'Challenge the System' & 7 Other Takeaways from the 15th Annual IFTA Production Conference

With a keynote speech from producer-of-the-moment Cassian Elwes (Ain't Them Body Saints, Dallas Buyer's Club) and a selection of some of the most successful individuals from producing, financing, sales, marketing and distribution, the sold-out 15th annual IFTA (Independent Film & Television Alliance) production conference was held in Los Angeles on April 25th. No Film School was invited to attend the conference to help extend the conversation to all the independent filmmakers who couldn't fit in the room, so click through to read some major takeaways from the event.

Studios don't want to make small movies anymore, but there's a huge audience for alternative fare.

The overall tone of Cassian's keynote speech was a lamenting of the current "comic book era" of Hollywood and the regurgitation of sequels and franchises. Studios are only making more expensive films with huge marketing budgets because they only want to make movies that will net them $100 million in profit. But, he argues, this is actually a good thing for independent filmmakers. None of the actors who are working in the Marvel franchises think it's their best work -- they are hungry for small, challenging films to work on. So, as the studios make less films and "more rubbish," these actors need to find other ways to make films. Elwes sites a film he worked on, Margin Call, as doing only $5 million at the box office but $15 million in VOD over time with no marketing budget. To him this proves that there is an underserved audience out there, that independents are important and necessary to the business and that it's our job to fill that side of the market.

My fear is that we are developing a generation of filmgoers that think these tentpole movies are the pinnacle of cinema. We must be making films to counter the comic book era -- well acted, well directed, well written films. Films with heart, films that are brave, films that take risks, films that make us think, films that we will remember. Films that make us want to get out of the house and go down to the theater and buy a ticket. Those films are saving the souls of young filmgoers, and we have a responsibility to go out there and show them that there are other kinds of films and other ways to make movies. So I hope you do what I do every day: challenge the system. I dare you to the same.

The days of putting lipstick on a pig are over.

In the good old days, one could pull off a good marketing job to save a failed picture from economic disaster. Terry Press (CEO of CBS Films) says that nowadays audiences are smart, and you can't pull the wool over their eyes any longer. If your movie sucks, it's impossible to hide it.

The minute you show something the jig is up. There's no getting away with anything. The days of being able to take something, make it something else, open a movie and say, 'Oh my god! Great marketing job,' are over. If people are talking about the film on social media and it's bad, there's no coming back from that.

Bigger is not necessarily better.

In order for a consumer to consume your film they need to be aware that it exists, but awareness costs money. Ted Mundorff (Landmark Theaters) sites Don Jon as an example of a film whose success was undermined by a cumbersome wide release of 2,000 screens and a $25 million marketing spend. Ted argues that if the film didn't have such an overbearing release cost and instead opened the film on 7 screens it would have been a cult hit, because good films have a very long life.

The young generation does not have an emotional investment in the theatrical experience like older generations when movies were the dominant cultural entertainment medium. However, 10 years ago indie film was not in the cultural dialogue that it is today, and that means that personalized theatrical experience is growing in the independent space. Ted says people are still passionate about content despite splintering, and shares that Landmark Theaters box-office is up 22% from last year, a sign that theatrical is not dead.

We can't count on theatrical to save films from financial disaster. However, good word of mouth via social media can be all you need for a successful release. An independent film should now be more focussed on a slow build for their release as opposed to big opening weekends. Out of 900 films in 2013 reviewed by NY critics, 80% of them had tiny theatrical releases. VOD is on the rise and Blu-ray is on a 14% annual increase.

Budgets have to come down.

The first question to ask yourself is: is this an accurate budget? More importantly, is the budget accurate for the audience that you're making the film for? Things get complicated when the budget of your film increases when leading up to production. Investors can become conflicted on whether to pull out or continue chasing their investment. Producers and financiers want to get involved in films that have a target audience large enough to support the budget of the film. Rena Ronson (UTA) extrapolates:

If you do it the right way, you have a reduced budget and you know what your international value is; if you know what your soft money is then it can be done. There are a lot of wonderful smaller films made for the right budgets that are success stories. Not everything needs to go wide release. The only problem these films have is the competition from television, especially in the dramatic area.

Authenticity is key for marketing.

An "authentic marketing event" is the buzz-phrase for this phenomenon, which nobody has really figured out yet. But the idea is that consumers are smart and by now very used to being marketed at. Something that feels like an advertisement with a sole intention of selling is not nearly as effective as something that forges some kind of personal connection with the audience. A film's "buzzability" is dependent on the critics and social media, and since everyone is running around trying to figure out how to do that, it has led to "digital distress" -- i.e., it's not a good time to be a marketer. Terry Press explains:

The young generation consumes so much media all the time that they do not feel the emotional connection to seeing a movie in a theater that previous generations do. A movie is not a box of tide, it's not a car, it's not like any other product. It's an emotional thing and people go for a lot of different reasons, but something has to connect.

Equity investors keep independent film alive. Protecting your investors is in everybody's best interest.

