In Features, Issues

At the party that was this year's Spirit Awards, producer James Schamus was the designated driver. While attendees sucked in at the oxygen tent, Schamus, in this keynote speech, soberly suggested that we should stop celebrating independent film and, amid today's media conglomerates, start worrying about the concept of independence itself.

James Schamus. Photo by Tom LeGoff

The editors of Filmmaker were kind enough to ask if they could publish a transcript of the keynote address I delivered at this year’s Independent Feature Project/West Spirit Awards. Since the speech was, if I do say so myself, a bit of a bomb, I thought that, in an act of unutterable mercy, I would spare Filmmaker’s readers, in particular, the lousy jokes that prefaced the substance of the talk. And, too, I thought I’d make a couple of postmortem revisions in order to underscore some of the points I hastily touched on in my rush to get off stage.

The speech was organized around a simple, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, proposal: that the Independent Feature Project as we know it, and the Spirit Awards too, should be immediately disbanded. Aside from the obvious overabundance of awards shows out there these days, the reason for the proposal was simple: the IFP has already, and fabulously, achieved its goals. It has won its battles. The war is over, and we should all now happily celebrate around the pyre of our victory bonfire the accomplishments that have brought the independent movement this far, and wonder, perhaps, if from the ashes something new might arise, informed by the spirit of the founding mothers and fathers of the independent movement that led to the IFP’s creation 20 years ago.

Why would I argue this? Let me share some statistics with you, because statistics are objective and these statistics support my point. I did some research, and I discovered that in 1986, at the very first Spirit Awards, the total box office of the nominated films in all categories was about $20 million. Fast-forward 15 years to this year’s awards. The total box office for all nominated films, excluding foreign films, is $300 million. Now, certainly there’s inflation, and more films in more categories this year, but even a simple averaging out of box office would show an exponential rise in the economic heft of films considered worthy of "independent" kudos. This is a remarkable feat, all the more so when one considers the often "independent" feel – and substance – of many of the bigger-budgeted studio films.

Back in 1986 fully 50% of the box office of the Spirit nominees was earned by the major studios, in the form of Warner Brothers and its Martin Scorsese—helmed After Hours. This year, I pointed out in my speech, $299.98 million of the $300 million was earned by either major studios, their affiliates, or distributors backed by large-scale financial institutions. Of course, a key objection to this "objective" statistic is the inclusion of fiery upstart Artisan, with its enormous hit The Blair Witch Project, in the "major corporate" category. In my speech I noted that Artisan was pulled together by a group called Bain Capital, which, in a recent press release, boasts of its more than $7 billion in capital and its record of taking "over 20 companies public with a combined current market capitalization exceeding $24 billion." But I failed to note that two of the partners in the venture had recently bought out Bain’s stake in the company. In fact, it was unfair of me to lump Artisan, a marvel of entrepreneurial energy and imagination, in the same category as the studios per se. My point was simply that, for all intents and purposes, the films recognized at the Spirit Awards have succeeded overwhelmingly in entering the mainstream system of commercial exploitation and finance, and today the economics required to make oneself heard even as an "independent" are essentially studio economics. In this so-called independent arena even the "little guys" need big capital if they are to survive in any economically viable form.1

Sure, the IFP nominating committees have managed to make certain that a number of worthy films with little or no distribution make their way onto our ballots, and these films fulfill more than a symbolic function in reminding us of the casualties left by the side of the road in the indie rush to success. But let’s face facts – the folks at the IFP confront a terrible conundrum. How many of the 5,000 voting members will have seen these films? Does their inclusion begin to look like mere — and perhaps mildly futile — tokenism? Or is there at least some sense in which the modest "exposure" such nominations gain for these films makes the gesture worthwhile?

I have no hard and fast answers to these questions, nor, I think, do most other well-meaning members of the independent community. We simply share a genuine sentiment that we like films that say something to us, films that are meaningful in some way, and that such films can now be found both within the studio system, within the mini-majors and major independents, as well as "outside" the system.

