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In Features, Issues

LONG LIVE INDIE FILM
...and Ted Hope makes plans for the coming revolution.

EXHIBITION: MAKE MOVIE-GOING AN EVENT

Increase the "want-to-see" factor. The Weinsteins appear to be the only ones who opted to dine on the remains of William Castle’s and Sam Arkoff’s brains. Where’s the showbiz spin today that makes going to even a low-budget independent film an event?

Before the video boom supplied devoted fanatics with low-cost libraries, audiences had a proprietary interest in every film. If you saw it, it was yours. Nowadays every audience member is well aware of video windows and ancillary delivery systems – if you don’t see it now, so what? In six months it’ll be on the corner video shack’s shelves.

Thought must be given to how to get film-goers to get up off the couch. There must be the imperative to act during a slim window of opportunity. Movies can’t be sold on the strength of the film alone. There must be that something extra, whether it’s a good cup of cap, a Devil Woman candybar, tingling seats, or personal appearances by the director.

Create arthouse movie palaces. Granted New York City has a noble history of screening celluloid treasures in sticky stinking pits, but something’s got to give. A decade ago there was the Bleeker & Thalia, and yes, they were pits. I suppose I should be grateful for Film Forum and the Angelika, but please, my knees hit the seats in front, the poles get in the way, the subways play in sensurround, and there’s no rake to speak of. And this is the art film capital of the US, maybe the entire world? Clean bathrooms and an adequate lobby aren’t enough to make my big night out an event. Granted, most art films don’t gross enough to allow little guys to compete with new state-of-the-art Sony theaters, but unless art screens mimic the grand Walter Reade and their Lincoln Square sisters, it’ll soon be time to say goodnight. The trick is capital. The Angelika may be the most profitable cinema in the country, but the Film Forum could not survive without its not-for-profit status. Instead of film grants, maybe the taxpayers could help fund the infrastructure. Rebuild the theatres and the audiences will come.

 

Illustration by Rod Filbrandt

MARKETING: ESTABLISH NEW ALTERNATIVES

Increase audience identification with the films. With video removing the proprietary nature of specialized and cult film, filmmakers cannot be cavalier about enhancing the relationship with end users. People tend to marvel at the Grateful Dead’s relationship with its fans, ignoring the band’s history of developing phone and internet hotlines, a readily identifiable clothing line, two-tiered product (sanctioned bootlegs and label releases), and a variety of leisure time spinoffs enhanced by the appreciation of the principle product (tours, drugs, miscellaneous paraphernalia). Their’s is a time-tested lesson in marketing that all "fringe" artists need to recognize. Spike Lee took the first baby steps with his clothing stores and Nike-enhanced persona. What are the rest of us doing for the follow-up?

Work harder promoting the film than you did producing it – and keep it cheap. As noted earlier, specialized films are sold on the back of the director. Today’s filmmaker needs to develop his or her performing skills. The tough part is to not believe your own hype. When everyone wants to talk to you and your mug is getting ink galore, why shouldn’t you feel like Orson Welles? But if the neophyte director does not want to end up bending spoons on Merv, he or she must recognize that controlling costs is the elixir for longevity. Talk is cheap but four-star hotels and limos will suck the profit out of any indie smash.

Develop a direct mail publicity system. It’s a unique breed that goes to see specialized film, but they are growing and mutating rapidly. We need to learn how to target them and reach them. Indie rock has grown more adept at this than our industry and it shows both in terms of product and revenue. If you knew you had a supporter in every city, and that they would leave flyers in coffee houses over the next month, maybe your three-day run would pay off.

Stop competitive indie film festivals. Competition is a marketing concept used to create hype. No one benefits. But as long as they exist we cannot afford to not participate (afterall, a prize winner is supposed to be a sure bet for distribution). If film fests were non-competitive, the films and the films alone would be responsible for getting deals and reaching audiences. Distributors would be less inclined to second guess their own instincts. And filmmakers might support each other’s films rather than feel that their success is dependent on others’ failures.

