Reflections On "Indie Film Is Dead"

Back in 1995 I wrote an article for Filmmaker Magazine entitled "Indie Film Is Dead". My efforts to call attention to the changing indie dynamic hardly began with Lehman Brother's collapse; my attempts to make filmmakers empowered are long founded.  And we still have a lot of work ahead of us.  It begins with identification of both what could be, what should be, and what does not need to be.  Although it has been a long fifteen years, I remain quite optimistic that we will build it better together. Awhile back here on Truly Free Film, I looked back at that article that I wrote to go public with my fear we, the indie community, had grown complacent.  Each time I revisit it, I gain some new perspective.  I have been truly enjoying Scott McCauley's recent posts reflecting back on the history of Filmmaker Magazine, and was quite pleased when Scott ask me to take another glance for the magazine.  It again has strengthened my conviction that we can move our culture and it's apparatus forward.  This is that reflection:

I think we tend to view the past as the present and overlook the world we are really living in.  Furthermore, there is always a tremendous gulf between thought and expression.  As a culture and as an industry, we are very slow to react to change and particularly to clues as to what is around the bend.  We only alter our behavior when the pain of the present outweighs the fear of the future.  We need our canaries to have bullhorns, but usually I find that it is so easy to get so far ahead of the parade, that the crowd forgets you are leading it.  The big change for today is how easy it is for people to participate.  When I wrote IFID I got a nice response from ten or fifteen people but it was mostly about the wish for someone to build the system so they could benefit from it.  I write to get discussions started and hope that we can all move them into action.  Now when I post something particularly applicable to our culture or industry over 100 people comment and many more pass it around retweeting and posting on FB and the like.  That discussion is slowly also leading to action.  Indie has bifurcated into Truly Free, which is sorting out a series of best practices, and the prestige & genre arms of the corporate well-capitalized entities that still rely on practices of old.

Looking back at the article, it feels like a Macy's Parade float of a giant tweety bird pulling down a 1000 fire alarms, but the reaction was a bit more like the "oh" to a high school prank.  Or maybe the alarms were at a decibel that only certain dogs can hear, and it never reached the right people.  But generally I don't think most people cared, because those that got to step to the mic were getting paid, and the others, well, the first group were being paid to ignore.  Indie did end and became Indiewood, adopting The Cinema Of Quality aspects that lead to so much redundant work.  The industry's blind endorsement of the star-driven foreign sales estimate based budgets eventually brought the sky down for most of Indiewood industry as companies with over-inflated overheads crashed, and films budgeted above their actual value never recouped.  Most of those that supported themselves making what was then mid-range (and is now high) budgets have had to reorient themselves back to the budget range that films were back when I wrote the IFID piece.

I think filmmakers are collaborating now as never before, yet it remains quite hard to shake off the "build it and they will come" dream.  It is truly hard to raise more than a production budget for a film, let alone a preliminary marketing budget.  No new financial model is available to structure a plan, let alone predict a return, based on post 9-15-2008 Lehman Bros. crash realities.  In the interim audiences and communities have been besieged with budget-conscious entertainment choices and become both more dispersed and selective in their filters.  We can reach them far more easily now, but getting them to pay attention is far more difficult.  As producers, we've watched our job description expand tenfold, whereas our billfold has been sliced and diced to record lows.  Indie film was a legitimate career for about a decade, but it has returned to the realm of the "amateur" -- in that it is now truly all about the love.