The New Model For Indie Film: The Ongoing Conversation

Tonight I had the opportunity to speak at the New York Foundation For The Arts.  I think the video posting of it is going to go up shortly in case you want to compare how closely I keep to the text.  

The discussion/rant was a bit of a mash up of my positive and negative lists, both the hope for the future and the fear of the present as we live it in Indieville  It is commonly understand that change only comes when the pain of the present outweighs the fear of the future.  I would like to have some change -- so be warned, I may have slanted it a bit in hopes of that change.


We are cursed. And it’s that old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. We certainly are living in interesting times. Still though, I’ve always considered that curse a blessing. I know that back in my early days -- when I gave up trying to be happy and instead decided to pursue an interesting life -- I found as a result: things got better and I got a lot happier. So I am here to tell you, that although a lot of what I may say today may make it sound like the sky has already fallen, if we filmmakers finally surrender unrealistic expectations and instead embrace our opportunities, and precede along logical, practical, passionate and community-oriented lines, we are going to have it better than we’ve ever had it before. These interesting times are gong to open up film culture in a freer, more engaged way.

I am assuming that all of you recognize yourself as filmmakers, and the type of filmmaker who aspires to make ART, to be truthful, bold, groundbreaking. I want to help you understand what it means to be that type of filmmaker in the context of today and what it is going to mean for you tomorrow. To do that, I want you all to first look at where the business, the culture, and the practical aspects of filmmaking are for the various people who maintain the apparatus that makes filmmaking work: the distributors, the financiers, the marketers, the exhibitors and the audience.

You need to recognize these folks as your collaborators, and for you to be able to see with their eyes, to stand in their shoes, we first must all speak the same language. We need to have a common definition for cinema. For this common definition, I want to move away from the technical or business vernacular and instead define it on the most human scale possible: cinema is a dialogue between the audience and the screen.

I don’t think film-going is any more a passive experience than filmmaking is, and cinema is where creation and consumption unite. If we embrace the active spirit of film-going, if we accept that there is a quiet dialogue running in the heads of all audiences, we are going to start to find some answers on how we – the filmmakers – survive this vast paradigm shift our culture is now engaged in – because I am confident we are not just going to survive, but we are going to prosper and bring better work to more audiences in all sorts of new ways. But hold that thought. We will come back to those answers later.

Having first accepted this definition of the common dialogue that cinema is, we must now look at the situation all those aforementioned collaborators of ours – sometimes called “the suits” -- are in. And this is where it is going to get ugly:
• Right now, according to this week’s Variety, Art House admissions are down 66% whereas Hollywood Product’s ticket sales are up 16%.
• Last week more Americans defined themselves as “game players” than those that called themselves “Movie-goers”. More leisure time activities compete for our attention than ever before, and the movies are losing.
• In a recent poll, 20% more Americans preferred to watch films at home on DVD rather than in the theater.
• By my account, only about 4% of the independent films made in America annually, get traditional distribution. I saw more good work produced for under $1M last year alone than I usually see altogether in five years – yet only two of the 18 or so excellent low budget films I saw had traditional distribution and neither of those made much money.
• The acquisition market in the US has collapsed to the point that you can not expect to get more than $50K for a twenty year all media license for a non-genre feature and even then it is doubtful your film will play beyond NY & LA.
• International sales prices meanwhile are down 40% and very little is now bought on presale.
• Private equity investors are asking for budgets to drop by about 60% from where they were a year ago; what once was $15M is now $6M; what once was $8M is now $3M – and on each of these, the financiers demand twice as many name actors for each film as they did last year.
• Distributors and financiers, aka studios, are generally built for the future library value of the product they make; but in a world where a digital copy is easily disseminated in a blink of an eye, that library value can vanish overnight – and with that, their stock value, and certainly thousands of jobs will vanish too.
• Although the bootleggers have already built a platform that provides whatever you like wherever you like whenever you like, the industry leaders can no more decide on a common format for just such a platform than they could over VHS tape or BluRay disc or internet digital music downloads.
• Our cultural curators, the critics at magazines and newspapers, have almost all lost their jobs, leaving virtually no one to champion the undiscovered gems.
• The newspapers and magazines where they worked, once the easiest way to unify upscale opinion, are shuttering left and right, leave the marketers with no place to advertise efficiently and effectively.
• The economic collapse has wrecked havoc on everyone, and not the least of all: non-profit arts organizations and film festivals. The local launch pads for many films have vanished or shrunken and more will be doing so soon.

