Is Independent Film 'Healthy' If 99% of Us Fail?

"So much of our business is predicated on the success of the 1%."

When a veritable who's-who of independent film producers sat down at SXSW 2016 to discuss the state of the industry, something happened that's rare on panels: actual disagreements. This SXSW panel was one of my favorites of the festival, not just because it featured a lineup of producers I'd love to work with, but because moderator David Kaplan (Short Term 12, It Follows) prompted his colleagues with the tough questions facing the industry today.

The rest of the lineup included Dan Janvey (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Tchoupitoulas), Adele Romanski (Myth of the American Sleepover, Morris from America), Sara Murphy (Land Ho! and Hunter-Gatherer here at SXSW) and Kyle Martin (Tiny Furniture, Bluebird, and Donald Cried here at SXSW). Here are some takeaways from the panel.

"The true marketplace is the 8,000 films that were created that year, not the 10 films that played in competition [at Sundance] that year."

Is the market "healthy" if there's only a 1% success rate?

David Kaplan quotes WME Global head Graham Taylor:

After the 2008 crash, capital was restricted, and distribution curtailed and was limited to traditional theatrical and broadcast. The business is now healthier than ever. Studio and indie distribution, day and date, digital platforms, streaming. We live in a world with options and white noise and everybody is trying to figure out how to get consumers to pay attention when there are so many options and no fix-all strategy, but more different modes of transportation to deliver content. Distribution had a hold on this business and that has given way to a more democratic process. It has empowered artists, and better positioned us to make more noise for great audacious art. It has also created a renaissance for the producer. The movies that worked best here are the once that were well-produced and manufactured. All this is the sign of a healthy marketplace.

Kaplan: Is the marketplace, based on [Sundance], a place that supports audacious art?

Sara Murphy: I would say yes. I think it is a healthy marketplace. I think it has become easier to finance films over the last couple of years, speaking at a smaller level. I’m financing films under $2 million. Netflix and Amazon coming in are making it a lot more fun for producers, to be able to get financiers on board.

Dan Janvey: I think it’s all fiction. I think that quote is about a very privileged, manipulated marketplace. The true marketplace is the 8,000 films that were created that year, not the 10 films that played in competition [at Sundance] that year.

Kyle Martin​: [Those 10] are what people always talk about in the marketplace.

Janvey: And that’s the issue.

Adele Romanski: I think [the Sundance-selected films] are speaking to the health of the marketplace.

Janvey: But [the 8,000 others] lost so much money. Probably hundreds of millions of dollars. Producers lose money all of the time.

"There’s a trend where new distributors [are] backing a project from the beginning. So, should we be at a festival?"

"Tiny Furniture"
Is the festival launchpad real?

Romanski: Do festivals make a difference? I’ve been thinking about that  are festivals going to play less of a role? I think there’s a trend where we’re going to increasingly have these new distributors backing a project from the beginning. So should we be at a festival [with that backing already in place]?

Kaplan: We’ll have to see how they take care of those [pre-backed] films. Sometimes if someone overpays at a festival, they have to really take care of it because they’re invested in it.

Romanksi: Should we take a slot at a festival for a film that has a distributor [away] from a film that needs the attention?

Janvey: Is the [festival] bump real? [Does it translate to profits down the road] or is it a completely artificial thing for our egos?

Martin: Most of the time [it's real].

Janvey: I’m just pointing out there’s a discrepancy between that quote and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re in a healthy marketplace because The Birth of a Nation made $18 million? So much of our business is predicated on the success of the 1%.

Martin: It’s a market, an industry, a commodity. There has to be a consumer for it. 

Kaplan: Who is [deciding] what is commercial?

Martin: The audience.

Kaplan: I disagree with that. There’s some amount of manipulation that goes on: in no particular order, sales agents, acquisitions executives, critics, festivals....

Janvey: Theater buyers.

Kaplan: We’ve made a lot of “successful" films as a group of panelists, but I don’t think anyone here has seen a financial upside.

"We’ve made a lot of 'successful' films as a group of panelists, but I don’t think anyone here has seen a financial upside."

Was industry attendance at SXSW down this year?

