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:


IndieWire also covered the debate in an article here.

How Can Indie Film Appeal To Alternative Youth Culture?

Sunday September 19th, as part of Independent Film Week, the IFP invited me to a "Cage Match" with Jeff Lipsky on Indie Film's relationship with youth culture.  The discussion was spurred on by a post of mine "Can Truly Free Film Appeal To Youth Culture ", and the robust discussion everyone had in our comments section to that post, and then still further by discussions on Filmmaker Mag Blog and Anthony Kaufman's column.  It was a good discussion before IFP even proposed the CageMatch, but I appreciated the opportunity to give it more thought. You might have missed it but it's been summed up pretty well by Robert McLellan on (thanks to Shari Candler for tipping me to that), Ingrid Koop on the FilmmakerMag Blog, and Eugene Hernandez at Indiewire (although I don't agree, or believe I said, that Indie Film is aimed at white women over the age of 45 -- although they are the dominant audience -- but that we have to prevent Indie Film from being the province of the privileged, old, and white (i.e. me!)). Jeff and I could have blabbed for hours. I have plenty more to say on the issue.

As both a community and an industry, it is critical we look at both the creative, infrastructure, and societal factors for answers of why we have so failed to develop the alternative and youth sectors.  Every other cultural form has a robust young adult sector that is defined both by it's innovation and opposition -- yet in film that is the exception and not the rule.

To me the issue comes down to the fact that unless Indie Film appeals to the under 30's, Indie Film will continue to marginalize itself into the realm of elitist culture like Chamber Orchestras and Ballet. Indie Film as a form is already problematic in the way it self-censors and regurgitates last year's success stories; it needs to be reinvented from within.  We need to encourage and reward rebellion -- plus it's fun, and makes great cinema.

There is often the tendency to essentially blame the audience, but I am believer that American audiences are like the March Hare and "like what they get" (in a future post, I will attempt to demonstrate why blaming the audience is lazy finger pointing).  The issue is not the consumption and appreciation patterns, but the lack of leadership to push for something unique from our creative communities.

What is it that Alternative Youth Culture wants from Indie Film Culture but can't find on the menu?  Granted, as someone pushing 50 I may not be qualified to answer (and I hope some people more of the age of which I speak raise their voices), but I think the answers are numerous (I have sixteen off the top of my head -- and I am sure you can add more).  They feel to me to be relatively timeless, as true to me back at age 20 as they are now to the folks that intern with me.  They deal with both content, context,

  1. immediacy; relevancy to the world we are living in right here right now
  2. controvercy; extremism; intensity; -- content that is not watered down or safe;
  3. honesty; truthful emotions -- not engineered ones;
  4. Respect for the audience that doesn't talk down to them;
  5. Transparency in the process, an attitude and an aesthetic that allows all to see how they too can get it done;
  6. Diversity of voices in accessible content, a commitment to be different from the rest, but a willingness to be part of a specific community -- and not a general audience;
  7. A social component; a live event before or after the screening -- something that offers that random interaction with that person you don't know quite yet but you know loves the same thing that you do (i.e. community building events);
  8. constant reminders of what they appreciate, what they want to belong to -- akin to hearing your favorite song on the radio, again and again, or being in the space that you know your parents would never want you to be or being surrounded by people that hate and love much what you feel similar about;
  9. access for discovery; it's not just a new algorithm we need; software alone can not solve the problem -- how do we find and then immediately experience or possess MORE of what we want when we finally find it; we want to know what our friends know; you hang out in a bar with good music, not just because you like the music and the people, but so you can discover more of what you like.
  10. access to the creators.  Musicians feel like they came from the community to which they perform to; their audience gets to know them in a way that can't be said for filmmakers.  Filmmakers need to embrace "film gigging" as a necessary component of some aesthetic choices.
  11. reactionary attitude and focus towards the world at large, not just the industry/culture they partake in.  If Mumblecore is the dominant strand of current alternative youth culture in film what is it reacting against beyond the Hollywood style of filmmaking? There is a whole world out there that is ready to take a whole lot of abuse.  Give the people something different; show us what we could become (for better and for worse).
  12. accessibility to the creative process; it is often said that anyone can make music AND record a song these days, yet there remain perceived economic barriers to creating film work.
  13. relatable voices and relevant voices; to want to participate, you need to feel you belong.  Who are the filmmakers who are part of the under 30 generation?  How can Indie Film be more than something for old, white, and privileged?  This comes from both the top and bottom, lifting and pushing.
  14. How can the community demonstrate they belong?  Our industry does not produce objects that demonstrate one's love for cinema and its culture?  Where are the fetish objects that can be more than a t-shirt?
  15. Communities need help to coalesce. Help those who want to help you. Young people give themselves to scenes and causes that matter to them; it is a badge of honor to help expand the things you care about it, but how does someone help Alternative Youth Culture Indie Film if they want to bring it to their neighborhood?  We currently aren't making it easy. #JustSaying.
  16. Certain aesthetic approaches encourage participation; others curtail it.  There is a preciousness that dominates in Indie Film, that presumably is predominately derived  from how difficult it is to be prolific.  Right now, most films unfold like they are a proof and not an exploration -- and to compound matters, they are a proof of something we already have realized long ago.  Each film feels like it may be the artists' last.  Each one relishes that it is " A Film By...".  If artists want participation from the community they believe they are part of, they need to get over the arrogant posturing, and admit -- through their work -- that we are all learning as we go along.