Now that you get the picture, let’s try on those shoes I spoke about. Put yourself in your well-suited collaborators’ place:

• If you are a marketer, how do you position something if there are no critics to champion it and no place to advertise it?
• If you are an exhibitor, are you going to take a chance on something with no marketing budget from someone that isn’t promising bigger films down the pike? When the big guns insist you run their film for a long term booking, how do you take a chance on something new even for a short while hawked by some upstart filmmaker?
• If you are a distributor, why should you pay money for a film when most festival prize winning films by the biggest names are being given away for the promise of a NY & LA theatrical opening – if even for that.
• If you are a financier, why would you invest in something that can sell for, at best, only 40 –60% of its value? And even then, it can be easily stolen out from under you by a savy pimply-faced pirate knowing basic computer code?
• If you are an audience member, who loves new work, and wants to engage in a dialogue with your social network, how do you resist the temptation to press “download now” when it is free and simple and you know that it won’t be available to you anytime soon near by in its traditional form?
• If you are a filmmaker how do you hear all this and not feel the shoes you walk in are actually cement boots headed off a short pier?

Now that I’ve told you all this, I want you to know that by the time I finish tonight you are not going to want to kill yourself because even if others have not yet found the answers, they have started to pave the paths towards them. You are not going to hang from the rope you’ve been desperately clutching on to, because audiences have been telling you what they want for a long time now if you wanted to listen. No plastic bags or pill bottles are needed in any filmmakers’ arsenal when they have the incredible tools being handed to them as they are… right now… for free.

Filmmakers are lucky because we’ve got to watch the Roman Empire that once was the music business burn before our ears, and we have seen musicians rise like phoenixes from the ashes finding and exploring new methods of bringing songs to their fans and even finding ways to earn the money that is needed to do so. If we embrace their example, extract some lessons from those who have recognized their audiences as collaborators, and utilize the liberty that comes with our independence to explore and even be willing to fail as we innovate, aggregate, and motivate, we can have a truly free culture before us. (If you haven’t read Scott Kirsner’s “Fans, Friends & Followers” do so tonight and you can get specific examples of people doing it right.)

Music is different from film because musical artists seldom ever bet it all on each new album. Musicians expect the fans that they developed with one effort to come back for more, but here in the film world, we are reinventing the wheel each time. Today musicians work to engage their audience for the long term, for the long tail, but the film business remains a series of one-offs. If a diverse film culture is going to flourish in this country, we have to move to a new model where filmmaking is a process, an ongoing conversation between the filmmakers and their various audiences. That is the new model I hope you can embrace when you walk out of here tonigh.

For film to make sense as a business in today’s world, filmmakers must accept the responsibility of bringing their audience to their movie and to engage them in a meaningful way. Filmmakers must reprogram themselves to accept that it is their obligation to seed, corral, and drive their audience. The marketing, publicity, and distribution apparatus out there will build upon that audience foundation the filmmaker first developed, but in choosing what films they will take a risk on, these new collaborators will be motivated to work with the filmmakers who come with several wheels already rolling – those that have already built an audience foundation, a dependable fan base.

You don’t need anyone’s help to build an audience. You start to grow it yourself and soon others will join in. You just need to be willing to work, to reach out to others, to curate, to recommend, to listen, to make sure you have something to say that will excite others, to join them in a dialogue. There is no excuse not to engage with others through the multitude of social media that is available now for free to anyone. It is your obligation. You can not afford to be precious and think you only make art. The culture supports for the “seventh art” are virtually non-existent in this country. You have to complete the equation and bring the audience to the dialogue.

I recognize that it is my obligation too. It is part of the price for the privilege of making and enjoying culture. I kept seeing good work that quickly was being forgotten. Every festival delivered me new gems but I recognized that these films were not being helped by the mainstream media. So what did I do? I got some friends together and started to champion true indie work, to curate for the fans. I watched great films not being distributed or screened on a big screen, so what did I do? I reached out to some friends and now co-curate a screening series at Goldcrest where we invite over 500 people to a 60 seat space to appreciate new work. I speak about a “Truly Free Film” culture so much, but know I am not being heard widely enough, so what do I do? I started and got over my fear of Facebook and Twitter and try to speak to folks like you as much as I can. I ask you: what are you doing to save this thing that you say want to devote your labor to? Do you want a world where the only American cinema is blockbuster tentpoles told by privileged white men? I may be one of those, but I know I don’t.