Kaplan: [Someone said] that the industry was not coming to SXSW this year. High-level execs at acquisition companies, high-level agents, some press…. It was told to me that maybe this could be because of the commerciality of the fare here, because of the fact that there’s no special treatment for industry, and the fact that it’s expensive to get here. What do you think of the idea that the people who are making a lot more money than we are seem to be shunning this festival? I’ve seen so many great films here — what’s the problem?

MurphyHaving just been at Sundance, there is a great great discrepancy in the number of buyers that are here. There are greater creative freedoms in the curation of the projects that are here. It’s not celebrity-driven, and that’s wonderful. But the festival is not as supportive of the infrastructure for buyers and press to be here. I haven’t heard of many sales yet.


MartinI think it is true there’s not as much high-level industry. It’s more junior-level here. I think [everyone's] paying attention; if they hear something’s great, they’re watching it the next day in NY or LA.

Romanski: It’s generally acceptable that you don’t sell at SXSW. It’s in the coming weeks, afterward, maybe.

KaplanAnd that greatly lowers the acquisition price. 

Martin: This isn’t a celebrity-driven festival. The studios are saying, “It might be great, but I can’t make money off that."

Janvey: I think they’re buying these things for the 80,000 people in this country that buy our kinds of films. That number comes from nowhere, by the way… but Marvel, Disney, they’re buying for the masses. This is where David and I disagree.

KaplanIt’s easier to buy a film with known actors. The way in which a lot of films get picked up is because of that. What is the ceiling on these films? Can we make them responsibly and stop burning investors?

Janvey: The data says [the ceiling is] low. Under a million dollars. None of us do it for the money.

KaplanI do it for my ego.

JanveyI think ego is a huge driver. Let’s be honest.

"The allure of making something bigger can put [filmmakers] down the path where, 3-4 years later, they haven’t made another movie."

Is the solution to make fewer films?

Kaplan quotes the New York Times film critic Manhola Dargis:

I have a little favor to ask of the people cutting the checks: Stop buying so many movies. Or at least take a moment and consider whether flooding theaters with titles is good for movies and moviegoers alike. Because no matter how exciting Sundance will be this year, no matter how aesthetically electrifying, innovative and entertaining the selections, it’s hard to see how American independent cinema can sustain itself if it continues to focus on consumption rather than curation. There are, bluntly, too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies pouring into theaters, distracting the entertainment media and, more important, overwhelming the audience. Dumping “product” into theaters week after week damages an already fragile cinematic ecosystem.

Romanski: I don’t think it’s a reasonable request. I don’t think [content production] is going to go down.

MartinAt the level most producers work at, you have to make 10 movies just to make a living. That’s the problem.

KaplanIs there a way for all of these films to be seen, given the amount of noise that’s out there?

Janvey: She’s talking about an esoteric problem about NYC theaters in particular. The New York Times had a policy where they would cover every theatrical opening.… but it doesn’t seem like there’s a demand for these movies to be seen in theaters. I don’t think that’s controversial. Audience appetite is more mainstream than a lot of the films that are being put out in the [indie] marketplace. So [it’s not about theaters], it’s about distribution in general. It’s been shown that our [indie] tastes [aren’t mainstream]. I’m comfortable with that. I don’t think it’s our problem; we’re making choices to do these types of movies. Should we make fewer films? No. (Editor's note: I responded to that same sentiment similarly in 2008.)

"Donald Cried"
Martin: How do you pay your bills without [producing a volume of work]?

Janvey: I was able to finance my company [without volume].

Martin: ....with the success of one project.

Janvey: I’d like to think more than one project. But one played a big part.

Martin: Beasts of the Southern Wild helped fund your company.

Janvey: Yes. We’re approaching profitability. I have a steady income for the first time. But if you compare what [producers] make to our peers who have jobs in the industry, it’s significantly lower —

MartinYou mean sales agents.

Janvey: At my company, one of the reasons we focused on documentary is our fees don’t get cannibalized the way they do on [narrative] features. There’s a documentary culture that doesn’t question producer’s fees as much as they do in narratives. So no, David, I don’t think we’re going to make fewer [films].

Should indie directors be making such a quick leap to studio features?

