Geoff Gilmore Gets Grilled

“Is independent film old hat? The freshness that fuelled independent film doesn’t feel as fresh.”

Last Updated: November 20, 2009 @ 10:17 AM

Grill: Do you think young filmmakers are discouraged by the state of independent film?

Gilmore: I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not sure if they’re discouraged. I’m not sure they have as much interest in it as filmmakers of 20 years ago. They just might be interested in a lot of other things: technology, different kinds of forms, which aren’t what we looked at 30 years ago. I ultimately think festivals will change formats, presentations, we’re going to look at different ways of showcasing film.  

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 As Sundance wound down on Sunday, The Grill quizzed Festival Director Geoff Gilmore about the state of independent film.

Grill: Does Sundance still matter? With independent film in crisis, with specialty divisions like Picturehouse and Warner Independent disappearing, is Sundance still relevant? 

Gilmore: The question overloads how you look at it. Is the fact that the industry is suffering various crises of liquidity and the marketplace overcrowded for a number of years – are the chickens coming home to roost? The answer to that is, yes, to some degree. But to some degree it’s not any different [than the past]. It’s always been a difficult arena. It’s a risky business. 

Grill: But where will people go to see independent films? 

Gilmore: I’m not arguing with you that there is not a moment right now, in the 30-year arc of the independent film business, that makes us question where things are headed. The industry has reached a point where some of the safety nets, some of the structures that ruled its growth, are changing. World of DVD, pay television is a different world. That was a safety net for indep film for many many years. That’s not the case any more.  

I’m not someone who believes that the independent film crisis isn’t real. But the ways of thinking about it are complicated. Have the audiences changed? They may have.  

Grill: What do you mean by the audiences have changed?  

Gilmore: The last 30 years of growth have happened with one generation’s fascination with cinema. With the new generation you see interesting contradiction – a new generation that knows more about independent and international film than anyone did in the 1970s. And yet they’re not as interested in it. I’d go to 4 films a week in my 20s. Kids don’t do that.  

Grill: So then how does independent film survive?  

Gilmore: There’s another issue. There’s the nature of the work. Have public tastes changed. Is independent film old hat? The freshness that fuelled independent film doesn’t feel as fresh. So maybe films won’t have growth over next decade they’ve had. What is the level at which these films succeed? How does that effect smaller films? All these are questions. Nobody I know has the answers to them.  

Grill: What’s the ratio of new filmmakers to old filmmakers? I see Joe Berlinger was back. RJ Cutler. Tom DiCillo made a documentary. Any 22-year-olds in diapers this year? 

Gilmore: There are slightly fewer new filmmakers. We’re close to 40 first time feature filmmakers. Last year was 50. It’s a number that varies from year to year. You see returning alumni. I don’t sit out here with quotas. 

Grill: Do you think young filmmakers are discouraged by the state of independent film?  

Gilmore: I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not sure if they’re discouraged. I’m not sure they have as much interest in it as filmmakers of 20 years ago. They just might be interested in a lot of other things: technology, different kinds of forms, which aren’t what we looked at 30 years ago. I ultimately think festivals will change formats, presentations, we’re going to look at different ways of showcasing film.  

Grill: What do you think are some solutions to the lack of outlets for independent film? 

Gilmore: One of the solutions will be new distribution. But that’s a world slow to come forth. It’s confounded by marketing problems. We’re in a world that’s a very strange world in the film business, in which a limited pipeline of theatrical marketing drives everything else. In the new world we’re in, digital technology, it should be the other way around; digital distribution should drive the theatrical world. It’s kind of ass backwards. We have to find a way to create the long tail, where movies stay in the market for a long time. Revenues that are not gushers but trickles. That’s the world we don’t have yet.  

Grill: Hasn’t Sundance hurt itself with all the hype? Last year Focus Features paid $10 million for the comedy “Hamlet 2.” It did $5 million in worldwide box office. Fox Searchlight bought “Choke” $for 5 million. It made $3.6 million worldwide.  

Gilmore: The failure of films in the marketplace has nothing to do with Sundance. We’re not responsible for how films perform. Should we have not shown it? I’m enormously sensitive to it, but it isn’t my job that if something is not distributed properly. The companies decided they’re going to be home-run oriented. And those are the only films they’re interested in.  But the demographics of the interested audience don’t support that kind of number of $25 million.  

There are three times the number of distribution companies today than 10 years ago. The pie is split up into too many slivers. You ultimately have a system where so many films have to perform to survive – we need another model: the bookstore model, the gallery model – in nonseasonal world. Why are films seasonal? But we’re not there.  

Grill: What’s the state of the swag suites this year? 

Gilmore: It seems to be diminishing. There was a lot of bad publicity attached to that. One of the major pirate marketing companies – all the parties at The Village at the Lift – are now part of Sundance. I’m not against people going for a free pair of jeans if that’s what they’re interested in, but the swag story got out of hand. And the stars being taken from place to place were being exploited.  

Grill: We heard that corporate sponsors had bowed out of Sundance. Chrysler was a no-show. Volkswagen too, and Adobe. 

Gilmore: I can’t confirm that. I do know there were cutbacks with Adobe. We’ve been fairly up to the levels that we’ve asked, which isn’t to say we don’t think there’ll be problems down the line. We worry about foundation gifts that may not come through; foundations have been hit really hard. Sundance is making cuts just like every non profit — across the board, at the festival, the institute. We’re not cutting into muscle, we’re not cutting into bone. But you can’t look at 2010 and say everything’s going to be great.  

 

Editor’s note: these responses have been edited for length.