An Incredible Opportunity... Or Not? Producing Indie In The Era Of Economic Collapse

By Josh White Timing is close to everything. Good movies go unseen. Talent is squandered. Revolutions fail to materialize. All of this because of bad timing (and perhaps bad strategies). At the same time, great things occur, movements are born, we delight in the artistry of new talents -- all because people were in the right place at the right time. Is this a cause for celebration or something to lament?

I will not discount the good fortune I had to start making movies when I did. It is also so difficult to judge where we are now as a culture, an industry, or a movement -- or what the wisest strategy is for these times. I know we are not going to find the answer on our own. I trust we can build it better together. I was very moved by producer Joseph White's tale of trial and tribulation and I we are lucky he's chosen to share it with us.

My filmmaking partner and I always laugh about how our generation showed up at the end of just about every affair. American empire…falling, free love…sorry, peace movement…f*%k off… good drugs… bad thing, fast fortunes on Wall Street…occupied, great movement in music…almost missed it…In the beginning of 2008 we started to make a movie about the time of what is arguably the last great trend in rock n roll (and music -- in my opinion). Unfortunately, we made that film at the worst time to make an independent film and take it to market, not to mention what is going on with the world and the economy.

Today I read a statement that said:

MUSIC IS THE LANGUAGE OF EMOTION. THE POWER OF MUSIC SHAPES OUR LIVES AND CONTINUALLY TOUCHES OUR SOUL. MUSIC ICONS EXPRESS FREEDOM, DEFINE GENERATIONS, QUESTION AUTHORITY, AND INFLUENCE FASHION AND ART (it was written on the inside of a T-Shirt).

I feel the same way only better about the effects of movies. I remember first coming to NYC as a student and going to the Angelika to see independent films. I remember how much I connected with the characters, the stories, and the stages of my life. In some cases, those films helped me with understanding life. In some cases they were better than therapy would have been. Maybe part of it was my own coming of age, it doesn’t matter, the effect was real. I realized the power of the medium. It made me want to make films. I don’t believe in god. I do believe in religion. I believe in anything that is for the betterment of mankind. I think we all need help at times dealing with humanity. I go to concerts and I always think that I should feel like this when I leave church.

Sir George Martin said that music is the language of emotion. Pictures say a 1000 words. Add motion to photography and it says a lot more. Put these things together and then add a story and actors and the finished product becomes like many other works of art. It becomes immortal.

I understand that for most people who work on films that it is just a job, but it’s not. I think however, that here is a moral and societal obligation. Like it or not art is reflecting life. Life is reflecting art. We are shaping and interpreting the world. Rock n Roll evolved from music that came out of pain and a need for expression and the desire for something to feel good about. Music, ever the platform for articulating the zeitgeist evolved to implore us all to be at peace with one another. Now popular music all too often reflects some of our shallower values; wealth, objectivity, misogyny, even murder. WTF!?

How great would it be if we could treat artisans like the greatest days of the Roman Empire?! Imagine a society where our government would cloth us, feed us and provide shelter, if we would just paint the buildings, make everything beautiful and interesting and keep the streets clean. I know I’d be a lot happier if I knew that my kids would be sheltered, fed and educated if I just kept making films.

Somewhere along the way art became synonymous with business. Ask any film maker what they do and they are more likely to tell you that they are in the film business, before they will tell you that they are an artist.

In the fall of 2008, during our post-production, we were constantly hearing “You guys are in a great position. There is no product in the pipeline.” We heard that a lot. We had one of the top companies out there call us and say that they were tracking the film and wanted to see it. Things were falling into place. We thought “This is going to be great!”

Then reality set in. We spoke to people who knew people and found out that most reps were having trouble selling what they already had. The financial downturn had very quickly and unilaterally savaged the appetite for risk taking in every industry, and not surprisingly, the indie film industry too, had fallen off a cliff. When we finally had a conversation with a film rep, our worst fears were confirmed, there were a ton of films out there and no one is buying!

