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

by Anne Thompson
June 16, 2012 1:18 PM
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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.

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More: Festivals, Festivals


  • geraldine winters | June 19, 2012 9:24 AMReply

    Indies' and their unique visions and artful ingenuity are sorely needed to offset the cliched' recycled drab plot lines that are fed to the audience, studios promoting a product thinking FX makes up for a one note bore of a story! That is why only big action or kids cartoons are being seen. No one wants to see that dumb love story or half rate comedy and waste their time and $.

  • David Thrasher | June 19, 2012 12:10 AMReply

    Although I agree with Mr. McGurk that there is much about this digital revolution to give hope to independent producers, I did notice two issues that weren't addressed:

    Who exactly is going to control this new digital pipeline into movie theaters? If the only distributors with access to it are the same ones dominating traditional distribution on film, any potential opportunities may be only through them and any potential profits through the savings may be negated by the same sort of distribution fees that make it so hard for producers now.

    The other issue, as far as theatrical distribution is this: Distributors are still taking a very large percentage out of the gate receipts. 80% during the first week is typical. Exhibitors have been forced to make up the difference with increased concession prices. The combination of this with generally high ticket prices have caused most people to stay home and the trend has only continued over the years. When was the last time you saw a line in front of a theater for any movie - even the big tentpole franchises?

  • Clorine Jackson | June 18, 2012 2:44 AMReply

    Thanks for the speech Chris, it was good to hear you speak positively on the subject and I agree with you as one of the people who didn't want to go see "The Avengers", I like to see films like Scott Hicks "The Lucky One' here in Australia. I'm a writer and go to see Indie films when I can, and I hate it when I go into a cinema and see so many empty seats. I loved watching "Samson and Delilah" the aboriginal love story, and another I can't remember the name of about an elderly Black African tribesman who wanted to go back to school and get an education. It had soul! I also enjoyed Johnny Depp in "Dark Shadows" recently and I think it's good to have such diversity in cinemas. As a writer who is always struggling to get somewhere, it's good to know that you are of the opinion that Indie films are needed!

  • MA | June 17, 2012 6:42 PMReply

    Most indie filmmakers still won't have their films screened in traditional theaters. For those that will be able to that is wonferful but it's still a small share of the overall group. For most indie filmmakers their market is still home video where a lot of distributors are looking to take advantage. What digital distribution means is that indie filmmakers no longer need distributors when it comes to home video. They can do the final piece of the process for their film themselves. And in doing so avoid being ripped off financially and actually have gross sales that reflect the actual gross sales. Without being sold a bill of goods. #1 problem indie filmmakers face when distributing to home video - the honesty and integrity of many of the distributors.

  • Paul Bright | June 18, 2012 12:09 AM

    Bingo. Except as indie filmmakers we still can't access some of distribution outlets such as Netflix or iTunes without a distributor. I can manufacture the DVD (and do), I can put it on streaming sites, I can market the hell out of it. But I still need a distributor to reach most cable channels and wholesalers who put it in video stores.

  • JC | June 16, 2012 6:45 PMReply

    Finally. Someone "entrenched" in the industry (i.e., a suit) who isn't spreading fear. Refreshing, actually. And you know why? Every single doom & gloom prediction of the past few years has been absolutely WRONG, including Mark Gill's infamous comments 4 years ago. (At the same festival, in fact.)

    Indie film will never die, just as American ingenuity has never died (and will die).

    J. Courshon
    "THE SECRETS TO DISTRIBUTION: Get Your Movie Distributed Now!"

  • JoeS | June 16, 2012 6:19 PMReply

    It's great to be hopeful, but this speech oversells the effect Digital will have on the industry. A lot of these supposed advances are just new ways of selling old wine into a new digital bottle. And, to paraphrase Neil Young when he talked about music on CD's - this is the first time that a new generation of technology is of lesser quality than the one before. Digital is cheaper, but it still doesn't have the resolution of properly photographed and projected 35mm film.

  • Laurie Kirby | June 16, 2012 5:17 PMReply

    This is the best piece I have read on the state of cinema in a very long time. Kudos to Indiewire for posting it! And Chris, your kids are wrong. You are very cool!

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