A Challenge to Filmmakers

George Rush November 3, 2009

Usually I use this column to address specific legal problems that come up when producing a film. I’m not going to address a legal concern this time, but instead, speak to a larger issue that I feel is rarely discussed: the lack of quality independent filmmaking today.

In addition to being an entertainment lawyer, I’ve ended up acting as a sales rep on a number of films. In that role, I’ve spent the past couple of years going to a lot of film festivals, becoming intimately aware of the current downward trend in the independent film industry. It is true that the sky is falling, that the industry is downsizing, and the economics, which never made too much sense to begin with, make even less sense today. What a terrible time to be an independent filmmaker! Fewer buyers paying less! A shrinking audience! A digital world that no one knows how to utilize effectively, and is not meaningfully monetized! So what’s a filmmaker to do?

The answer may be the one no one wants to hear: Make better films.

A lot of people come and see me and want to address the bigger problem with film distribution with a huge plan that involves somehow taking control of your film’s distribution, and thus taking control of its destiny. I’ve seen very ambitious plans, with teams of distribution consultants about crowd building and controlling your rights and utilizing social networking to create this robust economic model. That might be a great idea, except most filmmakers I know are good at making films; they are not distributors. That is a totally separate business and the experts at that, who are generally marketing experts, are—gasp!— the distributors! It is incredibly difficult to make a great film. Just focus on that. That’s what your job is.

Despite the bleak environment, I am a firm believer that if you make a great film, it will find a home, and possibly a good home. I do not believe very many good films slip through the cracks. General audiences judge independent films in the same way they do a Hollywood blockbuster, both in performance and production values. You say, That’s not fair: How can a $200,000 film be judged against a $20,000,000? It isn’t fair, but that’s why so few indie films break out. It’s hard to do a lot with a little. If your film does not find a home, it is probably because it is not as good as you’d like it to be. All the crowd building and distribution consultants in the world won’t be able to help you. You needed a perfect storm to pull off a great film on a low budget, and more often than not, this does not happen.

People talk about self distribution but fail to point out that this is a loser’s game, with a failure rate of 99 percent. You are not a distributor, so don’t task yourself with reinventing the wheel. I wouldn’t be so harsh here except I’ve seen far too many people spend a lot of time and money spinning their wheels and getting nowhere. Having control of a mediocre film isn’t going to save you from a film’s mediocrity. Maybe you have the skill set to distribute a film, but if that’s the case, that’s probably the business you should be in. Filmmaking is a separate skill set and almost no one is good at both.

OK, so what? People are still willing to roll the dice and see what happens. But roll the dice on what? In the ’90s, indies took off and they seemed fresh and new. They truly were an alternative fare to whatever you were accustomed to. I can remember being an undergrad at Berkeley in the ’90s and indie film was exciting and cool. It had an edge. And it wasn’t only for cinephiles. Currently, I think independent film has lost that edge. Part of the reason is that is the studios created specialty divisions, which produce slicker versions of that edgy fare. How could your dark comedy compete with a dark comedy starring Jennifer Aniston?

I remember San Francisco-based producer Henry Rosenthal telling me that independent film is film that could never be produced in Hollywood—it’s just too weird or out there for a studio to take a risk on. Well, now the studios have moved into the space that we independent filmmakers used to occupy, and they’ve commodified it. So instead of moving into a direction of making what Hollywood doesn’t, independent filmmakers have been stuck making the same type of film over and over, and, in the process, losing the audience.

Maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon, but the past few years at major festivals I’ve seen almost no narrative features that have made me truly excited. I feel like I’ve been in this endless loop, watching serious-minded films that are exceptionally made but have no excitement. Whether it’s a high-minded literary period piece or a snapshot of twentysomething slackers, it seems repetitive. I couldn’t recommend any of these films to anyone except indie film dorks, which I assume you are if you are reading this (I am!).

But what about regular, open-minded people who would be receptive to an indie film if it were good and fresh? Where is the new Wes Anderson, the new P.T. Anderson, the new Darren Aronofsky? Their debut films showed us whole new ways of imagining cinema. The current state of indie film feels static. Approaches, styles and storylines that would have been fresh in 1994 are stale in 2009. Perhaps the indie film scene is too self congratulatory and the players have too much invested in their identities as "smart" filmmakers to see that their audience, the younger generation, is passing them by. The scene is a caricature of its old self, and once you leave that scene, generally few people care. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen films that have given me a glimmer of hope, but not many.

So many filmmakers who come to see me want to make that serious film. An intellectually stimulating work of art. A piece of culture. I’m all for that and then some, but if independent film is going to get out of that rut, it is up to you to re-energize the scene and make films that Hollywood isn’t. This involves a large degree of risk, as it is an untread path, but given the dire state of the industry, why not try something new? Just because your film is highbrow, doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining. The same issues that are important to you can still be addressed, but your film has to speak to people, real ones. Think outside the box—make something as ridiculous as you want it to be. Don’t be cautious. The industry is so far in the doldrums, you don’t have to worry about the hook or the marketplace—just make something new, fun and exciting. The way I look at it is that what made Cassavetes great in his time was that his films were unconventional for that time. If you are making a Cassavetes-type film today, that train has passed. I do believe that audiences want an alternative to Transformers, but what was once considered the alternative has become defined—and is played out.

Really, you are filmmakers. Quit bitching about how tough it is out there! It is less your problem than it is the reality that you have to deal with. Distributors are going to have to right their own ship, and I believe they eventually will. But a large part of that is filmmakers taking major risks and forging new ground. I know, it’s easy for me to say, I’m just some pencil-pushing attorney. True, but I live and breathe this stuff and know that the content needs to change. You won’t hear that too much at festivals or panel discussions because you have people whose identities and jobs rely on things staying the way that they are. But let’s get real: If you want to take the bull by the horns and make this scene vital again, it will start with you creating something fresh. You make a film that people want to see and distributors will figure it out. The ball is in your court filmmakers. Are you up for the challenge? Please say YES!