Film Fund-amentals: The Old and the New

Sometimes a single photo says it all. For example, what better way to sum up the sorry state of mainstream Hollywood than in the recent snapshot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone yakking it up from their hospitable beds in pre-op. They’re action movie stars, can’t you tell? Now, who has the bed pan?

Yes, old Hollywood is pretty lame these days, and they’re all rounded off by runaway budgets. Take for example the current production of The Lone Ranger. First, the movie was going to cost $250 million and the studio balked. In a gesture of fiscal responsibility, the budget was brought down to $220 million. But that’s OK. Now that shooting has begun, the current cost of silver bullets is edging close to $280 million. Good thing the Lone Ranger has his own silver mine because he’s going to need it. This sucker may yet go past the $300 million mark before they are done.

You don’t have to be in hard-core Occupy (just fill in the blank) mode to get a bit steamed about the situation. Heck, for this kind of dough, a company could make lots of half-way decent smaller films (at least 30 to 50 or more). A few of them might even make money. From virtually any economic standpoint, the current tent pole movie process is completely irrational.

Likewise, the strains are beginning to show. DreamWorks isn’t the only company with major money problems, and its joint animation venture with China may prove to be too much (like building a new studio) arriving too late (like maybe they should have done this a year ago). But DreamWorks is only one of many major companies with “problems,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to see various studio executives at the Academy Awards this year wearing cardboard signs saying “Will Produce For Food.” Heck, the whole show could be set to the tune of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

Which is one of the reasons I keep coming back to the notion that the low-budget indie film is the hope of the future. There are many reasons in favor of this idea, but simply put, it is the only financial model that makes any sense. Part of this is rooted in a return to certain old-guard business practices in which outgo and income operate within some form of reasonable relationship to each other. This idea is almost as old hat as an “I Like Ike” button, but it is a reasonable concept.

More important, low-budget filmmaking and the rapidly expanding digital revolution were made for each other. The full and extensive effect of these changes is only now in the process of being realized. It is a process that is like a cosmic cloud still in the early stages of creating new stars and worlds. It is a free and open zone that still suggests an endless range of possibilities with few guidelines to follow. For some, the basic reference to this new world can be found in the Abe Schwartz blog article Eight Changes in Indie Film, which was recently reposted at the Raindance web site.

It is still a good list, though already in need of some revamping. For example, Item 1 is now strictly academic. Kodak doesn’t make film any more. Of course you’re going to be using a digital camera. This is no longer a question but simply a fact. In turn, Item 7 has now gotten more complex, since the crowdfunding approach has proven successful enough to be subject to a new act of Congress that will make it more amenable to SEC oversight.

Items 2 and 4 are arguably intertwined as the question of production budget becomes interconnected with the rapidly emerging new markets provided through online distribution. In theory, a micro-budget movie (made for around $5,000 to $100,000) could have the best of everything — money raised through crowdfunding combined with a digital release via a commercial provider. Of course, this isn’t exactly the way the system is going at the moment, and it remains to be seen if and when a digital site successfully achieves a major release of a micro-production. Personally, I suspect it will happen within the next one to two years. But until then, it is open to debate.

Item 3, regarding 3D, actually misses the real point. The modern 3D system is forcing theaters to adapt to digital presentation and, eventually, digital distribution. The tent pole movies are behind this movement, but the technology is especially ideal for low-budget distribution. A total digital distribution system lowers the cost of releasing a movie to the rough equivalent of lunch money. The major companies are not really interested in opening up the distribution system, but the technology dictates otherwise.

In some respects, Schwartz’s post should be read in tandem with Elliot Grove’s blog piece Debunking Five Myths of Independent Cinema (also at the Raindance site). Grove plays the important role of Satan to some of the new notions in indie film. I don’t totally agree with his points, but he has some good arguments that need to be kept in mind. OK, to be honest his Item 4 about cult status (bought, not earned) is bullshit. The whole cult thing is a strange universe, and most attempts to manufacture a cult following for a movie have gone the way of Shock Treatment (the failed sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show). A cult movie is created by the audience, not by any PR department. Don’t believe me, then just ask the Dude.

But I’m more intrigued by Item 5 in Grove’s piece. I totally agree with the notion of using logic instead of mythology to make crucial determinations in a production. But I’m also guessing that he’s defending the old model (at least that would seem to be the conventional wisdom he’s alluding to). However, the old model is dead. What is happening now (and will continue to happen) is the formation of the new model. This is in no way a rejection of logic. Quite the opposite. But the old conventional wisdom (which was not always that wise to begin with) will be of little use.

Or as Hegel once said: “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help.”