Saturday, December 5, 2009

What Should be Considered Indie Film? Part 2

We have a great discussion going on Brothers: A Review and What Should Be Considered Indie Film? Noah Harlan brought up another point I'd like to address.

"Ryan [Kavanagh of Relativity Media] has a couple billion in assets that he uses to finance and he has that money in massive tranches from hedge funds. He's not doing the hustle like we are...

In fact, he 
is the guy who controls the money in Hollywood."

You make a good point Noah. But I'm pretty sure Ryan K is still hustling every day. He's just hustling on a much bigger stage. Sure he has assets to play with and he provides funds for studio films, but he has to be pretty smart in how he uses those assets in order to keep the money flowing and quality films being made. I don't think Ryan K has it easy. He just has a different set of stressers. 

Personally, as a producer, I would love to be a fly on Ryan K's wall to see how he makes it all work. I'm sure I could learn a great deal from him that would make me a better indie producer. To be honest, it feels a bit odd to be defending Ryan K as indie when I'm sure he could care a less about what he is considered, but I do think it's a valid discussion to be having as I think it's an identity issue that indie film struggles with. And it's an issue that breeds more often a negative response than a positive one.

Ryan K is a dealmaker producer instead of a filmmaker producer, but that shouldn't stop him from being considered indie. I think it's appropriate to consider the films he funds outside of the studio system as indie as he is taking the risk of being independent just like we are -- even though the risks can be perceived as much less since he can afford to pay for the big name screenwriters, filmmakers and actors. On the other hand, he has much farther to fall monetarily should one of his indie films flop.

This is a great debate and I think much of it stems from indie angst (which of course I experience myself) of often being squeezed out of the Hollywood system (i.e. limited access to talent repped by the big agencies, etc.) and not being recognized for the extremely hard work we do in making our low-budget indie films as we try to personally survive financially, etc. It's also frustrating for indie filmmakers who approach their films from the creative perspective to compete with the Ryan Ks who approach moviemaking as a business. Two different motivations for filmmaking but the same end results: a film.

It's true that our existence is very different from the worlds of the Ryan Ks and Michael Ds, who seem to have it much easier. Who doesn't want Ron Howard waiting in his/her waiting room? But if you strip away the monetary and asset differences, the efforts of making films outside of the studio system are the same.

The main reason I want to keep the Ryan Ks and Michael Ds part of our world is that filmmaker producers need a dialogue with dealmaker producers. We need to learn from them just as they need to learn from us. And we do need to play in their playground if we are ever going to compete properly with them. Look at
Paranormal Activity's performance this year. It's another indication that we do have the power to compete with the big boys and girls and we should be striving to do just that.

I do have to give props to Ryan K's philosophy of wanting to only fund projects he will actually make. This is an indie philosophy for sure. And he seems to be true to his word on that and he does back a lot of wonderful films -- amongst some crap too I'm sure. But then, there's a lot of truly crappy indie films being made as well so I'm not sure we can fault Ryan K for having a few flops too. We all need to learn how to stop making flops. How do we do that?


Anonymous said...

Paranormal Activity is an example of how we cannot compete with the studio system, and also an example of how they will totally screw us whenever they want to because the studios dominate the distribution system. Besides, if Paranormal Activity is the future of indie film, what's the point?

Jane Kelly Kosek said...

I think the studios will ignore indie film whether or not Paranormal exists because they can. They don't need us to survive. I'm not saying Paranormal is the future. It's an example of an indie film that broke through the glass ceiling. It's definitely an anomaly. But it does show that something made with absolutely no resources can go on to major box office success. It's unrealistic to think all indie films have that chance but it does show that the indie film industry shouldn't be given the cold shoulder. We do have the potential to have box office success and even on a big level should we choose to make films like Paranormal. And perhaps a film like Paranormal will get execs to stop and think a bit before they eschew another indie film. Personally, I don't think we should rely on the studios or even think about them as our saving grace. We need to build new systems that allow for indie films to survive and thrive -- on our own. The big boys and girls really don't care about us and instead of wanting them to care, I think we should create our own system of distribution that caters to an indie audience. I think many of the indie films are given cold shoulders because they don't fit the Hollywood mold. It's short-sighted and puts way too many great films on the shelf before they even have a chance. So why try to fit their mold? Let's break it and make our own.

