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New York Indie Film Loses its Focus

News
by Anthony Kaufman
October 3, 2013 9:06 AM
8 Comments
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With every well-heeled film institution or corporation that abandons New York City, the once indie film center loses some of its capital. And in the capital-intensive world of the film business, that's not a good thing for adventurous filmmakers who need adventurous financiers. It's bad enough that Focus Features, the longstanding Universal subsidiary that once supported Gotham auteurs like Jim Jarmusch ("The Limits of Control"), Noah Baumbach ("Greenberg") and the Coen brothers ("A Serious Man"), lost its main art-film advocate James Schamus, who balanced a shrewd knowledge of overseas playability with bold aesthetics, but the real nail in the coffin is the company's shuttering of its New York offices.

Will the new Focus still support films like Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control"? Doubt it.

What's left to drive New York's indies and cultivate the next generation of Gotham's filmmakers? The Weinstein Company and Sony Pictures Classics remain the only entities on the East Coast that can make a mid-sized independent film, gathering enough stars and budget to make the next "Constant Gardener" or "Motorcycle Diaries" or "Atonement" (all Focus features). 

With the company's move to Los Angeles and Film District's Peter Schlessel at the reigns, you can bet that  the mid-sized art film is in more trouble than it already was. Schlessel's track record is mixed in the specialty space: Yes, he can claim ownership of driving Nicholas Winding Refn's bang-up noir "Drive" into the marketplace, but much of the company's slate is heavily geared towards genre titles ("Red Dawn," "Parker," "Dead Man Down," "Olympus Has Fallen"--all yuck).

I know a lot of emerging filmmakers who have important development deals with Focus Features. And even if those projects never got off the ground, there was always the hope that they might. Now, I expect those development deals are no more.

In the Village Voice in 2009, I wrote a story called "My Big Fat Greek Collapse: New York's Independent Film Community Goes From Boom to Bust," which essentially anticipated such a downfall. 

"It's insane that you can count the number of companies buying [films] on one hand," veteran New York producer Christine Vachon told me at the time.

With the inevitable decline of the DVD, a glut of productions, and changing audience-viewing habits, it was only a matter of time before the Pollyanna-ish art-meets-commerce model that spurred on specialized cinema would come crumbling down. And without studio dollars to cultivate new talents, today's indie filmmakers, many too young to remember when the industry was nascent, are struggling.

Sure, ultra-indie filmmakers and D.I.Y. directors are free to run around New York City, having fun making their cool no-budget movies that everyone loves at SXSW. But is that a sustainable career? 

Producer Jay Van Hoy also lamented the smaller number of distribution companies, "and that's what drove the production community here 10 years ago," he told me.

I know there's a lot of hope out there with the rise of VoD and other smaller distribution outfits that have come to the fore, such as A24. But I can't see this latest news as a good sign of anything to come.

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8 Comments

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | October 6, 2013 2:12 PMReply

    As sad as the news may be for people who are directly affected by Focus, changes at one company does not mean anything for the overall independent filmmaking practice, let alone for the vast creative space that is NYC. More people are making indie films now than at the time when Focus started, & more of those films are being seen either through festivals, VOD or other means than ever before. The version of indie film that Focus was making & selling may not be profitable for its parent company any more. That's all. Other companies might take its place. New companies may start. With crowdfunding (which Terry is not a believer in, got it Terry :) & all of the other means of raising money for indie films, & the internet as a marketing & distribution option, actual independent filmmaking (individual artists making movies outside of Hollywood or similar structures) is healthier than ever. Independent film is not dependent on one company or person. All that said, best of luck to Mr. Schamus & the new Focus in their future endeavors.

  • Terry | October 10, 2013 9:44 AM

    Sujewa,

    "Independent film... is healthier than ever." How is it healthy? Are you making a living as an independent filmmaker? Are your friends making a living at it? I'm only guessing, but I would bet that the answer is no. Shouldn't a paid career as a filmmaker be the goal, or should we be satisfied with scratching a little money together and getting into festivals? Is this the endgame? Don't we want to earn a living as filmmakers? Independent film has never been dependent on one company or person. That's why it became independent film. If anything, indie film is more reliant on several people today than it's ever been. Sure, more films are being seen today than ever before. And this is a good thing because...? The question is, who is seeing them? Mostly festival audiences. How many of these films are getting sold and reaching a wider audience? How are crowdfunding and VOD creating film careers?

    Again, it's time to decide what we want independent film to be. I'm really not here to argue the economics of film, they are clear. I'm only able to make a living as a filmmaker, because I don't rely on donors to finance my films, or on festivals to sell them. I sell directly to distributors and can only do this because I'm able to deliver a film they want, and up until now they've been my films, the ones I've wanted to make. I have no "parent" company and all of my financing has come strictly from equity investors, over 1,000 to date. I am entirely "independent", in the truest sense of the word. Sujewa, I don't possess any hidden secrets and if I've been able to operate a company for more than a decade, making the films I want to make and repeat the process, so can others. So can you.

  • endgame | October 4, 2013 11:42 AMReply

    The "mid-sized independent film", meaning a self-important, middle-brow Sundance movie with celebrities, which no audience outside Park City hungers to see, was largely the creation of Hope and Schamus.

    So, unwelcome though the news is, there's a sort of justice here. Besides, the demise of the studio art-house divisions had no effect, and this loss won't either: for the vast majority of filmmakers, DIY is the only choice today, and the rare indies which do attract actual financing are rarely worth the price of admission.

