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Indie Future: Mechanic Offers Answers

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 29, 2009 at 10:21AM

Always one of the smarter players in Hollywood, ex-Fox studio chairman Bill Mechanic (now owner of the production company Pandemonium LLC) gave a keynote speech Tuesday morning on the future of the indies at the Independent Film & Television Alliance Production Conference. Is he looking for a job (there's a big opening at Disney, where he used to run home video)? Maybe.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Always one of the smarter players in Hollywood, ex-Fox studio chairman Bill Mechanic (now owner of the production company Pandemonium LLC) gave a keynote speech Tuesday morning on the future of the indies at the Independent Film & Television Alliance Production Conference. Is he looking for a job (there's a big opening at Disney, where he used to run home video)? Maybe.

In any case, his analysis of what's going on is strong. As always, Mechanic fights for the interesting, challenging and original over standard-issue formula fare:

It’s disrespectful if not downright dumb to think audiences can’t tell the difference between the original, which occasionally might even have some fresh faces, and the copy, which almost always is populated with retreads. It’s like thinking you can sell yesterday’s news under a different banner.

AND

While use of the internet and video games have dominated leisure time activities, movie consumption is down or flat over the same period. And, more to the point, you can see that there is a 21% drop in film going amongst the core target audience and a 24% drop in the next key category, 25-39 year olds.

And yes, these charts beg another question: if the audiences are shifting, why isn’t the product shifting as well. Name 5 mainstream films this year that successfully targeted an over-30 year audience. In that way, Hollywood in the broadest sense of the word is much like Detroit. It’s a manufacturer’s mentality that reigns, seemingly indifferent to the consumers it serves. Ignore whether the consumer likes our product as long as they buy it.

Market it and they will come.

The full text is on the jump.

I was asked to address you this morning with my observations on the present as well as the future state of Independent Production.

But before I begin, I have to relate the story of a close friend of mine, who’s a leading heart surgeon.

He said he’d recently been involved in a very trying and emotional six hour piece of open heart surgery where he and a team of people fought valiantly but unsuccessfully to save a patient.

Afterwards, my friend entered the Doctor’s locker room where one of his colleagues was staring absently into the void, clearly spent from the ordeal. He tried to cheer him up but the colleague turned to him and asked why he was not more distraught.

My friend answered with a smile:

At least we weren’t asked to save Independent Production.

Well, the truth be told, we may not be heart patients but we aren’t that far away. We have too many insignificant movies clogging our distribution channels. Tightening economic conditions are sending sharp pains through our systems. Our blood supply from heretofore vibrant markets such as DVD and TV seemingly have evaporated in front of our eyes.

The question we must as is if the condition is fatal.

In all candor I would say only to some.

Those who ignore the warning signs. Who don’t adjust to the threatening conditions. Those producers and distributors who pretend there is nothing wrong.

9 years ago, I was a healthy and occasionally happy studio executive. I had taken Fox over a 7 year period from a doormat to the #1 studio and before that had spent 9 years at Disney building a then-dormant minor player into a muscular and, for the first time in its history, a real force in the studio world. I left Fox with 5 of the Top 10 films in history and departed Disney with 19 of the Top 20 Videos ever and as the #1 International distributor.

I had fought with Rupert Murdoch over my desire to create a business for Fox in the world of animation. He felt no one could compete with Disney. Nevertheless I started up Fox Animation. ANASTASIA was a start, it made money. TITAN AE a misstep, and lost. Even though that is the nature of the business, that not everything works, he didn’t want to wait for ICE AGE to finish production. I didn’t have a foot out of the door before Fox tried to sell off the film. Luckily for them, they couldn’t get a deal done.

At the same time, Peter Chernin thought I was taking too much of a chance with X MEN. He called it my $70mm art film, since everyone knew that not only were comic book movies dead but you certainly couldn’t start one in a concentration camp. That wasn’t comic book fun. Maybe not, but most comic books are dark, so it was a question of being relevant, of being grounded.

Ironically, both films have lasted longer at Fox than I did and are now the most valuable franchises in the history of that studio, throwing off billions of dollars of profit.

But they also were, along with FIGHT CLUB, the leading reasons I was shown the door. My bosses couldn’t deal with the unconventional choices like those and others such as BRAVEHEART and THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY because the films weren’t pre-sold and thus seemed less predictable. This despite the fact that these unconventional movies guided Fox to the 5 best years in its history.

When I left, a few of the other Majors called to see if I were interested in running their shops. I thought instead it was time to do things on my own, to not work for companies that no longer wanted to be in the film business, that no longer thought enough about the future to not gum it up. Easier to raise money and worry only about making good movies which could make money.

