Another Curmudgeon Says Let Indiewood Hurry Up & Die

Jim McKay, who once was called by Variety "America's own Ken Loach", responded to my recent email blast and has kindly agreed to go public with it:

"even the A-list auteurs' star-filled agency-backed packages are failing to find US buyers at Cannes"???

I don't see this as cause for alarm, I see this as cause for celebration.

I mean, look at that sentence. What could be more diametrically opposed to small, independent filmmaking than stars, agencies, and packaging?!?

The root of this whole problem goes back to the indie-fication of Hollywood and the fact that small films have found themselves competing with bigger ones for casting, financing, and, worst of all, Oscar recognition. Small films should never have had to compare themselves with these products or compete against them at festivals or in the box office. And yet this is where the "Indie Film" phenomena ultimately landed.

We must stop seeing ourselves through the lens of 1) Hollywood and 2) Indiewood. The first is a system completely outside the realm of what small filmmakers create. The second is actually a non-existent planet that for a small time differentiated itself from Hollywood but is now just a sub-folder. Many of the great American filmmaking veterans, the ones who have spent their careers making small films, exist completely outside these worlds. Rob Nilsson, Jon Jost, Nina Menkes, Victor Nunez, Yvonne Rainer.... Let's start looking at how they do it, comparing the state of things for young filmmakers with the state of things for these makers. We'll probably learn a little about how to create and survive and I bet things will also look a lot more rosy in comparison.....

Let the Cannes/Sundance/Tribeca house burn down.
Or let it just do whatever it's gonna do. But I think we need to stop looking at the bigger system as something that exists in the same universe as films like the ones you listed.

The sky is not falling, the sky is opening up.
We've spent the last ten years eating filet mignon when rice and beans taste just as good. We've been flying first class instead of driving in the van with the band. No shit - steak and warm mixed nuts are lovely. It was nice while it lasted. But things have changed and we can change with them (for most of us, back to the way we always did it in the first place - much more challenging when you start becoming an old fuck like me) or we can just quit or sell out or buy in.
The fact is, now that the economy has crashed people will finally start making films for less money and with less bullshit attached and stop trying to play the Hollywood or, just as bad, Indiewood game. And in the future, just like in the past, really good films will still have a tough time getting made. And getting seen. And making their money back.
But there is one maxim that will never cease to apply: great work will ALWAYS, always find its way. It may not make a lot of money, it may call for extreme or inventive means of distribution, it will almost never be seen by the masses. But great work will continue to be seen and appreciated and maybe now more than ever, the means to spread the word about and gain access to this work is on the brink of discovery.

I know we're saying pretty much the same thing. And I love how you're actually doing something about it. Providing a space for people to share information, taking part in a community.... all this is great and also pretty much all we can do right now as the system makes its seismic shift. While the glass might be half empty of money, I believe it's half full with creativity. Which strikes me as a pretty ridiculously optimistic thing for a cynical guy who hasn't made a feature in 5 years and is coasting into middle-aged curmudgeonhood. And yet, there it is.

keep on keepin' on.


It's All One Big Continuum...

My post on "Is There A "Too Many" When It Comes To Playing Film Festivals" generated some good questions and points in the comments.  I hope to get to them all in the days and weeks ahead.

One thing that truly resonated for me though was Jon Jost's dismissal of the box office performance of Ramin Bahrani's, Lance Hammer's, and Kelly Reichardt's recent films.  These artists, along with a few others, represent some of the great hope for American Art Film in the near future (and Jon probably raises them precisely for that reason).  
It's a mistake to take the theatrical results of their most recent films as the criteria for their financial success.  No one can think about a single film anymore as the litmus test.  When all filmmakers still dwelled in the world of acquisitions, that way of thinking was understandable; people felt you were only as successful as your last film.  What your film sold for and how it performed was all that seemed to matter.  In a world where it makes less and less sense to license your film for all media in exchange for a paltry sum (should you even be so fortunate to have such offers), new ways to evaluate success are emerging.
Bahrani and Reichardt licensed each of their last films to quality art-house distributors.  Hammer took another approach.  Yet, Bahrani and Reichardt built on their audience from the prior film, as you can be assured that Hammer will too.  These are what the music business would see as catalogue artists.  Their fan base will grow with each new release.  The more they are able to maintain an ongoing dialogue with their audience, the richer a dialogue they can offer, the more that audience will support them.  It is not about the one-off film anymore -- nor that film's results.  It is all about the community of support that artists can develop for their work.  That community will only flourish to the degree that there is both dialogue within the community, and well-maintained flow of content.
Artists who maintain a rich dialogue with their community will benefit in many ways from what they have built.  Some of it will be directly financial, both in terms of amount of that reward but also predictability thereof.  Other ways will include increased access to audience (which has a wide and varied group of benefits), decreased marketing & distribution costs, and new streams of revenue.
The more filmmakers can think of how to maintain and deepen the on-going dialogue with their supporters the better off they will be.
P.S.  I disagree strongly with Jon's comment that the aforementioned films and filmmakers don't do anything "aesthetically daring or difficult" -- but this isn't where I chose to look at such issues.   But since it was raised, dare I say that whereas no one is reinventing cinema, that compared to the norms, each one went out a limb without a net -- and they flew pretty damn high when they jumped.  And man that ain't easy  -- and it is extremely brave is this world of ours.

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