Kicking off the Conversation

The following is the outline of the kickoff speech I gave at “The Conversation,” a conference on the future of independent film at Columbia University. Sorry that it’s missing the adlibs…maybe someone taped it.

On behalf of the Columbia University School of the Arts and the Columbia Business School, I’d like to welcome you all to our campus. If you haven’t been here before, I’m sure you are a bit shocked to see that a place like this exists right in the middle of Manhattan. It’s a great place to live and to learn. I want to thank Daisy Nam at the School of the Arts and Hollis O’Rourke at the Business School for making this day possible.

When Scott Kirshner put the word out that he wanted to find a place in New York to hold this event, I told him right away that I wanted to bring it to Columbia. The reasons why are a bit complicated, but I thought they might be a good starting point for the discussion that will be going on all day.

As someone who has spent his entire life working on the making and marketing of feature films I, like many of you, have devoted a lot of time thinking about what’s happening in our world. On the one hand, with the cost of physical production being driven down, more people than ever identify themselves as filmmakers or aspire to be filmmakers. The tools are now in reach for almost anyone — not just for the privileged or the lucky.

The downside of this, of course, is a glut of work — some great and a lot, not so great — that’s cluttering up the marketplace in ways that make it more difficult than ever to stand out from the crowd.

Add to this a major disruptive force, the Internet.

The book The Long Tail explains very clearly the way in which the Internet has changed traditional business models. For those of you who haven’t read it, the short version is that the traditional notion that 80% of any business comes from 20% of the product—the so-called 80/20 rule– is blown apart by Internet businesses such as Amazon and Netflix. Since they don’t have to stock physical inventory in multiple locations, these businesses can make money on product that only sells a few copies—the so-called “Long Tail.” On the surface, this would seem to be good news for filmmakers, since it would mean that smaller movies could be made available, and even if sales were small, there would indeed be sales. As a long time pragmatist, when I read the book, I saw a world where companies like Amazon and Netflix were making tons of money, but filmmakers walked away with pennies…and so far that seems to be the case. 

All this was on my mind when one day, on the subway ride up to this campus, I read two things I had been carrying around with me in my briefcase. First I read a review of a new book by Columbia Business School professors Bruce Greenwald and Jonathan Knee called The Curse of the Mogul. In it, the authors state that the Hollywood mantra that “content is king” is a myth, one that has caused content businesses trouble throughout history. Then I picked up a copy of Newsweek and there was an interview with Jeff Bewkes, the chairman of Time Warner, explaining that after spinning off Time Warner Cable, his company’s new mantra was “content is king”; Time Warner was going to become a pure content company.

I called up Professors Knee & Greenwald and asked them out to lunch. I told them about my subway reading, and asked a simple question…what does this all mean for the independent filmmaker? They laughed at me and said… the film business has never been a business. It’s a hobby. The only thing that’s changing is that we’re now becoming more aware of that.

I tell you all this because it is my hope that over the course of this day, the “conversation” I hope we have is at the highest levels. We need to come to terms with the contradictions of a marketplace that simultaneously gets more accessible by the day, and more difficult by the day.

Making movies has always been a kind of rarified art—one where we were lead to believe that there was a kind of pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This was never true for other arts.

We inherently understand that there are many different types of painters…

…those who paint because they simply love to do it, but make their livings doing something else.

…those who paint, and sell those paintings to family & friends.

…those who paint and eek out a living selling paintings and note cards at street fairs.

…those who paint and actually have gallery shows, selling enough to sustain their artist lifestyles.

And then there are those whose work gets hung in the Museum of Modern Art… but they’re mostly dead.

Why can’t we understand that being a big hit at Sundance and then selling to a major distributor for a ton of money is a little like being hung at MOMA, only without the death part?

But is that the only possible goal?

On a recent panel, my colleague Eric Mendelsohn, said that making a truly independent film is a bit arrogant…it’s like saying I want to fly a rocket ship to the moon but I want to do it without NASA.

You’ve got to know why you are doing it and what you really want out of it. There is no magic bullet. What there is, is a range of choices and opportunities.

A lot of different points of view will be on display today. Ask the hard questions. Don’t listen to hype without questioning motive. Make this a two-sided conversation.

So, back to the question I started with. Why did I want this event at Columbia? I believe that there is too little critical thinking taking place about these issues. I want Columbia, as a major research university, to be a place where this kind of thinking is going on. As we expand our producing program next year, I want us to learn as much as we teach. I want Columbia to be part of the conversation, both literally and figuratively.

Thanks for coming.

Let the conversation begin.

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