Kaplan quotes Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper:

I just saw Ryan Coogler two days ago at the Golden Globes, and I was just so proud of him and what he did with Creed. He came to Sundance with Fruitvale Station and that’s where he was discovered and now he got to have his voice in a bigger movie. He infused that movie with a new energy that made it fresh.

KaplanWe make films predominantly in the low budget space with first and second-time directors. How do we feel about “our” filmmakers — I know we don’t own them — but what do we think about the success of a first feature become the launching pad to make something that is 100 times the size the second time around?

Martin...that we have no role in.

Kaplan: Is it a bad thing? Are these filmmakers betraying the trajectory of their careers as filmmakers —

Janvey: No way.

Romanski: Is the question if [going the studio route] is inherently bad?

Kaplan: Yes. Are we losing some filmmakers [who would make] exciting conceptual work, because [instead] they jump right into studio fare?

Martin: Go make a tentpole and then come back and make an indie. I think it’s only better as a film fan that someone with an interesting voice is making something on a larger platform; it’s going to make those tentpoles more interesting.

Romanski: But are they even able to execute things on [an interesting] level when they’ve lost creative control?

Jarvey: I think Creed is the most interesting case study. That is a personal film. That is exactly what Ryan [Coogler] wanted to do. I asked him. I talked to him about it, I asked him why he was going that route. He said, "What are you talking about, this is exactly what I wanted to do!" But there are more cynical examples. I think everyone here knows what I’m talking about.

"Jurassic World," dir. Colin Trevorrow
KaplanThe allure of making something bigger can put [filmmakers] down the path where, 3-4 years later, they haven’t made another movie.

JanveyI have nostalgia for older times where directors got to make a lot of work before launching [larger projects]. I think, in that way, the current industry is awful. I still think TV is awful. It doesn’t cultivate directorial voices the way features do. Look at Jonathan Demme. Our industry could never cultivate another Jonathan Demme.

KaplanPunch Drunk Love… Hard Eight... How do you make those now?

MartinYou could make those in the same way now.

Janvey: I don’t want to say studios are awful… but they are fucking terrible.

MartinWe are all exploited. But let’s be honest, even if you’re just a boom operator, and you’re on an award-winning [indie], then people assume you know what you’re doing and then you get the boom op job that pays money.

Janvey: The real issue is about capitalism. My issue with that is we license these movies to for-profit companies... the distributors who license our movies are completely removed from [the labor]. So the labor never profits from their movies.

RomanskiThat might change with Netflix and Amazon. They don’t want the potential bad press. We may have been a union film [on our newest project] whereas Sara and I wouldn’t have been without these partners.

JanveyI think about sports a lot; it’s very similar. You have entities who make a lot of money by licensing stuff. And that’s what we do, we create products. People complain about how much money a basketball player makes. I think it’s awesome LeBron James makes $800 million because someone behind LeBron is making $800 billion. We make products that someone else is making a lot of money on.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. Listen to our podcasts from SXSW (or subscribe in iTunes):

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No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom    

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Your Comment


Walmart capitalism eats the small players in this typical flow. We can fight it, but we will lose. Finding an alternate parallel path with similar like minded people is going to create new waves is a direction I'm chasing. I'm interested in stories, no matter how I tell them, doesn't need to be done exactly the way being done today or yesterday. You can strive to be the 1%, but based on US economic history, I know where that poverty path takes you. I rather never 'make it', than to suffer to make 'art' with high risk of money loss. It's fucking lame to think art and money have to go hand in hand for the next 1000 years. It's also childish to think films will not follow Moore's law and everyone keeps trying to replicate tried and true. Innovators will die, and some of them will succeed.

March 22, 2016 at 12:07PM, Edited March 22, 12:07PM

Van Nguyen
Cut Rush Creative Labs Director

Aren't the odds in music or art about the same?

March 22, 2016 at 12:07PM

Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer

I love the coverage of SXSW. It's been great, Thanks.

I think that the biggest problem is that most filmmakers just want to make films and ignore making an audience and hype. In order to get people to watch your film, you have to push it. I think that filmmakers often set themselves up for failure by creating a huge film when they don't have the marketing budget or audience to support it.