If Indie Film is going to be a marketing hook, insist that it be an effective one. When you say "Broadway" people know what you mean. The same goes for "Holly-wood," but when you speak of "Indie" the image is a bit blurry. We’ve got to push our local video stores to have an "Indie" section. If people want it, they have to know where to look for it.

Publicize Indie superstars. It’s not just the directors. The same designers, DPs, and composers staff one indie flick after another, yet they get no recognition. The fine people of Peoria raise an eyebrow when you say "Gordon Willis" or "Deedee Allen"; they know a thing or two. Our superstars should enjoy the same notoriety in their smaller fish pond. The indie world’s award ceremonies are nothing more than fundraisers, and since the below-the-liners don’t yield the corporate dollars, they never get the recognition. A little hype will go a long way.

 

FINANCE: THE BIG PICTURE

Recognize the responsibility of recouping the investment. Filmmakers and distributors alike must wake up to the facts: every time a film is made that pushes the boundaries or embraces originality, all of our asses are on the line. The film industry decides by example. Successes are mimicked. Failures, perceived or otherwise, are scorned and banished.

Producers must craft budgets based on a subject matter’s appeal. Everytime an investor loses money on a film, he or she tells 100 former potentials. If the film is a modest hit, the investor will keep the good thing to him or herself. Only when the box-office bonanza arrives will the investor pool start to be replenished.

It’s fine and good (not to mention fair marketplace practice) for distributors to take advantage of the surplus of films and play the no- advance game, but where do they think those films come from? That discouraged investor whose film garnered a no-advance deal is the same disgruntled fellow passing up the chance to fund a real masterpiece a few years down the line. Producers, distributors and sales agents must acknowledge the symbiotic nature of their relationship and each make a commitment to a film’s investors as well as to potential future relationships.

 

SALES: THINK LONG TERM

Be aware and draft the right licensing deal. Make sure it’s simple and low maintainence – you don’t have the time to track the "corridors," "bumps" and "flexible" splits. Make sure that the rights revert back to you in a relatively short period, and you can relicense the film a second time, when your career is hopefully in full bloom.

Make the European-style distribution deal the standard. We all must be frugal. Sure we want to reach the widest audience possible, but we also want satisfied customers and a loyal audience. If P&A costs come off the top and then the distributors and filmmakers split the profits, overspending is discouraged; profits will come from the right balance of spend and thrift. Under the current fee structure in vogue among stateside distribs (marketing expenses and distribution fees are deducted from film revenues before the producer sees his or her share) the distribs benefit from higher revenues (as their distribution fee increases) regardless of the marketing costs needed to generate those revenues.

DISTRIBUTION: INNOVATE AND INITIATE

Minimize the reliance on theatrical release. Specialized film is entirely dependent on theatrical release to realize significant ancillary revenues. Producers must look at what succeeds in other markets and when developing new projects. Sales agents have long recognized the appeal to buyers of multi-film packages. It’s time producers wisened up to this fact too. Why does theatrical have to be the first window of release, other than to fulfill ego? We’ve had enough cable-first breakthroughs in recent history to revise our thinking. Pay-Per-View need not be the sole province of the blockbusters. What about a one-night-only PPV Film Festival right after Sundance with 50% of the films?

 

INFRASTRUCTURE: CREATE & REBUILD

Work to maintain the specialized film distributors in all territories. Indie filmmakers often take an antagonistic stance to their distributors, both foreign and domestic. It’s easy to suspect the other guy, but paranoia, as well as trust, is a two-way street. There’s not enough room out there for any of us to survive in a hostile environment. The little guys are overextended and the results show in their work, but unless we’re patient, we may lose the only helping hands we have. Distributors need product and they need to be able to plan for it. Long-term relationships must be forged; if someone takes a risk on a first film, they must be rewarded for it later. We have to encourage the distributors to make the initial leap and when they do, we have to make sure their journey is a good one. It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to make sure that the distributor in each territory knows what worked well in the other territories and also what tanked.

