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Guest Post: Mike Ryan on "Let's Celebrate The 'Collapse' Of The Indie Film Bubble"

by Ted Hope
April 27, 2011 5:29 AM
14 Comments
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Is it necessary to earn a "good" living creating ambitious work? Should it be enough just to get the opportunity, to hear the calling, of making films outside of the mainstream commercial industry? Can we ever give enough thanks and appreciation that we don't have to weld, lift, push paper, or aid in the killing of civilians and instead can inspire, instill hope, develop empathy in others? I struggle with this, as you know, and am thankful that friends and collaborators like producer Mike Ryan join in this discussion, as he does below.


dylan baker and lauren ambrose in "THINK OF ME" currently in post production

Ted, We've talked about this before, you seem to refuse to accept that the "collapse" of the indie film bubble was a good thing. It actually for me is a cause of celebration and has actually renewed my love of the fiction feature drama.

The years between Clerks and Hamlet 2, though they also produced many great films like American Splendor and Old Joy, were years in which corporate aesthetics undermined the whole indie film medium. Now that the profit mongers have left the space we are seeing less twee crap like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. AS for the issue of making a living from non corporate sponsored art...what would Ida Lupino, John Cassavettes, Kenneth Anger and Oscar Michieux say? They struggled their whole careers, they are my indie godfathers , not the grab the cash and run to Hollywood soulless hacks which Sundance produced in those 'glory' years.

The struggle for financial stability is a given in all arts in which you are attempting to speak honestly in a manner that is in opposition to corporate "popular" commonly accepted aesthetics or themes. I talk about our 'troubles' to my friends in the Jazz industry and they raise an eyebrow and say 'welcome to the real world". There are living Jazz legends who produce masterpieces throughout their life for whom financial struggle is just part of everyday existence. The record label owners, the club owners, the artist reps, in jazz they all struggle , not to make profit, but to get by financially so they can continue to work in the field.

Success is being able to do the job full time. AS for what one might need to live then it sounds like you are comparing your yearly income needs to what you got in the 'old days'. I look at what my family members make as public school teachers, cops and social workers, in NYC, and I cannot complain. In fact if I were to complain I would talk about the ridiculously low pay NYC cops and teachers get, and their job is way more important and harder than mine. So, I don 't compare my income level to what someone made from films five years ago, I compare my self to what friends in the Jazz, Dance and teaching fields make. I think we all need to face the reality that film was once the popular equivalent to rock and roll medium and now it is more equivalent to jazz. Consequently if you can't commit to the vow of poverty that those fields require then your expectations are unreasonable and out of line with the whole purpose of 'truly free film'.

Mike S Ryan has produced 14 films in the past seven years. He currently has Kelly Reichardt's MEEKS CUTOFF in theaters and Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime is about to be released on DVD. Last year he shot two films, LOSERS TAKE ALL and THINK OF ME that stars Lauren Ambrose, Dylan Baker and Penelope Anne Miller. He is currently in preproduction on two films that are about to start
shooting in May.

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14 Comments

  • Hank Blumenthal | April 30, 2011 3:30 AMReply

    Ted and Mike, it seems you are mixing apples and oranges, and then throwing peas and carrots. What living, where, and who? What indie bubble (Ted, seriously - when has the word "nearly impossible" not applied to producing indies?)

    First off lets look at above and below the line workers since you seem to mix all job categories. Below the line union people are struggling with the evolution of the industry but I think you are talking about non union (indie)people - who are by definition surplus labor and weaken the ability for unions to balance supply and demand with fair wages and a reasonable income.

    Entertainment is burdened by a vast oversupply of creative workers. This devalues labor and severely reduces compensation.Because of this we can make no-budget films with "deferred payment."

    Secondly, what about above the line? Here I think Mike's metaphor of jazz is well suited - but I think the metaphor of the music business is stronger. If you make music you can't expect to make a living regardless of skill, genre, or audience. Different musical styles have different economic incentives and the market ruthlessly balances compensation with demand. This is the way we should look at the film business. There are popular and rich genres (Hollywood and pop) and narrow and poor genres(indie film and jazz.)

    You are also mixing critical judgement (what films are "good" and "bad") with economic judgement (what is a "good" job.) Like all of the arts, film is loaded with huge economic uncertainties for those who chose it as a profession.

    So for all of you below the line, its a sucky business that changes rapidly - but you knew that right? And for everyone above the line you are an artist so suck it up - you do this for passion, creation, and because all the obstacles in the world can't stop you.

    We are all damn lucky to be in a time when you can make features for 25K and there is a huge distribution network to release our films internationally. There are even more indie film jobs giving seminars and degrees, doing VOD day and date, and profiting handsomely from the surplus labor of indie vision. And the entertainment business as a whole is tumultuous but offers many more jobs after indie training.

