Should We Accept That Indie Film Is Now A Hobby Culture?

I don't intend to get down on hobbies here; I love building model rockets with my son, but I don't harbor any fantasies about earning a living from doing it (well, I do have a plan for a BowlOfNoses Summer Camp, but...).  Thing is, there once was a time when all my friends earned a living making and sharing independent features.  It didn't feel like a hobby then, but now it does. I wonder if anyone still earns a consistent living making indie films?

Okay, the sales markets of Sundance & Toronto have increased my hopes that the economic situation for filmmakers will improve and, yes, "earning a living" is a relative phrase.  True, many still are paying most of their bills from working in the film biz, but I suspect that either it is at a level 50% lower than it was three years ago, or else the company that pays them is earning substantially less than they were years back and just hasn't passed the losses on to their employees beyond staff reductions.  Yes, there are still some folks who hit a vein and get a windfall, but don't mistake that good fortune as a career.  I have seen highs and lows, but I don't see consistency any more.

It's not all doom mind you. Some people are adapting well to the current situation, working on lower budgets, and creating a variety of forms -- but the earnings are at a much different level.  The need to find ways to subsidize one's creative passions has become more urgent than ever before.  Speaking fees and consultancy gigs have become a necessary part of my balance sheet.  Academia is growing more appealing by the day.

People used to toss off that Indie Film was the province of the rich or the young, as a way of saying that there was no long term survival path, but that was said most frequently by those that somehow had managed to embed themselves in the process -- and thus contradicting their statement by their very existence.  Those days are gone though.  Indie film is only a viable stopover station and then only for the young and the rich.  I am at a loss of how someone can earn enough to live in NYC making the kind of movies I did for the last two decades.  It requires  something completely different.

I wish it was as simple as scaling down.  As budgets come down so do the stories and the styles by which they are told.  Miracles occur on a regular basis and we are all treated to some beautiful work, but generally speaking, we are watching Norma Desmond's words become our reality.  As Indie's stories get really small, not only does the audience follow suit, but the hope of a recovery becomes slimmer and slimmer.  Part of the appeal of cinema is that it exposes the expansive nature of our lives -- and that still is hard to do on a six or five figure budget (but not impossible).

There are many reasons to think, even to believe, that there is an alternative to this dark vision.  Mike Ambs was right when he mused that the short form online crowd was building their side of the bridge much faster than the indie film side.  As true as that may be, it ignores the fact that that progress is rarely done professionally.  Yes it is done passionately, but it still requires those so driven that they have found an alternative way to afford a creative life than financial support from the industry they focus on.

When people speak of "profit" as the holy grail when speaking of "saving" indie film, they focus on the money because they want to survive.  When people choose to make indie films, I don't think they are ever really hoping to get rich, they just want to be able to survive doing what they love.  Granted, very few are willing to live at subsistence levels in order to be an artist, but they still want to make a living, and hence they need to "profit" from their work.  And right now I would wager that less than one percent of those that create indie films, "profit" from their work.

What is going to happen to the swarm of experts we've developed over that last two decades when we ultimately accept that the business is dead?  As long as we are willing to drive the transactional price point to zero, artist will not support themselves by their practice?  Do you really want to earn your living exploiting those whose passion prevents them from creating consistent work?  Just because some are privileged enough by their reputation or wealth to aggregate libraries not by compensating at a respectable value, but by being the only legitimate option, does that mean that they should?

It is going to take a lot of thought and experimentation to get us on track towards a sustainable film industry of diverse and ambitious work.  It is going to take a lot of patience.  It is going to take a lot of collaboration.

Thoughts On Audience Building

Today's guest post is from filmmaker (and mind map builder!) Mike Ambs.

In a recent post here, Ted Hope listed "38 More Ways The Film Industry is Failing Today"; many of the questions and points made among the 38 stood out to me, and I've spent the last several days trying to openly brainstorm steps that could lead towards change. But today, I wanted to write about one in particular: Ted asked why we don't encourage, or even demand, that a film build it's audience (say, 5,000 fans) prior to production and greenlight.

For starters, I love the idea of audience builds. I think the practice of audience builds before a film gets too far off the ground would be a great shift in how we think of films, how we approach them, how to involve the audience long before they ever sit down in a theater - but it raises a few key issues:

Filmmaking is storytelling, and stories are told many different ways and take very different paths. Because of this, it might not be the best idea to mandate audience builds. One reason for this is it could, if taken advantage of, create yet another "door" that is opened easier only for some.

So the real question is, "why" take this route? If you had a fork in the road, would you, as a filmmaker, only take the path of audience building prior to production because it was the path less traveled? Or would it come with it's own real incentives outside of "popularity"? For example, would studios honor and take seriously independent films that have done the hard work of pre-building their audiences? Or would certain grants and financial benefits kick in at such a watermark? It's important to help build that distinction and give filmmakers real incentives at thinking of storytelling in this way: your supporters are your foundation, build that first, then your film.

This topic of audience builds is interesting to me because, as much as I agree with the idea of pre-building your supporters, I've been very hard at work on For Thousands of Miles for six years now, always with a strong interest in the community that can grow around a film, and I still fall short of that hypothetical benchmark of 5,000 supporters. Even with Facebook, Twitter, mailing list, Kickstarter, production-blog subscribers, Vimeo community, etc: we are not above 5,000 people. Have we overlooked the importance of forming a relationship with the audience beforehand? Does our film's approach and idea need more work before people really begin to relate on a larger scale? And on top of this, these supporters overlap: people who follow the film on Twitter, also might be subscribed to both our blog as well as our mailing list. Which raises the questions:

How do we keep proper tally of the numbers during an audience build without counting one person two or three times? How would an outside review separate individual supporters across multiple social tools? And more importantly, who would do this validating? Should we be building stat tools and options for keeping these aggregated numbers public, letting the film's own growing base self-check it's own real-world size? Does this public display beg for popularity contest, where growing your numbers by any means necessary as fast as possible becomes the focus, instead of slowly and steadily reaching out to people who will really follow and support your work over the longterm?

Measurement can be relative when it comes to films, support can vary wildly depending on how a filmmaker goes about engaging people beyond their film. So how do we really measure this? Hitting a set number of followers / supporters / fans / backers could be one way, or if anything, the first step in audience building. From there it's what you do with these people: how you involve them in the process, what they get out of supporting your project. As filmmakers we cannot change the future of storytelling without the audience's full support - we need them to fall in love with a new "norm" of getting involved and be right there next to us when going head-to-head with the old ways of industry.

Mike Ambs currently lives in Ypsilanti. He loves to film things and tell stories. And read on the subway. He's pretty sure blue whales are his power animal.