers who are fans of Togetherness,” Langhoff says. And because television reaches a wider (and more diverse) audience than independent films, Langhoff says the exposure of their TV work “has only helped to bolster our work on the feature side of things.”

Producing and pitching for television has different demands, of course. In many cases, independent producers don’t “pitch” their projects in a corporate boardroom: they create a strong package — with script and cast — and try to close international sales. But when it comes to long-form storytelling, filmmaking teams must “paint the world for a bunch of people sitting at the other end of the table,” says former GreeneStreet Films production executive Tim Williams, who attempted to transition to TV and Web projects after he left the company. “You had 15 to 20 minutes to set up the pilot and the five-year arc, and your film credits really didn’t matter,” he recalls. “The independent producer was not valued as much they were in the indie world.”

TV shoots are also long — 55 days for Transparent, according to Sperling. But unlike network television, where episodes must air every week and there is more possibility for corporate red tape, Sperling describes the Amazon process for Transparent as much closer to moviemaking — just longer. “We just approach it like a five-and-a-half-hour movie,” she says.

Estabrook agrees, reiterating David Mamet’s famous dictum. “Doing a movie or a play is like running a marathon,” she says. “Writing a TV show is like running until you die.”

But while Estabrook admits the 10-episode shoot for the Hulu series was “exhausting” — “things are constantly moving and you’re doing all the steps of production and post all at once,” she says — it’s still nothing compared to the 22-episode season of a network show.

Vachon describes the process of producing Todd Haynes’s HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce similarly as “an incredibly long film.”

“The real challenge was in post,” Vachon explains, “because it wasn’t like finishing a piece from beginning to end. Todd had to deliver episodes one and two before we started cutting four and five, so that was a different way of thinking.”

Despite such challenges, producer-director teams like Vachon and Haynes, Sperling and Soloway, Estabrook and Reitman, Langhoff and the Duplasses remain committed to both feature-length and serial filmmaking, with the cross-pollination between the two mediums appearing to be healthy for all involved. Sperling, for instance, says the success of Transparent has “definitely helped” Soloway and her develop their next feature project together.

If naysayers are concerned that episodic TV is replacing the theatrical film, the rise of auteurs working in the space could, in fact, benefit both forms. When film festivals from Toronto to New York begin to show small-screen content in movie theaters, for example, Toronto Festival “Primetime” programmer Michael Lerman argues that it “validates the large screen.”

“So I don’t think it’s going to kill independent film, so much as bolster what’s happening in the theater,” he says. “If we’re putting more things in a theatrical setting, where we watch them together and celebrate them together, it can only help the theatrical experience overall.”

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