Does The World Need Another Decent Movie?

By Julien Favre With the world economy on the brink, the current environment has rarely been so tough for independent filmmakers. To get our films made and, even more so, to see them sold and/or distributed, is getting incredibly challenging. Foreign sales estimates for low budget independent films are a tenth of what they used to be pre-2008, and let's not be fooled by the numbers. We will be happy if we sell at all, even for symbolic numbers. From a filmmaker's perspective, we have entered a dichotomous world: a shrinking pool of independent films do well; most don't make any significant business. It is now as if there is only room for one indie hit per year. If you are not that film that everybody wants, you barely exist and your business footprint will be close to zero.

Now, you can look at this situation in two different ways. One way is to adjust to the market and give it what it wants, or can economically bare. This means making genre films that still have somewhat of a market and will recoup as long as they are technically sound and are made for the right price. You can also continue to make "art house" films (for lack of a better word) as long as you don't spend more than $80,000 making them, since this is what you can realistically hope to net from world wide sales if the film turns out okay and has a decent festival run.

But the other way to look at these dire market conditions is to ask ourselves: does the world really need another decent film? The elephant in the room is that most films are bad or average. Back when the economy was strong and there was a theatrical and DVD market for indie films, decent films used to do well enough to justify the venture from a business standpoint, but not anymore.

Even if no filmmaker or producer sets out to make yet another average film, we would be lying to ourselves if we were claiming that we never went in production on a film knowing full well that the script needed another pass, or praying that an average director would turn a good script into a great film, or that we would be able to cut around bad performance.

But the reality is that there is no room for average films anymore. There isn't even much room for good movies unless they are backed by heavyweight distributors. We can lament about how unfair, how scandalous it is that our labour-of-love films don't sell and nobody sees themt. Or we can accept the reality of the market and raise the bar of what we produce.

A month or so ago, someone asked me WHY i was a producer. I am so used to people asking me WHAT a producer is, but I was taken aback by this very simple question, and I didn't know what to say. Producing is so much part of me that I cannot contemplate doing anything else, but that doesn't answer the question.

But I realized after the fact that the WHY question is fundamental, and even more so considering the difficulties the indie film world is facing today. Since we are certainly not doing it for the money (and in most cases unfortunately not even for our investors' money), then why are we doing it? Not for the hours, obviously. Producing is not the healthiest or stress-free occupation. And from a human standpoint, it is rarely satisfying either. As a function of what we do, we are at the receiving end of all grievances and rarely get any recognition when things do go well because, you know, all is normal then…

So why are we doing it?

Because there is nothing like the experience of watching an amazing film and being devastated, blown away, changed by it. For me, it started with Akira Kurosawa's Ran. I remember being unable to speak for the rest of the day, and trying to find a way to merge with that world, keep it alive in my head, escape in it.

So deep down, this is what has been driving me: I want to hurt the audience with beauty, emotionally wreck the viewers by exposing them to true art. This is the WHY. This is why I want to make movies. But I guess this is very easy to lose sight of this as we struggle with the reality of the business, and making a living, and deal with the pressure of "producing something" to justify being a producer.

In an oft-quoted letter to his friend Oskar Pollak, Franz Kafka wrote: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

Of course, creating truly great art is incredibly difficult, and depends on so many factors, most of them beyond our control as producers. It is likely beyond most producers' or filmmakers' ability actually. There are plenty of competent people, but true talent is scarce. And even with the best intentions, the highest artistic integrity, there is never any guarantee of success.

But our responsibility, more than ever, is to try, to be intransigeant with content, to look at our slate with a cold heart and ask ourselves: does this movie really need to be made? And why? Would I honestly go see it if I wasn't the producer? It is so hard to get something made that making something, anything, seems like an achievement in itself. But it is not good enough, not anymore.

And in answering these questions, let's be honest. If what we read is not truly great, not really original, not inspired, if the demo-reel we are watching is average, if the ending doesn't quite work, let's keep working, let's keep writing, let's keep looking for the right creative partners and the right elements.

So rather than lament the lack of opportunities, our response as producers to these dire times should be to try and make better films, make great films, not just good ones. Films that will get seen, and distributed, regardless of the market conditions, the weather, venus' transit or what other movie is being released that week.

There is no room for good anymore, but simply making good movies is not why we got into this anyways, so maybe this is our opportunity to become who we always wanted to be, and do what we always aspired to: make films that break the frozen sea inside.

Julien Favre is a producer at DViant Films, an independent film company based in Los Angeles and Toronto. The company's latest release, Martin Donovan's Collaborator, opens at the Egyptian in Los Angeles this Friday.

