Today's guest post is from producer Cotty Chubb. Film-makers talk a lot about film-makers and distributors. There’s a lot of the former and not half enough of the latter. But what about the third leg of the stool, the independent film audience? Who are they? What do they want? Where the hell did they go? And how do we get them to come back?
When I was coming up, in the mid-eighties, working for Ed Pressman, independent films were hard to make, but at least the infrastructure was there.
Fueled by the roll-out of the video-cassette, a healthy eco-system developed of audience, distributor and film-maker, with a business model that relied on well-capitalized foreign sales companies, healthy home entertainment divisions, specialty theatrical distributors and a banking system that translated contracts into cash for production. Over twenty-five years, that's all eroded.
Easy access to capital led to a glut of product. The immutable truth of Gresham's Law prevailed. Bad movies drove out good. Distributors and financiers vanished. The audience, overwhelmed by mediocre pictures, lost its taste for the new.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Lots has changed since then, a time before fax machines. Who can even play a VHS cassette anymore?
And one of the changes, regrettably, is that the audience for independent films has declined. It’s still there. The Coens can reliably earn out for the financiers of their movies and they can keep making more movies. There are other film-makers, many of them, who have their fans and can stay in business, but the zeitgeist has changed. DVD sales have dropped across the board, but nowhere so sharply as in the independent sector. Independent exhibitors, those brave few, know their audience is graying, balding, dying off.
And kids don’t care so much, not the way they used to, when a new Abel Ferrara movie was an event, or the movies from Good Machine, or Pressman, or Propaganda or Killer were anticipated.
Why don’t they care? Why don’t movies matter so much? Is it because of the many alternatives? Is it because the younger audience is used to getting things free, or on the screen in front of them? Yes, sure, probably, all of that.
But I think it’s that the companies that make movies, and have controlled distribution for those twenty-five years, have forgotten about the audience, and maybe, just maybe, the film-makers have too.
I hope it's good.
Towards the end of my run with Ed Pressman's company, we made a film with a first-time director (then and now an experienced and successful writer). Late in the post process, before picture lock, I booked a recruit audience screening for him.
A paid recruit screening is one of the great favors a producer can do a director, a chance before the picture's done to show it to people who don't care about his feelings or his intentions.
I told him you're going to learn something from the research cards, and you're going to learn something from the focus group, but you'll learn the most if you just sit in the audience and tune in to their feelings as the picture unreels. But he was too nervous, said he'd disrupt a great swathe of the audience by his legs bouncing, and he sat in the back. I understood. It's nerve-wracking to leave the editing room where it's quiet and dark and nobody judges you.
"Excuse me, ma'am, is that seat taken?" I sat down next to a heavy-set woman who had the aisle. She and I chatted pointlessly for a while but the conversation dwindled away as it should, and we waited for the movie to start. Just before the lights went down, amid the muttering of the rest of the audience and into the stillness between us, she heaved a heavy sigh and said, to herself (but I was next to her and heard her clearly), "I hope it's good."
Yes, we feel all that, as the lights get ready to go down, although it's harder to notice now with the din of the ad-laden pre-show. What does it mean, that we hope it's good?
That it feed us somehow, that it repay us our money -- and money's tight these days – that it be worth our time -- who spends two hours doing anything today that we don't have to? -- and most importantly, that it respect our willingness to be naked before the screen, to open up our psyche and let a story be told to us.
Scratch an itch I didn't know I had, heal a wound I can't name, take me out of my travails with laughter or shock, show me how to triumph -- or even simply to survive -- when my problems are so large. Give me something that sustains me. Feed me. I hope it's good.
Film-makers who don't understand this are lost. If you think it's all about your vision, forget it. It's not. Yes, you have to have a vision and, yes, you have to sustain it through terrible times, when well-meaning people give you bad advice, when the money's not there unless you cast someone obviously wrong for the part, when all the world is arrayed against you and you're losing the light.
But that's the responsibility that goes with the job. We put up with the travail for a reason. You’re in it, I’m in it, for the astonishing thrill of making something remarkable, something unique, something personal and hand-made by a temporary community of artists and artisans.
But don’t forget to pay attention to our partner, the people who pay to see the movies. What’s in it for them?
Cotty Chubb is a producer and manager working in LA. Movies he's proud of range from Eve's Bayou to The Crow toPootie Tang to the upcoming Unthinkable with Samuel Jackson and Michael Sheen.