The Only Other Job I Think I Would Want

I am happy. I have a great mission in front of me. I can't think of anything else I would rather be doing. Well, except running Manohla's studio with her:

""If I were running a studio (ha!), I would take the money that I’d set aside for the next bad idea (like a remake of “Total Recall”) and give a handful of directors, tested and less so — Todd Haynes, Barry Jenkins, Kelly Reichardt, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Aaron Katz, Benh Zeitlin, Damien Chazelle — $10 million apiece to make whatever they want, as long as the results come in with an R rating or below and don’t run over two hours."

Although I have to confess, I may not be quite so permissive...

What Happened To Indie Film Over The Last Decade? (Pt 2 of 3)

Yesterday, I started my reflection on the last decade of American Indie Film.  I will conclude it tomorrow (I promise).  Today, I wonder what opportunity did we miss over the last decade.

There wasn't really ever a transfer of power in the film biz, was there?  During the growth of AmerIndie, Hollywood remained a business of blockbusters.  Yes, previously underserved audiences got full on banquets of offerings as the menu of filmed entertainments grew more diverse, but the clamoring  hordes born from  the niches didn't climb the castle walls as some have claimed; the same power sat on the same throne as before.  Fanboys & geeks were inevitably the masters once Hollywood embraced the logic of tent poles -- so there is nothing surprising about their current reign.  And yes, Hollywood's current crop of top directors were born from that indie big bang of the nineties, but for those directors, Indie always seemed more like a training ground than sort of a manifesto.  And the power in the Hollywood system, still rarely rests with the directors.

What is it that happened between Indie's growth in the 1990's and now?  What did the last decade do to the hopes and dreams of  The Indie Wave?  When Indie kicked into gear, I thought the Art Film was firmly grounded as one of the American genres.  It sure has lost ground with fewer practitioners than I ever dreamed possible.  Is that a function of market-based realities?  Surely the drive and ambition that fuels Todd HaynesKelly Reichardt, and Ramin Bahrani must linger in others.  So many still create without any audience/market in mind (7000 films/year in USA - a market that reasonably consumes 600), I don't think I can blame neo-liberal/late capitalism for this one, alas.

Is the absence in the cultural mindscape of a new wave of Art Film a symptom or character trait of those that came of age in the last ten years?  I refuse to think we are lacking in those that aim for art over success (not that those are incompatible...). Mumblecore and YouTube's unadorned reality based creations certainly have their ambition, even if formal presentation is not generally one of them.

I have  often felt that in the last ten years we became A Culture Of Distraction.  Everything competes for our time and focus, and we get trained to shift rapidly from one attraction to the next (and you know what? We are damn good at it!).  Navigating the onslaught, positioning ourselves to withstand the winds of everything that passes us by, becomes a necessary goal.  We need to find our filters and our discovery tools.   We need to stop skating on the surface, and learn to love to drill down deep.  Now is not the time for simple sensation, but thoughtful understanding.

Slowly we build defenses and tools -- make choices.  It is this move from impulse to choice that I hope partially defines the present moment and the next.  But I still wonder, what is the choice that most creative types make?  Does survival (and financial well-being) dictate everything? If people knew they could have a different sort of cultural industry, would they change their behavior?  Are they every really going to be ready to do what is truly needed to ensure a diverse and open culture?

Still I wonder though: was an opportunity for a truly free film culture missed in the decade that just slipped by?  Audience changed, but our methods and work didn't.  The leaders never embraced the community, be it the creators or those that appreciate the work.  The business never evolved beyond the "sell".  Instead of pushing the product through, we could have created a two-way flow.  I saw my opportunity two decades ago, and despite that (or because of it) kept telling myself: I NEED TO PREPARE FOR THE NEXT WAVE.

But really I just rode it out instead, doing what I had been doing.  Was it really ever going to be enough to deliver a good story well told for the right price?  Was it ever right to focus on the product without much attention to the infrastructure that both delivered and dictated its substance.  When we sold Good Machine at the end of 1990 I kept telling myself that now was the time, and I kept telling myself thatevery three years until we got to the Now.

I feel good about all the movies that I helped make this past decade, but I also feel the responsibility to help find a way to make more diverse and ambitious work a sustainable industry -- and I know that THAT can not be driven by individuals.  We have to build it better together.

Was the tornado of digital disruption too great to ever get a real focus on what that would be?  Did the filmmakers that would have led the charge, simply go elsewhere in this expansive online universe?  Or did the noise everyone was making simply just cancel each other out?  Was there too much going on for anyone to get traction?  It can't be that we lacked the political impetus; surely the establishment of the greatest disparity in wealth since The Great Depression should have been enough to send the masses to the barricades.

But it wasn't.  What happened?

This rant will conclude tomorrow.  Thanks for reading!

Secrets Revealed! Hal Hartley On The Lessons Of THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH

Today, the 20th Anniversary edition of THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH becomes available.  You can order it here on director Hal Hartley's website.  This little film, put in the can for around $55K, and finished for about $125K, launched many a career (Hal, Adrienne Shelly, Edie Falco, Robert John Burke, Kelly Reichardt, Nick Gomez, Danny Liener, Bob Gosse, Whitney Ransick, Mike Spiller, Sarah Cawley, Chris Rogers and many more).  It changed my perspective on getting things done, on not waiting for others' acceptance or approval, and to instead use the power and will we all need to maintain.  I am confident it holds many lessons still for us all and am eager to leap into it again.  But what does it's creator have to say?   Hal speaks:

A friend asks me what, after twenty-two years, I might have learned (or not learned) from making my first feature film, The Unbelievable Truth, in 1988. What did I learn? The same thing I always learn (borrowing from Henry Miller): make films the way you like and die happy. What didn't I learn? Everything. That's why I'm still at it, I suppose.

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.