I want to assure everyone that this is not a joke. I understand ‘revolutionize’ is an enormous word and should not be taken lightly so I want to make sure we are all clear on the definition of what the word revolutionize means. Merriam-Webster defines the word revolutionize as follows:
1 : to overthrow the established government of
2 : to imbue with revolutionary doctrines
3 : to change fundamentally or completely ex: revolutionize an industry
This idea could revolutionize the entire independent film industry, and the only reason I say “could” instead of “will” is because to make this a reality, film fans and a majority of the filmmakers out there must work together, believe in and fight for this idea.
This idea, if realized, would not only make it possible for an indie filmmakers to sustain but to also to make hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight.
Believe me, I understand how preposterous this all might sound. When my team and I were fishing around for ideas on a ways for filmmakers to sustain, our goal was to catch a fish, but for some magical reason, we caught a whale. This idea was so big that at first we didn’t even know what we were looking at, but once we stepped back far enough we realized that this idea could change EVERYTHING.
But before I talk about this idea I have to reinstate that for this to work we need filmmakers and film fans from all over the world to support this idea, this movement, this revolution. So if you are a filmmaker who wants to make a living as a filmmaker without being dependent on studios, distributors or advertising; or a film fan who wants to see an explosion of uncompromised Independent film: please blog, tweet, tell and spread this to all of your filmmaker and film loving friends. Then tell them to spread it to their filmmaker friends and tell them to translate this into another language and to spread it some more.
Now to make a clear decision one must clearly understand all the options. I know there are lots of filmmakers out there that know the current state of Indie film isn’t so good right now but for many filmmakers I’m assuming you’re too busy watching films and working on your own stuff to bother with the concerns of the film industry. Let me assure you, that you that you won’t really know how dark the present is until you contrast it with the light of tomorrow. Please read this post and question me if you think I am wrong in any way.
So lets talk about where we are today.
To start, we can no longer look to the past for answers on independent filmmaking. The past is the past and we must look ahead and adapt our strategies and expectations for what I feel are the new bars of “success” for independent filmmakers.
The Old Bars of Success were…
A) Validating yourself as an “Independent Filmmaker” by getting into a good film festival (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto etc.)
B) Getting a distribution deal.
C) Getting your films into theaters resulting in exposure, “credible” reviews and a growing fan base.
D) Being able to continue making films and earn a living through studios who finance and believe in your work.
These are (in my opinion) the NEW Bars of Success
A) Validating yourself as an “Independent Filmmaker” by getting tens of thousands of views on the internet (through youtube, pirate sites, your site etc.)
B) Gain fans, reviews, credibility, cash and exposure through your website, blogs, social network sites, engaging and interacting with your fans, selling your film and merchandise yourself and with the help or your fans spreading the word.
C) Getting enough demand for your film so you can approach theaters and have your film screened, resulting in “credible” reviews and more new fans.
D) Being able to continue making films and earn a living through fans who finance and believe in your work.
So what are the differences?
WE NO LONGER NEED FESTIVALS
Although film festivals are a great way to network, gain credibility and exposure, the truth is that it only really makes a difference for the BIG festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, Toronto etc. the problem with that is that these festivals rarely screen “true” independent films. They typically select small studio films with established directors, actors and budgets over a million dollars.
The Sundance Film Festival announced that for 2010 it will feature NEXT, a new section featuring six to eight films selected for their innovative and original work in low- and no-budget filmmaking. Sure it sounds great and I remember getting messages from other filmmakers saying things like “This is a ray of hope!” but when we dig a little deeper you realize that Sundance doesn’t actually clarify it’s definition of “low budget”. One filmmaker tried to get to the bottom of this question (which you can read about in more depth here) and what he discovered is that Sundance’s “definition” of low-budget isn’t determined by a dollar amount, it’s determined by what that they feel is low budget. They use the film The American Astronaut as an example for what they are looking for and while it’s true that The American Astronaut has no stars in it, it also turns out to be a 1 to 2 million dollar movie.
Sundance has been giving us (the indie filmmakers) the illusion that they are our golden ticket, that we need to get into Sundance to have all of our indie prayers answered. But the truth is, Sundance needs us (and by us I mean our money) way more than we need them. Submission fees for the Sundance Film Festival range anywhere from $35-$100 depending on how early or late you submit and if your film is a short or feature length. As of September 1, the 2010 Sundance Film Festival had received over 4,964 submissions. The deadline for the fest was Sept. 25th so lets play it safe and say they received 5,000 submissions. This means that Sundance made somewhere between $175,000 to $500,000 in submissions alone and that’s before they make money off of selling tickets for the films that the filmmakers don’t see a dime of! And what percentage of those 5,000 submissions are by filmmakers with films made under $1,000,000? I couldn’t find a percentage out there but I think it’s safe to assume at least 80% and if you exclude short films it’s probably much closer to 95%. So why do we fall for it? Why do we throw our money into something we have no chance of getting into? Other then credibility, film festivals were a way of hopefully securing distribution, getting press and getting paid well enough to at least pay off the film. So why do we continue going down this old path when most of the motivations behind submitting and attending festivals no longer exist? Why don’t we just put our films online and bypass the film festivals altogether and let the people be the judge? Every film has an audience and we no longer need a festival or a distributor to find them.
