Wassamatta With Indie Today?

I got this email from filmmaker/blogger Jamie Stuart, and thought it was a good spark for some discussion...

I just read your piece on the tax incentives and current state of NY indie film, and I thought I'd pass along a few general thoughts. I've observed for a little while now that there's a generational shift going on in the community, and within that, there's a host of issues.

1) The spark that fueled indie film in the '80s and '90s was the marketing concept of the "breakout" -- first time filmmakers establishing themselves with trademark styles and no money. These filmmakers were the poster children for the movement. Now, however, the paradigm has shifted to a situation where filmmakers are making small, dirt-cheap movies for niches and their friends; the debut film isn't as important so much as slowly building a track record. In this model, indie film has essentially become regional folk art. I think we need to return to the prior model, but there are some things holding that up. Like:

2) A lot of the pillars of the scene have fought their battles and moved up in the world. The "dependent" phase from the mid-'90s through the early '00s gave a lot of people a raise in options. Instead of struggling to make a movie for 6-figures or for maybe $1-2M, budgets swelled to $6M as a low, all the way up to $15-25M (some even higher). In this context, I think a lot of these pillars are self-admittedly not as in touch with new talent anymore, and they're glad they don't have to do guerrilla scrambling anymore. I recall a panel with you and Christine at Tribeca a few years back, where you both admitted that you were no longer in a position to find and nurture new filmmakers anymore.

3) I think we need to re-think how movies are made. Micro-features and DIY productions use crews in a much different manner than movies made for 7-8 figures, and I think producers need to study what people like myself are doing. For example, the NYFF46 series I created last fall was a 4-part non-linear sci-fi/action mind-bender -- it was made for an entire budget of $75, and at least 70% of the time, since I was shooting it while starring in it, nobody was even behind the camera. Now, I happen to think that under the circumstances, the project had pretty good production values. Not that I expect larger budgeted productions to use the exact method I did (they wouldn't have to if they had money), but there's got to be something that can be learned and adapted from what I and others have done.

4) Now, if you combine all of the above, you get another problem. It used to be that aspiring filmmakers started with a small budget, either on a short or a small feature, and that was used as a calling card to get a larger budget. The issue here is that due to the drop in budgets based on prosumer cameras and editing, producers don't seem to take those projects as seriously. What they mistake, however, is that you're getting an equivalent production value as before, only it costs a fraction of the amount. But producers aren't saying: "Wow! Look at what so-and-so did for so little. Imagine what they could do with a larger budget? I want to work with him!" Instead, they seem to be looking at the budget, and on that basis alone, writing it off: "Let me know when you've moved on to bigger things, but for now, you're a small fry."

5) The internet is not the savior. The internet is great for sales and marketing, but it's a lousy delivery method. The quality is terrible. I've never looked at the internet as anything other than a means to get exposure and establish myself -- so I can get OFF the internet and make real features. However:

6) Internet filmmaking still isn't taken seriously. It doesn't matter how good my work is or how good it looks, there are people who simply, either by virtue of the size of the player, or through general snobbishness, don't consider it serious filmmaking. I think a lot of the indie community still believes in the film festival model: If you're a serious filmmaker, you need to submit to festivals. They seem almost fundamentalist in this regard. And it's holding up progress.

All of that said, I'm still of the belief that the biggest problem in indie film right now is simply the product. When indie film was booming in the '80s/'90s, young people like myself were drawn to it because it seemed to be the most creative arena in filmmaking. Not now. Young people look to big FX blockbusters as the most creative arena. People now equate indie film with poor production values, cheap-looking handheld photography, amateurish acting, etc. They look at it as a joke. I approached the prospect of DIY filmmaking from the view that ambitious films could now be made inexpensively -- I've always used tripods, dollies, cranes, special FX. But DIY filmmaking on the whole went in the opposite direction -- small, handheld slices of life. And while that aesthetic certainly has its place, it's never going to find a larger audience, in my opinion. Until we shift out of this phase and DIY filmmakers start creating ambitious pictures at dirt prices, the movement will remain derided. And until the bigger people start lifting up the small, there's going to remain a major class divide.