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I was the keynote speaker at Film Independent’s Filmmaker Forum yesterday in Los Angeles. This is the full text of my speech. And it is the final draft, as an earlier draft got posted a few places accidently.
A THOUSAND PHOENIX RISING
“How The New Truly Free Filmmaking Community Will Rise From Indie’s Ashes
Film Independent Filmmakers’ Forum Keynote 9/27/08
I can’t talk about the “crisis” of the indie film industry. There is no crisis. The country is in crisis. The economy is in crisis. We, the filmmakers, aren’t in crisis.
The business is changing, but for us –us who are called Indie Filmmakers — that’s good that the business is changing. Filmmaking is an incredible privilege and we need to accept it as such – and accept the full responsibility that comes with that privilege.
The proclamations of Indie Film’s demise are grossly exaggerated. How can there be a “Death Of Indie” when Indie — real Indie, True Indie — has yet to even live?
Yes, there’s a profound paradigm shift, and that shift is the coming of true independence. The hope of this new independence is being threatened even before it has arrived. Are we going to fight for our independence and can we even shoulder the responsibility that independence requires? That is: will we ban together and work for our communal needs? Are we ready to leave dreams of stardom and wealth behind us?
When someone says, “Indie is dead”, they are talking about the state of the Indie Film Business, as opposed to what are actually the films themselves. They can say “The sky is falling” because for the last fifteen years, the existing power base in the film industry has focused on films fit for the existing business model, as opposed to ever truly concentrating on creating a business model for the films that filmmakers want to make.
This is where we are right now: on the verge of a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE, one that is driven by both the creators and the audiences, pulled down by the audience and not pushed onto them by those that control the apparatus and the supply. We now have the power and this remarkable tool for something different, but will we fight to preserve the Internet, the tool that offers us our new freedom? Can we banish the dream of golden distribution deals, and move away from asking others to distribute and market it for us? Can we accept that being a filmmaker means taking responsibility for your films, the primary responsibility, all the way through the process? That is independence and that is freedom.
Indie, True Indie, is in its infancy. The popular term “Indie” is a distortion, growing out of our communal laziness and complacency – our willingness to be marketed blandly and not specifically. Our culture is vast and diverse, and we need to celebrate these differences, not diminish them. It’s time to put that term “Indie” to rest.
Independence is within our reach, but we but we have to do what we have never done before: we have to choose.
It’s a lot like the Presidential election. And it’s also a lot like psychotherapy: we have to ask ourselves if the pain we are experiencing presently is enough to motivate us to overcome the fear inherent in change itself.
We have to change our behavior and make that choice. We have to choose the type of culture we want. We have to choose the type of films we want available to us. We have to choose whether the Internet is the corporations or ours. We have to choose whether we decide for ourselves whether a film is worthwhile or whether we let those same corporations decide. We have to choose who are audiences are and how we are to reach them. We have to choose how we can all best contribute to this new system. And as we act on those choices, we have to get others to make a choice too.
For the last fifteen years our Community has made huge strides at demystifying the production process and providing access to the financing and distribution gatekeepers. Some call this democratization, but it is not. This demystification of production was a great first step, but it is not give the filmmaker real power; generally speaking we are still there with our hat in our hands. In some ways, understanding the great behemoth that is production is also a distraction. It has distracted us from making really good films. And as it has distracted us from gaining the knowledge and seizing the power that is available to us. We have learned how to make films and how to bring them to market. We now have to demystify how to market and distribute films, and to do it in a way truly suited to the films we are making and desire to make.
Don’t get me wrong the last fifteen years have been great. The Indie Period – as I suspect history will call it — has brought us a far more diverse array of films than we had previously. It got better; we got more choices – but that is still not freedom. We are still in a damn similar place to the way it was back when cinema was invented 100 years ago. And it’s time we moved to a new term, to the period of a Truly Free Film Culture.
If we want the freedom to tell the stories we want to tell, we all have to start to contribute to build the infrastructure that can support them. We need to step back from the glamour of making all these films, and instead help each other build the links, articulate the message, make the commitments, that will turn us truly into a Truly Free Film community. We have to stop making so many films.