March 22, 2016 at 12:12PM, Edited March 22, 12:19PM

Zachary Will


March 22, 2016 at 12:54PM, Edited March 22, 12:56PM

Rod Blackhurst
Director | Producer

Is Independent Film 'Healthy' If 99% of Us Fail? It's as "healthy" as it has ever been, which is to say, not at all.

When 1% of any business is "successful" and 99% fails, it's not really a business. Films are made by passionate, creative people, not businessmen who only see the "bottom line" and define the quality of their lives by money. Art is not a "good business" despite what the 500 year old painting just sold for, artists do it because they have to, not because it makes good financial sense. Artists are easy to exploit, because being creative often involves a drive that cannot be measured, or motivated, by money. What I find so amusing with the Hollywood business model is all the "20 million a picture" actors who used to work for free just to get started and now enter the 0.01% of wage earners when they are "popular." When the few suck up all the money, there is nothing left for that boom operator, or the make up person, or anyone else that doesn't have their face on the poster at the theater. It is an obscene business that takes advantage of people who love what they do, who regularly work overtime without pay or for no pay at all, just for the love of being involved in a creative endeavor, who are then treated so badly by the "business" people who control the industry. It's really no different than McDonalds fast food sweatshops, pay as little as possible to desperate people and create an empire for the 0.01%
Filmmaking, or any of the arts, is not a "good business" if that is what you are looking for, you are in the wrong industry.

March 22, 2016 at 1:12PM

Malcolm Matusky

Netflix and Amazon coming in are making it a lot more fun for producers, to be able to get financiers on board.

I'm sure you mean fund NOT fun for producer?

March 22, 2016 at 10:50PM, Edited March 22, 10:50PM

Wayne Lam
Artist Photographer and Filmmaker

I love filmaking... but I have to live too. One day I'll have to support a family, etc. So it's a tough dilemma, do I do what I love and have the rest of my world suffer, or pursue something more lucrative that I can enjoy the rest of life?

So no, when 99% fails it isn't healthy. For now all I can do is weekend films, with no to little budget. Films won't pay the bills at least not yet. We may see more netflixes, and amazons pop up. While not as lucrative as hollywood big budgets, they can still provide a livelyhood for filmmakers.

March 22, 2016 at 11:17PM

Benjamin Carroll

If piracy went way down, that 1% would become more like 3 or 4.

March 23, 2016 at 4:41PM, Edited March 23, 4:41PM

Robert Ruffo

I don't think I agree. It might move from 1% to 1.2%. People aren't pirating obscure indie movies; they're pirating the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

March 28, 2016 at 11:25PM

Minor Mogul

J'appréciant définitivement chaque peu de lui et je dois vous bookmarked pour vérifier de nouvelles choses que vous postez. Venez voir mon site:

March 25, 2016 at 4:53AM, Edited March 25, 4:53AM

Van Lau

I think we're doing this all to ourselves. Everyone complains about how horrible the latest blockbuster is but by going to the movies to watch it you just fuel the evil machine and in the long run kill your own projects. Power to the people, so to speak. Without us there would be no Dredd, Deadpool, Moon, Ex Machina, Pan's Labyrinth, etc.
Just sayin'

March 28, 2016 at 3:15PM

Milan Schere

I agree with you

August 7, 2018 at 5:55AM, Edited August 7, 5:55AM

Luc Beloix
Producer / DOP

Film has never really been a healthy industry. If you look at the early days of film, studios rose and fell regularly. Staying power didn't really happen until they looked outside of film for stable income. The big money is in the side businesses - licensing, advertising, merchandising, etc. Star Wars didn't become a billion-dollar enterprise on movies alone. Disney connects movies to their theme parks, television and merchandise. Actors become a brand more than the film itself. Movies are a giant marketing platform for other industries.

April 10, 2016 at 10:27PM, Edited April 10, 10:30PM

Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker

IMHO NONE of this would be a problem if people would stop to "wanting to make a living" out of a creative work. Look at Iceland: the goalkeeper of the national team IS ALSO a filmmaker. The moment you wanna make a living out of art, you are helplessly bound to bow to the market whims: go try pay your rent with "exposure". And tell me if that worked out..

August 7, 2018 at 5:41AM

Luc Beloix
Producer / DOP