Toronto Wrap: Indie Bloodbath

by Anne Thompson
September 19, 2009 9:09 AM
17 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
If industry-watchers didn't see it coming, they figured it out at this year's Toronto Film Festival.

The old independent market is over. A new one will take its place. But we are smack in the middle between the end of one paradigm and the start of another, and it's a scary place indeed. Producer Ted Hope is trying to rally the indie film community to take action to save itself.

If nobody knew anything before, they know even less now. The one sure thing is that moviemakers will now PAY to get their films released. The few remaining distributors can sit back and wait for movies to drop in their laps, often with P & A funds attached. All hopes of a hot sale at a festivals were dashed this year. Even Get Low, one of the hottest titles with Oscar-worthy performances on display, was still waiting at fest's end for distributors to see it and place a reasonable bid. (As of Friday, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia, Goldwyn were in the hunt.) Ex-ThinkFilm exec Mark Urman's new service distribution company Paladin is well-positioned to take on releasing chores on high-quality films that can't get arrested these days. There will be more than enough business to go around for the likes of Paladin and Abramorama Films (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) . Roadside Attractions and Apparition, with its relationship with Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group, are also taking on service deals.

I saw one movie after another that was unreleasable in the current climate. As lovely as many of them were, they weren't commercial enough. (Anthony Kaufman, Todd McCarthy and Karina Longworth weigh in.) It costs too much money these days to make a dent, a mark, an impression that will create enough urgency in filmgoers to make them go out and see a movie. While Ted Mundorff insists that business is up at indie-branded Landmark Cinemas around the country, and Apparition's Bob Berney is hopeful that exec changes at Cinemark and AMC will bring a new awareness to booking the right movies in the right locations, the indie market needs help. "Movies that rise above like A Single Man or Bright Star will have a theatrical life for quite a while," insists Berney. "For financial reasons, not enough good films were for sale for buyers. A lot of films were misses. If a film is not really special, there is no in between. It will not get a theatrical release. If it's a half-way movie, audiences will skip it and watch it at home."


Thompson on Hollywood
On the positive side, with fewer movies hitting theaters in the next year, there may be more room to move. That gives exhibitors an opportunity to push indie screens in their multi-plexes and supply some much-needed diversity. But most of the 145 films on sale at Toronto will wind up streamed, downloaded and viewed on a small TV or computer or mobile screen. (Amazon and Netflix remain blind to the opportunity to step into the breach here. That's because they are engineers and software designers and don't understand the role of marketing.) "Exhibitors have to step up as fewer films get made and get more creative," says Berney. "Thank God for Ted Mundorff."

"It's a massacre," said producer Jonathan Dana of the blood on the floor after the festival's first week. "It's the end of funny money." Those funds are gone now for anything above a micro-budget level that is too risky or daring or global. Small-scale local productions will prevail, without counting on a North American theatrical release. But Dana believes that now, by dint of Darwinian forces of survival, movies will get better and stronger. Speaking of Darwin, the festival's opening night film Creation, a high-profile movie starring Paul Bettany as the radical scientist, also failed to sell.

Movies expected to eventually find homes with small distributors include Get Low, the Venice Fest winner from Israel, Lebanon (entirely shot inside a tank), French/Russian espionage thriller Farewell, the genre film The Disappearance of Alice Creed, doc Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, Bruce Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer, and I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton. Rodrigo Garcia's earnest family drama Mother and Child features strong performances from Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Samuel L. Jackson. But who will figure out how to market it? "You have to create a lot of noise, with a lot of arrows in your quiver," says Fox Searchlight acquisitions exec Tony Safford. "The film, marketing, critics are all important. It's hard to rely on just one. Some of these films would have been released in another era."

For now, if budget-conscious Sony Pictures Classics and VOD-oriented distribs like IFC and Magnolia are the key buyers today, filmmakers around the world can no longer count on the North American market to pay their way, and will have to lower their costs and expectations. (And the DVD market is in decline, as well.) Producers Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine Walker of Werc Werk Works, based in Minneapolis, keep their budgets below $5 million. As their first film, they funded Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, which was accepted at Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York, but was still awaiting a distributor at press time.

The paradigm shift also means dramatic changes in raising funds overseas (which tends to push producers to cast the wrong actors in the wrong films anyway). If indie companies can't rely on the indie marketplace to supply them with strong, marketable titles, they will have to produce more of their own, taking on more risk. "Stars have to be in a good film," points out Safford.

The Weinstein Co. paid seven figures for the only hot Toronto title for sale, A Single Man, partly because they needed the good PR, but also because they are one of the few companies, along with Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, that still believe in one: the theatrical marketplace, and two: the Oscars as a marketing boost. Look at TWC's The Reader last year, one of the few Oscar entries to benefit from campaign spending.