The work before us is a major readjustment that will require many sacrifices. We must redesign the business structure for what the films actually are. We have to recognize that a Truly Free Film Culture is quite different from Studio Films and even different from the prestige film that the specialized distributors make. But look at what we gain: we will stop self-censoring our work to fit a business model that was appropriated from Hollywood and their mass market films to begin with. We will reach out to the audiences that are hungry for something new, for something truthful, for something about the world they experience, for something that is as complex as the emotions they feel. We can let them guide us because for the first time we can have real access and contact with them.
Presently, we are divided and conquered by a system that preys upon our dreams of success, encouraging us to squander collective progress on false hopes of personal enrichment. We follow the herd and only lead reluctantly. If we want Truly Free Films we have to stop dreaming of wealth, and take the job of building the community and support system.
For the last decade and a half, we have been myopically focused on production. Using Sundance submissions as a barometer, our production ability has increased eight and half times over — 850% — from 400 to 3600 films in fifteen years.
C’mon! What are we doing? Wasting a tremendous amount of energy, talent, and brainpower – that much is clear. If the average budget of Sundance submissions is $500K, that means the aggregate production costs are $1.8 billion dollars a year. That’s a hell of a lot of money to lose annually. And you can bet the Indie World isn’t going to get a government bail out like Wall Street and the Banking Industry have.
We need to recognize the responsibility of telling unique stories in unique ways. We are frequently innovators and groundbreakers, but that brings additional responsibilities. Working at the intersection of art and commerce requires consideration for those that come after us. It is our responsibility to do all within our power to deliver a positive financial return. If we lose money, it is a lot harder for those that follow us. With a debt of $1.8 billion per annum you can bet it will be a lot harder for a lot of people. And it should be – but it didn’t need to be.
We don’t get better films or build audiences by picking up cameras. Despite this huge boom in production, the number of truly talented uniquely voiced auteurs produced annually remains unchanged. What’s happened instead is the infrastructure has rusted, the industry has failed to innovate, and we are standing on a precipice begging the giant to banish us into oblivion. Rebuilding that infrastructure, bringing good work to hungry audiences is a far greater glory than another celluloid trophy for only you to stare at.
There is a silver lining too in this dark cloud of over production that they like to call The Glut. As a young man I never found peace until I moved to New York City; the calm I found in New York, is explained by a line of Woody Allen’s: “in New York, you always know what you are missing”. What’s great about a surplus of options – and we have that now, and not just from movies, but also from the web, from books, from games – what’s great is that you have to make a choice. You have to commit. And you have to commit in advance.
The business model of the current entertainment industry is predicated on consumers not making choices but acting on impulses. Choice comes from research, from knowledge, and from tastes. Speak to someone from Netflix, and they will tell you that the longer someone is a member, the more their tastes move to auteurs, to quality film. Once we all wake up and realize that with films, as frankly with everything, we have to be thoughtful, and tastes will change. We have to make it a choice, a choice for, and not an impulse.
We are now in a cultural war and not just the red state/blue state, participate vs. obey kind, not just the kind of cultural war that politicians seem to want to break this country down to. We are in a culture war in terms of what we get to see, enjoy and make. The Lovers Of Cinema have been losing this war because the Makers have invested in a dream of Prince Charming, content to have him sweep down, pick us up, and sing that rags to riches refrain even if it comes but once a year to one lucky filmmaker out of 3,600.
So what is this TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE I am proposing? It is one that utilizes first and foremost the remarkable tool that is The Internet. It is the internet that transforms the culture business from a business that is based around limited supply and the rule of gatekeepers to a business that around the fulfillment of all audience desire, and not just the desire of mass audiences, but also of the niches.
We have never had this sort opportunity before and the great tragedy is that just as we are learning what it means, forces are vying to take it away from us. The principal that all information, all creators, all audiences should be treated equally within the structure that is the Internet is popularly referred to as Net Neutrality. The Telecos, the Cable Companies, and their great ally, the Hollywood Motion Picture Studios and their MPAA are now trying to end that equality. And with it you will lose the opportunity to be TRULY FREE FILMMAKERS. But they are not going to succeed because we are going to ban together and organize; we are going to save the Internet, and keep equal access for all. Right?
A TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE will respect the audience’s needs and desires as much as Indie currently respects the filmmakers. A TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE recognizes film as a dialogue and recognizes that a dialogue requires a community. Participants in a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE work to participate in that community, work to get others to participate in that community. We work to get others to make a choice, to make a choice about what they want to do, what they want to see. We all become curators. We all promote the films we love. We reach out and mobilize others to vote with their feet, vote with their eyes, and vote with their dollars, to not act on impulses, but on knowledge and experience.