Needless to say I was naïve. I thought raising money would be easy. I didn’t exactly foresee such things as the Silicon Valley bubble bursting, or the economic meltdown, or the Madof scandal. But then I guess the Captain of the Titanic thought the Atlantic was smooth sailing. And Batman thought the Joker would be a laugh.

When I first made the decision to go off on my own, Larry Gordon said to me something that I’ve never forgotten. He said running a studio is a great job but a terrible life. Producing is a great life but a terrible job.

9 years as an independent producer provides a great perspective. It also cause heart palpitations.

Here’s the one key thing I’ve learned: there is no such thing as an independent producer. There are only dependent producers.

Dependent on distributors, financiers, and bankers, and distribution channels that understand the needs of the market even less than the corporations that own the studios.

Which makes a truly independent producer even more truly dependent because the alternatives to the studio system are in many ways more difficult, not easier.

Perhaps even more than the studios, those with the controls over whether or not a movie gets made independent of the studios do so almost with less attention to the movie itself.

Part of that is due to outsiders who always seem to come into the business believing they can do better and yet rarely have an idea of what they are doing. Attorneys and financial analysts picking movies is a recipe for disaster. They can tell you all day long what hasn’t recently worked, but in truth, haven’t the experience or the knowledge to do anything different than has already been done.

That’s been the oddest lesson of this period for me. That the independent world, which should be aiming to do things better and different from the Studios, doesn’t have that as a mandate at all. If anything, the only thing that independent distributors and financiers look for is the SAME. Maybe costing a little less than the Majors, but they want what the Studios want, or in FIGHT CLUB speak, they want copies of a copy.

I now understand that unconventional choices like X MEN and ICE AGE would barely have a prayer getting made independently. Why? Because at the time, they didn’t look like anything else.

It’s disrespectful if not downright dumb to think audiences can’t tell the difference between the original, which occasionally might even have some fresh faces, and the copy, which almost always is populated with retreads. It’s like thinking you can sell yesterday’s news under a different banner.

The exception to the rule is DISTRICT 9, which didn’t try to compete with the Majors with special effects or stars or plot. Instead of feeling recycled, it was fresh and is now one of the year’s best and most successful pictures. But lot of credit has to go to Peter Jackson since it was undoubtedly his clout that got the film made.

Following the lead of the Majors, presumes that they know what they want. It presumes they have a fix on their audiences.

I would say that’s anything but true. Admissions are down over the past few years and, perhaps most troubling, the audience that Hollywood spends the majority of time focusing on, the under 25’s, are the ones finding other things to do.

Take a look at this shift over the past decade. While use of the internet and video games have dominated leisure time activities, movie consumption is down or flat over the same period. And, more to the point, you can see that there is a 21% drop in film going amongst the core target audience and a 24% drop in the next key category, 25-39 year olds.

And yes, these charts beg another question: if the audiences are shifting, why isn’t the product shifting as well. Name 5 mainstream films this year that successfully targeted an over-30 year audience.

In that way, Hollywood in the broadest sense of the word is much like Detroit. It’s a manufacturer’s mentality that reigns, seemingly indifferent to the consumers it serves. Ignore whether the consumer likes our product as long as they buy it.

Market it and they will come.

And don’t worry if they don’t come back. Accept 60% drop off rates as the norm, saying it’s all about wide openings.

3 years ago the Lakers all-but sold out every game even though they had a lousy team. Since Jerry Buss is a smart owner, he knew if he didn’t fix things, no shows would eventually turn into season ticket non-renewals. He did what he needed to do to make it the hottest ticket in town again and a no-show today is a no-no.

When was the last time you heard anyone either from a studio or an independent talking about improving their product, of creating positive buzz and expanding the audience?

Here’s one basic question to ask yourself: If the most popular film in history was TITANIC and it did so by weaving together interest in all demographic pockets as well as pulling in non-film goers, why in the last 12 years has no attempted to do the same?

TITANIC was #1 at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks. It not only spurred on record year in theatrical attendance, and had the biggest video in history, but also generated the biggest Oscar telecast in years. A good movie, like a good team in sports, makes everything around it better.

An independent couldn’t and shouldn’t make movies of that scale but it should make movies as individualistic and compelling. Certainly there are good examples among some of the smaller independent films---SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE being an easy choice—that actually do stand out and succeed because of their quality and their uniqueness.

But as you can see from these next few charts, the independent world was no more concerned with the consumer than the studios. With the influx of hedge fund money, the past decade saw a glutting of product, again most of it with no idea of who it was for or how it could be sold. Whether some of these movies had artistic integrity or not, there is no question there was no audience appeal.

From the low water mark of 1990, there has been a 50% increase in the number of pictures and even since 2000, nearly a 25% increase. And most of the influx came from non-Majors, rising from 150 in 1990 to 450 in 2008. That, my friends, is insanity.

Remember that through this entire period, the only growth at the box office has been inflationary, which means more films were fighting for a share of a flat box office. Over approximately this same period, the biggest hits took even a greater share of the box office pie, meaning the independents, even with a vastly greater number of releases, are taking a dramatically smaller percentage of the available money.

Let me get out the rest of the bad news, though I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. The next 2-3 years will be even worse, not because of the flood of new releases, since that is already abating, but rather due to the effect the over saturation has had combined with the economic downturn.

New money is going to be hard, if not impossible to find. Ad sales are down, so TV networks around the world, other than cable, aren’t buying. Add in a confused video market, and it’s going to be tough.

To my mind, the next few years will be about survival.

If it’s any consolation, it will be harder on the Studios than the independents. Not only is it harder for big companies to change, to adapt, but there are legacy issues in terms of personnel. And within the next few years, their big market advantage, the bricks and mortar of their distribution operations, will become a disadvantage in the democratic age of digital. I would assume at least 2 of the Majors to be sold or consolidated by the middle of the decade.

Before I turn to why I don’t think this is all fatal—and in fact, might be a boon—let me address one more item, video. I get asked a lot if the problems are systemic. My answer is not necessarily. That we would reach a point of maturation in DVD is natural and logical, but too much of the downturn is completely self-imposed.

Like much of the bad decision making that has helped take a lot of the profit out of the business, the air was let out of the tires by the studios themselves. No top management of a studio really cared what was going on over the past few years other than was their budget being met.

No one asked whether their units should be pushing Blu-Ray in the face of an economic melt-down or even whether or not Blu-Ray was going to be the next big ap to the general consumer. They simply accepted the idea that they could resell their libraries at higher prices.

So no one asked what impact dropping the price on their existing DVD’s would have. I mean if I can buy TITANIC for under $5 in some stores, why am I so eager then to rush out to pay $30 or so when it’s released on Blu Ray? Is the quality difference that great? How many formats are yet to come?

No one asked what buying great movies at cheap prices would do to new releases, which may not be as great. Give a consumer with less expendable dollars a choice between LEGALLY BLONDE for $5 or ALL ABOUT STEVE for $20 or $30, which do I want to buy?

Simply said, the studios have destroyed the price-value relationship in video, particularly when low priced rental alternatives have sprung up everywhere.

And then add in the absolute flooding of TV product from the beginning of time into the market, and you have the conditions that have absolutely killed video as the key profit center of new movies.

Ok, so in the face of all this, why can I say this is all good news? Because a lot of waste is going to be cleared from the marketplace. Excess product will go away, the people who don’t take the business seriously will go away. Hopefully those who make crummy movies will also go away, but that may just be a personal wish.

In 1984, I went with Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg to Disney as perhaps the 4th employee of the new regime. Disney at the time was barely a film producer much less a major distributor. Before we could execute the plans to transform that company into one of the Majors, I was asked to prepare the presentation to the Board of Directors. A lot of capital was at stake.

The numbers, like some of those we’ve discussed today, were overwhelmingly negative. In truth, the film business has never been an easy one to master. More companies fail than succeed. But what I presented, and this is still one of the absolute truths of the industry, was that it was only a bad business on average. If you expect to be an average performer in this world, you can expect to fail.

Those without the ambition or the brains to figure their way through these tough economic conditions are going to be the heart patients who cannot be saved. No one has a birthright in this business.

It is a game for winners. And those who win today will win to an even greater extent than at almost any point in the past. The flattening of the box office is only true on a macro level. For the individual film, the sky is the limit. Even though there’s more piracy of the hit picture than any other, it’s still that same hit picture that can score giant revenues in all the ancillary streams.

Those who will win will be smart about what they make and how they sell their films. They will hopefully make good films but perhaps even more key they will make unique films that stand out, which means they will not have to compete against the bulk of the films for talent. They won’t look like all the other films so they won’t have to spend as much money marketing them.

It’s not that the buyers aren’t there. Consumers, TV outlets, Retailers and, yes, even Pirates want what works.

Don’t believe me? Ask Summit about TWILIGHT. Ask Searchlight about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Ask Screen Gems about DISTRICT 9. Ask Focus about CORALINE.

Let me conclude by saying that the challenges are great. Technological innovations often hurt before they help, it takes resources to fight the sense of entitlement that breeds piracy, it takes skill and experience to know what FDR really meant when he said: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

This article is related to: Independents, Indies, DVDs


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