A year ago, I wrote a blog post, ” 38 American Independent Film Problems/Concerns.”
Unfortunately, all of the problems I listed then still stand today; four or so from that list have improved slightly, but they certainly remain issues. Of more concern is that the list keeps growing and growing. I can contribute another 38 even more pressing issues today. You do the math: we now have over 75 things wrong with our industry that we are not taking action to fix.
In fact, we have no one to blame for this list but ourselves. It is our inability to be proactive that has brought on us this terrible state. Ask yourself what currently concerns and frustrates you about where film culture and the film business are today. What heights is our industry capable of reaching and how does it compare to where we actually are? Do we really have the capacity to sit and wait to get there? Isn’t our silence delaying the trip?
I must admit that I am a bit disappointed that I had no difficulty adding another 38 items to this list of where we are failing. The exciting part (and why #38 of last year ’s list was “lists like this make the foolish despair”) is that these lists demonstrate a tremendous opportunity for those willing to break from the status quo and take action. Things may be wrong, but they could always be worse. From here, we just have to work together to make it better.
It is that simple. Every deficit is an opportunity for the creative entrepreneur, right?
So how has the film biz continued to reveal itself to be troubled this year? What do I suggest we start to focus on, discuss, and find solutions for? This list is a start, and I wager we will expand it substantially in the days ahead.
1. We cannot logically justify any ticket price whatsoever for a non-event film. There are too many better options at too low a price. Simply getting out of the house or watching something somewhere because that is the only place it is currently available does not justify a ticket price enough. We still think of movies as things people will buy. We have to change our thinking about movies to something that enhances other experiences, and it is that which has monetary value. Film’s power as a community organizing tool extends far beyond its power to sell popcorn (and the whole exhibition industry is based on that old popcorn idea).
2. The Industry has never made any attempt to build a sustainable investor class. Every other industry has such a go-to funding sector, developed around a focus on the investors’ concerns and standardized structures. In the film biz, each deal is different and generally stands alone, as opposed to leading to something more. The history of Hollywood is partially defined by the belief that another sucker is born every minute. Who really benefits by the limited options for funding currently available other than those funders and those who fee those deals? We could build something that works far more efficiently and offers far more opportunity.
3. The film business remains the virtually exclusive domain of the privileged. Although great strides have been made to diversify the industry, the numbers don’t lie. The film industry is ruled by white men from middle class or better socioeconomic backgrounds. It is an expensive art form and a competitive field — but it doesn’t need to a closed door one. Let’s face it: people hire folks who remind them of themselves. These days everyone needs to intern and the proposition of working for free is too expensive for most. Living in NYC or LA is not affordable for most people starting out. We get more of the same and little progress without greater diversity. And although I essentially mentioned this last year (#36), the continued poor economy limits diversity even more now.
4. There is no structure or mechanism to increase liquidity of film investments, either through clear exit strategies, or secondary capital markets. The dirty secret of film investment is that it is a long recoupment cycle with little planning for an exit strategy. Without a way to get out, fewer people choose to get in. Who really wants to lock up an investment for four years? Not investors, only patrons…
5. Independent Filmmakers (and their Industry advisors) build business plans based on models and notions selected from before September 15, 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed and everything changed. It is not the same business as it was then and we shouldn’t treat it that way. Expectations have changed considerably, probably completely. Buyers and audiences’ behaviors are different (those that still remain that is). Products are valued at different levels. We live in a new world. Our strategies must change with it.
6. The film business remains a single product industry. The product may be available on many different platforms, but it is still the same thing. For such a capital-intensive enterprise to sell only one thing is a squandering of time and money. Films can be a platform to launch many different products and enterprises, some of which can also enhance the experience and build the community.
7. We have done very little thinking or discussing about how to make events out of our movies. The list seems to have stopped at 3D. There’s only been one “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the first one is very very old. Music flourishes because the live component is generally quite different from the recorded one, and the film biz could benefit from a greater differentiation of what utilizes different platforms.
8. We ignore film’s most unique attribute. As demonstrated by how little of people’s online time is spent watching content (30%), we know that people want connectivity & community more than anything else. There used to be film societies, just like reviewers once placed films in cultural context — we need to recreate a community aspect to film going. If you wonder why people don’t go to the movies more, it is not as much about the content, as it is about the lack of community. Without that, why not just stay home to watch? Film’s strongest attribute is its ability to work as a community organizing tool. Film forces us to feel, to think, to engage — let’s not ignore that.
9. Independent film financing is still based around an antiquated foreign sales model despite the fact that all acquisition markets are collapsing and fee levels shrink market to market. This old model is centered around stars’ perceived value — an attribute that has been less reliable than ever before. There has got to be a better way than the foreign sales estimate model, but no one talks about it, or even admits to needing one. The participants that get most hurt by this are the investors who take the advice of the “experts” that this is the way it’s done. It used to be done this way, but we have to move on before we burn to the ground.
