The current state of indie film

It’s been a while since I posted here, and the industry has changed in those last two years. Here’s what I’m seeing…

Hollywood has been making less movies and, more to the point, less interesting movies. Lynda Obst’s book does a great job discussing the reasons behind this and anyone interested should read that. Because of this, stars are looking elsewhere for “interesting roles”. (The cynical side of me says that “interesting roles” is a euphemism for money and work.)

Lynda’s book explains that Hollywood films now are made based on their potential overseas revenue. Sadly, this is now the case for Indie film too.

Now, I would argue that indie film should include some bigger budget films that do not get made without a US distributor in place. These are the 10-20 million dollars films that are bankrolled by some hedge fund or rich guy or money guy on the backs of stars and the guarantee that they will have distribution in the US. This guarantee allows the makers to presale all over the place and, with some tax incentives, raise the money to make a big budget movie for a Hollywood studio. They are, generally, making the kind of mid-level budget films that Hollywood used to make, but they do it without the studios having to take the risk. This is partly what has allowed Hollywood to get out of the business of making films that aren’t superhero films. (Lynda Obst would call these the tadpoles. She has no idea how small tadpoles really are.)

So below these budgets, sits the under 5 millions. What’s ironic to me is that these films are being financed by foreign presales too. So we can whine and complain that Hollywood is making movies for the foreign markets and ignoring the US, but so is Indiewood. These films need stars and they need lots of them. Obviously a huge star will get a film financed, but a smaller star will need some support, so these films tend to get overloaded with stars. Basically, they get some stars who aren’t busy or who aren’t getting called so much to take supporting roles; roles that used to go to character actors looking to break out, or up and coming actors looking to break out.

Like I said, these films take their stars to the bank with some foreign presale agreements, or estimates. If the film gets a big sale at Sundance or Toronto, they make big bucks. Otherwise, they’ll still make their money back. Basically, these films are now expected to be star-driven, marketable films for the price of about 5-10% of what a Hollywood film would cost. The stars work for less money, or a cut.

Now, Sundance and Toronto and SXSW have become the place where these films generally go to be sold to the US. These festivals have been around for awhile and they are incredibly competitive. Yet for the most part, they keep filling their schedules with films that aren’t very good. While some of the reasons they pick their films are a complete mystery to me and everyone else, a few big reasons are very clear. They value stars, because stars get attention. And they value their relationships, but they have a lot of relationships. Think of all the big directors that have come out of Sundance and how many of them submit a film in any given year.

In any case, the festivals where the buyers are going are filled with films that are filled with stars. There are maybe a few slots left for the little films, but a lot of times these have some relationship to the festival too – maybe a sales agent, or a producer, or even a director. So breakout films at these festivals are the exceptions rather than the rules.

Then there are films with no stars and no budgets. These are being made by people out of their own pockets, or with kick starter, or with angel investors. They can be great, but there is hardly any US distribution for the under 5 millions I was just talking about, so these ones are incredibly hard to get out there.

If I was to sum it up, there seems to be a huge surplus of films, with stars, being made with no US distribution in place. There are two or three distributors that will put out a big release – Fox Searchlight, Focus, TWC. There are a lot of new distributors that will put a film out in some way – usually a VOD/theater combo of some sort.

It’s not the best of times in the film business. The studios still dominate and the indies are left fighting for a smaller piece of the pie.

I like to say that these problems are not just with the film business. Try getting into the chocolate business these days. Hershey and Cadbury have all the shelf space. But look! There’s a little space for the Valrona. Look again and you will see that little space is now crowded with 100 different brands of high end chocolate all trying to get your attention – and it all looks good, certainly better than what the Big Two are selling. Yet, most of the world is happy with a Twix and for most of the world that’s all there is. We live in highly monopolized economy, and working independently in that world is not easy.