By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 27, 2009 at 4:58AM
I came to New York to help moderate a Friday afternoon Indie Summit organized by MoMA's Rajendra Roy, IndieWIRE and Marian Koltai-Levine of Zipline Entertainment, one of several new companies that have sprung up to help indie filmmakers release their movies. That's a sign of the "indie crisis" that has emerged over the last year or so, as indie distributors have cut back and the ones that survive are far from secure. (Harvey Weinstein and Miramax's Daniel Battsek were no-shows.) IndieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez and I sat on opposite sides of the Founder's Room, which looked like something out of the U.N., with a square of facing tables and floating mikes.
MoMA director Glenn Lowry made a brief appearance at the start, making a point of the museum's avid support for film since 1938 (take that, LACMA). SnagFilms/IndieWIRE CEO Rick Allen recognized, he said, "the fragility inherent in the notion of independent, no more fragile than now." He asked the packed room of about 60 people to consider where money was coming to make films, with equity leaving the market. Where were the evangelists going to come from for indie films, with newspapers fading and critics losing their jobs? How was the distribution bottleneck going to be resolved? How were declining DVD sales going to impact the market for films? All these issues and more were hashed out over the next two and a half hours on Friday. And emotions were, at certain points, running high.
The two polarizing issues were: how do we make money, and how can we protect passion and content? Some answers: costs have to come down. New ways of reaching audiences (social networking, for one) and new economic models will come. (Cinetic Media is launching its Full Buff service, making films available via cable VOD in the home, allowing filmmakers to communicate directly with the audience.) Don't look to the studios for answers. And reclaim the spark of creative independence. Ornery Robert Altman was cited as a model fearless indie filmmaker. Not a bad icon to keep in mind.
Ex-New Line Cinema exec Michael Lynne, partnered again with Bob Shaye at their new shingle Unique Features, started off by reminding the group of New Line Cinema, which was once the oldest, most powerful indie, but became a victim of its own success after it was swallowed up by Ted Turner's empire, and then, Warner Bros. In order to stay indie, Lynne advised, it's better not to be bought by a studio, even if you gain resources. Looking back on the 80s boom, fueled by plenty of capital and debt, he sees no indies left among those companies. "None is truly independent now," he said.
[Photo: Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard and MoMA film curator Larry Kardish; Ira Deutchman, Ted Hope, Michael Lynne, and James Schamus. Apologies for the lousy interior photography.]
Now, there's less funding for the production and release of movies in general, not just in the indie sector, Lynne said. The tough economy may be helping your favorite theater, but it won't help the DVD sector. People will head toward safer escapist product instead of making thoughtful challenging movies that capture the imagination. While the studios head for tentpoles, he sees hope in the long tail future of niche movies available digitally on computer, on video, on demand, ordered up by audiences directly.
While Lynne prepared remarks, the rest of the discussion was on background, although I got permission to quote a few folks. As the two studio buyers in the room, Focus Features' James Schamus and Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard were the focus of much of the discussion. Focus, for example, is sticking with MPAA anti-piracy protocols and DCI compliance when it comes to booking films at digital cinemas--although many theaters are adopting less expensive options.
There was a strong sense of how difficult things are for indie producers, who are having to work harder and for less reward. There were conflicting POVs in the room: some think that indie producers and filmmakers shouldn't expect to make money. On the other hand, there should be ways to guarantee that they do get their fair share of the take--even going forward into the digital download future--instead of always being the ones who give up their back end to get films made. Distributors live off the carcasses of our investors and ourselves, said one indieprod, citing France as a place where filmmakers get a piece of every download.
This is That's Ted Hope, who started his own screening series to showcase films that aren't getting distributed via conventional means, said he's been talking a lot of filmmakers off the ledge, all struggling to survive. He cited the following extraordinary statistic: of the 60 movies he's made, only five returned on the back end. Content isn't the issue. He could name 18 young filmmakers who will go on to do good work, he said.