Demand a verifiable admissions accounting. In many foreign territories there is a government agency that monitors admissions and sales. Such a system will benefit filmmakers and distributors alike. Unless we have such information at our fingertips, we are ripe for exploitation. Exposed to the true number of admissions our previous film netted, we may be willing to settle for less when licensing the next.

Further, France requires distributors to file license agreements for public review, but everywhere else deals remain secret. Filmmakers must stay on their distributors and retrieve the information needed to educate us all. How many wickets whirled when your gem graced Slovakia’s screens? It’s arcane info that we need, if we are to truly "exploit" the "product" we generate.

Develop a community collection service for the smaller distributors and the self-distributors. Even the big guns get trapped when it comes to collections. Outside the exhibitors’ automatic 25% payout of the gate, the balance of box-office revenues loiters in the coffers until some pushy pitbull’s tenacity loosens the exhibitors’ grip on the final receipts. Self-distribution looks good on paper, but making theater owners pay as they should, turns the rosy world gray, without it ever going into the black. The Teamsters were onto something when they organized truckers. There’s power in numbers.

Develop a method for filmmakers to share information. We’ve got to find a way to share and publicize our hard luck tales along with our satisfying experiences. Our ability to get accurate info in a timely fashion may well determine who sinks and who swims. The "how-to’s" (build a press kit, deliver a film, do self-collections, read an account statement, find a producer’s rep, etc.) of this business must be accessible. The internet and world wide web are out there. We must use it to organize ourselves.

Demand filmmaker-friendly finishing funds. First-timers in need of completion funds need not go to a fire sale but must remain calm in their desperate situation. It is the filmmakers’ desperation that allows investors to make predatory deals in order to "save" a film. Completion funds appear to be in such short supply that filmmakers feel compelled to take whatever is offered. In reality, completion financing is the least risky of film investments and there are numerous opportunities out there if you are willing to miss a festival deadline or two and spend more time looking for the right deal. A "last in, first out" investment combined with a healthy premium and maybe a future piece of the next project should be attractive enough to the money men to allow the filmmaker to retain ownership.

Develop a specialized film database. Somehow someone’s got to get the info together. How much did it cost and what was it spent on? What did it sell for where and under what terms? How many came to see it or buy it and who were they? Did the middle man pay? What problems were there? How can the information be verified and maintained? The internet and world wide web are enticing opportunities, but who’s going to lead the way?

Track the results of your own film carefully and precisely. We are all or will be dependent on your ability to decipher and articulate the commercial success of your film. If the database and a formal info sharing structure doesn’t exist yet, the information does. Keep track of yours.

Disseminate the information. Where did your film sell? Who paid overages? When you tell us your budget, please be sure to tell us what it really pertains to.

Form an Independent Producers Association. Whether it’s sales, distribution, exhibition or labor, we’ve got the same concerns. And we all have different information. As long as we are divided, we will be conquered.

Support intelligent film critics. This is nothing less than a political and public interest issue. Letter writing campaigns must be taken in support of and in opposition to critics, both in print and television, who both get and miss the point. Encourage the promotion of specialized film for its aesthetic virtues in addition to the standard shaggy dog stories of credit card financing.

Rebuild the infrastructure. I’m shocked that the IFP has traditionally only been a launching pad for new filmmakers. Established producers who refuse to place their film in the IFFM or show it as a work-in-progress live with blinders on, claiming that the market is for first timers only instead of trying to lead it into the future. Sure, the timing is bad being two weeks before the far bigger market of MIFED, but there still is a place and a need for an indie market. The indie director that strikes it big and gets a film distributed must recognize the debts he or she has incurred in getting there and start to pay a little back. Mutual support is our only hope. If we’re divided, we will be conquered.

Do not abandon hope. Just work harder.

Special thanks to: Anthony Bregman, Kelly Miller, James Schamus, Mary Jane Skalski, and Jim Stark.

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