This is an article in a series called The Filmmaker's Guide to Value. You may read all the articles in this series by clicking here.
A PLEA TO CONSUMERS
Jon Reiss recently posted a very thorough article called A Christmas (and Hanukah) List to Help Save Independent Film. It's a valiant effort and may actually help some independent filmmakers stay afloat, much in the same way that NPR has stayed afloat with listener donations. Which is great. If CC P2P services like Vodo.net explode and consumers find a simple way to patronize the indie filmmakers they like, we'll all live in a much better world for the arts.
Even so, I can't help wonder: isn't this just bailing a sinking ship? Don't misunderstand: I'm not saying independent filmmaking is a sinking ship, at least not in whole. Quite on the contrary, some recent indie films have been wildly successful, both artistically and commercially, e.g., Precious, Once, Paranormal Activity. Supporting indie filmmaking, though, comes naturally when the market enjoys the content. If you're telling a story people enjoy, you should—in theory, anyway— never have a problem finding some kind of funding for your film.
Last week, I started a virtual panel on Twitter called Infinite Distribution. The panel focuses on film distribution in the digital age which you can find and contribute to at #infdist. Lots of people have been contributing to it, including Jon Reiss (author of the must-read book, Thinking Outside the Box Office), but a few comments in particular resonated with me. Self Helpless is a no budget comedy being released for free over BitTorrent for 7 days, followed by a DVD release with related mechandise like T-shirts, etc. In itself, their model is worth writing more about (read more about their BitTorrent model here), but this is a collection of @Selfhelplessmov's tweets:
Make shit people want and give it to them for free. Not for everyone, but it works for us. The idea of retraining or cajoling audiences irks me... maybe audiences need to retrain filmmakers to make movies people will like. Training people to be more film-savvy seems weird. Making movies FOR the audience often gets left out of the conversation—before we can teach, don't we have to gain their trust by giving them good films?
Why are indie films struggling? I see two obvious reasons (though there may be many others): the market doesn't support indie films, and costs to make indie films are too high. This is a tragic and vicious circle... when the market does support those films, then the costs aren't too high, right? So are we seriously objecting to a lack of support in the market for fringe indie films that can't seem to find their market? As Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland recently said:
...growing a sector is a privilege and not a right. There is no right size. There is no correct or God-given size for any sector. Why do we get to make movies that cost $300 million to make? Because we have found venues where people will spend more than $300 million on the result. If people spend only $50 million then the price of a movie must be $49 million or less.
This economic principle is and always will be mercilessly democratic. It applies to physical products 100 years ago and to digital products today: if audiences for indie films only spend $1 million, then the cost of indie films must be less than $1 million. If audiences spend $50,000, then the cost must be under $50,000. If there is no market for a particular indie film, then that indie film must either adapt... or it will die. You can bail water on the sinking ship if you so wish, but sooner or later, your arms will get tired. Appealing to consumers' good nature to help fund independent movies for its own sake is putting a band-aid on a bleeding jugular.
Terry Rossio once wrote on Wordplay, either in a column or a comment, and I'm paraphrasing: "we can give you all the advice about pitching your story to a producer, about how to format your script, about all these other little tips and tricks... but it won't make any difference if you can't write a Damned Good Screenplay. You could even write a screenplay in crayon but if its story and characters were compelling enough, that multi-colored script will still get a green light. So stop worrying about two vs. three brads and start worrying about your opening words. Worry about your character development. Worry about your story." Indeed. Rather than focus all your efforts on how to market your product cleverly, just focus your efforts on improving the damned product. Good content advertises itself.
This article is part of a series called The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Value. You may read the entire articles by clicking here, or the other articles here:
- Save the Tower Theatre
- A Plea to Consumers
- A Rotating Film Tour (12/26 09:00 PST)
- What Are You Really Selling? (12/27 09:00 PST)
- Transmedia: Connecting With Fans (12/28 09:00 PST)
- CwF + RtB For Filmmakers (12/29 09:00 PST)