It used to be the festival seal that raised eyebrows and interest for a film; soon (and it’s happening already) it will be the films that have been downloaded and streamed hundreds of thousands of times that will make festival seals completely irrelevant.
WE NO LONGER NEED DISTRIBUTORS
First I just want to say that this one could also be titled “Distributors No Longer Need Us” and the truth is that the relationship between independent filmmakers and independent distributors is no longer a model that works. Dozens of Independent film distributors are closing its doors, which at first might seem like the end of independent films. But the truth is that a lone filmmaker on a computer can reach just as many viewers if not more then any indie distributor ever could and they can do it more cheaply and effectively.
As much as we’d all love to believe that our films are for “everyone” the truth is that independent films are a niche market and for an indie distributor to put all the time, money and effort into advertising, making film prints, making DVD’s and then compete with all the multi-million dollar movies out there is a bet that usually doesn’t end up in their favor. So now, less and less studios are deciding to take chances on indie films because it no longer makes sense for them financially.
It also doesn’t make sense financially for filmmakers to give their films over to distributors. If you haven’t heard of Sita Sings the Blues, it’s an animated musical about the director’s personal interpretation of the Indian epic Ramayana, set to a jazz score by 1920’s singer, Annette Hanshaw. You heard right, AN ANIMATED MUSICAL ABOUT THE DIRECTOR’S PERSONAL INTERPRETATION OF THE INDIAN EPIC RAMAYANA, SET TO A JAZZ SCORE BY 1920’S SINGER, ANNETTE HENSHAW. I think this film should be an inspiration to every filmmaker out there because not only has this director (the talented Nina Paley) created the most unmarketable film ever created but she’s made more money off of it then any distributor would ever pay for it. She said the biggest offer she got from a distributor was $20K which, not only was one quarter of what it cost her to make the film but it would also give the distributor all the rights to her film FOREVER. She turned down the offers, kept her rights and to date her film has made over $50K and she’s done this all by herself and by giving her film away for free online on her website and by encouraging people to pirate it. To date her film has been seen over 100,000 times and has created enough demand online that it has played in theaters, won awards, got a review by Roger Ebert and she still retains all the rights to the film and can use it to help raise money for her next projects FOREVER.
The filmmakers of the The Age of Stupid recently distributed/screened their film live, in 63 countries, in over 400 cinemas where over a million people saw their film at the exact same time! The filmmakers did all of this themselves (with the help of satellites) and have created a new global non-theatrical model that they are opening up to other filmmakers and that you can check out at www.indiescreenings.net.
Arin Crumley and Kieran Masterton are also working on a way to get our films out into theaters called openindie. This tool will enable fans to request films they want to see and if enough demand for your film in one area, you can then use that information to negotiate and strike a deal with theaters in that area directly. No distributor, no middlemen just a direct link from the fans to the filmmaker. You can find out more about openindie at www.openindie.com
I’m not trying to attack Festivals and Distributors or to paint them out as the bad guys. I’m just simply trying to point out that these old models no longer make sense for us and that innovative ways to get our films screened theatrically are being put into place right now by filmmakers who have proven these new methods work. So lets stop looking backwards and start looking forwards so we can focus on some of the bumpy roads we still have ahead of us.
WE HAVE TO WORK HARDER
Without distributors there are now two new crew positions for independent films that are just as crucial as the editor or cinematographer: the web designer (your store) and the media producer (your advertising). Ideally you would have two new people in these positions but I’m guessing for many indie filmmakers it will mean that the director will be wearing more hats. Without a website or someone promoting your film on blogs, social network sites etc., your film will hit a festival, most likely not get picked up and then vanish into obscurity.
Films need a home where people can find out about them. Our content needs to be spread all over the internet so hopefully new fans might stumble upon your work. We need to engage and build relationships with our fans in what I feel is a completely new way: with creativity and honesty. Everyone’s bullshit meters are so good now that anything out there that feels disingenuous is easy to spot a mile away. This is the exciting new challenge filmmakers face.
What can we do to attract new people to our film without it seeming manipulative or just plain boring? Arin Crumley and Susan Buice made a series of podcasts promoting their feature film, Four Eyed Monsters. David Lynch sat on a lawn chair on the side of the road with a live cow to help promote his screenings of Inland Empire. Fellow New Breed filmmaker Todd Sklar has been partnering up with other filmmakers and then they road trip with their films across the U.S. and then holds screenings and party with their fans! The point is that there are no rules to how we do this and hopefully our ideas on how to engage and interact with our fans can be just as creative as our films.
Filmmakers can no longer JUST think about the film. We have to think about our fans more than ever before and we really have take this seriously because…
OUR FANS ARE THE NEW STUDIOS
Now I’m not saying that the studios are going to go away. I’m confident there will always be a demand for big studio movies but for the smaller indie films there is going to a monumental shift. I don’t think it will be the studios that will no longer be interested in making smaller $1-$5 million dollar movies, I think it will be the filmmakers who will no longer see the point in going through a studio to make them.