But if our communal rituals like the Spirit Awards are little more than the expression of that sentiment, are they worth all the bother? More pressing, what if the very celebration of the success of the Independent Feature Project’s "project" – the widespread acceptance of and support for a market for films with an "independent" mentality – just reproduces the forms and rituals of judgment and exclusion that Gregory Nava and his friends were fighting so hard against when, 20 years ago, they started the IFP. There is no logical reason why the towering artistic achievements of films like Boys Don’t Cry and Election, brought to us by the News Corporations and Viacoms of this world, should not be celebrated, and we ought to be genuinely grateful that caring and savvy people who work for those corporations have cleared a path in the marketplace for these kinds of films. But this does not mean we should we go on pretending to be storming the castle when in fact "we" are well inside of it. And in this best of all possible worlds, our very reasons to celebrate may in fact be portents of our eventual – perhaps imminent – extinction. The growth of independent film has occurred simultaneously with the growth of the super transnational global media empires, and we owe our existence in large part to the success of these remarkable companies. But the next steps in those companies’ evolution may mean the end of our kind of media-making.

That is to say, we might want to get political, of all things, and take some cues from the people who gathered in Seattle a few months ago to find out if our current hog-heaven state might be leading us at the end of the line to a not-so-kosher termination. To understand this last point, we might consider what a new kind of IFP would look like, and articulate what its membership might be worried about.

For one thing, we might be worried not so much about "independent film" as about independence itself – the preservation of some form of civic space in which freedom of expression is not merely a privilege purchased with the promise of an eventual profit, but the exercise of a fundamental right.

What are the threats to freedom of expression, diversity of opinion, and open access to markets and audiences that the astonishing growth of the horizontally integrated media giants portend?

I will mention, briefly, just a few.

First, we must take cognizance of the immensity of the consolidation of market share and political power that has occurred in the media industries during the Clinton Administration. A transaction like the pending AOL-Time Warner merger, perhaps the biggest economic transaction in history, has for its underpinnings some very telling logic. In particular, I would point out that the merging of the cable industry with the Internet poses crucial issues. Remember that for all our talk of free markets, cable companies in fact operate as state-sanctioned monopolies which have the right and ability to censor and control virtually all content that goes through the coaxial cables that deliver media into our homes. Once upon a time, AOL was a vigorous advocate for opening up access to those cable wires. But now, think of the extraordinary power the use of that control can have in managing – and charging for – the flow of information through the Web as it can be subsumed under the monopoly conditions that govern the cable environment. A politically informed and open study of such a merger and the regulatory regimes that govern it might just be the only hope independents – and everyone interested in a democratic civic culture – will have of surviving the new cyber era.

We might also work to understand – and to repeal – key aspects of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which has led to one of the greatest boondoggles in American history (the giveaway of over $15 billion in broadcasting spectrum) and which is one of the most important factors in the increasing consolidation of the American and global media worlds.

We also need a new mandate for aggressive antitrust enforcement. Let me give you an example of the practical consequences of how concentration in the retail video business affects us. We all know that Blockbuster, which is owned by Viacom, has a general policy of not carrying NC-17 films. Now I had the honor of being involved in a film a couple of years back called Happiness, a film so morally dubious that it was sent back to Good Machine because the Seagram Company which owns Universal, which owned what was at that time called October Films, didn’t want anything to do with the movie. (By the way, this transfer of rights by Universal to us was a remarkably amicable and collegial transaction – but that’s another story.)2

Fine. We released the film theatrically ourselves, unrated. But when it came time to release the video, Todd Solondz, the film’s director, for some reason refused to bowdlerize and censor his movie to get an R rating, so Trimark, the film’s video distributor, bravely ended up going out with an NC-17. So, since Blockbuster controls nearly a third of the rental market, and, in most mid- and small-size markets has vanquished its independent competition, this meant we were effectively banned throughout a great deal of the U.S. That’s how censorship works these days.3