I look forward to your suggestions as to how to expand this list.  In the days ahead I hope to find the time to: a) consider the problems with the current infrastructure in supporting an Indie Film Youth Culture; b) why it is a fault of leadership and NOT the audience that we don't have an Indie Film Youth Culture; and c) what has worked, why things that didn't work before could work today, and what has never been in terms of Indie Film Youth Culture.  But then again, I have a movie or two to make and get out there.

Lipsky's Indiewire List on Why He Loves Theatrical Distro

Cassavettes' former distributor announced last week that he was going back to his old ways and taking other people's films to the people. This week he (Jeff Lipsky) did a must read article to try to explain why. It's in the pop form of a list and after each bullet point he goes into some detail to back up his assertion. Check it out. I post the list (w/o the explanation) below. There is some food for thought in Jeff's positions and I look forward to discussing it further. I have always believed in a collective sub-conscious; is there really a new? In reading, Jeff's list it reminded me of several points from filmmaker Michael Barnard, who's thoughts on the current state I am posting today and tomorrow. Stay tuned...

The whole article is on IndieWire and you should read it. Jeff's bulletpoints are:

1) My number one job as a distributor-for-hire is to run a collection agency.

2) All new distribution platforms (with the possible quirky exception of movie downloads to laptops and PDAs) fall under the heading of “home entertainment.” And, one after another, they all tend to cannibalize each other. 3) According to an article in Reuters, in 2009 combined theatrical and DVD sales/rentals in the US yielded $26 billion.

4) We should be talking about how to capture the attention of a film’s potential theatrical audience (which is hungrier than ever) while being able to reduce the marketing spend.

5) Approach domestic film festivals with great caution.

6) From the Everything Old is New Again Department: Addict teens, get them into the habit of going to see independent films, to debate them, to spread word-of-mouth, to love them.

7) What do I make of the state of film criticism today and how do I assess its role in the distribution of movies right now?

8) What about the state and role of trade media? Do we need a trade media at all?

9) I’m not in denial about technology.

10) I do believe in social networking…

11) I want to continue to distribute films theatrically because I still love movies.

As with all online publishing these days, the comments make for necessary reading.  In this instance, Chris Dorr, who says:

A very good post. A couple of ideas to amplify.

Numbers 9 and 10. The innovation that is occurring in technology today often takes place in what some call the “golden triangle”, the three sides being mobile, social and real time. The three poster children for this innovation are Apple, Facebook and Twitter, however, the innovation extends far beyond each of them. Each side of the triangle drives the other.

As a result the internet for many, (though not all) exists in the physical world. It is now something to which you are constantly connected while you move about in the real world. As a result you are connected to your social graph and to the choices you and your friends make and recommend as they move through the world. These choices include things like restaurants, music venues and yes—movie theaters.

Every aspect of the innovation within the “golden triangle” enhances the possibility of independent movies reaching their audiences in a theatrical release at a radically lower cost. It is only a matter of independent filmmakers and their distributors truly understanding this innovation and harnessing it .

So don’t deny this technology or ignore it—dive in, understand it and embrace it. There are real people and yes, even real money here.

You Too Can Have Cassavettes' Distrib Work For You

It was a busy week. Jeff Lipsky, distributor turned filmmaker, has returned to his distro roots and wants to work with you! I got an email from him and have been meaning to post but my To Do List is a bit unruly. I need an extra hand. Now I was beaten to the punch, but better late than never.Jeff's email states:

Theatrical business is flourishing – it wasn’t just Tim Burton’s film that broke global records this past weekend, the IFC Center in New York City also made history, and that’s generally the way things have been going for well over a year. Yet with more and more new distribution platforms on the rise revenues for independent producers and filmmakers continue to diminish. (Of course, that merely an educated guess since there is absolutely no transparency about such numbers whereas box office grosses are as readily available as the weather report.) These and other vexing realities have inspired me to return to my roots. I’m once again hanging out my shingle as an independent distributor for hire, making myself available to filmmakers and producers seeking to engage the services of an ever-passionate and experienced executive who still believes (perhaps now more than ever) in the potential and the immediacy (think revenues) of a theatrical release. In 2007, on a “service deal” basis, I released the record-breaking “Sweet Land,” the award-winning documentaries “The Bridge” and “The War Tapes,” and my own film “Flannel Pajamas.” I can be contacted at For those who may not know my history feel free reach out to me so I can relate further details about the other 225 or so films I’ve marketed and distributed, from films by Cassavetes to Jarmusch, from Lasse Hallstrom to Mike Leigh. And so we can discuss how to exploit your film with the same verve, acuity, and exuberance, greasing the wheels for its ancillary future, a future that will remain 100% yours.