A TRULY FREE FILMMAKER — be they producer or director — recognizes their responsibility is not just to find a good script, not just to find a good cast, a good package. A TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that they must do more than find the funding, and even more than justifying that funding. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER now recognizes their responsibility is to also find the audience, grow the audience, expand the audience, and then also to move the audience, not just emotionally, but also literally: to move them onwards further to other things. Whether it is by direct contact, email blasts, or blogging, whatever it is, express what you want our culture to be. And express it to all you know.
The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER also recognizes that knowledge is a true power, and that ownership is a false power. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that others, as many others as possible, sharing in that knowledge will make everything better: the films, the apparatus, the business, and the just plain pleasure of participating. We are walking into new territory and we best map it out together.
The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER is no longer bound to just the 5 or 6 reel length to tell their stories. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER is no longer bound to projection as the primary audience platform and is not stuck on the one film one theater one-week type of release.
It is this thing that we once called the Independent Community that is the sector that truly innovates. The lower cost of our creations allows for greater risks. It is what we used to call “Indies” that has innovated on a technical level, on a content level, on a story telling approach, and it is this, the TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE that will innovate still further in the future of distribution.
With the passion that produces 3600 films a year, with just a portion of those resources, we can build a new infrastructure that opens up new audiences, new models, and new revenue streams that can build a true alternative to the mainstream culture that has been force fed us for years. We are on the verge of truly opening up what can be told, how it is told, to whom it is told, and where is told. We can seize it, but it requires that we embrace the full responsibility of what independence means.
Independence requires knowing your film inside and out. Knowing not just what you are choosing to do, but what you have chosen not to do. Independence comes with knowing that you have fully considered all your options. It is knowing your audience, knowing how to reach them – and not abstractly, but concretely.
I can assure you too, that this work of slowing down on our projects, learning their possibilities fully, finding their audiences, owning our audiences, not only will make our films better, but it will also get them made; for it will create that evasive air of inevitability around your projects that gets films financed. It will also lead you into the real challenge of reaching that audience and earning directly the reward of true interaction with them.
Let’s make the next ten years about seizing our independence, killing “indie” film, and bringing forth a Truly Free Film Culture.
I am tired of watching one Indie masterpiece after another filmed in yet another director’s kitchen. Although the cost of travel, crews, lights, and pesky things like visas prohibit immediate satisfaction, a producer can dream can’t he?
Scott Kirsner of CinemaTech has a good article in the 9/17 Business Week entitled “Innovation Lessons From Hollywood”. A big change is in process in the film world, and although I believe the real innovation is going to come from the Indie sector, this article is Essential Reading. Kirsner illuminates five key things we all must keep in mind in order to bring the necessary change to the film world (to somewhat paraphrase):
1)Allies Are Essential;2)Change Takes Time — the Film Industry Is Reluctant To Change;3)Understand How Filmmakers Think & Feel;4)Master the Demo/Feedback Loop, Cultivate Criticism & Listen;5)Befriend The Outsiders.
Got no plans this weekend? Why not save the planet?
An incredible no-budget film called Thanks! Mike And then back to the here and now of whachagonnado this weekend, no matter where you are, you also have a chance to see Alan Ball’s TOWELHEAD, which I had the pleasure of producing. We are not self-distributing, but are the final release for the old guard upstart Warner Indie. This is a film that embodies the reasons why I wanted to make films. As Albert Berger, a friend and producer of many great films just emailed me: “It was provocative, unpredictable and infuriating (everything I want and expect from a This is That Joint).” And the promise I made last week still stands: If you go and aren’t convinced that it was worth your time and money, I will refund your money (and if I was Dr. Who, I’d give you back your time too!) — upon proof of purchase.
Sir Ben Kingsley STOMPS into the shoes of Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye from Mean Magazine on Vimeo.
