Traditional Indies Vs Truly Free

When I was in Australia & New Zealand recently, I was asked by Screen Hub journalist Andrew Einspruch to explain what I meant as the difference between Traditional Indie Film and my favorite phrase "Truly Free Film":

 I think it is one of consistent evolution and transformation to some degree. I come from America, and that’s my perspective. In America, the process of indie film creation has always been, essentially, to write for the market, whether people really think it through or not. I think it interferes, or at least enters and influences, their work process.

We don’t have any state funding in America for cinema; there’s no subsidised system. So when a film is produced, it is often made with the intent that it will be sold to a buyer/distributor, and ideally one of the studio-controlled specialised division.
Even in a film that is 100% private equity financed, those that create it tend to self-censor to some degree in an effort to make sure the film can sell to one of these well-capitalised entities.

Traditional indies had a fuzzy line, I think, in terms of what was determined as independent or not. It was mostly defined more as independent of spirit, being that of a singular, authorial voice, rather than one of a business term, of being fully privately financed or not.

Even still, whether they were financed by a studio or by a multi-national corporate division or whether they were 100% private equity, the film inevitably came out through one of these companies, or at least through one of their ancillary arms. The rights to film no longer resided with the filmmaking team – the artist or those that support them. 

As a result, what has developed is a system in the States where it is really hard for the artists and the people that support them to really benefit from creating their work at an independent level. It might be promoted well, the creators might be enhanced, but it is very rare that they actually profit from that procedure, other than the initial sale.

For the 1990s and up until the early 2000s, sometimes that initial sale was quite profitable. But once the companies started to slim down, once the cost of marketing went up and up, and then certainly after 2008 and the world financial collapse, the world changed. That type of return on investment from an acquisition price no longer was at the same level. The filmmakers, the infrastructure that supported them, and the business structure did not truly adapt to a way that allowed artists and those that support them to eventually profit from them.

So when I draw a distinction between those that might develop their work independently and sometimes fund their work independently, but still be in a process where they surrender all their rights to a licensor of the film. It once would once be presumed that in exchange for that surrender, you would get a nice profit on your investment. Now frequently you see people surrendering those rights for a promise of future revenue, where the acquisition price is for a small fraction of the negative cost of the film. When I started in the business, frequently you would get 50% of your negative cost out of the US. And then it was still considered good if you could get 25%-30%. Now you see the acquisition price is frequently 10% to zero of the negative cost – yet still requiring a long-term licensing of the rights, like 10, 15, 30 years. And t would still involve a profit share very much based on those old models, sometimes only a small percentage of some of the ancillary rights.

So that’s what I mean when I talk about the traditional indies versus those who are “truly free”. Those are the artists, and the people who support them, who look at a model where they would retain ownership of their rights, or license it only on a short-term basis. Instead of looking at a surrender, they look toward how they can practice a much deeper engagement with their fan base, with their community. And they look at what benefits can come of that over the long term. 

So instead of a model that leads to a one-off mentality – build it, then invent the wheel again, and then reinvent it after that, and then reinvent it one more time – instead of working that way, they work toward something that is more of an on-going conversation with their community – actually moving audience toward being community, seeking participation and trying to provide greater value than just entertainment or distraction. 

With that, the scale might actually drop. Without the capital-intensive, mass market backing of these large, well-funded entities, you can’t hope for such a large return. But you can be sure of having a greater percentage of that return come to you. So modelling your film on a smaller scale, and not looking to a mass market, you’re not self-censoring and trying to write for a film that can be worthy of a multi-million dollar ad buy, and having to speak to everybody. Instead, you’re looking to speak perhaps to a smaller audience far more directly, resonantly, and deeply. With that is an opening up of subject matter, of stylistic experimentation, and a moving away from the dominance of the feature film form business model and one-off reinventing the wheel mentality. Instead, you are trying to find something that is far more sustainable and built precisely around that community engagement.

A big part of what goes into my overall thinking, is that time and time again you see artists, audiences and technology changing far faster than markets and industries can even hope to keep up with. That’s always an opportunity that’s there. But it’s very hard to bring things along because we build systems that want to survive. Those systems have a logic where they have to reward the status quo and change is really hard. Yet all those that create for it, consume it, appreciate it, and deliver it, have advanced beyond the utility of that industry or market.

That’s where we are now. And that’s what allowed me to get started and make 2/3 of the movies I’ve made in my career – just that ability to look at the American film system, really the international film system, and say, “Wait a second, it’s already changed, and you’re not changing with it.”

I had good fortune of moving to New York right when the American Independent Wave started. Directors like Spike Lee, the Cohen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch were all making their first features in New York when I arrived there. These films made their money, 100% of their costs, from international revenues. Yet their value was set solely from the privilege of having access to the largest consumption market in the world, the US. So it was perceived that they would be established there, and essentially have their marketing launch from there. But at that time, there was only one company, Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax, that had a business model that was made to exploit that. 

The cost of entry to doing that was relatively small, and I was able to build my first company, Good Machine, predicated on that notion, that with the presumption of an American release, we would be able to cover 100% of our costs of an auteur-driven cinema from the international marketplace. And so we had to listen to what those audiences wanted, and design our films for that, and in exchange, we were able to fund our movies with virtually no capital of own to put into it.

I think we are at a very similar moment of transformation, where that gap between the evolution of audiences, technology and artists has far surpassed the market and industry again. It is up to those who are flexible and nimble to point their way to new business models that can fund a whole new wave of creativity.

It’s exciting. But there are still a lot of problems, bridges and ramps that need to be built to give the creative community the courage to step over these new waters, but that gap between what needs to be done, and somebody’s desire and willingness to do it is a really creative field that is normally referred to as “business”. There’s lots of opportunity there than can really open the way for lots of interesting work. 

This is the first question in an interview that I did with Andrew Einspruch for ScreenHub.  If you are a member of that organization you can read the whole thing here.

Screen Hub is "The daily online newspaper for Australian film and television professionals." Their web site for the link is http://www.screenhub.com.au.

Andrew Einspruch's indie Australian film company Wild Pure Heart Productions has created the feature film Finding Joy and the documentaries 2012: This Sacred Earth and 7 Days with 7 Dogs, and is currently working on the low budget feature The Farmer. Andrew can be found on Twitter as @einspruch and at andreweinspruch.com.