Thursday, March 18, 2010

Independent Film is Going to Change!

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In his recent interview by Dan Schneider, screenwriter, Lem Dobbs identified an emerging reality that, like it or not, will change—NOT Hollywood (at least initially), but rather—independent films! Consider:

Dan Schneider: Let me now ask a few queries that I ask almost all my interviewees; because this is a series, and the parallax of replies is of interest to me and my readers. I started this interview series to combat the dumbing down of culture and discourse- what I call deliteracy, both in the media, and online, where blogs and websites refuse to post paragraphs with more than three sentences in it, or refuse to post anything over a thousand words long. Old tv show hosts like Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or hate him, have gone the way of the dinosaur. Intellect has been killed by emotionalism, simply because the latter is far easier to claim without dialectic. Only Charlie Rose, as a big name interviewer, is left on PBS, but near midnight. Let me ask, what do you think has happened to real discussion in America- not only in public- political or elsewise, but just person to person? 
Lem Dobbs:  The people you’ve just mentioned, first of all, they were people -- individuals, characters -- like the old movie studio moguls.  Individualism was once prized.  In a more corporatized climate, as we know, as we knew in the fifties, or in a more authoritarian environment, the opposite is true.  And they were allowed their idiosyncrasies and given room to grow and become as known to us as their guests -- can you believe, Dick Cavett sitting and talking to someone for ninety minutes -- on a network -- when people were still awake?  But infantilization implies an undifferentiated, unruly, cacophonous rabble.  Infants haven’t matured into who they’re going to be yet.  No discussion is possible.  They haven’t the capability.  And they’re demanding.  So we have movies and books and music and culture on-demand.  This is a big change from the supply-system that once prevailed.
Something happened not so long ago.  Pick your own moment -- was it when you started seeing adults, in the evening, lined up outside theatres showing Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID or BEAUTY AND THE BEAST -- with the collusion of the mainstream press long before Film Comment’s paean to THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX?   That’s what the “discussion” started to be about:  whatever was most publicized.  Or when great reviews began hailing the superior thrillers of John Grisham -- only, when you went to read THE FIRM or THE PELICAN BRIEF you thought … wait a minute … this is shit.  I mean, truly terrible.  And there, too, the unmentioned influence, the near plagiarism, of specific famous movies.  Is “Pelican” really so removed from “[Three Days of the] Condor” that the reviewers didn’t notice?  As well as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE STEPFORD WIVES … People thought Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann or Mickey Spillane were “bad” writers.  What would their editors have done with the manuscript of THE DA VINCI CODE, do you think?
It’s like an hourglass has been turned upside down.  The professionals have fallen out, and the business, the industry, the profession -- film and publishing -- is now overrun by amateurs.  These people are so removed from what movies and books used to be, even from what they are.  It was bad enough when movies, say, became just one cog in a bigger corporate machine.  Movies at that point became at least unimportant.  They were widgets.  But when the corporations and mergers went too far and got too big and then began to collapse in the present recession/depression, suddenly it’s become a whole lot worse -- now movies are important as engines.  So they have actually turned their Evil Eye onto movies and are almost deliberately destroying them.  It’s like they’re taking away America’s pastime!  No more “stand-alone” movies was a recent studio directive.  In other words, no movie that can’t also be a comic book, a TV series, a Broadway musical, a video game, or lead to sequels and toy merchandizing.  The middle ground -- “dramas” as they now refer to most normal movies -- is no more.
Re-read that last paragraph. 
“ movies are important as engines.” 
“No more ‘stand-alone’ movies was a recent studio directive.” 
“The middle ground – ‘dramas’ as they now refer to most normal movies – is no more.” 
We are approaching a point with films at which dramas (reduced as they are to a niche market) will be almost totally abandoned by the major film studios. Even now, only stars (actors and directors) with sufficient box-office-earned clout are allowed the professional indulgence of making a “serious” film. 
But the sky is not falling. 
Indeed, opportunity knocks. There’s a huge film-consuming audience that hasn’t suddenly disappeared. It just isn’t interested in buying action figures and “Happy Meals.” And lots of these folks don’t care to “see it on the big screen” every time. They sort of like the home theaters they’ve installed. They can talk, or not. They can pause it for the inevitable pit stop. They don’t step on or “stick to” soda and popcorn spills finding their seats in the dark. And they can see it again, and again, without losing half-a-day’s pay after all the tickets and refreshments have been bought. 
Up to now, the stereotype of the independent film is a contemporary drama that eschews the familiar tropes and story structures seen in most mainstream dramas. It is “quirky,” “odd,” “unpredictable.” And the reason most independent films don’t even pay for their own low, low costs is because they also lack “entertainment.” The larger audience refuses to pay to see them. The polarization of movies may be at hand. Patrons may end up choosing between the next special effects extravaganza or a film about the plight of an immigrant hotel worker with no green card. There may be no middle ground, stories about things the larger audience will want to see. 
But, with the advent of digital video and its accompanying technologies, making movies has never been easier. Only the advertising and distribution areas haven’t experienced as much improvement – though we are seeing signs of it with the impact of the internet on print media, and the transformation to digital exhibition. 
Independent filmmakers, take heed: you are staring at an emerging niche that you can fill. Even as the entire Marvel and D.C. comic book super-hero pantheons displace nearly all other subject matter, the various neglected genres we’ve lumped together as “dramas” can move to independent production for those filmmakers who are capable of producing worthy films. And this is where you can bring independent ideas to those same genres. This could be a transformational and re-vitalizing moment for movies themselves. 
We’ve seen certain notable independent films make splashes over the last few decades or so: Sex, Lies, and Videotape, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, to name three. These films were extreme successes for the independent film world. Why? What is notable about them in this light? The answer is that they used important genre trigger words in their titles signaling them as offering familiar genre story potential to a larger film audience. And mostly, they didn’t disappoint. The audience didn’t perceive them as sufficiently odd or weird to ignore them as they often have done with other independent films. The films had no stars selling tickets. All they had was an emerging groundswell of word-of-mouth and those tantalizing titles. And that was enough. 
Now, with independent filmmakers ignoring standard distribution altogether for straight-to-disk, straight-to-download/streaming distribution models, the studios are becoming irrelevant. The biggest bucks will remain with studio distribution, but studios only pick up the cream of the large independent crop. Would you as an independent filmmaker want to take your chances at the studio equivalent of the lottery? Or would you prefer a surer thing, one that offered you the chance to make your next film, rather than digging out of debt, all because your film didn’t make the cut at Sundance or Toronto? 
And let me tell you: most actors are with you on this. If you can prove your production chops, and you have a great script, many great actors will take a chance on you. It’s that or boots and a cape. # 
Lee A. Matthias
Quote of the Post:
It’s like an hourglass has been turned upside down.  The professionals have fallen out, and the business, the industry, the profession -- film and publishing -- is now overrun by amateurs. 
---Lem Dobbs