Why wouldn’t they be buying? I was reading all over that we just had a record year at the box office. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! Things are better than ever!

How could the business of show, the people who control the media, go on public record, and tell us that things are alright when they really aren’t!? How can they publish stories that claim that things are better than ever?! Oh wait…

It seems that when you are willing to stick your neck out for an art form that you believe in you are going to get a lot of free advice. “Oh you made a movie!? You should just play the lottery!” or my favorite which was said to me by Bob Dylan’s representative Jeff Rosen. He said: “You know you should work at Subway. If you add up the hours you are putting in you would be making more money.” Fuck me, he might be right.

So here we are again, just getting to another great party and someone has turned off the music. It’s the closest thing that I can imagine to getting to Rome to open your dream shop, only to find it sacked and burning. Everyone started to say the same thing, that even the experts don’t know anything anymore. Then what became painfully clear was that they haven’t for a while.

Just like the financial system and the housing market the film industry fell apart. What I don’t get is rather than heeding the warnings everyone played business as usual. I cannot help but wonder if only our industry leaders had spoken up, would things have been different? Maybe some of them tried. If MOMA and Indiewire had been able to call together the NY Independent Producers, distributors and the trades a year or two earlier could we have had a more graceful evolution? Did those meetings do anything? Is there a collective effort or did we all just run back to tending our own fires?

When you show up to a playing field that’s just been leveled, you have to look at it for what it is. Every time I hear someone speak of how bad things are right now, I like to think that the competition is weeding out. At first I was horribly discouraged about the future of the film industry and my career. Now I am trying to see the opportunity. It would seem that the evolution of an industry has changed gears to become the revolution of an industry.

Like every art form we learn the techniques of our masters and then break the mold. In this case the mold has been broken for us. The best thing to do is to embrace it. There is no going back. Truth be told, we have more going for us as artists than any artists have ever had before in history. We have technology. We can shoot, edit, after effect, and even market and exhibit our films at pennies on the dollar.

I met a young LA producer who is cranking out films with great casts for under $5MM. It’s nice when you meet someone who tells you that contrary to popular belief that it is easy to raise finance right now. He told me how he is working the foreign sales markets, which is great to hear because the last few people that I spoke to about it told me that foreign is dead and that unless you can prove a domestic Box Office of $5MM then, no one will be interested.

The whole thing makes me think of searching web pages until you find one that has a better weather forecast for your area(try it, it works). The fire has come down from Olympus again, and though Olympus (Hollywood) is doing a good job of remaining a mountain there seems to be better fires down here. I think that as independent filmmakers we are in a great position. I think its time for us to create a better system than the one that just fell.

No one likes to be forced to change. None of us have a choice. It’s happening…there is nothing you can do. The music industry was told to embrace Napster and they continued to try and stop it. This reluctance ravaged the industry and cost countless lost revenues.

A lot of people think that the day and date model is the way to go. A lot of theater owners think it’s a stupid idea because it means the end for the brick and mortar establishments. Fear is a very powerful emotion. All too often it clouds judgement and stands in the way of progress, even when that progress is clearly unstoppable. It’s revolution evolution. The explosion in technology has given the consumer greater choice and flexibility.

People are watching movies on smart phones and tablets now. Right now you can get my movie almost anywhere in North America via the internet. As a filmmaker, of course I’d prefer to have my movies seen on the big screen, in a dark auditorium, with awesome sound, filled with people having the “shared experience.” People will always want this experience. It will never go away. The theater chains will adapt. What that adaptation is, I don’t know. I can tell you it’s not 3-D. I’m curious to see where this all ends up…

Joseph White is a film maker with over 12 years of experience making films and commercials. He is the Co-founder of Red Hawk Films. Red Hawks first feature www.ThePerfectAgeofRocknRoll.com is available On Demand, DVD and On-Line. He is currently working on his follow-up film, an untitled documentary about the Elders of The Delta Blues and the influence their music had upon rock n roll and the world.