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:
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?"
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?
Murphy: Having 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.
Martin: I 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.
Kaplan: And 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.
Kaplan: It’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.
Kaplan: I do it for my ego.
Janvey: I 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:
Romanski: I don’t think it’s a reasonable request. I don’t think [content production] is going to go down.
Martin: At the level most producers work at, you have to make 10 movies just to make a living. That’s the problem.
Kaplan: Is 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.)
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 —
Martin: You 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:
Kaplan: We 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.Kaplan: The allure of making something bigger can put [filmmakers] down the path where, 3-4 years later, they haven’t made another movie.
Janvey: I 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.
Kaplan: Punch Drunk Love… Hard Eight... How do you make those now?
Martin: You could make those in the same way now.
Janvey: I don’t want to say studios are awful… but they are fucking terrible.
Martin: We 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.
Romanski: That 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.
Janvey: I 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.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.