Film Fund-amentals: Infrastructure

As he prepares to jump from indie production to his new position as the Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, Ted Hope has posted a strangely provocative blog piece. Provocative, because Hope is calling for a major rethink of the entire enterprise. Specifically, he is asking for a massive reshaping of the whole concept of film into a much larger – and rapidly changing –  concept of its entire infrastructure.

You don’t hear many people in the film industry discussing the question of “infrastructure.”  Not really. Most of the commentary concerning film – big and small – is extremely narrow in its focus. At least half to two-thirds of mainstream reporting on the industry is gossip oriented (like whatever current charges are pending against Lindsay Lohan). The remaining amount is often made up of whatever movie was number one last weekend in a fight for the ever shrinking box office. (Eventually a movie will be a hit because it made $1,250.29!) Occasionally, someone will write a piece about technical or artistic issues, something like Lindsay Lohan Makes Come Back After Parole.

Much the same is true of inside Hollywood reporting. Often it is focused on which company is trying to buy out some other company. That is followed by updates on spiraling budget figures for current productions and announcements about the same six guys switching jobs between the same six studios. Every so often, there will be updates on movies whose production has been sandbagged by Lindsay Lohan’s latest arrest. Occasionally there will be a “think piece” about the decline of the business – usually rounded out by the theory that the audience will come back tomorrow because tomorrow is just one day away (much like Lohan’s next arrest).

In the indie world, the overwhelming focus is on the never-ending search for funds. In his blog post, Hope especially narrows onto the unfortunate degree that most indie filmmakers have to work from project to project with no chance to take a broader perspective outside of this immediate and singular pursuit.

Even when an indie filmmaker finally gets the needed financial backing, that simply means that they must move into the next obsessive crisis: actually getting the movie made. This is then followed by the third crisis, finding a distributor. The average indie movie process often becomes a seemingly endless quest as the single project potentially takes over the next five to ten years of the filmmaker’s waking existence. It becomes less a business and more of an eccentric lifestyle. Add to this the fact that most of the film industry simply doesn’t care what the average indie filmmaker is doing. No wonder the indie filmmaker quickly becomes both obsessive and disheartened. Eventually, they become convinced that the entire industry is stacked against them. Unfortunately, they are correct. It is designed that way.

The entire history of the American film industry has been based upon monopolization. Beginning in 1908 with Thomas Edison and the Motion Pictures Patent Company and continuing with the evolution of the classic Hollywood studio system of the 1920s and 1930s, the main model of the film industry was based upon various attempts at ruthlessly controlling both production and distribution. The modern mainstream film industry no longer has the type of vertical and horizontal monopoly system that existed in the old days. But they still basically run it in much the same way. They do so through the sheer force of financial control.

OK, it is a little more complicated than that, but by the end of the day it all comes back to money – who has access and who doesn’t. The vast majority of this financial control is in the hands of a very small line up of major companies who maintain a closed shop system. Likewise, these companies are dominated by a small collection of senior executives who are basically bound together by their own language, social customs and rituals, forming a closed set of folks who maintain a surprisingly narrow – if powerful – life. It’s almost like a pack of Freemasons except that Hollywood has fewer secret handshakes.

So yes, indie filmmakers are screwed. To the wall. Then again, maybe not. The digital revolution has emerged as the potential equalizer. The main problem is figuring out how to use it. Not just in the technical sense, but also in its commercial and artistic range. The last two are already proving to be the wild card issues in the process.

The commercial possibilities of the digital approach is in a rapid state of development. The audience is already shifting to adapt it, and the business model is evolving in a great hurry to catch up with the audience. The situation resembles what happens when a radical shift in the environment results in the predators having to relocate in order to keep up with the prey. For the next phase, most likely, a series of competing business models will come and go before a totally successful approach locks itself into place.

But the artistic model will be the major challenge. In part, this is what Hope is referring to when he states that “The shift from a product business model to that of a relationship with the people formerly known as the audience…is a huge transition that won’t be easy.”  At its core, the digital form operates in radically different ways from the traditional cinema. Just as the classic Hollywood cinema evolved from the early nickelodeon, the digital form will evolve from film. It is a new form in the making.

By its highly defined and established nature, Hollywood is stuck in the old model. Only indie filmmakers have the ability to quickly adapt and develop within this new niche. The indie cinema has much to gain by doing so, and nothing to lose.