10 (9 actually) Responses to the Issues Brought Up at the “Indie Film Summit”

momaThanks to MOMA and indieWIRE, some 60 or so representatives of the “indie” film world got together yesterday to discuss the state of the business. A tip of the cap is due to Eugene Hernandez and Anne Thompson for their valiant attempt to reign in a group of outspoken, opinionated and polarized people arranged around a conference room that was clearly designed for far fewer active participants than were attending this particular event. The very existence of such an event, and the number of notable people who showed up, is both a testament to how hungry we are for this type of discussion, and a reason to be hopeful about the future of the business. In the course of a rambling two plus hours of talking, some deep arguments were addressed, some real insights were made and some of the attendees slipped into the kind of self-serving pitches that we hear on a million panels. But by the end of the day, I felt that all the real issues facing our business had at the very least been thrown on the table. My only frustration was that each of the many topics that came up deserved further exploration. Hopefully this can happen in a series of more focused discussions some time in the future.

One personal frustration was that the format didn’t allow me to get in my two cents on a number of points that I felt needed to be made. So, I’m going to use this space to do that very thing. At the beginning of the conference, Eugene asked that the particulars of who said what should be kept off the record in order to allow people to be as open as possible. I am going to respect that and deal only in the issues that were brought up without naming names. I am also going to take a piece of advice from Ted Hope and make this a list, which he says gets more hits than straight prose. So here goes…

10 Responses to the Issues Brought Up at the “Indie Film Summit”

1. There is no crisis in independent film! The crisis is for old white guys.

While I accept the well-meaning premise that we are in a business that is dominated by white males, it is hardly dominated by older people. And no crisis? Certainly there is no crisis if you have a well-paying job doing something you like. But for the filmmakers who can’t work inside the current system — either because of the types of films they make or because no one has heard of them yet — no one has the answer to how to make a sustainable living, other than perhaps to get a foreign passport. One of the more outspoken and well-known producers in the room admitted that, in spite of having 40 projects in various states of development and production, his company is always 15 minutes away from insolvency. And he is one of the more successful people in the room. Younger filmmakers, indeed, have the advantage of lower overhead, less responsibility to others and peers who are the cheapest labor available. Yes, there are all kinds of ideas around about how this may eventually be fixed, and I’m extraordinarily optimistic that all the tools are there for the taking. Times of crisis are times for opportunity. But first you have to admit there is a crisis.

2. The audience is the best curator.

Has anyone out there looked at Youtube? That’s what it looks like when the audience curates. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the power of social networking. But anyone who is on Facebook or Twitter is aware that emerging from the clutter is just as daunting as it is in the old media. We still need people we trust to recommend things to us. The fact that movie reviewers are being fired from old media outlets is not a sign that they have outlived their usefulness; it is only a sign that newspapers and TV networks are fighting for audience share, and review-driven films are too small to warrant the investment in a full-time employee. The truth is, many of those critics were stripped of their power long ago, when their employers cut the number of reviews they were assigned and insisted that they cover star-driven Hollywood fare– which would presumably increase circulation or ratings. What is needed is more and better curators. I don’t personally care if they are festival directors, distributors or aggregators that cater to specific niche audiences, or a guy down the street who sees enough movies and cares enough to push me to see them. But as a consumer and professional, I have no interest in the voting public. Have you seen the “People’s Choice Awards”?

3. Audiences should be able to see what they want, where they want and when they want.

I look at this a little differently. I think every way of consuming media has its own value proposition. When the idea came up at the summit that a film might be made available on VOD prior to theatrical release for $40, it was dismissed by a cable executive as something that would not be allowed to happen by theatrical exhibitors. He clearly only knows about the major chains, because as an exhibitor myself, I have no problem with this idea. And anything that makes theatrical movie-going look like a bargain is OK by me. The IFC day-and-date model has not hurt the grosses in my theaters.  But if something is available more conveniently and for less money (or free), why would people go to a theater? There are answers to that question also, but in the interest of brevity, if you haven’t already checked out the speech I made at the Power to the Pixel Conference–which I glibly called “Is Theatrical Dead?”– you can check it out below:

4. DCI projection equipment is about protection from piracy

I’ll just spend a few seconds on this one. I was making a point at the summit about how my theaters are outfitted with non-DCI compliant digital projection,which means I can’t play major studio product. I look at that as a positive in that many art film exhibitors, given the choice, are forced to start playing studio product to survive. Since our business is about serving the art film audience, to me this feels like a gift. But when I joked that I wouldn’t mind getting an occasional film from one of the studio divisions that was represented in the room, the word “piracy” came up. Without getting technical, I would just like to set the record straight. Our system has safeguards in place to prevent “piracy” from being an issue.  Smaller independents who supply us with product are just as anxious to protect it as the studios are. But they also see non-DCI equipment as a more cost effective way of distributing smaller films. I still contend that the studio position on DCI compliance is not about piracy. It’s about barrier to entry. Their position should be of concern to all independents.

5. Filmmakers are being taken advantage of by the distributors

This is basically true, but more complicated than the way it came across at the summit. During the current crisis (yes, there is a crisis), you can hardly blame companies for taking advantage of the overabundance of supply and the lack of demand. Worldwide, there are many quality films that are only seen at festivals and deserve a larger audience. The producer who brought up this point took a particular pot shot at IFC, even though there were others in the room that could be accused of the same thing. In defense of IFC, most of the films they distribute are foreign films that are generally subsidized by their local governments and budgeted on the basis that any income from North American would be gravy. IFC’s business plan may be taking advantage of the weakness of the market, but it is both brilliant and necessary.

In defense of other distributors, I can only say that you can’t complain about a company trying to make a profit if indeed you need that company’s services. I have a vivid recollection of a negotiation I had when I was heading up Fine Line. It was with a lawyer who had left the summit by the time this issue was being discussed. He was literally whining on the other end of the phone because I wouldn’t cave in on a deal point. I told him, isn’t it in your interest to make sure I’m still in business next year? If I’m gone, who are you going to sell to?” Do I need to complete this point?

However, and this is a big however, with new technologies peeling away layers of middlemen and automating processes, this is a moment when basic deal structures really do need to be reconsidered. If the existing distribution companies don’t start getting creative, some new competitor will swoop in and steal the business the way Apple stole the music business.

6. Speaking of Apple…

It came up at the summit that one of the new paradigms that is epitomized by Apple’s hold on the music business is to sell the hardware and essentially give the content away.  It should be obvious why this isn’t a good model for the makers of content. What might not be as obvious is that there is a massive struggle going on behind the scenes by major corporations who want to lock up the delivery of film content in the same way the Apple locked up the market for music.  As independents, we must lobby for net neutrality, and furthermore, we must encourage open source systems. Any manufacturer of hardware should be able to access content provided by any source. Would we buy a TV that could only get one network? It shocks me how many otherwise enlightened individuals I know who are Apple fanboys.

7. Hybrid distribution is the solution

Hybrid distribution was defined as splitting rights and doing your own theatrical release with or without hiring a distributor to handle the details.  First of all, this scenario will look very attractive to a lot of filmmakers in the current marketplace because so few films are being bought, and those that are bought are getting not very attractive terms.  But I have a major qualm about promoting this approach too much. While there are many stories about recent successes with this strategy, for every success there are at least 20 disasters. If you have (1)a film that has a very specific target audience, (2) a way to easily (and cheaply) reach that audience, (3) some money to spend and  (4) a clever campaign, go for it. The problem is that every filmmaker believes that his or her film has the elements to work, but not all of them do. Emphasizing the successes without pointing out the risks seems to me a bit irresponsible…a little like holding out the hope of the big sale at Sundance, which many filmmakers bought into until recently. I’ve played a number of these films in the Emerging Cinemas, and in spite of the filmmakers best intentions, no one showed up.  As far as the filmmakers are concerned, so long as they haven’t spent huge sums of money marketing their films, they can shrug off the lack of theatrical success and move on to selling DVDs off their web sites. The exhibitors are left holding the bag.

8. The AMC on 42nd Street is the highest grossing indie theater in New York.

I guess it depends on what your definition of independent is. I would posit that on a per-screen basis, it would have be the IFC Center, which does what we do at Emerging–multiplexing within a single screen, thereby maximizing the number of tickets sold on a daily basis.