  1. But how are you going to get that great script to the actors who are guarded by agents whose first question is: what's your offer?

    If you're going to shoot this great low budget script, you still need money. How do you tell your investors that you're going to self-distribute? Cut-out the major distributors and go straight to people in their homes?

    Will investors comprehend this new tact?

    It still seems way too alien.

    Until someone makes an incredible amount of money at this new way of distribution, this will continue to stay an enigma.

    And when the day does come where someone hits the jackpot, the market will be flooded by studio pics racing to do the same thing-- therefore muting the little films all over again.

  2. Nobody said it would get easier to make the connections. But with the production and distribution lower, and demonstrable financing, there are ways to get to actors through their agents: an entertainment attorney, direct appeal, friends of friends, your own manager or agent, meeting them by working as an extra, etc. The known guerilla marketing techniques.

    As for your last point, that's not a problem for the person who is imitated. They have found a way in. As for the rest of us, if we don't have an identical project, we are at the same point we were before.

    The thing I notice in your comments is that you see a lot of hopelessness about selling scripts or producing independently. You've got to choose to be an optimist about it, even after multiple failures. The ones who made it were. You can be too. What's it cost you? They can knock you down, but you can get back up. And the same punch probably won't get through this time.

  3. not sure if hopelessness would be the word...

    Right now I am producing an indie... I pre-sold a major territory before any attachments and then--

    I have a known director and, one of the most successful producers of indie-horror is executive producing (I'm doing a contained action-thriller)...

    In short, I have some great attachments.

    And yet, when we speak to the agents, with all our credentials, they only care about one thing: "the offer."

    I was asked for an offer by every single agent we approached before they had read the script...

    Getting it through to talent is a lot harder than having a great script. It's about having the money behind you to afford the agents interest. And to have the cash behind you, the investors will have to have an idea how they can recoup their money. And they think main-stream distribution.

    Until the culture changes, the new-world of distribution is just one more added challenge for the indie producer to raise his/her funds--

    (unless of course, you're dealing with investors from the technological field who can see the benefit in a)the new way of distribution and; b) feel strongly for your project; outside of specialized investors, it's my belief that new-world distribution will not register on most investors radar. For now).