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How Do We Define Indie Cinema

We all know what an indie film is, right?  It’s a movie that is independently made…and that particular tautology sums up the problem.

This use to be a pretty straight forward proposition. If it wasn’t made by a Hollywood studio, it was an indie. Though this was strictly an institutional definition, it was viewed as relatively sufficient. But as Hollywood studios became media companies and the financial conditions of film production became an increasingly complex system of multiple investors, all movies have become largely independent productions in the most basic economic sense.

Sure, these flicks are not indie movies in any way, shape or form. But they are not really studio movies either, since no studios really exist any more.

Today’s Audience

Several years ago, I asked if the film industry knew their audience.  It’s a question that can be asked at virtually every level of the business as demonstrated last month during a panel discussion at the International Cinema Technology Association.

Of course, the presentation at the International Cinema Technology Association was primarily focused on exhibitor related issues.  Especially issues related to digital conversion, alternative content (for example, sports) and items at the concession stand.  For indie filmmakers, the second item might be the only interesting point.  After all, it’s not impossible (though it might seem to be) that a theater might host something like a Thursday night indie presentation.

Who’s A Mad Scientist?

Thanks to the New York Times, folks in the film industry are once again worrying about the invasion of the data crunchers.

In the recent article Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data, reporter Brooks Barnes practically compares us data crunchers to a zombie invasion. And yes, I said “us.” I am a data cruncher (though oddly enough, we don’t much use that term in the business).  So I do have a wee bit of an invested stake in this topic.

Which is why I feel the need to set the record straight on a few points. 

Flying With Steven Soderbergh

When Steven Soderbergh is cruising at 32,000 feet, he gets philosophical.

That is one impression from his recent State of the Cinema address delivered April 25, 2013, as the keynote speech to the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival. The speech has become a must read, as it has made the rounds of blog sites and entertainment news reports. I think it has actually received more press than the Gettysburg Address in its day.

Tell Us What We Already Know

It sometimes takes a lot of work to tell us what we already know.

That is one of my impressions after reading the recent Variety report about the current state of Hollywood, as analyzed by Michael Nathanson for Nomura Equity Research. Nathanson’s report, based on ten years of scrutiny, seems to present a semi-optimistic picture of Hollywood’s current direction as he maps out the its modern business model. Notice I have a “semi” in there.

According to this report, Hollywood has succeeded in streamlining cost issues by reducing productions and focusing on a few selected tent pole releases. I guess that is one way of looking at it. In turn, these movies have a higher box office profile and generate much larger revenues. By and large, that is true. For every $300 million spent, at least $250 million is earned at the box office.

The report suggests that the past decline in theater admission may now be on a slight upward tick. Actually, the real figures suggest that the decline may have at best bottomed out. The signs of life are erratic.

The decline in the home-video market has possibly bottomed out as well. Quick note to Nathanson: don’t bet on it buddy.

Lots of Advice (for What It’s Worth)

The British director Michael Powell once told me his notion of giving advice when he was working as a consultant to Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope Studios. Powell described the process quite simply: “I tell them what I think they should be doing, they pay me a lot of money and then completely ignore everything I said.”

Yes, Michael Powell inspired me to become a film consultant. I am still working on that lots of money part, but I love the rest of the arrangement. Just hand out advice and move on.Unfortunately, it is an extremely competitive field. Heck, every five minutes a new blog post appears somewhere online about the top five (or ten, or whatever) things filmmakers need to do when crowdfunding. All any indie filmmaker needs to do is spend about the next six months on Google and get hot tips on

The Never-Ending Cycle

Sometimes I shouldn’t be allowed into a theater. Take last December when I went with my son to see The Hobbit. He’s a big Peter Jackson fan. Me, I just occasionally like seeing how lots of money gets splashed on the screen.