9. Speaking of exhibitors…

They are the forgotten group in all this. In spite of the title of my speech above, I don’t want theatrical to die. I think there’s very little chance the major studio theatrical model will die. What they produce in Hollywood is the very definition of “event,” and that is exactly what drives people out of their homes and into theaters. For more subtle work, it’s much more complicated. Can we create the desire in younger audiences to see non-mainstream cinema on the big screen with an audience? Or will these types of film be relegated to museums? There is still a group of very committed art film exhibitors who are fighting the good fight, and they need all the support we can give them. They are community-based and are very good at using grass roots methods of reaching out to audiences. They are becoming more and more sophisticated about reaching their audiences through social networks. At some future date I might expound more on this subject, but at the summit exhibitors were under-represented and hardly part of the conversation. I might add that Sundance helps organize a yearly conference called the Art House Convergence. The idea is to bring all these exhibitors together to learn from each other and to band together in other ways. I went to the conference last January in Salt Lake and plan on doing it again this coming January. There needs to be more of this kind of interaction.

10. Sorry Ted, I only came with 9. Maybe I’ll think of something else later.

In summary, I would like to repeat  my optimism about the future. Crisis breeds solutions, which means opportunity for those willing to dive in. I’m just expressing my skepticism about some of the views expressed at the summit. It only proves why such events are needed.


Since writing this, both Scott Macaulay and Anne Thompson have posted their thoughts on this discussion. Check them out.

16 thoughts on “10 (9 actually) Responses to the Issues Brought Up at the “Indie Film Summit””

  1. RE: Crisis

    I’m still not getting this. A crisis implies something bad is happening or is about to happen, with grave consequences. What is happening/about to happen? What are the grave consequences?

  2. Thanks for this. Sounds like it was an interesting conversation.

    I definitely think that number 9 is a huge part of this crisis. Exhibitors need, and probably want to be, part of this conversation – and I’m not just talking about the Art House chains, which are doing a great job, as you say. I think there are screens at the mulitplex that could be made available to art house films, and that exhibitors would want to make available, but they can’t be had because exhibs are being forced or muscled to show studio films that don’t do business.

    If you think about what Miramax did in the early 90’s: getting art house and foreign films into the multiplex, and you start to see what’s missing. Now, marketing costs have gotten to the point that this can’t happen, but essentially, there is a situation here where there are screens in a multiplex doing bad business and there is an audience (anyone over 30) that’s been abandoned. It would seem that someone could bring these together. Maybe a curator (in the shape of a distributor? I don’t know). I have plenty of non-film friends who would love to see a movie in the theaters if there was something to see.

    And like you say, the IFC center can play a lot of different films. I was talking to someone from Paris and they were amazed that theaters here don’t play a lot of different films on the same screen at different times. Exhibitors here can’t or won’t try this.

  3. One of the points you mention is the recall of negotiating a deal at Fine Line and your attempt to remind some attorney that Fine Line needed to stay in business- One thought: I have been production counsel on several low budget films and the lawyers for actors in particular, do is to ask for “perk packages” that are out of line with the budget for the particular film- and everything proposed is a “deal breaker” – I bet their clients (the actors) don’t even know the insanity of their representatives- This Spring, summer, fall it took 4 months to negotiate an actor’s deal on an under $700,000 budget- who has the time for this? Two weeks ago I was told by an attorney that is an actor didn’t get their own make-up person it would be a “deal breaker”- the Agents I dealt with “got it”- that is they were reasonable but once it went to the attorneys it became ridiculous.

    Perhaps the attorneys can reconsider who or what they are negotiating for and how realistic certain “gives” are in indy pictures. Perhaps this institutional culture comes from mistrust in the indy producers. Maybe there needs to be a reintroduction to attorneys of the good trustworthy producers–

    Roz Lichter

  4. Indies are a whiny bunch. Always have and always will…
    Put ’em all in one giant play pen and let ’em duke it out… Whiniest filmmaker wins!

  5. Thank you for posting this Ira. Even though we may be in crisis right now, I really appreciate that people like you, Ted Hope, Scott Macaulay, Peter Broderick, and others are putting so much creative thought and effort into discovering new distribution models and sharing it with us.

  6. I think you underestimate the importance to the audience of the theatrical experience. Getting out of the house and going to the cinema is a fundamental part of the American experience and has been since Marcus Loew and the People’s Vaudeville Company. While I agree that the internet has changed consumption methods I don’t think it will ever take the place of sitting in a darkened room, surrounded by the potential energy of fellow theatergoers, waiting eagerly for those opening credits. Indie filmmakers have other theatrical options open to them, even if they aren’t traditional.

    Brave New Theaters is an amazing organization that organizes community screenings. These may not all take place on big screens yet, but with the price of digital projection going down, it won’t be long until community centers can afford mini theaters to show smaller films like “White Knuckles” or “Rethink Afghanistan”, to take two examples from their site.

