Cassian Elwes is no stranger to the indie film business. In addition to producing over 50 films, he also spent fifteen years as head of William Morris Independent putting together financing deals for independent films. When Elwes began his producing career in 1983 with his first film, Oxford Blues, the theatrical box office was very much alive and well (and for more than just blockbusters).
But it's 2017, and today, making films is very different than it was 34 years ago (for one thing, film itself is becoming an increasingly rare feature of filmmaking). Still, Elwes is confident in the future of film, and especially indie film, while acknowledging that these movies will take different routes to the audience than they did before. Here are some of Elwes' most interesting thoughts on the independent film industry and his predictions for its future from his recent presentation at TIFF 2017.
Streaming is the future
At this year's Sundance Film Festival, Elwes sold Dee Rees' Mudbound to Netflix for $12.5 million, making the biggest deal at the entire festival. Elwes has seen the future, and it's not on the big screen. Still, though, he bemoans the loss of the movie experience, asking "...should people see their movies that way [streaming]? I don’t know."
When an audience member asked him about the ramifications of the recent Shia LeBeouf film Man Down flopping at the box office (with an international take of just $26—yes, twenty-six dollars), Elwes said that theatrical distribution, at this point, should be decided on the basis of whether the film needs it. In the new model, he says, criteria other than traditional box office will have more weight. One example he cited of a new "way to define success" was awards, which was unsurprising as the Dee Rees'-directed Mudbound is an early Oscar favorite this year.
But he's no fan of Google
Elwes took the opportunity to lash out at Google, calling it "...the greatest pirate of our business. We literally had 11 million illegal downloads of Dallas Buyers Club...They’ll send you to 20 different sites to see any movie free right now." One way to combat this, Elwes said, was with quality films on quality platforms like Netflix, and he said he has even spoken to Mudbound director Rees about the greater chance for people to stream the movie than to see it in a limited theatrical run, which would be confined to certain markets. Elwes added that while promoting the film, Rees would be encouraging people to invite groups of people to their house to watch the film.
Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige, and Rob Morgan in 'Mudbound'.Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
Trust your taste
In response to a question from a young producer about a draft of a film he is working on which he said was interesting, but could possibly alienate audiences, Elwes told him, "The nature of independent cinema is not a lot of people are going to go see a movie, unless it's some razzing success. The nature of what we do is we make small movies for an art house audience. We're not making films to go on 2,000 screens, we're making films to go on 25 screens, a hundred screens."
"You've got to believe in your own taste, and you've got to make the movie the way you want to make it."
But, he said, "you've got to believe in your own taste, and you've got to make the movie the way you want to make it...You've got to try and make something great, and if no one goes to see it, that's fine. It might not be fine for all the investors, but it will be a movie that people will discover at some point." This is arguably true, looking on the bright side in an industry where independent film is, even more than big studio filmmaking, a real gamble.
Going further in his defense of the art house, Elwes expressed his distaste for the current state of Hollywood filmmaking, calling out the Marvel films in particular, expressing his opinion that, "They make the same movie over and over again" and that most of them "...aren’t movies, they’re $150 million rides that you pay $10 for." And, to Elwes, the shame is that, "Young filmgoers go to see these movies and think that’s cinema.” For someone who has been so successful in independent film as a producer, Elwes is admirable in his full-throated defense of independent cinema, the moviegoing experience, and the balance between art and commerce, however difficult that may be to achieve.
You can check out the full conversation on TIFF's website.
Featured image: 'Mudbound'. Credit: Courtesy of TIFF.