Not surprisingly, sellers in the room struck a more positive note. There's nothing to explain the shock in the specialty studio acquisitions market, said one lawyer, based on market indicators. DVD rentals should compensate for the decrease in DVD sales. Theatrical numbers are robust, pay deals, though receding slowly, still exist. Clearly, the irrational need to bid high at a festival has been replaced with a slower, more thoughtful approach based on checking out all the films and then deciding which ones to buy later on. The pattern of the past few festivals has become a slower trickle of smaller deals culminating after the festival.
Schamus downplayed the so-called crisis, insisting that basically, entitled white guys are not skimming as much money off movies as they used to. People were flipping companies. Over the past decade, distributors were contributing to insanely inflated buys. With the drop in DVDs, there are fewer resources on hand. "There are plenty of good movies out there," he said. "I go to festivals and see movies that I hope will get acquired. There's a renaissance creatively. But turning filmmakers into distributors seems like a mixed bag idea." Except that Focus isn't in the business of buying films; they mainly make their own. And after paying $10-million for Hamlet 2, the comedy's disappointing b.o. didn't dissuade them from that policy.
SPC, IFC and Magnolia are the ones buying movies. Some complaints were raised about how little the distribs pay now, and the fact that foreign filmmakers' work is often subsidized, so they can afford these deals in a way that American indies cannot. IFC insisted that their filmmakers do, indeed, make money.
Tribeca Enterprises' Geoff Gilmore argued passionately that "the magic" has gone out of much of the films he saw in Toronto. He argued on behalf of the filmmakers and quality content. "I don't find that freshness right now." Filmmakers are leaning on genres, "formulas for independent film are almost predictable," he said. "Talent for storytelling in small films can't find their way into the marketplace because of the way the economy is restricted and the higher level of profit expected from a larger budget film." He argued for cross-fertilization between North America and the world.
One filmmaker argued that folks got spoiled by the studios, and should stop relying on them. Filmmakers need to reconnect with that "what is independent?" feeling, reduce their scale. The magic left because people became part of the system. Reinvention is in order. Another filmmaker insisted that his film get a theatrical release rather than VOD. Engaging critics is key, he said, throwing a movie into the cultural mosh pit. No independent film will succeed without critical support. Critics are undervalued, he argued.
Another doc producer said that audiences are gravitating to HBO and cable, which are often of higher quality than indie film. One producer said that selling films like product on the internet is the future: aligning with ad networks and social networks.
As for reaching the younger generation, education on distribution skills is key, said Tom Bernard. "Filmmakers need to educate themselves to take advantage of the avenues available to them to get their films into the marketplace. They must be empowered to make the correct decisions to steer their films to the best place for them to succeed and there are many more options today than in the past."
And instead of trying to go back to what was comfortable before--the point was made that most of the summit attendees were over 40--the indie community needs to see the changing consumer differently. They will see a movie in a living room with 5 friends, in a rec hall with 70 people, or in a cineplex with 500. Give up on persuading the consumer to stick with windows, and adapt to what they want. Instead, build from, how does the audience work?
A new piece in the distribution puzzle could be Epix, the new HD television channel and online streaming service launching next month from Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, MGM and Paramount, with product from Goldwyn. These studios are opting out of the old pay-TV window--the other studios are still collecting millions from Starz, HBO, and Showtime. (Until they expire.) Epix is buying some films, licensing others, accessing pictures earlier, supplying behind-the-scenes set interviews, giving consumers on-demand movies on the computer, cell phone, TV. They hope to engage a younger demo with their website. They'll have 3000 titles--only Netflix has so many. They bought The Cove and plan to buy more docs.
It looks like we'll be seeing more of this kind of discussion and more focused debate going forward, as everyone tries to figure out what the hell is going on.
[Photo: Cinetic Media's John Sloss and Unique Features' Michael Lynne.]