    I don’t think Americans will ever stop going to the movies, it’s just where they go that might change.

  7. I’ll second Julia. Many, if not most of the people who come out for our theatrical screenings already own the DVD. If you can promise an indie theater owner you’ll pack the house (and deliver!) he’ll give you the door in exchange for the pop-corn sales. And you can sell DVDs to the people who don’t have one yet!

  8. Ira – the true source – and the solution – to the problem that you locate is buried deep in your article under Number 5, where you say “most of the films they [IFC] distribute are foreign films that are generally subsidized by their local governments and budgeted on the basis that any income from North American would be gravy.”

    The issue in distribution begins at the beginning of the food chain – how much do investors have to invest in order to get a picture made, which then dictates how well a film has to do in distribution to recoup and then yield a profit.

    Other countries settled this issue a long time ago with national film boards, film commissions, etc. that finance films outright or provide deep tax and financing advantages to individuals or companies who put up capital.

    You should not be so accepting of the bloated status quo of the high cost of production, unreasonable talent fees and riders (see Roz’s comment), jacked up acquisition fees to cover the inflated costs of production, and the impossible-to-meet scenarios for distribution that would need to be achieved to cover all of these initial costs and then make money for the distributor. This economic model was specious (op cit your treatise on distribution that I reviewed years ago in your tenure bid at Columbia) in the best of times when distributors and exhibitors actually had control over the means of distribution and could at least tangentially maintain an audience’s attention, it is unquestionably impossible now for all of the reasons everyone in that small conference room in MOMA was gnashing their teeth about.

    The fact is, that the solution to the production-acquisition-distribution-exhibition conundrum does not exist in past economic models located in New Yorkistan. You”re a smart guy Ira. Think more expansively.

  9. As usual you are right on target about so many things. I wonder whether we in distribution (you less than others) have been short-sighted about how the audience needs to be reached, though. It seems like most distributors are working with an attitude that seems a lot like the one that folks had when VHS came along- like, oh, no, how can we preserve x or y of our business model, rather than really thinking about how far they could go with the new technology.

  10. A lot of good points made here by Ira’s wrap-up.

    One thing that no one ever seems to talk about, (or maybe they do but not often), is that the market for indie film shifted in the mid to late ’90s, when the mini-majors stopped picking up tons of indie film. They began financing many of their own productions, and with their bottom lines so good at that point, they got bought out by the studios to become a new studio division. The “heyday” pretty much ended at that point. Not so much for those so-called “indie films” being made by these studios’ specialty divisions, but for all those indie filmmakers funding their own movies with relatives’ money and Aunt Visa or Uncle Mastercard.

    The real indies then had less places to go to find a home. But everything is cyclical — or at least has been — in one way or another. The explosion of DVD gave indies a new lease on life, at the end of the ’90s, and still does. (If the deal is at least decent and the distrib does a good job.) What I find interesting is how much apprehension and angst is currently on display from so many — which, yes, is partly because we’re on the possible verge of a tectonic shift in content delivery for movies. BUT, we’re also where we are because of the worst economic crisis in most of our lifetimes. And this is exacerbating the various shifts taking place with content delivery.

    The “heyday” was over long ago. There may be a new one coming, who knows. I believe there will be, because again, everything is cyclical. The number of indie movies being made every year is astounding. 3-4 times what it was in the ’90s. Can this go on, if these filmmakers don’t make money to keep their dreams alive and their work in motion? The short answer is ‘yes,’ because there will always be another filmmaker behind the one that only made one movie and then went back home to Ohio, perhaps broken.

    There are a lot of possible solutions (besides Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”), and one of them is that filmmakers all need to realize that they must take matters into their own hands, and embrace the journey of overseeing their own movies into the marketplace. Just directing or just producing and only having to “worry” about that is definitely a thing of the past.

    Jerome Courshon
    “The Secrets to Distribution”

  11. Thanks for summing it all up, and for embedding the video of your Power to the Pixel talk I posted 2 years back. So much is happening so fast. So much being discussed. My current goal is to unite the DIY spirited filmmakers around the method of theatrical distribution we did with Four Eyed Monsters. I’ve designed a new service to provide this function to a community of filmmakers who want to jump into this reality.
    A video about how this service will work is posted here:
    I hope your well, and am looking forward to this continued exploration taking place on your blog, at these events, through emerging pictures and basically everywhere you look in the indie film scene.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.