So we are stuck there for about twenty or more minutes of previews. Normally, I love previews. They are often better than the actual movies. But it occurred to me that all the previews looked like the same film, over and over again. The earth is a wasteland after some kind of disaster with our hero facing some sort of plot by nefarious plotters or whatever. You got Tom Cruise in one of these suckers, Will Smith and his son in another one and I forget who all else in about two dozen other variations of basically the same script.

Then we had terrorists blowing up and taking over the White House, also over and over again. So I stand corrected. Hollywood has two scripts that they are endlessly recycling. Though wait a minute. If you destroyed the Earth, I bet you had to blow up the White House, so why not combine these two scripts?  Just be sure to book Morgan Freeman. After all, he seems to be in half of these movies.

This tells me several things.

The End of DVDs

Some people are still pondering the business market for DVDs. Guess they haven’t seen the memo. It’s over!  Kaput  The DVD is not yet dead, but it has been admitted into hospice. Various news agencies are already working on the obituary. It will eventually join the rank of such other great devices as the VHS cassette and the Laserdisc. I don’t think it will be a sudden death. More like a lingering decline (which is already well underway). But the end of the DVD format is in sight and the reasons are all pretty straightforward.

Technically, the format has long been iffy. It wasn’t supposed to be, but that thinking was based upon the presumed archival possibilities of DVDs.

Secrets of Writing A Screenplay

First thing, right up front, there are no secrets. None whatsoever.
Or at least, that was what I thought until I recently got a variety of spam for assorted hot offers that unlock the ancient secrets of the screenplay. Heck, some of these promotions sound as if I will be spending the next twenty years in a Tibetan monastery. Good thing I can substitute my credit card number in lieu of esoteric training.
In reality, some of these folks (and their various web sites) can teach you how to write a screenplay. That doesn’t mean they can teach how to write a good screenplay or even a marketable one. All they can do is give you the basics about how to format and structure something that just might resemble a plausible script in the most elemental sense of the term.
Of course, you could figure that out for yourself if you were so inclined. But it is different strokes for different folks and buyer beware and all of that standard advice. People have a Constitutional right to pay as much as they want for any amount of screenwriting seminars they desire. I have heard reports from folks who claim they come out of these seminars feeling truly inspired, which I assume is why they keep going back every year. Few if any of them have yet to produce a single marketable screenplay, but they have lots of inspiration.
Sometimes you just want to do something that makes you feel better about yourself. Really, nobody can teach you exactly how to write a screenplay. What you can learn, is how to structure a screenplay. That occurred to me while reading an article at The Guardian by the BBC writer/producer John Yorke. In What Makes a Great Screenplay?, Yorke unreels a quick but highly detailed breakdown of key narrative and dramatic components in the screenplay structure.
I’m not sure that I would totally agree with every point Yorke makes in this piece. But it is worth careful scrutiny by anyone interested in learning narrative craft. Yes, I said craft.

Structural Divergence

There must be mornings when the typical indie filmmaker barely can crawl out of bed. On the receiving end of so much bad news, it’s a miracle he or she can even get in the mood to dress before noon.

Barely a week goes by without some new post of doom and gloom for the indie business. For example, a recent blog piece by Ted Hope could be mistaken for a zombie alert warning. Actually, it is an important read for everyone in the indie business. But man oh man, there are times when ol’ Ted starts to sound like one of those depression ads on TV.

Unfortunately, Hope does have some very good points. Especially in regards to the recent article in The Economist titled Hollywood: Split Screens. In turn, this article does a solid job of outlining many of the reasons why the current Hollywood business model is busted.

Busted?  It’s way past that point. Heck, the Hollywood business model is in worse shape than a guy who has just been run over by a truck and the truck driver backs up to see what that “bump” was in the road. Under the current Hollywood model, you spend around $300 million making a film and then hope to score a billion globally in its release. Once in a blue moon, a movie succeeds in pulling off this stunt. This is called dumb luck, and luck is not a business model.

This tent-pole madness has had profoundly negative consequences for indie movies.