I have two stories out recently on how the tumultuous economy is affecting the state of indie film financing, one focusing on low-budget indies (for indieWIRE, "Cash Crunch") and another on higher-budget indies (for Variety, "Indie film financing still in good shape"). After talking with producers on the low-end and bankers and investment specialists on the high-end, I was suprised to discover how little people are worrying.
Is the movie business recession-proof? Not quite, but according to many people I spoke with, it is consistent, which can't be said for Wall Street right now. Most surprising to me was the number of new financiers entering the film business for the first time, whether Werc Werk Works' Elizabeth Redleaf (financing auteurs such as Todd Solondz, Bela Tarr and Caveh Zahedi!) or Bill Perkins, a Houston-based energy trader. I guess when you have millions and millions of dollars, you still have enough disposable cash or stashed away in safer investments to cover your ass even if the market crashes. And when you are a multi-millionaire, as there still exists plenty in the U.S., what's $100,000?--a few deposits of which can do wonders for a small documentary in need of completion funds.
On the higher end of the spectrum, two points worth highlighting: One is that a number of companies already have a lot of dough from before the economic meltdown. So while the sky crashes all around entities like Mark Gill's The Film Department, they've got the money they've got and still plan on spending it (though we'll see if they're still around after they've burned through it in a year or two.)
The other point is the kinds of movies that are getting financed. While entertainment biz folks like to think that the industry-wide squeeze will make for better indie films, because only the creme of the crop will get funded in today's ultra-careful climate, listen to one banker's estimate of the kinds of films that can't get international pre-sales: "All those themes that used to dominate the independent space -- death, suicide, social causes, women's issues -- are tough to get financed. I can't get the presales or have the confidence to cover my gaps." The only dramas that are seeing top dollar are those with stars. Arguably, this has always been the case, but my sense is that it's solidified further.
Next year's film festivals--both in the kinds of films we see and the type of buys that are made--could be a very revealing measure of what the indie business has become, and where it's going.