Changing the Movie-Making Landscape
Written by Jeff Park
HALF OF A REVOLUTION
Much has been made about the revolution now taking place as a result of digital video (DV) technology. Arguments pro or con as to the
efficacy of DV technology aside, there is no doubt that the means of production have now become more accessible to grassroots, independent filmmakers. As a result, the numbers of those would-be filmmakers transitioning into bona-fide filmmakers is nothing short of a paradigm shift.
Despite this exciting time of technical advancement and access to production, little has been said much less done in terms of the other half of the movie-making equation: distribution. For independent filmmakers, this is crucial not only in terms of recouping production costs, but also in terms furthering one’s career via recognition.
Traditionally, large institutions finance films: movie studios, film financing businesses and even independent sources with roots in money, such as consortiums of wealthy individuals. Undoubtedly the most costly art form, movies then are subject to gatekeepers who deem a project as “worthy” based predominantly upon track record. It also helps to have above the title names associated with it.
Distribution is key in securing financing, for the film that is perceived as marketable has the advantage of being “pre-sold” in markets – the distributors will gladly commit to distributing the finished product by guaranteeing a certain amount of screens. Thus, when Steven Spielberg casts his lot in a project, a studio can then begin making projections based upon distribution commitments. In other words, the studio has a reasonable projection of how much the movie will make apriori, based upon history. At its most base level, as a marketable commodity, a Spielberg film carries tremendous clout in the marketplace.
But no such practice exists for grassroots independents. Two cases in point illustrate the lengths to which independent filmmakers must go in order to produce their films: Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987), and Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow (2003). In each case, both filmmakers suffered from not having financing secured at the very beginning of their projects, no doubt at least in part because of low totem pole status, they were not able to secure distribution. As a result, Townsend in 1987 and Lin, a decade later, would resort to financing their projects at least in part on credit cards.
As a side note, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that in talking about the way that both Hollywood Shuffle and Better Luck Tomorrow were financed, a great disservice is being committed. For no one with the slightest bit of business acumen would advise young people to run up credit card bills in the neighborhood of six figures; and yet, because of their success, this is part of the legend and lore that will no doubt follow these two filmmakers for their entire careers. Unfortunately, it is also part of the “you can do it too” mythology that some would-be filmmakers will encounter. The story of “How I Made It” then trumps the sobering fact that for every Robert Townsend and Justin Lin, there are the vast majority of impressionable filmmakers who lose – and will lose - money and jeopardize their futures by ruining their credit attempting to make movies if they take these myths to heart.
As the DV revolution and independent “movements” continue unabated, increasing numbers of channels will be needed to meet demand. The foregoing is predicated upon the perception that there is a market. And that topic is a hot one amidst independent filmmakers.
One of the problems for the independent filmmaker is that they are pigeonholed; distributors and financing sources are presented with no track record from which to base their decisions. Thus, Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) needs the production push of a Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks in order to be made.
So, the distributor is left in a quandary: How do I discover the next Greek Wedding amidst the body of all the other independent productions?
The pertinent question at this point is: But isn’t this more or less the same problem for any film, regardless of above the title names? Think Arnold Schwarzenegger and Last Action Hero. Sylvester Stallone and Cobra or Rhinestone. Eddie Murphy and Pluto Nash. Robert Towne’s Personal Best. Roman Polanski’s Pirates. For every hit that these names have on their resumes, you can bet that there are a good number of middling or outright failures. The powers at Universal thought Jaws was going to be a disaster before it was released, and, lest we forget, Jaws was the movie that set in motion the chase for the blockbuster. The caveat, courtesy of William Goldman: No one knows anything.
The point in all of this is studios and distributors are constantly playing this game, and in order to increase their probabilities, they pre-fabricate or, in the terminology, they package; stars, directors, sometimes writers, rarely producers... All then become as commodities, packaged and sold to their bidders. This infrastructure obviously favors name recognition, and naturally disfavors grassroots, independent filmmakers.
FILM SCHOOLS: TEACHING FILMMAKING, BUT WHERE'S THE AUDIENCE?
Traditionally, film schools have emphasized the technical and aesthetic aspects of filmmaking while neglecting the most obvious part of the equation: the audience.
With the movie-making landscape increasingly under duress from shareholders and investors, productions increasingly turn to the pre-fab mode of making movies as noted above. As independent filmmakers struggle within this paradigm they face virtually insurmountable odds, tantamount to winning a lottery.
Which brings us back to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. From the simple standpoint of economics, this movie is the kind of product that everyone in the movie supply chain salivates over – it’s cheap to make, cheap to market, and rakes in tons of cash. It’s a niche play that has tremendous crossover appeal.
The problem is, the powers that be can’t package My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or rather, haven’t learnt how to package it, and therefore don’t know how to market it. But by connecting to the public first as a play, My Big Fat Greek Wedding shows how independent filmmakers can leverage demographics in their favor in order to compete.
Hip-hop is a perfect example of leveraging their audience in order to gain access to mainstream distribution. Almost two decades ago, the powers that be in the music industry laughed at hip-hop. So what did DJ’s and MC’s do? They made their own mix tapes and began marketing and distributing on the grassroots level, creating powerful viral marketing ripples that woke the staid music industry out of its narcosis. While the example of music in the form of hip-hop is not a completely parallel analogy – creating a mix tape is decidedly less problematic than creating a film - the lesson again is that the artists leveraged what the industry could not take away from them: the audience. For the struggling DJ or MC then, it means that they must hustle. For the struggling independent filmmaker, it means that they must hustle more.
And right on cue, as of this writing, another “small” film, Ice Cube’s Barbershop, is the number one movie in America for the second week in a row. While it has bankable names – Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer – it is a double niche play: A black film about a non-blockbuster (read: non-mainstream) subject.
For independent filmmakers, rather, the next wave, the old paradigm of selling to Hollywood executives is a long shot at best. In the initial stages the next wave filmmaker doesn’t dissipate energy by chasing the Hollywood lottery, but instead finds and connects to her audience through resourceful guerilla and entrepreneurial strategies.
Where this all – the next wave filmmakers and the new paradigm - gets really interesting is when the distributors come online, because the next wave will incorporate them in their selling landscape. By using other channels – mainstream and otherwise - to market to and even entertain their audience outside of the film market, a much more compelling argument is composed for potential film investors.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is, again, a prime example of connecting to the audience in another medium. While Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks picked up the fight, it took a connection to the audience first as a play to legitimize it as a movie investment. The lesson is that even without Wilson and Hanks, the practice of finding and connecting to one’s audience is a key touchstone in any future life a story may have as a film. By staging a small play with a commensurately small marketing budget that produces good audiences, a project has concrete, demonstrable evidence that this story can, and does work. Any number of marketing metrics can then be performed such as passing out opinion cards to the audience to obtain valuable demographic information. In building a case, the next wave filmmaker assumes a position much like an attorney: she is composing a compelling story for the jury (investors), and the more evidence that supports her case, the better. The key is that by pre-selling to distributors using the leverage of their found audience, the next wave project will be a much more attractive sell to investors. Think viral Internet marketing and The Blair Witch Project.
The next wave then is just as adept at talking about spatial-temporal relations in film as they are at figuring out where their audience is “hanging out,” and how to market to them. In doing so, they will tap into the richest vein of currency in Hollywood or anywhere else: the market itself.