The Emerging Crossroads

Winston Churchill once said, “There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.”

Of course the issue of “right direction” is an imponderable. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the indie film business. All of the standard rules of the past are changing. Did I say changing? They are vanishing with every passing day.

Many indie filmmakers are living in a state of denial regarding these changes, as Chris Dorr noted some months back in his blog piece “The Denial at the Heart of Indie Film.” Others are trying to create online forums for discussing these changes, such as the upcoming Reinvent Hollywood that will take place this summer at

Meanwhile, various new approaches to indie distribution are in the works. The International Film Festival Rotterdam has launched the IFFR! Live program in an attempt to combine theatrical release, pay-TV, and VoD in a grand experiment. Other alternatives range from such programs as Rooftop Films in New York to wide-ranging combinations of film, dance, and musical performance.

Considering the extreme difficulty any indie film has in getting an actual theatrical release, these emerging alternatives are promising. But only barely. No matter how much these alternative venues try, they can only accommodate a fraction of the large indie world.

There is a perceived glut of indie productions. By one estimate, during the 2009 to 2010 period alone, at least 50,000 indie movies were made, ranging from low budget features to various shorts.

Of this total, fewer than 10 percent will actually get some amount of festival play. Of that 10 percent, only a small group (roughly another 10 percent) will actually get picked up for theatrical release. By the end of this process of attrition, only about six to ten titles will ever get widespread national release. The remaining titles will play for between three and nine weeks at select theaters in a few of the largest cities (mostly New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles). This reality of marginal possibilities is one of the main reasons why many indie filmmakers are turning toward online digital distribution.

Eventually, all indie films will be released through some form of digital online distribution. This will be especially so as the commercial mainstream movie theater business continues its strange evolution into a special events and hi-tech stage for exclusive use by the Hollywood system. Of the 39,662 commercial movie screens in the US (the official 2012 count by the National Association of Theatre Owners, which sounds very low to me), at least 90 percent of these screens will be showing the same six movies on any given day. Fewer than 10 percent of these screens will be devoted to anything else. Fewer than 5 percent will be showing anything that might truly be classified as indie (and this is actually a high-ball estimate). This is another reason why indie filmmakers are turning toward digital distribution.

Though the digital revolution is barely taking its first steps, it is already under siege. For the last several years, I have repeatedly warned about the efforts of the major media companies to take control of the internet and, ultimately, control of content. I keep getting the impression that some folks have found these warnings slightly shrill or even alarmist. At best, I’ve experienced a “so what” reaction.

With the impending end of net neutrality, as well as the recent series of massive mergers among the major communication providers, my warnings are proving to be pretty accurate. This is unfortunate. Sometimes, I would love to be wrong. This was one of those moments. But no. It is happening, right now.

First, let’s keep in mind that thanks to the current business model used in the US for internet access, the country ranks 26th in broadband speed. We are outclassed by South Korea (where the government has been heavily involved in developing public access). We are also beaten by both Romania and Bulgaria. As control over the internet system continues to be dictated by a few massive US companies, I strongly suspect that we will eventually be fighting it out with the Democratic Republic of Congo for the bottom of the list.

But that is half OK. After all, Americans must love lousy service since we keep supporting business and political structures determined to reward poor service. However, the more that major media companies take over control of the internet, the more we will lose in innovation and creativity. Digital innovation and creativity will continue, but it will more likely continue in places like South Korea, Romania, and Bulgaria. Over here, we will just end up with overpriced and extremely slow internet service designed to feed us costly streamings of Iron Man 1, 2 and 3.

And this will be very, very bad for everyone. The wide-open frontier of the internet has become the last refuge for indie funding, filmmaking, and distribution. But this open wilderness is being threatened with the digital version of barbed wire fences.

Both the internet and the indie film business are at an extremely critical crossroad. One path will lead to a promising, perhaps even prosperous future. The other path goes absolutely nowhere. Only the first path is in the right direction.

Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved