Film Fund-amentals: The Indie Scorecard

OK, maybe the studio master plan isn’t exactly playing out as they had hoped. According to an e-mail report from, movie ticket sales for 2010 are running 5.3 percent behind those of 2009. Since this 5.3 percent basically represents total cash (rather than actual ticket sells) and is undoubtedly not adjusted for the various raises in current ticket prices (as well as the increasingly steep divide between 2D and 3D admission costs), the real drop in actual tickets is probably somewhere between 10 and 15 percent (and this is a conservative estimate).

In other words, we don’t need to hear any more crap about how the film business is recession proof. We also don’t need to listen to any more nonsense about how 3D is going to save the business (if anything, it has divided sales in a negative manner). Likewise, the boys of Hollywood can stuff it on the idea that the tent pole movie is the exclusive path for the future. Most likely, the July 1 release of The Last Airbender (with an estimated budget of $150 million and a PR budget of $130 million) will follow the expensive downward momentum of Knight and Day and assorted other expensive clunkers that have left many theater owners anxious to screen repeats of such TV shows as Lost in order to attract an audience.

So it is interesting that Variety has just discovered the financial possibilities of small independent movies. OK, they’re not exactly that enthused about the subject, but their recent article Indie Pics Rebound May Be at Hand is one of the few nice things they have had to say about the subject in quite a while. It’s not as if there are any low-budget movies out there at the moment that are scoring big dollars. But a few titles are scoring some loose change and are doing so with a lot less expense than any tent pole epic.

Admittedly, the success stories reported by Variety are kind of in the hypothetical mode. Two of the most prominent movies in the article, Cyrus and Babies, are not exactly breaking any records out there. Like a young toddler, Babies started off with a sudden burst, then toppled quick. As for Cyrus, it actually opened with an impressive $45,429 per screen average. That was on 4 screens. Once it widened to 17 screens, the average dropped to $17,719. It may not be a good idea for the movie to go much wider (two dozen screens could kill it).

But hey, they’re out there, and at least some people are going to them. That is the real story. The current distribution system for indie movies is almost zilch. Taking the glass-is-half-full position, Variety argues that the lack of indie competition is good for indie films. Yeah, sure. And maybe if BP were the only oil company around, we wouldn’t be beefing so much about the Gulf oil spill. By the same logic, if Knight and Day had been the only tent pole movie this summer, Tom Cruise might have made some money. I have found that any argument based on the lack of competition is largely bogus.

Fortunately, what these films do demonstrate is that indie movies can still display some signs of life in the marketplace. The indicators are extremely limited, and the current distribution pattern is still outrageously stacked against them. But at least something is still stirring, and the long-term prospects for indie movies might yet improve.

One possible sign is the increase in digital theaters, as reported in another Variety story. Due to the success of Avatar and other 3D movies (all of which were in a digital format in 3D), theaters are moving more aggressively toward adapting to the new technology. The reason to adapt is for the blockbusters, but the technology also makes it more financially feasible for small movies to get distributed. A digital version of a movie can be distributed for $150 a screen (instead of $2,000 plus per 35mm print). At $150 a pop, I could start distributing my home movies to AMC. Nobody is going want to see them, but I could easily afford to do it.

As more theaters go digital, the indie cinema should prosper. But it won’t. The current distribution system is geared toward Hollywood mainstream dominance and it rejects virtually any approach that steps outside of standard mainstream control (thanks to both the studios and the constant heavy-handedness of the MPAA). The system is rigid, rejects adaptation and refuses to bend in any direction other than the established order. On the other hand, the established order is in the process of falling apart all over the place, and it is likely that theater owners will be increasingly interested in finding alternative approaches. It is a period of evolutionary change.

Which is why it is also interesting that a new approach in indie film making is starting to surface. Participatory cinema is about to make an off-beat but potentially aggressive appearance. The first step in this direction started in 2004 with Open Source Cinema and its online approach to production. This has evolved into a network of film hobbyists who have increasingly moved from mere enthusiasts to actual filmmakers, working in collaboration via the internet. Three movies are currently in production via this technique, with the Finnish production of Iron Sky preparing for the start of actual shooting in October (actually, some of the film has already been “shot” via the digital work – it’s the people they are still working on).

In many respects, the production of films like Iron Sky is closer in methodology to the early days of video game development (so is its plot line of Nazi moon bases and uber alien conquers looking to reverse the end of World War Two). It’s way off base from most traditional standards of indie film making, which is also one of the reasons to keep an eye on this sucker. Evolution is a funny thing, and once upon a time, our own ancestors were funny critters dangling from trees. That is why you always have to look off base.

There are major changes in the air, and whatever comes next will be something that is way off base.