Anonymous said...

It sort of shows that something made for no resources can go to major b.o. success, but what it also shows is that Hollywood can pick and choose whatever it decides to pick up out five thousand indie films that they didn't have to pay for. Once Hollywood gets behind a film, it moves into a different box office category, whether it does well or not. But they control the system and by dominating the theaters with so few films and such big marketing money, it's all up to them.

You are so right that a new distribution system, or something, needs to happen. I can't decide whether this is naive idealistic thinking, or something that could actually work. Whole audiences have just been abandoned. There's money to be made for films with lower budgets and lower marketing costs, but it's tough for exhibitors I think (because I really have no idea) to pick small films to fill their screens when a film with millions of ad money being spent can fill up your theater. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I think that theaters are the way to go in these days of falling DVD revenue. And isn't that what we all still want anyway?

Jane Kelly Kosek said...

I agree that theatrical would be the ideal way to go but it's so hard to compete with the Hollywood blockbusters. I understand the business of it all. But where does that put the wonderful dramas that should be made each year? Near extinction? There has to be a better way. We just need to figure out what that is.

I like the idea of building our own audiences. I think the more filmmakers personalize their work with others, the more success they will have. We have to keep reaching out, as much as we can. And get better.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Since the studios dominate distribution to stores (DVD) and theaters (exhibition), our "own system" would have to include our own theaters and retail outlets -- at least until someone figures out how to legitimately monetize on-line distribution of features (hasn't happened yet).

Indie films around the world are given the "cold shoulder" by the major studios because they're not American enough and because, as you say, they don't fit the mold.

I was involved in the distribution of David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE to theaters. The long running time did not help matters, but we were always fighting high profile "arthouse" pics that the studios were releasing. When films don't have big advertising budgets, many theaters don't want to book them. That's the bottom line.

Most indie films don't fit the Hollywood mold because the Hollywood mold is extraordinarily narrow. Half the films made by the studios in the 50's, 60's, and 70's wouldn't fit the Hollywood mold these days.

I don't think PARANORMAL ACTIVITY will change one thing about the way studio execs think in the long term. The film is just a freak, and freak's get little respect. Personally, I couldn't stand it, and hope it's not the future of cinema because it's anti-cinema to me. It made money, sure, but so what?! 'American Idol' makes lots of money, too, but it's still crap for the masses.

The biggest different between the indie and studio sector is philosophy, and it's that philosophy that prevents the two from ever marrying. Indie filmmakers, first and foremost, love what they do, and would do it for nothing if they had to. We are driven by a psychotic desire to tell our stories on-screen. Making money is important because it allows us to make more films and reward investors, but we didn't get into the business to make money; we got into the business to create.

Phantom of Pulp said...

The studios are only in the business to make money. Anything else is secondary. They seek to increase profits each year and expand their multi-tentacled empires by turning "product" into profits. Case closed.

So where do indies sit? Chains such as Landmark provide screens for indies, but those screens are limited, and they're still occupied (mostly) by studio films masquerading as indie flicks.

Unless companies like Regal decide to devote 25% of their screens to indie features and rework the box office distribution contracts with individual producers, indies are going to need their own cinema chains. Who's going to pay for those? And who's going to pay for the advertising necessary to encourage the masses to slide their dollars under the indie ticket window?

I'm not optimistic about theatrical distribution of indie films because the theatrical experience has gotten too expensive for indie budgets to accommodate. Corporations dominate exhibition, and they don't suffer films that need to build an audience. If you don't have millions, your film needs word of mouth to grow. In a first weekend culture, that's not going to happen.

The internet is the future of indie distribution. As the pipe gets faster, we move closer to legitimate internet exhibition/distribution. I find this incredibly exciting.

There is also a convergence of cable and internet, and the two will intersect and present many possibilities. Even now, many indie films are debuting in a pay-per-view fashion on cable. Mainstays like Sundance and IFC still offer windows, too. Unfortunately, none of these options are (yet) returning revenue that is even close to the films' budgets.

But this will change.

One option is to distribute your films via a dedicated server/website; porno companies, always the first innovators, are doing this already. It won't be long before indies embrace this model as a legitimate revenue stream.

We know that studios have zero interest in the independent sector. Generally, they will only be keen to profit from it if they can figure out (as they often do) how to steal the profits you're making. If they can't do that, their involvement is pointless.

Never has there been a better time than now to totally go your own way.

Sticking with the old way is denying your imminent death.

Jane Kelly Kosek said...

I agree internet seems the way to go. However, the experience really is not the same as seeing a film on the big screen -- which is where film festivals can come in and help. Play on a big screen at a festival and then launch the internet release from there.

Phantom of Pulp said...

I agree, Jane.

I was really referring to areas where revenue is cash-positive.

Festivals are definitely the best way to launch/junket your movie and create a buzz.

I've been giving this lots of thought. What also seems to have happened to indie/arthouse films is what's happening to museums and modern art museums like LACMA -- the brick and mortar costs have skyrocketed (increasing revenue minimums) and the venues are competing with a dozen other platforms.

Interestingly, what will be the indie savior is also what is killing it in the transition period (now).

There is nothing like the big screen and I must admit I can't get my head around ever watching a feature on a cell phone. You can still get the good sound (with a decent headset), but the size experience is non-existent.

Do you agree?

Jane Kelly Kosek said...

My worry is that there won't be enough room in the festivals that are big enough to make a viewing valuable to a launch of the film. Reviews are important and journalists don't normally show up to the smaller festivals. There is definitely work to be done in order to reinvent the launch of indie films.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Hear! Hear! Yeah, that's the shit. Not enough "legit" fests to go around. I guess the job ahead is to convince folks that there are more festivals they should attend instead of the usual 5 or 6 every year. I reckon there are at least 30 great festivals globally -- probably many more. There has to be a solution. We're on the cusp of change. Frightening and exciting, suspenseful and emotionally involving. Like the best indie film!

Anonymous said...

The studios control the theaters, and right now, there's not much to be done about that, but that doesn't mean it's over for theaters and independent films.

I would guess in our collective fantasy of this, we would have a chain of multiplexes dedicated to art house films. Landmark and a couple others have branded themselves with art house, but, you're right, they mostly do studio indies. Still, that's something.

No one is going to build a chain of cinemas around the country right now dedicated to art house films, and even if they did, how would they not succumb to the temptation of putting big ad supported films on their screens? It's kind of a weird fantasy that those theaters that I used to go to where they played good, interesting movies in the 80's and 90's, which were dumpy and usually had about four other people in the audience and were run by hardcore film fans from another era – that would somehow be the chain.

But there is a place right now at the multiplex that is, if not available, ready to be taken. Multiplexes have 16 screens and because of the way Hollywood releases films today, they would rather fill up their screens with fewer films, staggering the times. So there are other screens that sit, playing the film that came out four weeks ago that no one is going to see because the theater has a contract to play it.

Studios have a lot of muscle to keep these films in (and indie films out) but that muscle is getting softer as they try to collapse their release windows. Plus, I've talked to distributors who know more about this than me who say that theaters are very open to showing indie stuff, but you have to know how to do it.

Add to this the potential of satellite delivery, which is growing quickly, and I see some real potential for change in theaters. Theaters may need to do some inhouse branding, like they have a director's hall, and they could fill one or two screens with grown up films.

Remember in the 80's when Miramax opened up the multiplex to indie film. They just muscled their way in there, and found an audience hungry for it.

Who knows? These theater chains, which seem like money factories to me, are all broke like everybody else. There is some hope out there.

Jane Kelly Kosek said...

I completely agree that no one is going to build a chain of new theaters for indie film, nor should they. I think many people ignore the arthouse chains. I think it's correct thinking to look at the bigger chains and push them to create an indie program. Perhaps they start a program as suggested in which the indie films become more of an event at the theater in which the filmmakers & talent have Q&As, etc. If an event is made out of the indie films then perhaps they won't be such loss leaders for the chains and the filmmakers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jane - sorry for not jumping onto this thread sooner - I got married last week and was a little distracted!

Anyhow, I stand by my statement in the previous comments. If we follow your logic here then then "indie" is a word devoid of all meaning. It morphs into a genre description based on tone.

