After my last post about the “Indie Summit,” I began an email correspondence with indie filmmaker Tyler Davidson. I found his thoughts provocative and encouraged him to write them up so I could share them with the rest of the indie community. The following is from Tyler:
A PUBLIC OPTION FOR FILMMAKERS
Just as a few U.S. insurance companies have a stranglehold on our country’s healthcare system, so too do a few Hollywood studios on our film industry. Instead of exploding healthcare costs and millions of people uninsured, our industry sees a once-flourishing independent film community decimated and a substantial swath of independent filmgoers underserved.
Despite increasing efforts to more creatively and aggressively utilize new media and grassroots marketing to reach its more niche-oriented audience, independents simply can’t compete with the marketing spends of the major studios and lose market share by the day. And without that demand — or rather, that opportunity for demand — low budget film investors continue to lose their money, subsequently disappearing in droves from the independent purview. Independent producers who somehow endure in the business are forced to scale films to budgets that sacrifice the livelihoods of those who make the films possible. This is today’s independent film industry, and it is not sustainable.
Though the crisis doesn’t get mainstream media attention, we will see greater expansion and visibility of this detrimental trend as distributors of independent films lean more and more heavily on government-subsidized foreign films for their release pipelines. Moreover, as studios further squeeze out independents, they will leave an underserved audience in their wake, actually shrinking the overall size of the U.S. film market. (Independent film, with its minuscule share of audience eyeballs, can theoretically cultivate new audience almost without limitation, whereas Hollywood’s market penetration is nearing its saturation point. In contrast to the studios, I believe the future of independent film isn’t about new media, but new audience.)
Progressive-minded healthcare reformers understand that real reform requires choice and competition in the marketplace. A public option. Why not apply that same logic to the film industry?
Canadian films are primarily funded by a mix of government funding and incentives, government mandated funds from broadcasters, broadcasters themselves, international financing partners, and film distributors. Smaller films are often funded by arts councils and film collectives. Canadian films almost never turn a profit because their distribution system, like ours, is dominated by Hollywood; but films are made, filmmakers get paid, regional film production centers thrive, and the Canadian economy is boosted by production expenditure.
A similar public-private system in the U.S. — with a more potent, balanced reach than the nominal, state-by-state tax credits we now see — would allow independent distributors to acquire films at lower costs without devastating equity financiers who have virtually no chance of recouping their investments in today’s market. Savings on distributor advances could be allocated to marketing campaigns, giving quality independent films better opportunities to find an audience. But most importantly, it wouldn’t be the million-to-one, do-or-die scenario we have right now.
Again, it’s not about crashing studio turf, but expanding the industry pie. With American manufacturing’s mass emigration overseas and unemployment nearing depression levels, we must look to augment an industry in which the U.S. remains uniquely recognized and advantageously positioned worldwide. The survival of American independent film depends on it.
Tyler Davidson is an independent film producer and president of Strange Matter Films. His last feature, “Swedish Auto,” is being distributed by IFC Films.