We also need to pay attention to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) intellectual property talks and support the existence of what’s left of independent media companies overseas. American independent cinema has long depended on far-thinking foreign distributors and public television stations for much of its economic sustenance. With the Hollywood majors now grabbing on average of between 75 and 90% of the box office of most foreign territories, and with huge transnational satellite and cable TV companies wiping out local TV competition, the number of buyers, especially those with access to lucrative pay-TV deals, is shrinking. If those independent distributors disappear, we will be wholly at the mercy of the conglomerates, as the people who run the studio specialty divisions will be wholly at the mercy of the international TV divisions of their studios, whose deals they need to survive. By supporting independents overseas in the face of an ongoing MPAA/Jack Valenti onslaught, we also help our friends at the specialty divisions of the studios here who need producers who can make flexible financing arrangements using the overseas markets. And we will need to find ways of achieving effective solidarity with those like the NDP in Canada and the Left Party in Sweden who are leading the fight against globalized media hegemony in their own countries.

All of the above rests on some real hope for campaign finance reform. As Robert McChesney, in his book Rich Media, Poor Democracy, points out, "In the United States the richest one-quarter of one percent of Americans make 80 percent of individual campaign contributions, and corporations outspend labor by a margin of 10 to one." And remember, those contributions go mostly to fill the coffers of the media empires on whose airwaves the candidates spend their billions in contributions.4

You think I’m just being a paranoid rabble-rouser? Let’s ask Gerald Levin, the head of Time Warner, and something of a real visionary in these matters. Earlier this year, on the eve of his company’s historic merger with AOL, he told CNN that global media companies are "more important than government …We’re going to need to have these corporations redefined as instruments of public service because they have the resources, they have the reach, they have the skill base … And that may be a more efficient way to deal with society’s problems than bureaucratic governments."5

On one hand, this is the voice of a passionate and committed industry leader who I think genuinely believes that an unbridled marketplace will lead to a more "efficient" and universal democratic culture. On the other hand, you can’t make this shit up. It’s genuinely scary, especially when one realizes that AOL Time Warner will most likely control over half of all U.S. internet access and a quarter of its cable market, while fighting tooth and nail to keep its systems as closed to nonpaying interlopers as is humanly possible.

The successful integration of the independent film movement into the structures of global media and finance has wrought untold benefits to American filmmakers and has resulted in the making and distribution of some of the greatest works of cinema art to come along in a long time. We should all be proud of these accomplishments, and there will be more of them to come, no doubt. But as responsible citizens of the new global media imperium, we should take Gerald Levin up on his challenge to redefine media companies in the public service, even if that means fighting to limit their total hegemony over the marketplace of ideas. Otherwise, we may soon live in a world where we are free to say anything, but where the cost of reaching out to anyone who can afford to hear us will be beyond prohibitive.



1. My apologies to the Artisan team for making their daunting success at getting into this marketplace look like business as usual. As you will see below, the Artisans of this world, even with all the IPO lucre in the universe, are going to have a hard enough time of it in the years to come without having to have potshots taken at them by people like me.back to note

2. See my "The Pursuit of Happiness," The Nation; April 5, 1999.back to note

3. On the good-news front, Blockbuster is using its enormous clout to help some very excellent independent films with support for theatrical-marketing campaigns. Again, my point is hardly to paint the people and companies involved in making and distributing films as intrinsically evil – far from it. Rather, I make note that the system as a whole, as it tends toward greater and greater consolidation, effectively silences alternative voices and visions when they pose political or other problems, even though no one actually need make a specific decision to do so. back to note

4. McChesney’s book is a fundamental primer on these issues. It was published by the University of Illinois Press last year.back to note

5. Levin is quoted in Joel Bleifuss’s "Communication Breakdown," In These Times; February 21, 2000. back to note


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