Update 3/21/10: Jeff published his manifesto on theatrical distribution this week in IndieWire and it is a must read.

What's It Like To Step BEHIND The Camera

Back at the beginning of the year, Christine Vachon and I sat down with Alan Cumming, Jeff Lipsky, and Lee Daniels to talk with them about what it was like to sit in the director's chair after being established in other roles within the industry.

This is part one and part two of nine.
Part Two of Nine:

You can look at all nine installments, right here:

Jon Jost Responds To Jeff Lipsky

Jon Jost, longtime true indie filmmaker of great talent, innovation, and commitment, commented on Jeff's recent post.  We bump it up in hopes that no one misses it (and next time, Jon, please send me an email address or something so I check in with you!):

As a, oh shall we say somewhat experienced filmmaker in this regard, I think much of the above makes for a delicious meal of red herring.

There are as many truly awful films that were tightly scripted, etc., and Lipsky's assertion that scripting is some path to betterment is folly.

There are also many truly awful films that were improvised.

So what might one learn from this? Maybe that it is not whether something is scripted or not, but whether all the aspects of a work - the underlying "idea" of it, the imagery, the sound, the acting (assuming there are acting figures, which itself is a fat assumption about what a film is - there's many stunningly wonderful abstract works with no actors) which all combine to make a film work or not. Maybe one should learn to open one's thought processes a bit, and think and feel a bit more clearly, and not jump to rather simple-minded views.

On a personal level I can pass along that of my own work, while each was rooted in some fundamental idea or structural framework, my films
CHAMELEON (1978); SLOW MOVES (1983); BELL DIAMOND (1985); REMBRANDT LAUGHING (1987); SURE FIRE (1989-90); ALL THE VERMEERS IN NEW YORK (1989-2000); UNO A TE (1995); all shot in film, were completely improvised - though frankly most people looking at them would assume they'd been fully scripted and thought out before hand, but they were not. VERMEERS had not one page of script or dialog,nor did any of the others listed above. What they did have, in the broadest sense of the term is "direction" and craft skills and an overarching cinematic sensibility guiding them.

Subsequently, the narrative digital films OUI NON (1996-2000), HOMECOMING (2004), OVER HERE (2006) and the most recent PARABLE (2008) were all similarly utterly without script.

It is true - sort of - that digital media, drastically bringing down the costs of actual shooting, enhances the opportunities to improvise and take risks. My shooting ratios are higher, though not by much, than they were in film (in film averaged about 2.5 to 1; though some films were virtually 1 to 1); I suspect now I average in narrative work something like 3.5 to one. I am not interested in wading through piles of crap to find a film in it. Some people are and some very good films have been made that way.

So the real matter is not whether one improvises or scripts, but rather how one goes about orchestrating the totality of what makes a film. Digital enhances this by letting people shoot, fall on their faces, make total crap AND LEARN IN PROCESS, rather than sitting around waiting for $2 million or whatever to materialize so they can go replicate a script and make another cookie-cutter film, however well or badly. And, for those few who seem to actually be willing to deal with it, digital also offers a far richer and more complex palette of aesthetic possibilities, though frankly most of our younger filmmakers treat it as if it was just cheaper film and don't begin to touch what it really is.

My two bits - a friend of mine in Stanberry MO, filmmaker Blake Eckard, pointed me to this item. Thanks Buck.

Jon Jost

Hope said "Hit" and Lipsky "Suck It" ... then came the response

Karina at Spout called me out on my liberal use of an already overused term.  You ask me though, the meaning of the word "hit" left this world long ago.  And it brought a smile to my face to type each letter as a result.  I couldn't resist.

Her further critique of Jeff Lipsky's Reasons To Be Bullish, Pt 1 & Pt 2, then reminded me of the response of few friends have called me out on my current optimism: that it left them depressed. 
What can I say? In every silver lining broods a deep dark cloud.  Karina labeled it "cranky old man-ism".  She might have something there: I am writing this from the rocker on my front porch.  But Karina got some good response back too.  Old men and their reprimanders are always worth a hoot in my book or blog.  Check it out.