Fox Searchlight, Overture, Summit, Focus Features, Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Classics and Miramax all wanted to buy in Toronto. While they may buy later, at fest's end, they walked away empty-handed.


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17 Comments

  • Daniel W | September 28, 2009 7:31 AMReply

    Brian said, "Tarantino loves the medium of film and I’m sure he loves to grasp a strip of 35mm film in his hand and hold it up to the light just to admire its texture."
    I think he's admiring how much money he'll get, not the grain of the film stock. You seem to suggest that Tarantino is the diamond in the rough, in a sense, which is positively laughable. If the problem is bloated budgets and misunderstanding one's audience, QT embodies these criticisms.
    Regardless, until something gives and movies become cheaper to produce and distribute, independent cinema will have an inreasingly challenging time holding on to what's left of its niche.

  • Alexs | September 23, 2009 7:56 AMReply

    Theatrical films are continuing to be a growing amusement park ride and now with 3D, even more so. Serious indie films have traditionally had a a niche market but recently got lucky and had a boomlet. That's over now thanks to 3D and we'll see you on Hulu (if you're lucky), the Documentary Channel and lesser venues for a while. Perhaps digital downloading with the new Adobe Flash Access 2.0, where it will be possible to easily charge for downloads, will be the next wave. Then there is always iTunes. Things are changing fast and the big money is now out of step and losing its way fast. A new paradigm will arise faster than we think and a lot of big money guys are going to go broke while spinning around wondering what the f*** happened.

  • david geertz | September 23, 2009 6:42 AMReply

    This is a great discussion and I am inviting all of you to join in on our BETA launch for a new method of film finance and distribution.

    you can read a bit about what we are doing at davegeertz.blogspot.com or you can preregister at www.biracy.com

    We're a couple of weeks out and we would appreciate feedback from the community, as this is the community we are attempting to help.

    If you are a filmmaker and have a project that is independent in nature and is not tied up with any other funders, packagers, distributors, etc....we'd like to use you as a guinea pig.

    cheers
    David Geertz
    Founder
    The Biracy Project

  • Nicholas Jayant | September 23, 2009 6:16 AMReply

    This is not a massacre, this is a liberation. Finally Filmmakers getting to take on the responsibility of getting their films to their community, not the faceless product pushing that comes with most of the larger indie releases. I long for the day that producers and directors goes on tour with his films, and I get to hear about this challenge over come, or the game time decision that resulted in happy accident "x." I think the best barometer for how to market indie film in this day is to rip a page from the DIY scene of indie rock...this "massacre" has gone down in the music world six years ago, its time for the indies to take our heads out of the sand, and empower ourselves with the knowledge of the media market to find a new sustainable model for making and releasing films! Every door that closes opens five new ones, and I am excited to see the innovation that abounds as filmmakers harness the power of the interwebs and community-building to continue to create meaningful work that inspires the next generation of filmmakers' quest for mic control!

  • J. Sperling Reich | September 23, 2009 5:10 AMReply

    This is a truly thought provoking post and based on the number of comments here, one that I would say touched a bit of a nerve within the film industry itself. Good job.

    In regards to the changing paradigm of independent filmmaking and theatrical releases, I am left asking or thinking about the following:

    1. With the lowering cost of production (thanks to digital technology) more movies will likely get made. Much like in the music industry, where it is now possible to produce a triple platinum album in your basement, there will at some point likely be an explosion of micro-budget movies bursting forth from laptops and indie filmmakers all over the world. With so much content cluttering the marketplace it will become more difficult for moviegoers to decipher the wheat from the chaff. Much like in the music industry, media outlets (traditional or online) will play a role in helping viewers determine which movies are praiseworthy. In fact, some outlets may help discover such films. This is precisely the way music bloggers have helped build the careers of such bands as M.I.A., Arcade Fire and more recently Passion Pit. Pitchfork (www.pitchfork.com) has become a must read for indie music lovers and getting a good review on the website can make or break a band. Where is this same media outlet for films? Does it already exist or is it yet to be created? What should it be? Will a model of movie bloggers actually work in the indie film world? Will audiences turn to such outlets for information about films that don't star A-list talent? And will they wait for a film that may take weeks or months to reach their market?

    2. If Amazon and Netflix are missing the boat when it comes to stepping in to fill the void, what about websites such as Jaman? Or has such a site not yet been created? What is the ideal online outlet for such films?