COLLABORATOR opens theatrically in Los Angeles tomorrow (Friday, July 20th) for a limited one week run.  Screening times here.

As of this writing COLLABORATOR is 82% "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes.

How To Watch Collaborator:

Without Them, Cinema Would Still Be A Boring Place

Roger Corman and John Waters may well be the two people most responsible for cinema a gloriously odd and twisted place. It becomes more challenging than ever to create work that is outside of my mind -- we all regurgitate the work that comes before us, but these two have developed far more than their share of wonderfully WTF moments. I wish I could have been there to hear them speak with each other about LSD, Jack Nicholson, Fellini,and all things movie. But hey, YouTube delivers us there without the hassle of travel.

Get Ready For The Indie Film Investment Deluge!

Let's celebrate!  The prospects look good for a lot of smart money to be available again for appropriately budgeted indie films.  The key now being the "appropriately" part of the equation.

The days of Machiavellian moves to maximize an limited audience art film's budget seem thankfully over -- and as sad as I will be to seem some friends' films become obsolete, I smell another golden age brewing.  Filmmakers and investors seem to have both embraced the "less is more' ethos.  Expect may more films to be made in the lower than $5M bracket, and far fewer indie works in Mark Gill's former sweet spot.  The large indie finance companies of 5 years ago, had to make films at higher budget levels in order to justify their overheads and salaries.  Those companies have crashed and so did the silly models of $20M art films.

The Film Biz is coming off two consecutive extremely robust film markets.  Toronto 2010 saw almost 30 deals close during the festival.  Sundance 2011 exceeded that mark.  Surely there were quite a few deals done post market too (I have not seen any reports to track this; let me know if you know any).  Coming off of two years where the prudent would not expect anything for US rights, this an exceeding positive change.  With a well produced and well positioned films, investors can reasonably hope to recoup -- and then some.  Now the challenge for producers will be to be disciplined enough not to allow the budget creep to return.

There are other factors, beyond the sales market itself,  that heighten my optimism.  The financing model for indie films shifted over the last couple of years to be generally inclusive of additional investors.  Seasoned producers generally try to keep investors to a minimum in order to better manage the relationships -- although having more than one (but still as few as possible) is still a recommended strategy so that creative control is not beholden to another.  The increase in the number of investment partners was due to a both a reduction of available capital and new investors' tendency to look towards others to verify a project's value, and their desire to limit exposure.

With more films selling, and those films having more investors than previously, logic reveals that we have more investors out there who may have actually recouped their investments.  The best part of this is that they are now investors with experience, who hopefully have gained the knowledge on how best to collaborate.

It's interesting to look at the ROI (return on investment) for the films that sold. Although I don't have the time to do an accurate comparison, I can tell you what it feels like to me.  The highest ROIs have come from the micro budget world that delivers quality to a quantifiable audience, particularly when they have a somewhat recognizable cast.  Sundance hit, LIKE CRAZY is the posterchild of this model with three accomplished young stars and a tale of love, helmed by a director of proven ability.  Word is that it delivered ten times it's negative cost on the Sundance sale alone.

For those that want to increase the production value in order limit risk and deliver a more polished look, the low budget range of $500K - $2M did very well this year.  The multiples were not as high, but several films at Sundance seem to have doubled their negative cost by sticking to this formula.  As Kevin Smith pointed out though, the days of Happy Texas sales are long gone.  Granted the higher budgeted star-cast flicks at Sundance may have had the highest sales, but certainly not the highest ROIs, particularly when one factors in the cost of the money, both literal and opportunity-wise.

The challenge this new investor breed faces in repeating this season's success is how to afford the experienced directors and producers when working on limited budgets.  Genius does bloom every year, but that is a risky game to play.  I have produced about 25 first time feature directors, and as much as I believe that talent is a recognizable attribute, experience is a more valuable resource when navigating the rapid speed and intense volume of decision making that feature film production requires.  Budgets of $2M and less will struggle to attract directors and producers with similar track records.  Lucky for them, many of us still truly love movies and want to see great stories told!

Cage Match: Are the Kids Alright? Youth Audiences in the Art House - Independent Film Conference 2010

Are independent and art-house film doing enough to draw young audiences away from the multiplex and the computer screen, or is the theatrical experience for a older demographic? On September 19th I was invited to participate in a "cage match" with Jeff Lipsky as part of Independent Filmmaker Conference's panelist speaker event last month. We were able to agree on one thing: independent filmmakers need to draw a younger audience. Moderator: Liz Ogilvie, Crowdstarter

Panelists: Ted Hope, This is that Jeff Lipsky, Filmmaker, TWELVE THIRTY

Watch it here:

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IndieWire also covered the debate in an article here.