Jeff Lipsky, director of the Sundance hit ONCE MORE WITH FEELING (among others), distributor of Cassavettes (among others), co-founder of October Films (among others) -- this man knows the lay of the land.  He recently participated in a show Christine Vachon and I did up at Sundance for Filmcatcher (soon to be streamed on their site), and I was once again reminded of his incredible enthusiasm and knowledge of all aspects of the film business.  I only asked him for ten reasons he was bullish on the state of indie.  I get the sense that if I hadn't capped it, he'd still be adding to the list. 

Here's Part One:
1. Apparently movies love depression (as in recession). Especially independent movies. Since the U.S. economy tanked theatrical grosses have been going through the roof. In comparing the steady weekly increases over the corresponding 2007/8 frames this is a fact, irrefutable, and it isn’t just the rise in ticket prices, admissions are up, too (finally). Even excluding boffo studio phenomena like “Paul Blart Mall Cop” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” the numbers in independent theatres since fiscal Armageddon set in have been stunning. Last week New York’s Angelika Film Center’s total gross was 40% higher than the same week last year, while at the Sunshine Cinemas, also in NYC, the increase was a ridiculous 375%. In southern California the gross last week at The Landmark cinemas exceeded the gross over the same week last year by 48%. In Cleveland the Cedar Lee’s gross last week was ahead of last year’s gross by 70%, a week, incidentally when three of the five Oscar nominated films for Best Picture were on screen at that complex. And let’s not exclude the town that gave you the American automobile. Motown’s in great shape, right? In Detroit last week the independent Maple Art Cinemas’ grosses were 246% higher than the corresponding week last year. Quick, let’s pick another post-apocalyptic week at random: 11/7/08-11/13/08. Same theatres, same comparison to its total week’s gross the corresponding week the previous year. Sunshine: 27% higher the week of 11/7/08 than the previous year. The Landmark, 34% higher. The Cedar Lee, 12% more, and in Motor City, a whopping 50% increase. And if you think it’s all because of President Obama, don’t. It was true in October, pre-Election, as well.

2. Speaking of New York’s Angelika Film Center, let us consider the New York success of the sublime “Let the Right One In.” That film has been playing exclusively at the Angelika Film Center has 14 weeks, at the time of this writing, and has grossed a quarter of a million dollars. For most of those weeks the seating capacity hovered around 200. And I don’t recall seeing a single ad in the New York Times since about the third run of its run. Nor do I recall seeing any online media buy. All things are still possible if you make a great film. And it doesn’t require $10 million of marketing to accomplish the impossible. (Note: its total North American gross is only $2 million but I know many producers of American independent films that cost under $500,000 to produce who would salivate over a theatrical total of $2 million.) Magnolia should present a (free to the public) case study of their marketing of this title at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival, where, I believe “Let the Right One In,” enjoyed its U.S. premiere in 2008.

3. DVD revenues in North America last year were down about 5% from 2007 totals (estimates range between 3%-6%). That means only $21.8 billion was generated by DVDs (including Blue Ray) in 2008. If the real percentage of the total that is applicable to truly independent films is only 1.5% (the lowest estimate I could find) that means indie films generated almost $328 million in DVD revenues last year. I don’t know about you but I’m impressed. And that doesn’t include legal download, PPV, and VOD numbers, paltry though those numbers I’m quite certain are.

4. The total amount of money (thus far) that independent distributors doled out for Sundance acquisitions in 2009 has exceeded last year’s total by 5%. And this was the year, distributors weren’t going, money was tight, the mood was cautious, the town was deserted, and the weather was warm (well, it was gloriously warm).

5. A brief history of the DVD. Home Entertainment got under way with VHS tapes (and, to a much lesser and negligible extent, Laser Discs). They were intended for rental only, proof of which was its $100 price tag if you had to own one. Then the DVD came along: superior product, superior extras, fewer trailers for God-awful films attached. Virtually right from the get-go they were available to consumers simultaneously as rental items and as sell through items. Inexplicably the price point for this often superbly produced collectible was as low as $25-35. Within a couple of years the studios reduced the per unit retail price to $15-20. Why? Is the family that purchases “Monsters, Inc” for their kids to watch 150 times, with all of their friends no less, not going to pay an extra $5-10 dollars to own this digital pacifier? Was I not going to pay an extra $10 to own my own copy of “Chinatown?” Why is the cost of a DVD way less than the cost of two movie tickets? And returning to that subject, why are more people, sometimes in droves, returning to the cinema when the ticket price is so high and DVD windows are shrinking? Is it the low price of gas? Or is it the fact that the tech world is confusing John and Jane Doe with its semi-annual new iterations of hardware, software, PDAs, phones, home theatres, digital boxes, Dolby 5.1…fuck it, ma, let’s just go to the picture show and see a movie. In short, the DVD industry, I opine, has left billions of dollars on the table over the last five years. And I always thought they were good at sweeping up billions of dollars. Again, 1.5% of billions of dollars… Anyway, DVDs are not going the way of the dodo. Not for at least a pentad, if ever.