Now, I am a busy guy. I have produced 60 films. I hope to produce 40 more – and those are just the ones I have identified right now. But I have time to do all this because IT MUST BE DONE. And it is freakin’ easy too. And even kinda fun. It has reached a point that even my eight year old can run and maintain his own blog. Share what you like; you will find others who like what you have to say (in fact with his obsession with lego, bakagan and Dr Who, he probably has more of an audience than I do with American Art Film). Champion them and they will champion you. Help your new friends find an audience for their work and they will do the same for you. Why do you think I am here speaking before you now? I am not some sort of self-less giver. I come here now because I will want your help later – and I expect you will want mine. Let’s make it a give-give, win-win scenario.

But that work must begin early, and it must be maintained. You have to be a good friend. You have to provide. You have to enhance the lives of your fans. It is not just about self-promotion. I don’t care that you are having coffee or walking your dog or even have ideas about the three most frequently said words after sex are (that was a popular tweet this week). I want substance. I want beauty. I want to be wowed – at least every once and awhile.

Kevin Kelly pointed out that to be a self supporting artist we all need 1000 True Fans who are willing to pay $100 a year for whatever it is we have to say (okay, maybe a bit more if you live in NYC, but…). Backed by such an army, there’s a whole new way for you to create. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a year on most social networks to develop those relationships, longer to refine them, and even more to enhance them – if you are going to have those fans, friends, and followers join in your ongoing conversation.

It must be part of every working artist’s job description now to develop your fan base and audience. We also have to recognize that those fans are ours, that they are our most precious resource and we’ve been giving them away up to now. You may have sold your work, but you should still own your fans. We must recognize that our fans are our path to freedom, but by abandoning our rights to them, we’ve turned our selves into slaves. By not recognizing our obligations to our fans, we have allowed our culture to continue to slide to lower and lower common denominators.

When you license your work for low fees because you want to move on and create again, and you haven’t even made sure that your contracts grant you access to the very data you’ve mined – who those fans who pay for your work are – you have sealed your fate for the next time around. You will never be free. It may benefit you to go the DIY route and it may not (that’s a whole other discussion we can have some other time). But what ever your path, you need to be gathering the data along the way on who cares about your work, who loves your work. You need to know how to reach them. And remember: if your fans follow you through some social network app, you don’t really know them – and you certainly don’t own them or their data. You don’t have a way to contact them outside of that app. It means nothing unless you have their email, and that too will be virtually useless unless you invest to make your relationship with them work. You must harvest your data if you are going to be able to survive.

Music – let’s go back to that -- is also different than film because most musicians have multiple art forms to offer their fans, in that they have both the recorded and the live performance, whereas filmmakers still only have a single product. Most music acts have also realized that the business is in the merchandise and not even in either of those art forms – and that certainly doesn’t mean that the merchandise can’t also be an art form. It can. Yet with these strong examples before us filmmakers can’t seem to get beyond the simple t-shirt or action figure to provide their fans.

If I am a true cineaste, how do I display my passion? Is it through the purchase of the complete Criterion Catalogue? You call a dvd a fetish object? I think not! Film lovers want something that shows how much they care, but now, at best, they can buy another book from Taschen. When are we going to have each film come with that artwork, that sculpture, that special thing, that says I am more than just a fanboy? That I am a true cultural conneisuer? Now, I have a 3’x2’ art work on my office wall that looks like a series of large pixels. But once you take a magnifying glass to it you see that they are film frames, one frame from each second of Kubrick’s 2001. It lets you know something about me and my tastes. We need to come up with more products like this to extend our conversations beyond the screen and theater walls.

Music will always trump film because music gets better and better the more you play it, but there are few films that hold up through multiple viewings. But film can go much further than it has so far. Why are we so locked into film as a form that can only be enjoyed when it is completed in a single seating? DVD technology allows for extensive micro-chaptering which in turn will allow for Search Engine Optimization, which in turn will lead to crowds embedding these tiny segments and thus promoting your film across a thousand outlets – but no one is doing this sort of chaptering.

Who said filmmaking is only 90 minutes long with a beginning, middle, and an end, even if not necessarily in that order? And why did we believe them? Why do our narratives have to be limited to that duration and form? With so many platforms and devices to launch and engage from, why are we still waiting for that first popular transmedia culture maker to emerge?