    I don't agree with Mike that corporate aesthetics undermined the indie world but I think he is exactly right in returning our attention to aesthetics. It is time to shift the emphasis of the discussion from compensation, marketing, branding,and fundraising towards the artistic practice of the media. I am so sick of the PR and marketing talk and whining about a " good living." Let's turn this conversation towards where the real value lies - the CREATIVE producer. and the aesthetics of producing indie films.

  • Dan Therriault | April 28, 2011 11:54 AMReply

    I find it somewhat ironic that there have been more and more comments, most recently by Christine Vachon for instance, that indie filmmakers are moving into television. And that television is risk-taking. This migration has been happening for awhile. Christine said when she grew up, TV was looked down upon. (TV is still condescended to by many feature people). We writers who work in television were here writing when we were looked down upon. I write mainly for HBO. Filmmakers not able to make a living coincidentally are finding TV aesthetically attractive. And they are bringing with them, at times, directors who have a habit (just some of them) of seeing writers as kind of, I don't know, like secretaries or something. They do not see stories driven by the writing and writers. But look, we all need to find different avenues to challenge ourselves and struggling with different forms is fascinating. About the risk-taking of television. Be patient. The grass is always greener. There is no indie television. Every network is a corporation.

  • unsolicited_arbitrage | April 28, 2011 8:40 AMReply

    This level of anger, at everyone and everything, is maybe to be expected when a traditionally merit-based endeavor like the arts proves to be anything but. A genuine and rigorous selection process would likely eliminate all the whiners here as well, but it's still going to be deeply frustrating to see who prospers in the medium and what kind of films get made and promoted, during the bubble and after. Meanwhile, poor old you gets nowhere. This won't do much for anyone's temper.

    And folks, rightly or wrongly, look to producers and blame producers. During the Good Machine heyday, we had either Ted or James Schamus (forget which) proclaiming more than once that Good Machine wasn't the NEA, wasn't in the business of art philanthropy, and had no obligation to fund art films for their own holy sake.

    If the tune has changed now, with more claims of virtue, maybe skepticism is in order. It's one thing to argue you're engaged in a sustainable business and have every right to seek to support your family in the style to which it's accustomed, and quite another to insist you're making great films, when few others think so or find much in the way of virtue in your choices.

  • Diana Mia Cevallos | April 28, 2011 4:12 AMReply

    Mike knows what's up. And you know Ted does. I love this blog even more because Ted published this entry, despite what might have come across as a 'lil jab to TFF from Mike (which it was not). Thanks Ted for being a level headed badass with bonuses!

  • SD | April 28, 2011 1:43 AMReply

    Mike, you must not be Jewish. We Jews consider making money a duty to our families, and the ability to do so a gift from God. There is certainly no shame in being rich, and making a financially successful film does not make you a sell-out.

    I made a critically successful film that lost a lot of money. I'm not ashamed that it lost money, but I'm not going to let it happen again. As producers, it's our duty to try to make money for our investors. We're not lonely jazz musicians living out of a suitcase.

    Mike, I'm going to give you an assignment. Find a copy of "The Idiot's Guide to Understanding Judaism," and read about the Jewish attitude toward money. You might find it liberating!

  • tom | April 28, 2011 1:29 AMReply

    Great post, Mike. Thanks for continuing the dialog, Ted. Lots of anger in these comments and I'm not sure why. The reality is that very few will make a living and that one person's standard of living and requirements to meet that differs from the next. I'm sure x dollars can get my by in Philadelphia, but not NYC (and to date, I have not made x dollars from a film I've directed). I'm keep looking for a model to stay in the game, although I know I've already found it: use your resources, live modestly, and don't use pie in the sky expectations as excuses or barriers. The second piece of this is that everyone has different responsibilities (I may have done the starving artist thing while single, but now I have a mortgage and we want to have some kids) and those have to factor in somehow. There is no universal answer I guess, but we just need to find a way to be "Makers." Jem Cohen is someone I've always had huge respect for because he shoots on 8mm, super 8, HD, 16, 35mm - whatever he can get his hands on and his projects often take shape over time.