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    - J. Sperling Reich
    www.showbizsandbox.com

  • Brian | September 21, 2009 9:25 AMReply

    The question is: what are movies these days? I know what they were when I was growing up and got inspired to go into the field by the sheer range of movies offered at my local neighborhood theaters in the Bronx, from PATTON and ROMEO AND JULIET to PUTNEY SWOPE and SHAFT, from Robert Altman to Sergio Leone to Rene Clement to Kinji Fukasaku. But that was when going to the movies was a regular and common activity among young people. And when young people watched old movies regularly on TV, so we knew the historical context of movies.

    Today's young audiences hardly go to the theater. And they hardly watch legit DVDs. They hardly even watch anything on a regular TV set. Instead, they watch stuff on computer, either on Hulu.com, YouTube or downloaded or copied from some illegitimate source. What are they interested in? Judging by what my daughter and my co-workers (all film/TV/media grads in their 20s) watch, only the lamest and most insipid "comic" material they can find. Remember that Dr. Horrible Sing-along multi-episode thing with Neil Patrick Harris that was done by some cult favorite TV producer? (Was it J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon? One of those guys, I believe.) They loved that. I don't know how you get 'em to watch an indie film unless you put some dumb jokes into it and transmit it via cellphone or PlayStation or something.

    I don't even watch indie films anymore. Burned too many times by things that were supposed to be the next great thing, but turned out to be pale echoes of Hollywood genres. I have a hard enough time keeping abreast of major releases that I feel I need to see on the big screen. Who has the time anymore? (We get busier as we get older.) So many filmmakers today have a love of technology, but not a love of film as an art form. Tarantino loves the medium of film and I'm sure he loves to grasp a strip of 35mm film in his hand and hold it up to the light just to admire its texture, something you'd never see James Cameron, Zack Snyder, Michael Bay, Peter Jackson, or J.J. Abrams do. But there's only one Tarantino and seemingly dozens of Cameron & co. And that's why INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the one major release I've seen all year that I would happily see again.

  • Michael Harpster | September 21, 2009 8:27 AMReply

    Indie films are a victim of their sucess. It's a bit like the housing bubble-bigger players, more money etc: And then the collapse. Remeber that indie film is essetnially an aging phenomenon. It comes from an asethetic born in the mid 60's with Janus films. The "art" film audience is 40-60. Indid films have not renwed themselves, either in form or content to appeal to the 20-40 year old audience. Not only is the current asethetic stultifiying but the form is a staritjacket.

    While the form of music industry (DVD's) has suffered, the making of music seems incredibly alive. Obvsiouly, the new forms of distribution have engaged a young audience.

    Inide films need rethinking.

  • Travis Cross | September 21, 2009 5:41 AMReply

    What is the average budget for an indie filmmaker? I realise there is a range, but can someone tell what kind of budget $990,000 would cover?

    Producer Ted Hope was mentioned in this article, I don't know who that is but I have some valuable information to contribute to a discussion on the future of media and a new sustainable indie film distribution method.

  • steandric | September 20, 2009 11:12 AMReply

    Although as usual you're sticking to mention Ms. Watts last in all your writing, I would like to remind you, and your readers so that they wouldn't be misled as such, that the official cast order of this film "Mother and Child" as publicly announced is: starring Naomi Watts, Annette Bening......, Samuel L Jackson. Regards.

  • Dylan | September 20, 2009 9:25 AMReply

    I don't agree that's it's a massacre. And I don't necessarily agree that the big chains haven't gotten it. I've been opening indie films (and by indie, I mean indie- films mostly smaller than any of the films mentioned in this articles), sometimes at big chains, for years. This week, I've got a micro-budget comedy about a Japanese American family playing at AMC Metreon, arguably the busiest theater in San Francisco, and playing a second week at a giant Regal in Orange County. And next week we'll open a few Cinemarks in Utah. It's making decent money- not breaking records, but heading quickly towards making the theatrical release profitable in its own right for the filmmakers, and that before DVD, VOD, and international has been exploited. If that's not a change in the old "loss leader, wait for that DVD money!" model, I don't know what is.

    Part of it is realizing and targeting your market- and not just with pretty and expensive print advertising. It starts in the script stage, and is about making (and acquiring) films that have an audience- and unless you have giant fighting robots in your indie film, that audience is not "the entire US market". But if you can show the bookers you have a plan, even if it's unconventional, and they trust you to deliver what you tell them, booking the right theater is never a problem, whether it be a tiny indie or a giant AMC or Regal or Cinemark (all of which I've found great to work with)- each film is different, and therefore is right for a different theater. Most of the buyers I work with, from the tiniest indies to the biggest chains, are all incredibly intelligent people who get it.

