I’m very fortunate to be friends with many accomplished independent film producers–people whose films have screened at the best festivals, won significant awards, gotten picked up by major distributors, earned healthy gross receipts, and received accolades in the mainstream press. We hang out sometimes, one-on-one or in groups, to catch each other up on our projects, share recent experiences, exchange opinions on companies and people we’ve worked with, etc. But essentially, we get together for emotional support against an industry and an economy hostile to our work. At any given time, half of us will have one foot out the door, ready to escape an occupation in which the appreciation and financial rewards we get have zero correlation with the insanely hard work we do and intense emotional stress we endure.
I was recently struck by three things I read that echoed some of these sentiments: Ted Hope’s forlorn blog post in which he catches up an old friend to where he is now, Brian Newman’s post about how YouTube stars are disrupting the old indie film model, and the Huffington Post article on Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen. I deduced a common theme running through all three: innovate or die.
Ted’s post lamented, “It is very frustrating watching what I love crumble away. I see many people with their fingers in the leaks, but few that want to build a new city higher up on the hill.” Brian said that filmmakers need to find innovative ways to connect to their audiences before the latter start to liken Sundance to the Metropolitan Opera, “a place you go to see a wonderful artform that you know you should respect, but that no one cares about anymore and which very few can afford to make or attend.” And the HuffPo article quoted Jay and Lars saying that too many indie producers “are too busy adapting when we should be innovating.” Film may be the new theater (or Metropolitan Opera), TV the new film, online streaming the new TV, but any way you frame it, the world of content creation, distribution, and consumption is changing–dramatically.
Independent producers are entrepreneurial by nature. Each feature film we undertake is a distinct startup, with rounds of financing to raise, a team to build, development and production phases, a launch (premiere), and an exit strategy (sale). We are, essentially, serial entrepreneurs, except–as a matter of survival–we have to run multiple businesses simultaneously, being in some combination of development, production, post, and distribution on different films, all at once. So why don’t we take our creativity, penchant for hard work, and entrepreneurial chutzpah, and put it all toward innovation?
Let’s figure out how to reconcile the artfully crafted 100-minute narrative with the public’s growing appetite for cheap and quick content. Let’s make sense of the confusing array of social media and alternative distribution tools out there. Let’s build on the examples set by folks like Louis C.K. and Ed Burns (except let’s try to remove the “be famous already” prerequisite to their success). Let’s see if we can’t operate outside Hollywood’s lottery system, outside its control, and sustain ourselves as “middle-class filmmakers” who continue to make films that speak to people.
If we don’t innovate the way we make and sell our movies, the independent film space will become further dominated by two groups: young first-time filmmakers who are willing and able to work for free (and who haven’t yet maxed out the favors they can call in), and filmmakers who are already rich and don’t need a paycheck or a return. Writers, directors, and producers who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, those who are older, those from immigrant and minority groups, and those who are trying to make their second, third, fourth features (to which they could apply the expertise gained from making their previous ones) will leave the business–and the scope of stories being told will become severely limited.
Fellow producers, I know you’re busy. I know it’s hard to tread water in a vast sea of emails, calls, contracts, scripts, screeners, budgets, schedules, financing plans, accounting statements, tax filings. I know you’re juggling so many projects, you sometimes confuse the names of your protagonists. I know you wish you were doing a better job of absorbing the continuous stream of industry news. I know there are a ton of writers, directors, composers, actors, cinematographers knocking at your door, hoping to introduce you to their work and pick your brain (and I know you’d love to meet with many of them). I know you waste a lot of time talking to “potential financiers.” I know dealing with agents, managers, and lawyers exhausts you. I know it’s maddening to hustle for paid short-term gigs in the midst of prepping, posting, or delivering your feature, or traveling to festivals and markets. I know you never get enough sleep or have enough time with your loved ones.
But, my dear producer pals, the next time we meet up to kvetch about work and life, let’s put our heads together and figure out how to sustain not only ourselves, but ultimately, the art that we love so dearly, and the diversity of artistic voices that make it. There is a better way, and we’ve got to find it soon.