I've been thinking about something Ted Hope said in last week's Sunday Times all week.
In John Clark's piece called "Survival Tips for the Aging Independent Filmmaker," Mr. Hope said, "Ten of 15 years ago you could make a film for $1 million and get a release. Specialized distribution has now become a science. They're not looking for singles."
Hope and glory
Mr. Clark continues the anaolgy: "Mr. Hope added that singles hitters like Hal Hartley ("The Unbelievable Truth") and Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Doll House") have also had a hard time because thier audiences have dropped away...They might be stars in the indie world, Mr. Hope said, but audiences just won't flock to a Jim Jarmusch film for an anomie fix or to a Solondz movie for a dose of discomfort (or disorientation.)"
It is worth noting that, on the same day in the Sports Pages, Murray Chass wrote a piece called "The Brains Behind the Low-Budget Hits" celebrating two of baseball's most strategic general managers, Billy Beane (Oakland A's) and Terry Ryan (Minnesota Twins). Both exercize smart, frugal management styles, because they work within the limited constraints of their small market budgets.
Billy Beane signs the "Big Hurt" for fish sticks and a ride to the ball park
Beane, who was the subject of Michael Lewis's best selling book "Moneyball" constantly finds ways to stay ahead of the curve.
"“The sort of team we put together is probably going to be dissimilar to others,” Beane said. “When everyone else is zigging, we’re going to zag.” But he added: “We changed dramatically over the last few years. People accused us of being a slow-pitch softball team: Get men on base and have someone hit a three-run homer. But we’ve become more defensive-oriented.”
For years, the Athletics emphasized on-base percentage and sought players other teams shunned.
... Because on-base percentage has become an in-vogue statistic, Beane said, the competition for these players has become stiff.
“People who have the highest on-base percentage are the highest-paid players in the league,” he said. “We can’t find it where it’s undervalued anymore. There are no bargains any more in that area.”
Instead, Beane said: “We have to find very good defensive players, and we put a good defensive team on the field."
A week later, it is worth nothing that Beane's evolving philosophy got him past the first round of the playoffs--something the bloated, overvalued Yankees failed to do.
Mike Mussina, star of the film "Word Play" faces a familiar eleven letter word "E-L-I-M-I-N-A-T-I-O-N "
To apply the philosophy of baseball's low-budget general managers to the world of independent film one must first recognize that the analogy is bound to break down.
Hope's assesment that distributors are not looking for singles hitters anymore reflects the inevitable outcome of th sometime independent entites absorbtion and consolodation into larger corporate structures.
Where once a carefully planned release yielding a modest profit--a single--would have satisfied the bottom line, now every release is treated as a perspective break-out. What Hope refers to as "science" is a formula for maximizing the returns when the iron strikes. Singles are not discouraged, but they are viewed as a disappointment. Where once upon a time, a film might have been allowed to find an audience, holding a screen for three or more weeks to allow word-of-mouth to develop, these days, its all about marketing for the opening weekend. If a film fails to perform, its one and done--let people discover it later on DVD, or On-Demand.)
(It should be noted that consistant performers always seem to find their way back to the plate for another at bat. While younger filmmakers, without baggage or a back catalogue, have a harder time funding their second and third projects.)
It is the cost of opening a film, and not the cost of producing a film, that makes it's opening grosses so crucial. (It's right there in the Times next to the articles: Half Page ads for "Little Children" and "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," etc...
Those distributors who have recognized that the rules of the game are changing, most notably, IFC First Take, Cuban/Wagner's 2929 or the folks at Emerging Pictures, are the companies best positioned to handle modestly budgeted, "singles." While a clear-cut model for success in this arena has yet to emerge, there is little doubt that this is the right path for smaller independent films.
It is the filmmakers themselves who must be willing to forfeit their own antiquated view of distribution-- a theatrical opening in NYC and LA, with ads and reviews in the Times is no longer the only way to open a specialty picture. The press and trades also need to embrace the vision that alternative opening methods whether On Demand, on the Web or Direct to DVD are not a ghetto way to release (dump) a film, but rather evolving methods for maximum return with a limited (marketing) budget.
To be truly independent, filmmakers should take a cue from Billy Beane and zag while everyone else is ziagging. They should seek the alternatives to a standard platform release, or suffer the fate of those who fail to evolve.