  • Ron Merk | April 28, 2011 1:26 AMReply

    I've made a good living in the film industry for nearly four decades, and can't complain, except about the last five years. Last Sunday I attended the State of Cinema address given by Christine Vachon at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it was very clear from her comments and from the questions of the audience that the film industry has undergone drastic changes in its economics, none of which bodes well for those of us who consider ourselves professional filmmakers (those without day jobs to support our filmmaking). Frankly, If I have to get a day job to continue making films, I really have to see that it's no longer a profession, it's a hobby. It started as a hobby when I was 7 years old making films with my friends and an 8mm silent movie camera in Newark, New Jersey. If Mike is suggesting that I should go back to that, hmmm...I have three words for the new model (although in New Jersey they're pronounced as one word) fuggettaboutit. As for Christine's comments at her speech, it was pretty clear that she saw the "new model" as one that had not quite made itself clear. So, when it's a little more clear, maybe we can revisit this topic, and the idea that real filmmakers, even those "gifted with vision" and "doing passion projects" should really get paid a decent wage, and give up the day job. Personally, I don't see things improving in the near future, and I, like Christine, am moving into television with a new series I created, called "Cocktails."
    Cutting edge, innovative work is being done, more and more, on television. As for the wild west of digital "portals," I really don't see them as the salvation of indie filmmakers. We heard the same story at the beginning of cable TV, and then in no time at all, these "specialty channels" succumbed to the advertiser and network model of all other channels before them, and were taken over by the mega-corporations who run the media. If you think the portals are safe from this threat, think again.

  • Ted Hope | April 27, 2011 12:24 PMReply

    Hey Kris, I am sure the movies you've poured you heart and soul into are of a quality that supports the endeavor. I also recognize how much fun people have taking out their frustrations on others.
    I also know Mike well -- and know you clearly don't -- and know his films too. Perhaps you should check them out. They have won awards at all the top festivals, secured distribution by major companies, got Oscar noms. and made money for their investors. They have been made with an economy of means and tremendous ambition. The director, cast, crew, financiers, and vendors all know Mike looked out for them. Can you claim any of that with your two films? I hope so, and if not, maybe one day.
    One can only wish that what you call "crap" like Mike's was the norm for other frustrated and struggling filmmakers. The world and film industry would be a better place if that was so. Consider maybe what you could build if you encouraged collaboration and community instead of the approach you are currently taking. #JustSaying & my two cents.

  • The Voice of Reality | April 27, 2011 12:23 PMReply

    Christ, are these posts masturbatory. One of you is crying that you can't be paid big money for niche product like you used to. One of you is saying that indie film should never have been anything other than the particular thing you specialize in.

    I respect your work a lot, both of you. But Mr. Ryan, I can practically hear your stroking yourself while comparing film to jazz (and you should mean indie film, not all film) and talking about your public servant relatives. And Ted, you made your money before the industry completely changed and have spent the last few years as Indie Film Producer Emeritus and crying that the sky is falling. Enough already.

    I especially liked the part where you said, "Don't get me wrong, some great movies have been made, like one I made and one Ted made." Ugh.

  • Jason @ Filmmaking Stuff | April 27, 2011 10:21 AMReply

    I think you should just make the types of movies you want to make and not seek validation from anybody, except maybe your desired target audience.

    I don't know much about the collapse of independent filmmaking - In my own filmmaking, I just know that some of my titles sold better than other titles. And each movie provided me the opportunity to improve.

    The important thing here is to keep pushing forward and keep making movies. Look at each title like rental real estate. Each is an asset that should be out there, working for you.

    Jason

    http://www.Filmmakingstuff.com

  • Terracino | April 27, 2011 9:40 AMReply

    @Kris: Whoa. That's really extreme.

  • kris | April 27, 2011 8:39 AMReply

    I think your full of crap. As an indie producer director myself also actually struggling financially I can honestly say I think your a total hypocrite. If your banging out on average 2 plus "movies" a year you're no better than the corporations.

    In order to release that many you have to be far more concerned with quantity over quality. Your a two bit assembly line pumping out obscure film after obscure film for the pay check.

    Put your heart and soul into each film and I promise you won't be issuing crap every 6 months. Your the example of why the word indie has become a taboo word that people associate with shit. All your doing is flooding the market with garbage. Most probably lose investors money but your getting a fat check up front for each one so what do you care.

    Keep portraying yourself as a "struggling artist" you're a soulless assembly line of garbage just like the studios.

  • Terracino | April 27, 2011 8:16 AMReply

    The gist of what he is saying is true: ideally filmmakers should be in this to make great work, not gobs of money. But there is an arrogance and an aloofness to this piece: He is wearing poverty and failure to attract an audience as a badge of honor. How different is that from bragging about selling your film for a small fortune? And why is something that made no money and went unseen inherently "good" -- and the very popular "Juno" inherently "bad"? Get what I mean?

  • Jacques Thelemaque | April 27, 2011 7:25 AMReply

    I like Mike's take on this and he usually has good things to say. Gonna repost...as usual :)!

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