An incredible no-budget film calledTake Out is opening on five screens in LA this weekend and they really need all the help they can get. I’ve never actually met the director, Sean Baker, but I am a HUGE fan of this movie, as well as his newest movie, Prince of Broadway, so i’m trying to spread the word in my own tiny way. Go see it, or spread the word to LA folks who might be interested. Here’s my Hammer to Nail review of the film: http://www.hammertonail.com/?p=80
And then back to the here and now of whachagonnado this weekend, no matter where you are, you also have a chance to see Alan Ball’s TOWELHEAD, which I had the pleasure of producing. We are not self-distributing, but are the final release for the old guard upstart Warner Indie. This is a film that embodies the reasons why I wanted to make films. As Albert Berger, a friend and producer of many great films just emailed me: “It was provocative, unpredictable and infuriating (everything I want and expect from a This is That Joint).” And the promise I made last week still stands: If you go and aren’t convinced that it was worth your time and money, I will refund your money (and if I was Dr. Who, I’d give you back your time too!) — upon proof of purchase.
The hysteria of the last six months in Indieville is built partially on our collective relunctance/slugishness to abandon an old model which has long been recognized as being inapplicable to most filmmakers work, but also out of the slow drip of the inevitable. For fifteen years we have all heard of the dawning of the new era when we will have instant crystal clear downloads of everything under the sun on every screen everywhere anytime. And we are waiting and waiting and waiting. And still waiting. The reality is the core audience could give a hoot about that future. They like the here and now just fine (and granted most are old and grey and bald like me — or two out of three). Reality check: the glorius future is still a long way away still: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2008/09/reports-of-dvd.html.
Have you wondered why though? Who’s keeping you pleasure at arm’s length? Did you know that in the last three years the US had dropped from 3rd to 16th in terms of internet penetration among countries. I just got back from Asia. South Korea has 80% Broadband penetration! Imagine what that could do for all of us.
We can’t drag our feet any longer. We are on the precipice. Truly. For the first time in our cultural history, we have the opportunity to truly have the culture we want — whatever it is, in it’s multi-headed truly glorious diversity. Once all filmmakers had to consider mass audiences. Now, if you reach them, you can create for niches, even niches that once never existed. It’s hard to even fathom what this means. But it’s also on the verge of being taken away from us. Truly. The phone companies, cable companies, the Hollywood Studios, and the MPAA have banded together to take away the first utility to promote democracy (and innovation, participation, and free speech). On Monday I got to speak up about The Key Issue In The Entire History Of Independent Film at IFP’s IFW Filmmaking 2.0 panel: NET NEUTRALITY. The theater was 33% full at best (ugh), and only six people in the audience said they knew what “Net Neutrality” meant (UGH!) It’s nothing to be embarassed about, but it is something to take action about. I am going to be writing more about it on my blog INFO WANTS TO BE FREE (one of my many, mind you… please check them all out), but you can get super clear info on it now from both SaveTheInternet.com and PublicKnowledge.org. On the panel with me was Art Brodsky from the latter entity, and I was completely impressed with him. Follow that blog, that man, that issue. We need to get active on this.
I should point out that the presidential candidates have incredibly different views on this subject. If you want to endorse the candidate that supports Net Neutrality — and thus by extension truly supports true independent film – click and give here. And if you are in NYC next Monday, you know where you should be (or will when you click there).
It’s INDEPENDENT FILM WEEK here in NYC. Although I haven’t participated in many events, the activity and others efforts are benefiting me and everyone else greatly. The intense focus on and embrace of the coming reality is completely inspiring.
Instead of the negative view towards a changing paradigm, people are recognizing that the benefits of being part of a audience driven (the crass like to say “consumer”) model and the abandonment of the gatekeeper/limited supply past. Somehow I find it ironic that this recognition of the change from a top down to a bottom up (or push vs. pull) film industry structure is occurring simultaneously with an economic collapse and hopeful presidential power shift. The current financial crisis in America has been compared to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in that unregulated capitalism is literally bankrupt, like authoritarian states with communist run economies previously collapsed. The film industry paradigm shift is not of the same seismic shift, but it is the biggest change we’ve had in our little corner.
On Monday night, I had the good fortune to be invited to a dinner put together by Lance Weiler and Arin Crumley & Susan Buice. These filmmakers have not only embraced the new world but have been inspiringly innovative in their efforts to reach, build, and motivate audiences. The dinner was a spin off of their DIY Days. I have been making films for twenty years now and the business model has never truly worked for the films I make and want to make. Yet, this was the first time that ANYONE has pulled together a brainstorming session on what to do about that, and for that alone these folks are elevated to True Indie Film Heroes on my chart. More on this dinner later (they filmed/recorded it), but check out everything you can about what these filmmakers are doing (if you haven’t already) and you can watch the future arrive.Tweet