10. Filmmakers don’t own their audiences yet (and few even attempt to). What will happen when agents start to cut deals for their clients who have 1 million engaged fans, people who will pre-order their content, promote it passionately, and deliver more of their friends? There is a shift in the balance of power about to happen, and those that have prepared for it, amassed their followings, will be able to change the conversation significantly.
11. We’ve failed to develop fetish objects to demonstrate one’s love of cinema. The only merchandise we sell is “fan-boy” toys. We need to come up with items that demonstrate their owner’s sense of style and taste. Beyond the books of Tashen, what is there? We can do better. Such products manufacture desire and enhance identification with the art form. We need to streamline the process of the transformation of leisure time into both intellectual and social capital (i.e movie going and its byproducts). How do we identify, reward, and encourage those that appreciate our work?
12. Creators, Distributors, and Marketers have accepted a dividing line between art and commerce, between content and marketing. By not engaging the filmmakers in how to use marketing tools within their narrative and how to bring narrative techniques to marketing, we diminish the discovery and promotional potential of each film. We limit the scope of our art by restricting it to the plane of the 90 minute product. Movies should find us early, lead us to new worlds, bridge us to subsequent experiences, connect us to new passions and loves, help us embrace a more expansive definition of cinema, life, and self.
13. We don’t recognize that one of film’s greatest assets is its ability to generate data. Filmmakers and financiers should be insisting on owning the data their films generate. It is an incredibly valuable commodity. The VOD platform allows for tracking of where and when and who in terms of the business, yet this data is restricted to aggregators not creators. When you license something for a small fraction of its costs, shouldn’t you share in everything that it generates?
14. We fail to utilize the two years from greenlight to release to market our film and build our audiences. Despite having the key economic indicators (i.e. stars & concept) in place at the time of greenlight, we underutilize that two year period when we could be sourcing fans, aggregating them and providing them with both the ramps and the bridges necessary to lead them to our work and then carry them to other new work.
15. Why can’t our Industry develop more stars? The talented actors exist, but they don’t have “value”. Why is it that we don’t have more serious actors who are worth something financially? Isn’t it just about giving them the roles that help them build audiences? Why don’t we encourage more actors to take more risks in terms of the characters they portray? Audiences, filmmakers, financiers would all be better served by industywide initiatives to launch more talent. Say what you will about the studio system of old, but they were damn good at developing new talent.
16. We need a greater embrace of innovation and experimentation in terms of both business models and building communities. We keep doing things based on the status quo long after the practice has stopped being fruitful. People are so fearful of failing publicly that new approaches are shunned. This is a perception and PR problem as much as it is a structural one. Filmmakers should have the will to fail, and take risks (but be practical about it).
17. We allow consumers to think content should be free but it is okay that the hardware they play it on is very very expensive. All the entertainment industries allow the hardware manufacturers to have policies that encourage such thinking. They get rich and it grows harder to be a creator by the day. People only want the devices because there is so much great stuff to play on it. Why is the balance of wealth so misguided here?
18. We – neither the creators, audiences, or their representatives – don’t make a stink when aggregators get rich, and the content creators live on mere pittances. It’s not just the product but also the services that have flourished on the labor of the creators. Instead of growing angry we have been embracing those that gather and not those that grow. Again, we need to look at the inequity here and re-evaluate how the equity is dispersed.
19. We don’t insist that our artists are also entrepreneurs. We don’t encourage direct sales to the fans. We don’t focus on building mailing lists. This needs to be as much an accepted “best practice” as it needs to be part of every art school curriculum. We can’t keep producing artists and not prepare them to survive in the world. Passion without a plan to support it can only lead to exploitation.
20. We have failed to engage constructively with other industries that we should be aligned with, most obviously, the tech world. Why is only SXSW where film, music, and tech meet? Can’t we do better? The music industry has The Future of Music summit, but there is nothing similar in the film world. The facilitators at the agencies rarely know who’s who in terms of web and tech designers.
21. Where is the simple site where you can get whatever you want whenever you want however you want it (other than what the bootleggers offer)? Why do we let the thieves beat us at our own game? Soon it will be too late to win the people back. The fact that the one place that comes close is ultimately in the business of selling hardware — and the industry seems okay with that — shows how we can’t see the forest for the trees.
22. Where are the new curators? The ones with a national or international audience? Why have we not had a more concentrated industry/community wide effort to give a home to all the fired film critics? Is it that we are afraid of the bad, just like the studios are afraid of social media and film future exchanges because they are worried about negative buzz? We just need to make better movies and treat people well and then there is no negative to spread, right? Anyway, with such a plethora of great work being made we need to offer audiences better filters to sift through it. What’s up with our collective failure to deliver more Oprahs, individuals whose support will lead to action?
