Is the Just-Do-It Ethos Bad for the Independent Film Business?

From Film Independent:  Last month Salon posted an article called “America’s next Wal-Mart: The indie film industry.”

The premise: “Cheap labor and subsidies have created an unsustainable bubble. We need fewer indie films, not more.” The provocative article by Film Independent Fellow, Beanie Barnes, who went through our Project Involve artist development program in 2003 where she was mentored by director Catherine Hardwicke, makes points that have stirred debate in the independent film community.

Barnes refers to a Mark Duplass interview earlier this year in The Hollywood Reporter. In it, he says there’s a “Reaganomics of the film industry, which is we have an upper class and a lower class; there is no longer a middle class left—I think subconsciously is a part of it, to be honest. I personally believe if I made Cyrus today—which was a $6 million movie and made $10 million—I think today it would make more like $3 million because there are more movies out there; there’s more competition. I don’t want that pressure in my life right now of box-office performance hanging over my head to determine the merits of whether my film was a success or not. That, frankly, annoys the shit out of me and has driven me to a place where I like making smaller movies, like Safety Not Guaranteed, which when that movie made $5 million at the box office and $10 million through DVD and VOD, the $15 million cume of that movie was a massive success, because it was made for a million dollars.”

In her piece, Barnes picks up Duplass’s Reaganomics analogy: “Supply side about the age of Wal-Mart—an abundance of poor-quality goods in the name of “’competition.’ Cheap technology, cheap products and cheap labor allowed the company’s owners to nickel and dime their way to billions while steering employees to seek public assistance in order to supplement wages the company refused to pay them. Sound familiar? While the indie film industry is not Wal-Mart, the process of production (and its end result) is growing similar over time. And this should give anyone who cares about the industry cause for concern.”

Film Independent president Josh Welsh agrees: “People are sometimes surprised when I say that we started the filmmaker labs here with the goal of stopping people from making their films (i.e., Don’t ‘just do it’ and rush into production before you and your script are ready.) Take a beat, go through the labs, develop the script and the project, correctly assess your audience and determine a smart budget level, if possible, and then go make your movie.  We launched the labs precisely because we were seeing so many rough cuts of bad indie films–films that could have been better if the filmmakers were more patient and took time for a genuine development process. And as the ability to produce films quickly and relatively cheaply has increased, the problem has just grown worse.”

Just after Barnes’ article came out, we reached out to her to ask if she’d like to follow up for this blog. Here’s her response:

My experience with FOUR [a film distributed by 306 Releasing, where Barnes is president] was a big reason I felt compelled to write it, though Manhola’s Dargis’ and Tim Wu’s articles [in The New York Times and The New Yorker, respectively]—both very passionate and thoughtful—really got the wheels turning. I thought about how much the industry’s changed since I fell in love with it when I was a kid…and even how much it’s changed since I was a fellow in Project Involve. For the last five years, I’ve lectured kids at the Ghetto Film School about the business of film. I’m always very excited about working with GFS because these kids are so great and passionate, but as I’ve been thinking more about the film world that these kids are entering…I’m concerned. I want the industry to thrive for them…for all of us. We have a great important industry, but something’s not working. I guess I just wanted to express that we have a problem and we should be open to trying to fix it.

I’ve always thought filmmaker labs, like those at Film Independent, were valuable. However, when I sat down to write this article, that’s when I really thought about how important they are…in so many ways. By encouraging filmmakers to not “rush” to make a film, quality is improved, crew relationships are strengthened, thoughtful audience considerations are explored, new relationships are actually given the time they need to develop and community support is achieved. Ultimately, labs provide filmmakers with a better probability of success. And a shot at increasing that probability, especially given the limited resources lab/film institutes have, isn’t going to be “given” to anyone. It’s earned by a commitment to story and craft. And even with that, some filmmakers still may not achieve it. Therein lies the dilemma. Filmmakers who don’t get that shot often seek to create their own resources…which usually aren’t robust enough to compete in the marketplace. This leads to a lot of market failure.  And mass [market] failure, in which no one is being paid and no revenues are being earned, is really hurting our industry. I don’t think the answer lies in actively discouraging filmmakers to make films, but it may lie in a change of perspective…which is something I think the industry can achieve.

What do you think, film lovers and filmmakers? Are there too many indies?

Pamela Miller / Website & Grants Manager

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