WaxWord: 5 Cold Truths From an Uninspiring Sundance

WaxWord: 5 Cold Truths From an Uninspiring Sundance

Too many films, not enough distribution, crowdfunding is a mixed blessing and movie star politics

If you weren’t at Sundance this year, it’s just as well. The lack of a breakout, buzzy film that had everyone talking tells us something about the challenged state of independent film. While the festival had glimmers of excitement, the movies were – in the aggregate – interesting but not inspiring, thought-provoking but not thrilling.

In short, not essential enough to grab a distracted public’s attention.

The movie marketplace reflects this reality. Though the festival is not over yet, not a single bidding war has broken out thus far, the first time I can recall that being the case. And the movies that are selling are going for between $2 and $3 million at the high end.

Also read: TheWrap Industry Panel at Sundance: ‘Quality Is Great, but a Hook Is Even Better’ and the video: Sundance Video: Wrap Industry Panel Tells Filmmakers to Be Personal, Have a Hook and a Plan

There’s still a chance that an indie comet will come streaking out of the blue Wednesday or Thursday – and there’s still “They Came Together,” David Wain’s comedy with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd coming Friday  (oh whoops, that movie already has distribution) – but overall, here are five lessons we’ve learned about the current state of independent film.

1. There are TOO MANY movies being made
We heard this remark from the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis on the Sunday before the festival, we heard it from leading finance agent Jay Cohen of  Gersh at TheWrap’s industry panel on Monday, and we see it in the middling quality of too many films that are not getting bought. The production tools that make filmmaking accessible to just about anybody are resulting in a glut of films that aren’t nearly good enough to attract an audience of consequence. How can we make it stop?  Barriers to entry, it turns out, are not necessarily a bad thing. It means that to get your film made, you have to really, really be committed to life as a storyteller, and that you will endure a lot for the privilege of telling it. That winnowing process is now missing.

Also see: 18 Must-See Movies at Sundance (Photos)

2. Crowdfunding is creating a bottleneck
The wonderful financing platforms of Kickstarter and Indiegogo are fueling dozens of new projects. That’s a great thing for filmmakers, and a big problem for the indie business. Because now hundreds of movies are getting financed that have no prayer of financial return for the filmmaker. Yes, there is distribution on VOD and Vimeo and Netflix in addition to Sony Classics and The Weinstein Co. Good luck paying your rent with that revenue.

3. Movie Stars + Crowdfunding = Political Problems for Movie Executives
This is a corollary to the previous. Crowdfunding is encouraging movies stars like Zach Braff to take the plunge into a new financing method, encouraging their fans to contribute to the budget of the film they’ve always wanted to make that they system will not greenlight. But if the film isn’t good, and “Wish I Was Here” was decidedly mixed among critics, movie executives who are otherwise in business with the stars are in uncomfortable situations. They want to make the next David Fincher or Lena Dunham project with them, not distribute their indie pet. Makes for awkward moments on Main Street.

Also see: Sundance Snapshots: 50 of TheWrap Party Report's Brushes With the Stars (Photos)

4. We need distribution for short form films that also helps the audience to know what to watch
Increasingly, the best talent is producing short-form content – Lucy Walker’s short doc at Sundance this year, “Lion's Mouth Opens” is a good example – but where can we ever see these movies? We need a proper distribution platform and viewing habit to see them, and a curator to tell us which are worthwhile. This is an opportunity waiting to be realized.

5. There are many new buyers, but they don’t pay much
So we now supposedly have a wide array of distribution channels: traditional theatrical, VOD, streaming on Netflix/Hulu/Amazon and the like, iTunes, Snagfilms, Indieflix. The problem: none of it pays enough to support a proper filmmaking culture. Do we need to start thinking about a government-subsidized model like they have in Europe? (Short answer: that doesn’t work either. Their films aren’t any better.) New ideas, anyone?

  • Jokny

    “Short answer: that doesn’t work either. Their films aren’t any better.”. Ha ha ha! Love it when Sharon Waxman talks about something she knows nothing about.

  • Andy Marks

    This is where smart (emphasis on the word) brand funding can play a role. There are many brands seeking new ways of connecting with audiences via compelling content. As long as brands are willing to play by rules that allows the creative process to flourish authentically, and creatives embrace brands as true partners both financially and artistically, it is viable.