We aren’t doing ourselves any favors when we don’t even know what to name that thing that is that thing that we all want. The evidence is everywhere: audiences want a more immersive experience that they can join in and shape and modify, one that they can remix and rejoin, drop and pick up, forget and then recognize again as it transforms, but what is that? What do we call this thing? What do we name this thing can make movies an event again, that can make them effectively compete with all the other leisure time activities?

When a child says “Pokemon” they don’t think of just the tv-show or the movies or the card game or the video games or the cute figurines. The word Pokemon covers All Of It. Yet we have no audience-friendly term for the complete engagement with media content across all platforms in various ways. Studios call it the “franchise” but they still drive all the by-products off the narrative feature film leader. Madison Avenue calls it “brand management” but they keep all the products separate and never participatory. And both sides lobby for laws that keep our culture private, never motivating fans to make it their own, to disseminate it, or deliver it in new ways to their friends.

Our salvation won’t come from anyone other than ourselves. Truly independent film, truly free film must be the innovator on all fronts. We are the ones willing to take the risk, to embrace audience collaboration, to give them more than the simple one-off video product, and it is truly independent filmmakers that will reap the rewards.

In the most simple terms, when filmmakers recognize that each story can be told in different forms with different tones, different approaches, even different characters, they will also have new ways to engage audiences, to seed them, corral them, and drive them. It maybe with thematically related short films that are released before and after the feature becomes available. It may be with written texts that enhance their understanding or appreciation. It may be through games, through products, through live events.

However & whoever it is, the filmmakers who participate in these multiple platform ways will have solved more than just one problem. They will have engaged their audience in an ongoing dialogue that extends beyond the film product itself, but also they will have reinvented the film so it is once again an event, something distinct, something fresh, something they make a priority. The film will be the unifying action that the community comes together around. It will be how they find one another. It will be the deciding factor amidst the myriad of leisure time activities competing for there ever shortening attention. I think it is clear: providing a better dialogue with the audience is how we going to keep our diverse film culture alive.

And keep in mind that amidst all of this chaos, release patterns and methods are changing even faster. Film festivals are no longer markets. Festivals need to be recognized and exploited as media launches. Festivals are the moment when filmmakers get the most attention. Festivals are also the cheapest way anyone has of getting attention so whether you are surrendering your baby to another parent/distributor, or going the DIY route, you are going to want to use the festivals to publicize your film is available to be booked, that you are selling the DVD. That said, exhibitors are having a harder time playing indie films – be it finding slots or feeling it will be promoted sufficiently -- so where do you get your bookings?

If Robert Greenwald can take his (thankfully) fiercely partisan films into people’s living rooms, why can’t you? Countless filmmakers have found ways to incentavize individuals, communities, and organization to push their films, so what’s to stop you from building your own promotional army? People are selling DVDs directly from their websites, directly at their screenings. These are plans that you need to consider before you shoot and there is good reliable information available for free all over the internet to help you weigh these decisions. You need to put it into action before you apply to the festivals. You need to embrace it as your plan before you apply for grants. You need to accept that it is a filmmakers responsibility to find their audience and bring their work directly to them.

Now all of this is not easy, but it’s really not hard either. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is happening right now. It requires labor but that which is derived from love is hardly really work. It requires delayed gratification but promises infinite satisfaction. It requires strategy and planning, but needs to be playful and sweetly chaotic. There is no one to discover you, but we all want to find you. No pot of gold waiting; but there is a life, a life time, a career, and a body of work begging to be created before you. Sure, it requires adding more to your job description. And it requires refresher courses along the way. It requires a different way of seeing altogether. The nice thing is we have good examples. We are ahead of the studios in our plans and we are willing to take bigger risks.

Your work is your life. You aren’t striving for any one thing other than to improve and to change. Don’t think about that ONE movie you want to make;focus on the long term and what you need to feel as excited, as engaged in fifteen years as you are today. Use your resources. Use your audience. Grow it. Sustain it.

What is stopping us? Let our barriers please not be ourselves. We have now been given the tools to bring us together, to share and to promote. Our products gain in value not by their scarcity but by how much they multiply and are enjoyed. Our desire is not to acquire, but to give away. Filmmakers, those who aspire to ART, to the bold, to the innovative, and to the transcendent have always thought differently: we’ve been most concerned about the outcome and not the income – and rightly so. Begin the conversation. Make it last a good long time. We will all profit from it.