23. The majority in the film industry are essentially luddites and technophobes, barely aware of the tools we have available to us to enhance, economize, and spread our work. How can we teach our industry how to use what has already been invented (and then focus on everything else we need but don’t have yet).
24. We don’t encourage (or demand) audience “builds” prior to production. Why shouldn’t every filmmaker or filmmaking team be required to have 5000 Fans prior to greenlight?
25. We know incredibly little about our audience or their behavior. We spend so much making our films without really knowing who our audiences are, why they want our product, how to reach them, or how they behave, or how they are changing. Does any other industry think so little and so late about their audience? Does any other industry do such little research into their audience? Shouldn’t we all be sharing what info we have?
26. There is no major, visible, high-level “non-partisan” free-thought film industry think tank and/or incubator to consider new models, new approaches, and enhance audience appeal while inspiring both government and private investment, developing “best practices” to maximize revenue and audiences, expanding aesthetic methods, and facilitating the creative dialogue internationally. IFP and FIND do their part, as do festival institutes but we need something that can consider the bigger problems than that of just US “Indie” filmmakers…
27. Where’s that list on best practices for preventing your film from being pirated? Shouldn’t all producers know this? I know I don’t and I can’t name another producer who does.
28. The Industry has no respect for producers. Granted, this might sound a tad self-serving, but producers’ overhead, fees, credits, and support are under attack from all fronts. Yet, it is the producers who identify and develop the material and talent, package it, structure the finance, identify the audience, and unite all the industry’s disparate elements. All the producers I speak with wonder how they are to survive and remain in the business.
29. Let’s face it: we are not good at providing filmmakers with long term career planning. Whether it’s financial planning, secondary professions, or just ongoing learning — we don’t really get it, and that sets artists up as future prey. As an industry, and as a class, creative people get stuck in a rut quite easily, and are the hardest dogs to teach new tricks.
30. With our world and industry changing daily, shouldn’t we have come up with a place where we learn the new technology or at least hear of it? One that is welcoming even for the luddites. The tech sites speak their own vernacular which is a tad intimidating for the uninitiated.
31. Where’s the embrace of the short-term release? With digital delivery here, can’t we get in and get out, only to return again and offer it all over again? The week-long booking of one film per theater limits content to that which appeals to the mass market. Niche audiences are being underserved, and money is thus being left on the table and some highly appealing menus not even being considered.
32. Film Festivals need to evolve a hell of a lot faster. Festivals need to ask what their value-add is to both the filmmaker and the audience. One or two could ask that of the industry overall too. Now that we recognize that festivals are not a market, and that filmmakers have to do a tremendous amount of work ahead of time in order for them to be a media launch, the question remains what are festivals and who do they serve? The everything-to-everybody style of curating films no longer works. The run-of-the-mill panels have become dull and boring. The costs associated for filmmakers attending are rarely worth the benefits they receive. Film Festivals need to be rebuilt. There are a lot of good ideas out there on how to do it, but not enough have been put into practice.
33. The past ten years of digital film are going to vanish. We do little to preserve not just the works, but also the process and documents behind them. Digital is not a stable medium. We have a migration and storage issue in terms of keeping access up to date. Those films that currently exist in digital format only, won’t stand the test of time. Film remains a better format for archival purposes. We need to take action soon if we are not going to see our recent culture get out of reach.
34. We don’t encourage advocacy around the issues that affect us. How many film industry professionals could rattle off the top ten government policies that affect their trade? Why don’t our various support organizations, unions, guilds, and leaders list issues and actions at the top of their website? Are we all so afraid or so unaware?
35. Okay, it’s a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face, but it seems to me that film industry folk spend less time going to the movies (and I mean seeing films in the theaters) than the average bear. Going to the movies should be viewed as a political act. Support the culture you want with your dollars.
36. Most of the bootlegging that I encounter comes from within the industry itself. I recently heard of a manager who asked the studio execs and his Facebook friends to send in the bootlegs of his Sundance prize winning client’s film — and he got over 70 back; they all unfortunately were an early cut of the film too. I admit I get a lot of free DVDs from agents & managers, and I admit I make dubs for my directors so they can see actors — but I have started to donate to crowdfunding campaigns to try to balance it out. We have to come up with a uniform practice and commitment to avoid the Industry supported bootlegging.
37. So few of us have determined what we love, not just in film, but also in the world in general. The more we have defined our tastes, the more we strive to bring them into existence. The more we know what we want, the greater our defenses are against that in which we do not want to participate. Where are the filmmakers who can list the things they think can lead us to make better films? If more filmmakers, distributors, and executives conversed more publicly in both the art and the business, the bar for all of us would be lifted higher.
38. We love to read, talk, and engage more about the business than we do about the art. Some of this comes perhaps because we have more forums for the business than the aesthetics, but it is much harder to get a conversation going about creative issues than it is about financial. I’m just saying…