What’s Wrong with Indie Filmmaking

Over and over again, the question keeps recurring. What’s wrong with indie filmmaking? Depending upon which commentary you read, the answer is: Everything.

OK, maybe not everything. Mostly just issues related to finance, production, and distribution. Also some questions about indie filmmakers themselves in regard to their perceived immaturity, narcissistic behavior, and general inability to listen to their elders. I have noticed a generational issue in some of these blog pieces.

Some recent articles are actually well thought out and are must reads. For example, David K. Greenwald’s piece on “Why Filmmakers Fail” is an essential bit of straight talk for the indie trade, especially item 2 on Greenwald’s list (“FAILURE TO COLLABORATE”).

Occasionally, some of these articles are instructive. Elliot Grove’s list of the 16 Reasons Screenwriters and Film-makers Fail offers a good basic checklist of common mistakes. I especially like items 14 and 15 on his list. Yes, they are the same: “They don’t consider other opinions.” This is good solid advice that any number of us have trouble following. I know I do. I am a bit weak on that collaborative thing as well.

Quite a few recent articles have pounded on the concept that there are way too many low-budget indie movies out there and something has to be done to stop other indie filmmakers from flooding the market. I have noticed that the filmmakers who are most adamant about this perceived crisis don’t seem very interested in taking the lead in correcting this problem. But they definitely hope that those other filmmakers will step up to the plate and choke. The smart-aleck petition started early this year by Kentucker Audley pretty much sums up the real issue.

Admittedly, much of this is about what is wrong with the current state of indie filmmaking: Too many filmmakers who don’t know what they are doing with too many movies and no place to take them and no means for distribution because nobody has enough money to even order a decent cup of coffee and the whole business collapsed a few years ago anyway and life really sucks and the world is doomed. Other than that, it’s pretty OK.

Before we continue, let me explain something. I am a born and bred pessimist. You do not come to me for hopeful visions of the future. Even worse, I like playing the role of Satan. Not so much in the sense of sin but rather in terms of being the devil’s advocate in any argument. Obviously, I am a master at the doom and gloom profession. I am never comfortable at working the other side of the aisle. So it is with some regret that I must say: Chill, baby! Chill!

Yes, there are too many indie filmmakers. Way too many. There are also way too many poets, novelists, painters, composers, and assorted other artists and craftspeople. This is true in virtually any other profession you care to name. Heck, there’s also too many lawyers, doctors, and politicians. The list is a long one. From what I hear, nurses are the only thing we are lacking in.

However, this is an eternal phenomenon. It is part of the competitive nature of any profession. This is also why failure is one of the first and most crucial lessons we all have to learn. In any competitive field, some succeed and many don’t. This is nothing new. It is part of the developmental process.

Granted, the options for distribution for indie filmmakers have sharply diminished. The current state of theatrical distribution is profoundly pathetic. The art house and specialty theater system is, with only a few exceptions, basically dead. The current dominant form, which is the suburban mall multiplex theater, is barely surviving. The entire system is heavily dependent—and controlled—by mainstream Hollywood products. If a multiplex theater has 34 screens, then at least 30 of those screens will be tied up with the same 3 or 4 titles. The remaining screens are roughly the size of a broom closet and are sometimes used as such. I once went to a critics’ screening of an indie movie that was being held in a room that barely could seat 40 people and had a doorway so negligible that the theater staff couldn’t even find it.

However, theatrical distribution for indie movies has always been marginal. The system has always been rigged against the independent filmmaker. For the most part, it is the same as it ever was.

The advocacy system for indie movies is largely gone. By this, I mean curators at major art institutions, film reviewers at major newspapers and other trusted and enthusiastic voices that helped to guide viewers to notable titles. Since I spent the first two decades of my adult career working in these professions, I am extremely aware of the near total-collapse of the system.

But in a sense that’s all right. Let me explain. I just recently read a blog piece by a very distinguish indie movie producer in which this gentleman strongly bemoans the loss of the curator voice in the indie process. All I could think: This guy has spent way too much time living in New York. Basically, it never quite worked the way he thinks. I know because I was working in those zones (outside of New York) and a lot of the film critics and film curators were not doing anything of the sort. The voices for indie cinema have always been few and far between, then and now.

So basically, a lot of the current situation with indie movies is not particularly unique. It has always been a crowded field. There has always had a high rate of failure. The film vaults of America are packed with unknown movies that have never seen the flicker of a public screen.

What is really happening is that all of the old models are depleted. This also includes the so-called new models (which are mostly revamped versions of the old models). Everything is changing. Virtually nothing we say or think now will be relevant within a few more years.

So yes, there is still hope for film, especially indie films. But it will not be based upon most of the current models either currently in effect or being proposed. Instead, it will be based upon a new model that is just starting to form.

It will be the total synthesis of the digital revolution.

Copyright © Dennis Toth 2014 All Rights Reserved