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LAFF Keynote Speaker Cinedigm CEO Chris McGurk: Production and Distribution Revolution

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 16, 2012 at 1:18PM

Continuing an honorable tradition, CInedigm Chairman and CEO Chris McGurk, who has been around the block a few times, from Disney/Miramax and Universal to MGM/United Artists and Overture Films, gave the Los Angeles Film Festival State of the Independents keynote speech Saturday morning. He sees this year as a watershed transition to digital: we are in the middle of a production and distribution revolution, he says.
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Chris McGurk
Chris McGurk

Continuing an honorable tradition, CInedigm Chairman and CEO Chris McGurk, who has been around the block a few times, from Disney/Miramax and Universal to MGM/United Artists and Overture Films, gave the Los Angeles Film Festival State of the Independents keynote speech Saturday morning. He sees this year as a watershed transition to digital: we are in the middle of a production and distribution revolution, he says.

It is pasted in full below.

Good morning. I want to especially thank Sean McManus and Josh Welsh, the co-presidents of Film Independent, for inviting me to speak here today.

I want to thank Sean and Josh … but I really don’t know if I can.

You see, in preparing for this talk, I read through the keynotes that were delivered at the last few Festivals. When I was done, I felt like I wanted to shoot myself. Virtually all of those keynotes were so depressing that, to cheer myself up, I threw on a DVD of “Cries and Whispers.”

Each of the previous speakers pretty much said that the world of independent film was coming to an end. One noted indie producer who keynoted a couple of years ago literally stated, and I quote: “The sky really is falling.”

He went on to say:  “The accumulation of bad news is kind of awe-inspiring.”

So, Sean and Josh, I’m not really so sure I can thank you for inviting me to speak at this historically rather glum keynote session.

Of course, the LA Film Festival is hardly unique in hearing such messages of doom about the film industry. If you listen to a lot of the so-called experts, you will be convinced the end is nigh.

In this regard, these negativists are actually following in one of the grand traditions of the movie business. For 100 years, Hollywood has thrived to such an extent that today Entertainment is America’s second greatest export. But, throughout this century of success, the only thing Hollywood has done better than building an industry is predicting its imminent demise.

Back in the 1920s, Mary Pickford prophesized that “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.”

In the 1950s, film executives were certain that television was going to destroy motion pictures.

Two decades later, in one of history’s great ironies, Disney and Universal sued Sony Electronics in an attempt to stop home video from becoming a reality. Luckily for the studios, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sony.

The resistance to home video was still so great that, by 1989, Disney was planning to put “The Little Mermaid” back into the vault for seven years before ever releasing it onto VHS. Talk about a long window!

I was Disney’s CFO at the time and had to argue long and hard to put “Mermaid” on video the following year. This decision helped fuel a complete resurrection of the art and commerce of animation, with “Beauty & the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Toy Story” and so many more great animated titles that followed.

And now, the naysayers are again foreseeing disaster. They list a wide range of disturbing trends, such as:
•    The competition from entertainment in the home and on mobile devices.
•    The drastic reduction in the number of independent studios because many have gone out of business while at the same time the big studios have shuttered their indie units.
•    And, most troubling of all, there’s the decline in the DVD business, which has hurt indie films particularly hard.

Like the prophets of old, these doomsdayers seem to be proclaiming the Seven Signs of the coming Indie Apocalypse.

To be sure, the issues they raise are legitimate. But, just as industry observers have done so many times before, I believe they are letting some recently overturned trees obscure the view of a cinematic forest that is filled with opportunities.

So today, I’m not going to be another speaker who talks about the ruination of the independent film business. Rather, I’m going to talk about what I see as the Seven Signs of its Renaissance.

With this in mind, if you’re one of those people who has the latest Mayan Calendar app on your smart phone and believe it’s all over this December 21st, then it might be more to your liking to head around the corner and take in a screening of “Chernobyl Diaries.”

But before I deliver this message of hope, I should give you some of my background. I believe it will help assure you that, while I may be up here interpreting signs, I’m a pretty grounded guy. Indeed, no one would ever mistake me for a Pollyanna.

I’ve spent the last 25 years in virtually every aspect of the entertainment business. I’ve been involved in financing, marketing and globally releasing entertainment projects as diverse as big budget blockbusters, low-budget films, social action documentaries, horror pictures, and network and syndicated TV series.  

In doing all this, I’ve had a pretty unusual career, since I’ve seen the film business from BOTH the big budget studio side and the indie side.  I was President of Walt Disney Studios, President and COO of Universal Pictures, Vice Chairman of the Board and COO of MGM.  And, I’ve also run or been responsible for overseeing Miramax, October Films, the indie version of United Artists, Overture and Anchor Bay.  

In all these roles, I do admit I’m a tailor-made candidate for what you might call a corporate suit, with a pretty cold eye toward the bottom line.  

That’s certainly my reputation:

Just look at how Peter Biskin described me in DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES, his 2004 treatise on the indie film business: -quote- “McGurk had been an executive at Pepsico before coming to Disney, and he was a numbers guy, almost the definition of a suit, with a Grant Wood face, long and narrow, thin lips. He looked like he belonged behind the counter of a dry goods store in Nebraska at the turn of the century.”

Let’s just say that those two sentences wiped out years of effort on my part to convince my three kids that their Dad was cool.

This article is related to: Festivals, Festivals


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.