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Dismal New Year! 2008 Indie Industry Trends

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik January 8, 2009 at 7:04AM

Dismal New Year! 2008 Indie Industry Trends
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If there was ever a new year mixed with both misery and hope, it is this one: Many of us have high expectations for President Barack Obama, an economic turnaround and an indie film biz able to resurrect itself via new distribution models, but man, were the last 12 months a downer or what? Always a glass-empty kind of journalist, I took a moment to look back at my key articles of the year, and what they say about the state of things:

1. The Death of the Nonfiction Theatrical Market?
In early March, I wrote an indieWIRE story titled "Docs Across America: Can Michael Moore Save the Theatrical Nonfiction Market?", which looked at a proposed solution by Mr. Moore to the challenges nonfiction films face in U.S. theaters. Whatever happened to the plan? Either way, the story serves as a reminder that docs have always been, and will continue to be, unloved children for theatical distributors, exhibitors and audiences (nothwithstanding very few exceptions, i.e. "Man on Wire").

2. The Death of ThinkFilm
Related to the above, there may have been no bigger deathrow for theatrical docs than the collapse of ThinkFilm. Under savvy marketer Mark Urman, Think was one of the best places to go for nonfiction -- before its parent company's cash troubles caught up with it. In a telling quote that sums up not just ThinkFilm's troubles but also Wall Street's, Urman told me, "If people end up getting f***ed, we're f***ed, too, and we can all be on the unemployment lines together." See "As ThinkFilm's Cash Crunch Continues, Urman and Company Try to Keep Filmmakers, Creditors at Bay" (indieWIRE).

3. If Theatrical is Dead, Can Digital Distribution Save Us?
In two indieWIRE articles from earlier in the year, "Webolution or Wild Unknown: Digital Rights in Indiewood 3.0" and "Netflix Folds Red Envelope; Exits Theatrical Acquisition and Production Biz," the ultimate bottomline was voiced by Netflix's Ted Sarandos: "I think the lack of success in theaters for specialty films necessitates innovation online. Sometimes, the sky has to fall to be able to recreate and build new models." Still a very nascent business, the online distribution world continues to be a big queston mark. How much money are filmmakers actually making via sites such as Hulu, Snag, Netflix, YouTube (and others)? We won't know until Matt Dentler (and others) tell us.
Related: "Tribeca Film Festival Showcases Shifting Marketplace: As the cost of the theatrical release rises, distributors at the Tribeca Film Festival focused on expanding new distribution platforms, including video-on-demand and the Internet" (Wall Street Journal Online).

4. If Theatrical is Dead, Can Self-Distribution Save Us?
One of the year's most cautionary and most promising tales of alternative distribution is "Ballast." The year's best film that nobody saw and the best debut film of the year (according to indieWIRE's Critics Poll), Lance Hammer's beautifully realized Mississippi drama did not cause a pin to drop in theatrical release. Recently, the director told me the screening fees he's getting at alt-venues around the country don't show up on Rentrak, so the film is effectively operating off the box office charts--which is fine with Hammer. But is it an economic model? More and more filmmakers are going the DIY route, with results that range from successful ("Bottle Rocket") to not. See "'Ballast' Steadies Course Alone: Sundance Winner Chooses Self-Distribution" (indieWIRE) and "Indies increasingly follow DIY model" (Variety).

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