Film Fund-amentals: Thinking of the Future of Film

Socrates once said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Obviously, he was anticipating the current state of the indie film industry. Based on several recent articles, it would seem that there are not only two sides to every issue but also three or more issues to every side.

Last month The Economist published a short but spiffy piece on The Revival of Independent Film. According to their analysis, indie movies are poised to make a major market comeback because… OK, this is where the article gets little thin. I’m not so much arguing with their point. I’m just trying to figure out how they came up with it.

One of the examples they use is the recent success of The Weinstein Company with the release of The King’s Speech. Of course that was last year, and so far in 2011, The Weinstein Company has been striking out everywhere they turn. Two other companies they refer to, CBS Films and Open Road, are too recent to truly analyze (heck, Open Road still has their website under construction). So far, the track record for both companies is less than promising.

Likewise, the article’s observation about European financing — added to American production and distribution — may have taken a huge hit from today’s ruling by the European Court of Justice. Selling movies country by country has been a major plus to various indie filmmakers, and the legal requirement to deal with the entire European Union throws some gigantic monkey wrenches into the negotiation process.

But that’s OK, I guess, because The Economist also assumes that the collapse of the DVD market will be a boon to the indie trade, since it will possibly force the audience back to the theaters. To be honest, there is no rational explanation as to how they came up with this one (though what is stated in the article sounds more like a plea than a theory). Personally, I am of two minds on this issue. Might be nice if it develops that way. Too bad it just ain’t gonna to happen. The staff at The Economist sound as if they’re hoping for a return to the art house theaters of the 1960s, where coffee was served instead of popcorn and the word “existential” flowed through the lobby like a fine French wine.

But a better assessment of current trends can be found in a blog piece from last February by Roger Goff and a more recent piece by Nick DeMartino at To get an even better idea of what is really going on, just add last month’s interview with Todd Wagner of Magnolia Pictures regarding their VoD approach, along with a copy of Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul by Jeffrey Winter, Orly Ravid, Jon Reiss and Sheri Chandler. If this were a classroom rather than a blog, this would be the reading list for the intro course. As a teacher, I would only have to throw in a few obvious comments in lieu of a lecture and hope to collect a paycheck.

What is happening is that indie cinema is making a comeback, but not exactly in the way it used to be. There is still a market for modestly priced productions (despite its historical setting, The King’s Speech had a remarkably low budget of $15 million). Occasionally, there will be a surprisingly hot indie event like Paranormal Activity (which magically turned a $55,000 investment into $183 million in worldwide gross). But mostly, the future for indie will be in the direction of digital distribution, VoD release and other developing forms of online and mobile access.

There is no doubt that this is the immediate future of cinema. Every aspect of the developing technology is steering in that direction. Even current technological applications by the major Hollywood companies (such as 3D) are driving the system into the direction of an increasingly decentralized structure that is economically more suitable for the indie filmmaker. A careful reading of Cinema Projection in the Age of Digital Distribution outlines part of this development. So the distant shoreline has already been sighted, softly green in the sun’s dappled light. The only question is, how do we sail toward this land without hitting any hidden rocks close to shore?

In other words, how the heck is anyone ever going to make money out of this emerging new system? In many respects, the technology has surpassed the economic structure of the industry (which isn’t exactly surprising, since the economic structure of film is still a partial relic of the silent era). But certain aspects of the new economic model are already apparent:

  1. The current fixation by the major companies on big-budget production will eventually implode. The economic structure to this model is totally lacking in sustainability and can only exist as long as the financial backers (mostly large lenders and multinational corporations) are willing to prop it up.
  2. The emerging new model will be based on what DeMartino calls the “transmedia” movement. The primary focus on financial return on a movie will continue to shift away from theaters and will be increasingly focused on a mix of digital screenings and VoD distribution.
  3. YouTube and other forms of online presentation are in the process of creating new forms that create a heightened (and extremely different) sense of engagement with the audience. The results will be equivalent to an evolutionary change within both the business and the art form.
  4. Everything we currently know, think we know, or even hope to have learned from past experience will most likely prove to be wrong.

Or as that other great philosopher Doris Day once sang: “The future’s not ours to see.”