I think we can all agree that making movies is really tough work, not only on the creative side, but on the producing side. How do you get others to believe in your project? How can you find a distributor for a film that you love, when Netflix and Hulu dominate the space? What has the pandemic done to independent productions?
Four indie producers discussed these topics and more at one of SXSW Online's opening panels, "Where Do We Go from Here?"
The hour-long panel featured Rebecca Green (producer of It Follows), Mynette Louie (Swallow, The Invitation), Avril Speaks (African American, Jinn), and Asher Goldstein (Short Term 12, Just Mercy).
They offered a unique look at the challenges they've faced over the last year and what they think the future will look like. Let's dive into the takeaways.
What changes will 2021 bring?
All agreed they initially thought of the pandemic as an opportunity for a reset, but little has actually changed because the big companies (like Netflix) could continue shooting, and also had 70 films in the can ready to release.
Speaks said she would like to see diversity initiatives continue to grow.
"You've seen little strides here and there, but in terms of what changes I would love to see happen in 2021, I would love for this season that we're in to open up more doors of opportunity for people of color, creators of color, to have bigger deals happen," Speaks said. "And to see more work get out there on a larger scale, really on any scale. Because at this point, I feel like even on a small scale, it's difficult to get a film up off the ground. I mean, I think that's always been the case, but I feel like it's even more so now."
Louie was more optimistic about the strides we have taken in distribution that she would like to see continue.
"The virtual cinema was basically done as a necessity, because the theaters couldn't sell tickets," Louie said. "I do think some portion of it is here to stay. I was on another panel speaking to Wendy Lidell of Kino Lorber who launched Kino Marquee, and she was saying that theaters now have gotten a taste of digital revenue. And she would rather give a piece of that revenue to mom-and-pop arthouse theaters than to iTunes and Amazon, corporate entities. I think that there's a way to learn from that and to take that into the post-pandemic era."
Lessons from 2020
Goldstein said that he wants films to return to theaters, but 2020 also showed that there are audiences willing to take in different types of film at home. That could open some doors for unique projects.
"I do think that with all this consolidation, with this drive towards streaming at the studio level, I do think that perhaps we might not get as many independent films made, but we could get independent-type films made," he said. "Artist-driven films made at a larger level because of the fact that costs will have to go down because audiences are more interested in more provocative material. I think, I hope."
The producers discussed how films released at the start of the pandemic fared, too. Could we learn from them? They pointed to Never Rarely Sometimes Always as an example.
"Never Rarely Sometimes Always was a week or two after [theaters closed]," Louie said. "We benefited from that. Because we had this theatrical campaign [for Swallow] and then we released day-and-date, so that when everyone shut down, we were the few new movies available on VOD, so we did well. But I think that's just a one-off. It's an anomaly. It would be great if we could continue to do that, but I think even with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, it was kind of one-off for them too, because there weren't a lot of movies around at that time. But it's about building events around these little movies. It's about getting them the promotion because there was no competition for press ink, Swallow and Eliza [Hittman]'s movie was able to get more of that. We need more people to dedicate to writing about our movies, basically."
How will indies get financed now?
The group touched on the recent record-breaking sale of CODA at Sundance. They weren't as enthusiastic as you might assume.
Louie pointed out, "I think that Apple and Netflix paying huge numbers like that doesn't really help the 99% of us out there. The 99.9% of us out there making movies. I don't think I disagree with Cassie and I think it's not to use as an indicator of the health. It's great that they got that deal, and it's great that there's an appetite for independent film, for sure, that the streamers are looking for films like ours. But what would be nicer is if they would dedicate their resources, their substantive resources, to actually financing these films instead of waiting until they're done before they acquire them. Because we have to go look under couch cushions to find the money to make these little movies, and it's like, why not just give us a decent budget and make them?"
"I have no idea how much that budget was, but it was not $25 million," she said. "They also could have taken a much lower risk on that film had they just financed it."
"Totally, totally," Louie said. "And, you know, I've heard streamers say that. I hope they're starting to do that. They're like, instead of buying that movie for $25 million, let's go find that script and finance it for 10. I think they're doing that more. I hope they do that more, because equity is disappearing, private equity is disappearing, and we're having to rely more and more as indie producers on these streamers and negative pickups from studios to make our movies."
Speaks was also concerned.
"I think the financing has gotten even more difficult. And then you look at the Netflixes and the Amazons and see them constantly coming out with financing, but yet kind of they're at the top of the heap in terms of content right now," she said. "Where does that leave us? Mynette hit it on the head. You know how many movies we could have made with that? That would've been so helpful for us. I'm worried, I guess that's what I'd boil it down to. I'm worried about the state of the indie market."
Goldstein opted for an upbeat view and a chance to keep creating.
"I'm an independent producer, we're all independent producers, people watching us are independent filmmakers," he said. "That means that we have the ability to generate things and create things. And what I do think is going to happen, as there is more consolidation, as the agencies are having some of their power blunted, I think potentially the figure that's going to arise as being able to take advantage of the fact that there will be a consistent need for stuff after this bottleneck of 70 movies at Netflix, are producers. We will have an opportunity to make stuff. I think the question is, what kind of stuff we want to make, and what stories we want to tell or promote, and all the things we're talking about?"
For more, read our ongoing coverage of the 2021 SXSW Festival.