We don't want investors who are taking chances in supporting important films to lose money. You have to have an enormous amount of balls to put money into movies, yet more and more people are lining up to get involved in film financing. Why? Movie-making is a glamorous business; people want to get in. It's an opportunity to diversify for people who have made their money elsewhere. The experience of being a key part of a creative endeavor gives investors a rush. Investors ran from movies a little after the recession, but now those people are coming back, and the key is keeping those people.

When pitching your films to financiers and producers, keep it to "one click."

When asked how many times it takes a producer to click through your pitch-package before they delete it, the answer was -- one. Get all the important information about what your project is on one page. Be direct, don't play games, just lay out clearly what your film is, who's involved, who the audience is and how much it will cost. If they are confused for even a second when reading your proposal, then it's a "no." Make it easy for them to make a "yes" or "no" decision before they have to click twice.

Make a movie for everyone, make a movie for someone, but don't make a movie for no one.

Kevin Goetz (Screen Engine) believes that every movie can make money -- if you know what you have. His company specializes in market research, and while some may think that testing puts your movie in a box, those in the business will tell you how valuable it is to have metrics on your side. Testing your film or marketing materials against a sample audience can provide a lot of tangible data for independent producers and artists to help decide what films to make -- ostensibly films that the market wants. Many producers are starting to include market research in the initial budgets for projects.

Goetz also stresses the importance of knowing your audience and being realistic about the scale of your budget. He thinks that 80% of the mistakes in movie-making are because people don't know their DNA -- they aren't looking objectively enough at what they have. Filmmakers are building their films in terms of an "aspirational comp" -- the movie they wish it was. Investors are smarter and are now making movies with distribution in mind, so knowing who you're making the movie for is critical if you plan to break even or profit from your film.


Terry Press argues that only really good movies can make money in the current meta. She stresses that we make too many movies, and there's simply not enough shelf space for it all. Contrary to this, Avi Lerner thinks that 2014 will be the first year that there is less supply than demand for these underserved markets. This conference proved to me how difficult navigating this business can be, and yet also showed it's constantly full of possibility. Join the discussion in the comments below.


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Absolutely love the bit from Goetz about “aspirational comp” - I wish more filmmakers were honest with themselves about their skillsets and the scope of stories they can effectively tell. One of my favorite films last year was GIMME THE LOOT - and all it consisted of was a few legitimately interesting characters walking the streets of New York. No explosions, no big action set pieces, no Tarantino-esqe dialogue, just good storytelling.

May 6, 2014 at 7:32AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I love so much about this, but at the same time I just hope it doesn't cause the next wave of directors to turn their noses up to genre filmmaking like generations did before. I really think that from the 70s through the 90s we really hit the sweet spot in terms of creating genre films that had heart and real characters. But (and I say this as a fan of these movies) the comic book movie boom made making any kind of effective genre film nearly impossible to audiences without bombarding them with CG. I just hope that the next wave doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

May 6, 2014 at 7:43AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The reason CGI and computer animation films took off was because -
a) the technology became better and less expensive;
b) voiceover and no-name artists generally don't have the juice to participate in the final profit distribution;
c) very high merchandising revenues that also are rarely shared (and often kept off books).
The power of the markets then meant that a gigantic success of several franchises kept bringing in more and more entrants into the same arena and that inevitably resulted in several major flops, most visible in the summer of 2013. This is another exhibition of the economic forces correcting themselves. As it stands now, big budget releases congregate around the major holidays and the summer. With more of these tentpoles competing against each other for the same buck, more will tank. And then the trend will reverse itself.
PS. Dreamworks Animation just announced a $57M write-off on "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" despite a $261M global gross ($145M budget + you figure $40M in marketing vs. a ~ $125M share of the ticket sales). A few of those and the enthusiasm for the big budget films will surely be curbed.

May 6, 2014 at 9:36AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Absolutely. I was just saying that I don't want people to think that this is strictly a symptom of genre filmmaking instead of being a direct result of over saturation/studio greed/ineptitude.

May 6, 2014 at 9:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


To me , this is less of a greed issue rather than willingness to gamble with someone else's money. (not everyone is Ben Affleck, you know). In other words, the studio execs may eventually lose heir jobs but they don't get their salaries reduced after a flop. They do, however, make big bones on a hit. But, if a few more head honchos do indeed get canned over major money losers, the production slate will have to change to something else.

May 6, 2014 at 9:57AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The current trend is to have the distributors make more money than the financiers/investors, who in turn will make more than the creators. This is not to say that the independent film is dead but that a form of consolidation will have to take place in the form of distribution/marketing and even the production itself. The key to sales is an established and well visible VOD platform. More efforts like Joss Whedon's need to take place in order to bring fans to these major online VOD streamers (aside of iTunes and YouTube, naturally). A few small studio lots (dispersed through the country but concentrated around the major population centers) could/should also be made to avail a small production a one-stop filming location.

May 6, 2014 at 9:19AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Speaking of VOD, from the roster of films available here, the paucity of major releases is obvious. Now, if a service like this decides to dive head first into the independents, it might become a player ...


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April 15, 2019 at 5:45AM