Jeff Lipsky: WHY SO SERIOUS? Or TEN REASONS WHY THE INDIE FILM BUSINESS (AND THE FILM BUSINESS IN GENERAL) IS IN GREAT SHAPE

Jeff Lipsky, director of the Sundance hit ONCE MORE WITH FEELING (among others), distributor of Cassavettes (among others), co-founder of October Films (among others) -- this man knows the lay of the land.  He recently participated in a show Christine Vachon and I did up at Sundance for Filmcatcher (soon to be streamed on their site), and I was once again reminded of his incredible enthusiasm and knowledge of all aspects of the film business.  I only asked him for ten reasons he was bullish on the state of indie.  I get the sense that if I hadn't capped it, he'd still be adding to the list. 


Here's Part One:
1. Apparently movies love depression (as in recession). Especially independent movies. Since the U.S. economy tanked theatrical grosses have been going through the roof. In comparing the steady weekly increases over the corresponding 2007/8 frames this is a fact, irrefutable, and it isn’t just the rise in ticket prices, admissions are up, too (finally). Even excluding boffo studio phenomena like “Paul Blart Mall Cop” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” the numbers in independent theatres since fiscal Armageddon set in have been stunning. Last week New York’s Angelika Film Center’s total gross was 40% higher than the same week last year, while at the Sunshine Cinemas, also in NYC, the increase was a ridiculous 375%. In southern California the gross last week at The Landmark cinemas exceeded the gross over the same week last year by 48%. In Cleveland the Cedar Lee’s gross last week was ahead of last year’s gross by 70%, a week, incidentally when three of the five Oscar nominated films for Best Picture were on screen at that complex. And let’s not exclude the town that gave you the American automobile. Motown’s in great shape, right? In Detroit last week the independent Maple Art Cinemas’ grosses were 246% higher than the corresponding week last year. Quick, let’s pick another post-apocalyptic week at random: 11/7/08-11/13/08. Same theatres, same comparison to its total week’s gross the corresponding week the previous year. Sunshine: 27% higher the week of 11/7/08 than the previous year. The Landmark, 34% higher. The Cedar Lee, 12% more, and in Motor City, a whopping 50% increase. And if you think it’s all because of President Obama, don’t. It was true in October, pre-Election, as well.

2. Speaking of New York’s Angelika Film Center, let us consider the New York success of the sublime “Let the Right One In.” That film has been playing exclusively at the Angelika Film Center has 14 weeks, at the time of this writing, and has grossed a quarter of a million dollars. For most of those weeks the seating capacity hovered around 200. And I don’t recall seeing a single ad in the New York Times since about the third run of its run. Nor do I recall seeing any online media buy. All things are still possible if you make a great film. And it doesn’t require $10 million of marketing to accomplish the impossible. (Note: its total North American gross is only $2 million but I know many producers of American independent films that cost under $500,000 to produce who would salivate over a theatrical total of $2 million.) Magnolia should present a (free to the public) case study of their marketing of this title at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival, where, I believe “Let the Right One In,” enjoyed its U.S. premiere in 2008.

3. DVD revenues in North America last year were down about 5% from 2007 totals (estimates range between 3%-6%). That means only $21.8 billion was generated by DVDs (including Blue Ray) in 2008. If the real percentage of the total that is applicable to truly independent films is only 1.5% (the lowest estimate I could find) that means indie films generated almost $328 million in DVD revenues last year. I don’t know about you but I’m impressed. And that doesn’t include legal download, PPV, and VOD numbers, paltry though those numbers I’m quite certain are.

4. The total amount of money (thus far) that independent distributors doled out for Sundance acquisitions in 2009 has exceeded last year’s total by 5%. And this was the year, distributors weren’t going, money was tight, the mood was cautious, the town was deserted, and the weather was warm (well, it was gloriously warm).

5. A brief history of the DVD. Home Entertainment got under way with VHS tapes (and, to a much lesser and negligible extent, Laser Discs). They were intended for rental only, proof of which was its $100 price tag if you had to own one. Then the DVD came along: superior product, superior extras, fewer trailers for God-awful films attached. Virtually right from the get-go they were available to consumers simultaneously as rental items and as sell through items. Inexplicably the price point for this often superbly produced collectible was as low as $25-35. Within a couple of years the studios reduced the per unit retail price to $15-20. Why? Is the family that purchases “Monsters, Inc” for their kids to watch 150 times, with all of their friends no less, not going to pay an extra $5-10 dollars to own this digital pacifier? Was I not going to pay an extra $10 to own my own copy of “Chinatown?” Why is the cost of a DVD way less than the cost of two movie tickets? And returning to that subject, why are more people, sometimes in droves, returning to the cinema when the ticket price is so high and DVD windows are shrinking? Is it the low price of gas? Or is it the fact that the tech world is confusing John and Jane Doe with its semi-annual new iterations of hardware, software, PDAs, phones, home theatres, digital boxes, Dolby 5.1…fuck it, ma, let’s just go to the picture show and see a movie. In short, the DVD industry, I opine, has left billions of dollars on the table over the last five years. And I always thought they were good at sweeping up billions of dollars. Again, 1.5% of billions of dollars… Anyway, DVDs are not going the way of the dodo. Not for at least a pentad, if ever.