Yes, Ryan has to hustle. But Ryan's funds finance (co-finance, to be precise) studio slates. The studios have to hustle. Remember the German gold rush of the early 2000's and the hedge fund gold rush of the later 2000's? All that was studio hustle. So yes, everyone has to look for money. But the apparatus into which you will put the money you raise changes enormously your ability to raise money.

If Kavanaugh raises money with the understanding that that money will ultimately be put to work in the studio distribution system, is that indie? I can see the argument that says it is, but if we say it is then we have to say that ALL money in Hollywood that is not earned at the box office - eg: all that money coming from investors big & small - is "indie" and that is a definition that I find overly broad to be meaningful.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Responding to 401stblow's comment, I feel that a true indie film is a film produced independent of a studio apparatus (distribution or funding). That's what "independent" suggests to me.

Kavanagh has to hustle, sure, but he's not hustling in a world that is outside the studio system. The studios have many "vendor producers" and he is one. He's not independent.

None of this takes away his achievements; it just clarifies his place in that chain.

Of course, there are no absolutely defining lines here; it's fairly interpretive.

Re: Jane -- independent films could become part of an "event" at theater chains, but considering how many indie films are out there, it would be a blip on the overall radar.

Right now, films with no studio pipeline are in dire need of a brand new pipeline dedicated solely to their ilk. There needs to be a percpetion built amongst viewers that this "pipeline" (whatever that may turn out to be) is the go-to place for films you can't see anywhere else. A sense of exclusivity needs to be established -- a "law of scarcity" needs to be applied to this venue.

When something is an adjunct to something else, it gets treated as an adjunct.

Theater chains dedicated to "indie films" are no longer a realistic proposition because of bottom line expectations.

The construction of small "digital kinos" inside museums and cultural centers is a possibility; 10 x 50-seaters, for example, with promotion throughout the venue. Musuems could benefit from the traffic and the venues do exist.

Jane Kelly Kosek said...

Hey 401st,

Excellent points but to respond to your comment: If we follow your logic here then "indie" is a word devoid of all meaning. It morphs into a genre description based on tone.

I don't agree that my definition is based on tone. In fact, I believe it's the opposite. My definition: An indie film is a film regardless of budget or distribution that is created outside of the studio system. If Ryan were to pay for a huge rom com out of his own pocket then that would be an independent film by my definition. By your definition (and correct me if I am wrong), it probably wouldn't be considered indie because chances are he would get distribution from Warner Bros. and it would suddenly be part of the studio system.

I think by excluding Ryan K's work that is created outside of the studio system then that definition of indie film is even more vague because then where is the cut off point? Are you saying: If you work in big bucks with hedge funds, etc., and help subsidize studio pics then you are now part of the studio system and any film you do from there is now regarded as studio?

If Ryan K makes a film from private equity then how is that not an indie film? And again, at what point do you start defining films as indie? I'm not clear on what your definition of indie is? Under $1 million, without distribution in place? To me that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

BTW, I love this discussion. It's pretty clear this is a topic that could use some clarification.

Jane Kelly Kosek said...

And congrats on your wedding 401st!! I got so caught up in all the good things being said by everyone that I forgot the accolades!

Anonymous said...

I think that "Art Film" was always a better designation than "Indie Film" which probably came out of some Variety slang.

I don't know about the tone of the film having any say in a film being indie, because I think you would have a problem with a big budget film being called indie. And tonally, there are big films that I think have an indie tone to them, like District 9. And how is this new Paramount 100K division going to fit into this?

I think that basically the days of the indie film are over. Studios are going to make less and buy more finished films, and the budgets are going to vary fairly widely.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jane - I think the question is that you say an indie is created "outside of the studio system" and I say that Relativity finances studio films and thus they are the studio system. Here is a selection of films that Relativity produced:

State of Play
The International
Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Yes Man
Public Enemies
The House Bunny
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon emperor
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
(and many more)

I can't see how we can say that a company that made those films is "outside the studio system".

- Noah

Jane Kelly Kosek said...

Hey 401st,

I don't equate companies as indie. Just projects. So while Relativity does do studio films, they can still make indies if they finance something outside of the studio system. So I completely agree that they are a studio player but they do have the ability to make indie films too. It all depends on the project.