The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The sky is falling on indie film

June 23, 2008 |  4:27 pm

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

Film Department chief Mark Gill, who has spent most of his adult life in the indie film business -- first during the glory days at Miramax, then at the late, unlamented Warner Independent Pictures -- knows better than anyone how bad things are today in that world. Wall Street money is drying up. Indie films have been tanking at the box office. Studio specialty divisions are getting the ax or fleeing the scene (as Gill described one of the cost-cutting moves, "New Line's staff was cut by 90%, and the survivors were sent to hell ... I mean ... Burbank.")

So when Gill gave a keynote speech Saturday at the L.A. Film Festival Financing Conference, it was sort of like hearing Al Gore preach about global warming -- who could possibly have a better vantage point (no pun intended!) from which to deliver the really unhappy tidings? (Go here to read the whole speech.) For the most part, it was a good, unsentimental, bracingly candid speech. One of my favorite parts was where Gill laid out the grim odds facing indie filmmakers:

"Of the 5,000 films submitted to Sundance each year -- generally with budgets under $10 million -- maybe 100 of them got a U.S. theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That's one-tenth of 1%. Put another way, if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure."

We've known that the indie business was full of peril for years. But is there a way out of the current doldrums?

That's where I think Gill's speech falls short. He ends up returning to the ancient wisdom of Sam Goldwyn, who once offered the pronouncement: "Make fewer better." Gill rightly says that in the current tent-pole environment, where advertising costs are skyrocketing and instant buzz can derail a new release before it has found its legs, big studios have a big edge with their marketing muscle. So indie filmmakers have to make better films to survive. Using Netflix as a salient example, Gill reminds us that quality is a potent weapon: the most popular picture among Netflix's 6 million subscribers is a relatively obscure 34-year-old film, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation."

Gill's conclusion: "As simple as it sounds, it all comes down to a good story, well told." But for me, that's not just simple, it's too simple. The indie biz is full of people trying to make quality films. What this ignores isn't just that most films aspiring to quality don't end up achieving quality, but that many quality films don't make money because their subject matter is too narrow or dark or solipsistic to find a sizable audience.

The real problem with the indie business isn't quality, but discipline. We have a generation of filmmakers who feel entitled to make personal films at studio prices. (The poster boy for this would be Wes Anderson, a gifted artist who makes increasingly idiosyncratic cinematic sketches on a far-too-costly canvas.) We also have a generation of studio executives who've been willing to, essentially, use specialty films as a loss leader to launch their divisions. That's why "There Will Be Blood" cost $40 million-plus and "No Country For Old Men" and "Babel" cost $30 million-plus to make, which along with the untold tens of millions spent to run Oscar campaigns, made the films a losing proposition.

If people in the indie world want to start making money again, they have to start treating their investment like a truly precious natural resource, not like Monopoly money. Discipline is not antithetical to art. The oldest and most consistently successful specialty division, Sony Pictures Classics, keeps making money because it resolutely, sometimes to a fault, never overspends on a film. When there is a bidding war, you can always find SPC chiefs Tom Bernard and Michael Barker running in the other direction.

Ditto for Fox Searchlight, an equally disciplined, incredibly well-run company that only acquires movies it knows how to sell. When my colleague John Horn recently wrote a story noting that Paramount Vantage had nearly 100 employees and had yet to make a profit, Paramount production chief (and Vantage founder) John Lesher called him and launched into a profanity-filled tirade. Instead of yelling at a reporter, Lesher, not to mention many of his indie film colleagues, should be doing some serious soul searching. The indie film business isn't going to get any better until filmmakers and studio executives stop their spending sprees and start making indie movies for a true indie price.

photo credit: Yoshio Sato / Focus Feature

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