  • Terry | October 4, 2013 2:43 PM

    Endgame,

    "DIY is the only choice today, and the rare indies which do attract actual financing are rarely worth the price of admission."

    Maybe. If by DIY, you mean taking on the responsibility of finance, approaching investors and producing a film that has a legitimate shot at distribution, then yes. As far as whether or not a film is worth the price of admission, budget rarely has anything to do with this. We've all seen good and bad films made for a little and a lot of money.

    Celebrating the loss of a film company, any film company, that once had the ability to create jobs and pay film workers is never a good thing. It only makes it harder to convince film buyers that independent film is still a viable business model. It can be, but not when paying producers are put out of business by having to compete with micro-budgets, that rarely if ever pay those who work on them. Most DIY filmmakers under the definition I believe you're implying, have never had to answer to investors, and that's another post.

    The question is, what do we want independent film to be? Should it be a business, or a free-for-all affair where anyone with the latest gadget in his hands and access to a few donor dollars can call himself a filmmaker?

  • Emily | October 3, 2013 8:28 PMReply

    Terry-
    The innovation in the film business has never come from the financiers, it has almost always come fundamentally from the storytellers. The new web platforms are not places for filmmakers to "beg for money" but where they can go to build their audiences directly in order to circumvent: 1) an establishment with such a high barrier of entry that it has systematically disenfranchised the creative class 2) agreements that cut the creators out of any potential for back-end remuneration and 3) the need to have really rich friends/connections to even begin your career.
    Film festivals' mandate is to find what is good, not what is expensive. Unions have not caught up with the plummeting returns for films, which is driving filmmakers - who will continue to create no matter what the barriers - to shoot for very little and innovate everywhere they can.
    I do not want a future in which only wealthy white men get their films funded. Many investors and production companies are hanging back and watching crowdfunding campaigns' performance to decide whether to invest or not because a film investment should be based on a film's ability to reach an audience. There are more ways now than ever before to do that. Filmmakers have more tools available to them to demonstrate to investors that they're worthy, earlier in their careers.
    Crowdfunding is not begging, it's offering value for an experience (when done right). Distributors should be so lucky as to connect with filmmakers who have had great success in crowdfunding and can deliver the film to a built in audience of invested influencers.
    If anything, filmmakers have a lot to teach investors about where to find the good stuff.

  • Terry | October 4, 2013 1:11 AM

    Emily,

    I don't disagree that innovation comes from storytellers, not financiers. My experience has taught me, however, that equity investors, at least those who are qualified to make meaningful investments in film, want nothing to do with crowdfunding. It's a simple matter of not wanting to mix their money with donor money. I speak with investors every day and when they hear the word "crowdfunding", they equate it with amateur film making. An accredited investor needs to believe you can produce a film that has mainstream potential, and CF doesn't typically offer this opportunity. They're not "hanging back", they're just not interested. I'm talking strictly features here, not shorts or documentaries, which I believe can be well served by CF.

    You don't need friends/connections with money to start your film career. Over the last decade, I've raised over $20 million for my own films, four features to date, and I started my company with $2,000 in my pocket, pre-Internet and pre-Kickstarter. What's missing in the indie film community is the desire of filmmakers to learn finance, and specifically how to approach and speak with investors. Dollar for dollar, it's far less time consuming than crowdfunding, and it allows filmmakers to make the movie they really want to make. But again, investors aren't looking for an audition piece, they want a fully fledged feature film with all the bells and whistles, and this means union.

    My point about union vs non-union is this: Film festivals were once viable avenues for producers who create jobs and pay living wages to film workers to reach distributors, but the proliferation of films has made it difficult for these producers to stay in business. Indie film needs to remain a business if it's to survive over the long run, and going up against what I would describe as hobby films, those produced on shoestring budgets that are sometimes 1/100th the cost of a union-made film, has muddied the waters. Frankly, there are fewer than a dozen festivals that mean anything to a film's market value, leaving around 3,000 that don't mean anything at all. I don't rely on festivals to sell my films and if I did, I wouldn't still have a company. My average budget is $5 million, and for this I know that I can deliver a film that investors want and will pay for.

    I'm happy to share with you, or with anyone for that matter, what I've learned about film financing over the past 20 years, and you can visit a website I created for this very purpose at FilmNotes.net. You might be surprised to learn that the "high barrier of entry" isn't as high as most people believe it is. It comes down to the psychology of investing and understanding why and how investors make their investment decisions.

    Terry

  • Terry | October 3, 2013 3:24 PMReply

    Having raised equity financing for indie films for more than 20 years and continuing to successfully do so, this trend of companies packing up and leaving, if not folding altogether, which is typically the case, will continue as long as: 1) filmmakers are unwilling to take on the responsibility of finance and learn how to communicate with investors; 2) crowdfunding is used as a finance model for feature narratives [it needs to be limited to shorts, docs & webseries], and; 3) festival programmers and directors don't delineate between union-made films and non-union films when slating. If produced for little or nothing, filmmakers shouldn't expect their work to perform past the festival level, nor for distributors to pay.

    If we're not teaching aspiring filmmakers finance and all we do is send them to the latest website to beg for money, they will never become independent. The money is out there, but very few know how to secure it. This is where independent film is failing--in its inability to properly educate filmmakers.

  • randy | October 3, 2013 9:23 AMReply

    the future of the new york film scene is pretty bleak indeed...

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