    Self-distribution and service deals have always had a bad rap, but it's not (always) warranted- while some companies can and have used them as a cash cow, with high distribution fees financing the films they pay for (their "real films", and if you don't think they're thought of as such, we need to talk), some of us (and yes, I run a company that does this, which I suppose I should plug- http://www.variancefilms.com ) take on films that they believe in and feel can warrant a theatrical release, which doesn't necessarily have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and doesn't necessarily (and probably shouldn't) follow the traditional "let's spend gobs of money in NYC and LA and see if it takes" platform model, either. Sometimes it's worth it to spend a million dollars on P&A and launch like a traditional film- and sometimes it's better to budget $35-70,000 for a release, open NYC, LA, and/or a few choice markets, and decide what's next from there. It's different for every film, and that needs to be addressed. When you've spent money making a film, and have a choice between tossing it on the direct-to-video pile or giving it a shot, $35,000-70,000 is absolutely a no-brainer and should absolutely be in your production budget.

    But while it could be considered a difficult time, I'm not sure I believe there's a massacre. I believe there's been a change in the way the business works, and if planned for and executed correctly, it can empower filmmakers and help them reach a wider audience (and just maybe, make more money), than ever before. But yes- if you've made a ten million dollar indie film hoping for an eight digit sale at a festival, unless you've got an Oscar caliber film with big stars on your hand, you're going to be disappointed. Thankfully, there's another way, and Variance Films and I are happy to talk to any and every filmmaker out there about it. We think it's not only a new thing, but a good thing, and we get excited when blogs like this and Ted Hope's recognize that.

  • Sergio | September 20, 2009 8:49 AMReply

    Remember The Spitfire Grill? The film from ten years ago that made such a huge splash at Sundance which Sony bought only to make no money at the box office? I think filmgoers are just too wary of these inde films that promise much but deliver little. (Though let me say that is also MORE true of big budget Hollywood movies as well) But I think we've been dependent too much for inde films to give us what we're lacking from the bigger. more commerical films. but they have disappointed us too much and too often. Maybe Get Low is as good and they say, but it would definitely be a tough sell since it doesn't have that extra "thing" to get it past the doubters. Creation is a perfect example. Intruiging though maybe stodgy premise, name stars but poor, boring execution and there's nothing about that says to an audeince "SEE THIS NOW!" I can see distribs being wary of inde films unless they have certain more marketable elements that would make it more attractive. Rave reviews aren't enough

  • jeff laine | September 20, 2009 8:37 AMReply

    I am new to the community of indi film makers. I have just produced my 1st feature "I'm Good at Freaky" www.Imgoodatfreaky.com. It is a psycho-sexual black comedy based on the Phil Spector/Lana Clarkson murder. I invested my own money. I am working on a single principle; "this is show business"! It is my belief that if I make movies that people WANT TO SEE and if I do it well..then my movies will make money and I will make money and all will be right with the world.

  • Edward Wilson | September 20, 2009 7:09 AMReply

    The problem is that none of these movies are actually "independent films." Yes, they might have been funded independently, but they were created with sufficient budgets with the intent that a major corporation would distribute. Well, what exactly does that mean? It means that these are small-scale studio pictures that the studios didn't have to take a funding risk on, that's all.

    Independent film got bloated. The budgets went too big. The movies became too commercial.

    Instead of independent film being the incubator of new hungry talent and independent voices, it became a place for established talent to make smaller films that get them awards and "street cred." In other words: it stopped working because it got its priorities mixed up.

  • Alan Green | September 20, 2009 3:44 AMReply

    the paradigm needs an overhaul. how can you make non-commercial films for tens of millions (sometimes pushing 100 million) and expect to turn a profit?

    have not seen it but would point out 'creation'. here is what is certainly a beautifully made movie that couldn't draw an audience if you gave the popcorn away free. it probably costs several millions (at the very least) and may never play. how can anyone have thought a movie about darwin and his wife would fill seats?

    grab a digi-cam and some actors and make your movie for pocket change. if you can get some investors, great. otherwise, start with a good script, work for nothing, turn in a good movie that's really truly scary, funny, moving, whatever it is you're going for (as long as it's commercial), and pull in an audience, with, hopefully, a modest profit in the end. repeat as necessary.

  • Sydney J Levine | September 20, 2009 3:29 AMReply

    Very good analysis. I'm glad you took this bull by the horns. Interesting point about Netflix and Amazon, and don't forget IMDb, an Amazon company. Being corporate, the bottom line is the bottom line just like at the studios.

  • David Kirkpatrick | September 19, 2009 10:58 AMReply

    A very thorugh and thought provoking blog. Sad to see the massacre --- but we could hear it coming. I wonder if movies will become strictly franchised from another medium.

  • missme | September 19, 2009 10:28 AMReply

    finally, someone doing ANALYSIS on indiewire. about time. i've long ago been over all the nepotism and party-hopping. bravo on this, ms. thompson. while depressing, it is a necessary well-written read.

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