  • Brent Morris

    I was at Sundance and saw six films besides the one I was with (Frank) and honestly couldn't see commercial potential in any of them. Okay, Linklater’ Boyhood if he cut an hour. Sundance seems not to really care about embracing films that have a shot in the marketplace, for better or worse.

  • lovethisbusiness

    @Andy, financing is not the issue. Quality and audience are. I don't think brands funding movies will produce better product.
    @Sharon, the short form distribution platform you seek is already here. It's called YouTube, and it's been operating for a few years now. Lol.
    Indie filmmaking is dead. Long live indie filmmaking. Sundance, and the culture of Sundance, are the problem here. Sundance is mired in an 80s mindset at the programmer level (are you there, Trevor?). And yet, its Artist Services division is smartly addressing real solutions for filmmakers who fall outside the Hollywood pseudo indie market. What a fascinating watershed moment…

  • PSKG

    I FIND I HAVE VERY STRONG FEELINGS about what this writer has said. It sounds to me as though she is saying we should go back to the old model, when studios did everything and everyone else “out there” – many of whom are extremely talented but would never have a chance because they were already not best buddies with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner – was left completely in the cold.

    If my partner and I had not chosen to make “Last Will and Embezzlement” with our own financing – meaning indie financing – it would not, right now, be in the hands of such prestigious institutions and agencies as the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, or Holy Cross College, University of Notre Dame, Penn State Law School, or Utah State Courts, helping others to avoid the hideous things which happened to my family and happen annually to 5 million senior citizens every year. If we had waited (in vain, I am certain) for some nod of recognition from Warner Brothers or Paramount, our film (which does have distribution, btw) would not exist.

    If it is really true that Sundance was utterly uninspiring this year, then maybe the problem is not “too many films”, maybe the fault lies with the decision-makers. Maybe THEY are the ones who need to start paying attention to what audiences truly want, instead of limiting their offering to the same tired films made only by those who are part of that now-closed community that Sundance, which I am certain was originally created to promote and advocate NEW creativity.

    There are ALWAYS too many of everything: too many people writing novels, too many architects designing skyscrapers and bridges, too many mountain climbers trying to set records, too many researchers trying to cure cancer, too many athletes trying to make it into the Olympics. What are you going to do? Tell them all to go home and stop dreaming because there are already enough? Are you going to say to them, “Stop, because you’re gumming up the works for us, the elite few, who are already here?” When will anything stupendous ever again
    happen, if that’s the case?

    • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Out in the Street Films

      We could line them all up and shoot them.

  • Sinixstar

    So basically what it sounds like – is the film industry is seeing the same issues the music industry saw years ago.

    It doesn't take a massive studio and a huge record label to release songs or even full length albums anymore. Good for artists who are trying to get their music out there. Bad for the public who has to wade through all the crap to find the gems, and even worse for the execs who now have to face losing a bit of control (and a lot of profits).

    It's called adapting to the times. Everybody has to figure out how to do it sooner or later.

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Out in the Street Films

    “…. movie executives who are otherwise in business with the stars are in uncomfortable situations.” Poor uncomfortable annual salary + bonuses multimillionaires. Oh woe is them. They are uncomfortable.

  • FilmDoctor

    Indie cinema is indie cinema, usually not great cinema. . .

  • AQB

    I'm really tired of this “too many movies being made” argument. Would you say there are too many different restaurants or brands of cars or cookies? Perhaps programmers, critics and that fine establishment pick the wrong ones to show and champion?

    • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Out in the Street Films

      Yeah, there are a lot of crap restaurants. It's probably the industry with the most turnover and failure of business, after filmmaking. But you're right, the curators are at fault. The problem they have is that if they only show good stuff there would be no festival this year, which could be a good way to go.

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Out in the Street Films

    What a whiner. Don't you have anything positive or constructive to say?

    You miss the whole point of Sundance. It's not meant to be your place to find the next cool movies. It's meant to be a celebration for filmmakers. It's basically a graduation party for first time and second time directors who want to be noticed and party. They don't really care about getting a distribution deal (especially one that actually returns some cash). Everyone knows that's pie in the sky fantasy.

    So the quality is going downhill. You can make just so many really good films. We're talking about a minimum of 60 minutes of film, and more likely 90 minutes. It's not like a hit tune that only has to hold you for 5 minutes.

    It takes a lot to grab a person's attention and hold it in this age of the internet where anything and everything you can imagine is already available and seen daily.

    Yeah too many films. But also too many festivals and too many films that get into them. Blame it on the curators, not the filmmakers.