Apologies for taking longer than expected to post the second part of this series but I found myself sidelined by a film and I must always heed that siren song.
Last time we talked about who were the two sides forming up during this indie film meltdown. Today, let’s answer the second question:
Actually, I think there are two parts to this. “What happened?” and “What next?”
The first is easier to answer. After the boon of the early 90s and the rise of Miramax, everyone got into the indie film game. Distributors were no long just small New York enterprises run by film lovers armed with PhDs. No, suddenly every major west coast studio had an independent film arm: Disney acquired Miramax, New Line Cinema had Fine Line Features and then Picture House, 20th Century Fox had Fox Searchlight, Paramount had Paramount Vantage (originally known as Paramount Classics), Warner Brothers had Warner Independent, Sony had Sony Pictures Classics, Universal had Focus.
Oh, and following the Miramax model, all of these new mini-majors created genre arms to fund their indie fare. There is no way Bob and Harvey Weinstein could have made and won the Oscar for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE without all the money generated by the SCREAM franchise (which was the most lucrative horror franchise until SAW. What was the most lucrative horror franchise before that? The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. Go Wes Craven!).
But before I start swinging my hatchet wildly, let me say that big company interest was a boon for independent filmmakers. Not only is this how someone like Tarantino got $70 million of make his version of THE DIRTY DOZEN but it also got a lot of struggling filmmakers excellent jobs as TV directors (most of that credit should go to the Barry Levinson/Tom Fontana/David Simon series HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET. Some indie directors that got to helm episodes and put food on the table as a result: Nick Gomez, Peter Medak, John McNaughton, Tim Hunter, Barbara Kopple, Ted Demme, Gary Fleder, and the list goes on). If you made a halfway decent film that got into Sundance, you stood a good chance of getting distributed plus a nice advance and maybe even a first look deal.
So what went wrong? These large companies don’t know how to do small. They can’t be nimble. They can’t big quick. They can only make things bigger and more expensive in the hopes of making more money.
That’s when these distribution arms stopped acquiring films and started making flicks of their own. Now you have little studio movies costing $5-15 million instead of less than $2 million like they should.
To make things worse, these companies started treating Oscar campaigns like arms races. They would spend millions, maybe tens of millions trying to win an Academy Award nomination (and so many millions more to actually win a statue). This bubble had to burst.
And it did. And so now we have our current state. Gone are the days of healthy advances. Today you’re lucky if you get any advance whatsoever.
So what next?
Today, indie and art film’s (I’m not talking about genre films; they still have a market) only chance to recoup an investment is to self-distribute.
What does it mean to self-distribute? It means you take your film and you sell the foreign and domestic theatrical (if you’re lucky enough to get a theatrical release), home video, cable, television and digital rights territory by territory. You sell your home video to Netflix, your cable to Starz, your television to Turner and your digital to Hulu. And then you do the same thing in the UK, Japan, Germany, Spain, Mexico, etc. By some accounts, self-distributing a film will take 1-3 years of your life.
(Is it me or did that just sound like a prison sentence?)
Other experts estimate that one should reserve 50% of their resources for marketing and distribution if you’re going the DIY route. That means if you’ve raised $100k for a film, take $50k of that and save it for marketing and distribution.
Did you stomach just drop to your knees or leap into your throat?
I know, you’re thinking “with the internet it’s easier than ever to get your film out there.” True, but with the flood of product it has become that much harder to market yourself, to make your work stand out.
Are there any advantages to self-distribution? Yes. First, you develop a direct relationship with your audience. If they like you and your work, they’re more likely to buy more of your stuff, even merchandise. Second, you reap all the reward. There’s no studio charging hotel rooms in Cannes against your net. I think if you’re a highly specialized filmmaker (say you’re the guy that only make motorcycle films) then this might be the way to go. Me, I like to play in many different genres.
Next week: When?
PS, I had no idea the New York Times and I were both writing the same article.