A Public Option for Filmmakers

Public OptionAfter 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:


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.  

4 thoughts on “A Public Option for Filmmakers”

  1. I’ve read this at least three times and, although I certainly agree with the issues Tyler raises I still have no clear idea what exactly he’s proposing here and how it would work. How do we convince taxpayers in the worst economy in most of our lifetimes that the dollars that could go to (fill in the blank here yourself) would be better spent on independent film?

  2. Nick: The notions of saving American independent film and bolstering the national economy are not mutually exclusive. Certainly if it’s presented to the public from the former perspective, it’s a loser. (I can already hear the demagoguery.) But this type of policy makes all the sense in the world if you believe that our country must play to its strengths during periods of economic recovery.

    During WWII, we tapped into our country’s heavy industry and manufacturing base. But now much of that infrastructure is gone or lost to other fast-developing industrial nations. Now we turn to sectors like healthcare and technology. Why not entertainment? As I mentioned in my essay, the U.S. remains uniquely positioned and advantaged as the leading entertainment content provider in the world. This global reach is mostly Hollywood’s, true enough. But we’ve heretofore had a flourishing independent film community as well, and the combined result is a substantial nationwide crew base and a vast network of universities and vocational programs now offering filmmaking instruction.

    The filmmaking population is exploding, but we’re not ready to capitalize on it.

    Critics of government involvement will point to recent studies showing that state incentive programs don’t work; that the multiplier effect on local economies isn’t being realized. The truth is that the multiplier is there, but not always contained within the borders of the states that are making the public investment. Tax credits are only one part of the equation. The other components must be there too: most notably, a local crew base, along with production and post-production facilities. Of course states aren’t seeing the full, positive impact from productions that import crew from Los Angeles and do their sound stage shooting and post work in New York.

    Michigan has the right idea. They’re making a massive investment in the film industry, from large production tax credits, to state-sponsored crew training programs, to the building of giant studio complexes. But they still need more films. Independent films that aren’t being financed right now.

    I’m by no means a policy expert, but I’m generally proposing a big national commitment to strengthening our film industry. I’m talking about an investment in training, infrastructure, development and production financing. Canada and the United Kingdom (specifically with respect to the UK Film Council) both offer models worthy of review. With all the interest and talent at the ready, it seems crazy to me that we should be limited to two production centers, one on each coast.

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