You can laugh if you want but I guarantee an independent filmmaker will make a million dollars off of their self-distributed film sometime in the next five years. Once this happens the term “independent filmmaker” will take on an entirely new meaning and filmmakers, for the first time, will no longer be dependent on anyone else but their fans.
Once it’s possible to make a million dollars yourself, why bother going through a system that will own the film, be the decision maker of whether your ideas are worth funding/are marketable, have the power to keep you out of the editing room or even shut you down completely. It’s almost a miracle any time a new director makes something truly independent through a studio. For example, one of the boldest studio films by a first time director in the last ten years has to be Being John Malkovich by Spike Jonze. But after some research I found out that the studio had every intention of shutting down the entire film. Here’s an exerpt from an amazing article from the New York Times.
“To capture the appropriate sense of gloom, Jonze and Acord lit the set mainly with ordinary household bulbs and completely dispensed with the Hollywood custom of using fill-lights on the actors’ faces. “The footage couldn’t have been more depressing,” Vince Landay, a producer on the film, told me. “And here PolyGram had been sold on this wacky comedy. So by the time they started reacting to the dailies — it’s handheld, there’s low light — they were freaking out.” After a few more disagreements, PolyGram threatened to shut down the production. Then, in the spring of 1998, the company merged with Universal. New executives came in. By the time anyone got around to checking on Jonze and his team, they’d already been editing for almost a year. Jonze had made the movie he wanted to make.”
The studios didn’t believe in Spike Jonze’s vision, they were simply too busy to shut him down. Of course he was an untested feature director with an extremely unique script but in reality no director is too big or too established to get the studio ax. Look at the recent shut down of Steven Soderburgh’s Moneyball. Steven Soderburgh’s films have earned 14 Oscar nominations; his films have won five and he’s even won for Best Director. The star that was attached to Moneyball: Brad Pitt, the biggest film star on the entire planet! If an Oscar winning director isn’t safe from making a film he wants to make, with the biggest star on the entire planet, then there is an obvious flaw in the system and no one is immune to it.
But now lets look at another filmmaker from The New Breed: Mike Ambs. Through fans alone, Mike has raised almost $9,000 for post-production for his documentary through Kickstarter. Now the interesting thing is that this is Mike’s FIRST documentary and although you might think $9,000 isn’t a ton of money it’s pretty impressive when you consider that these supporters don’t really know if Mike can make a decent film. But he’s reached out and gathered fans by posting trailers, video blogs, talked about themes and the inspiration for his film and because of all of that, he now has fans that believe in him, support him and eagerly await his film.
Now what if Steven Soderburgh went on kickstarter to raise money for his film? What if Soderburgh and Brad Pitt skipped the studios and just asked their fans for $40 million dollars to make the film? Do you think they could pull it off? Are there enough people out there willing to support their vision on such a large scale? While I think Soderburgh could pull in a ton of money by engaging in his fans directly, I still doubt he could pull it off for such a large-scale project. So does this mean that fans aren’t as powerful as the studios? Do you think Quentin Tarantino or Spike Jonze could raise enough through fans alone to make their films independently and at the same scale they are making films today? Unfortunately, today the answer is no but we’ve been working on a platform where any Independent filmmaker, established or not, could potentially earn millions.
THE POWER OF A DOLLAR
Think of every film Soderburgh has made; then imagine if he (not the middle men) got one dollar every time someone watched any of his films online. It seams reasonable enough but as we all know, with today’s technology and the ability to see any film for free, it’s almost impossible to imagine actually getting a dollar for every stream or download. But what we are talking about here is a single dollar. One dollar per view to the filmmaker (not Amazon or Hulu) is the only thing that is preventing filmmakers from being able to make films of the same caliber (monetarily) as the studios.
The latest film to blow up on the Internet is a $250,000 film called INK. The film was partly financed by the director refinancing his house to make the film and had no-name stars attached. No big film festival or distributor was interested in the film but recently the film got pirated on the internet, and in five days the film was downloaded over half a million times. The director told filmmaker magazine, “our revenue on the film has quadrupled in the last few days as a result of the exposure. It’s still a fraction of what we need to be making to make it work”
In short, a low-budget movie that has been seen over a half a million times still can’t even break even. Imagine how different the film industry would be if the filmmaker got one dollar off of every view. Not only would the film be paid off but the filmmaker could have enough to live comfortably and have a decent amount of money he could begin saving to fund his next film. This SINGLE DOLLAR changes this filmmaker from a starving artist who can barely afford to live in his house, to a successful filmmaker who is already pulling in enough profit to produce his next film.
So how can we (the filmmakers) get a buck for every view? How can we compete against free? How can we make a living as filmmakers? I’ve been thinking long and hard about this question every day for over a year now and last month, my team and I stumbled upon a solution that could set us all free.
Next up: We spill the beans on Fandependent Films and explain how it all works.