Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #108: The Death of the Dependent Independents?

A tip of my jaunty straw boater to both Nikki Finke and Defamer for their reports on the recent assimilation of Paramount's sort-of independent arm Paramount-Vantage into the parent company's own little Borg collective. It joins New Line/Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures in the corporate land of wind and ghosts and does not bode well for the other dependent independents like Focus (Universal), Sony Classics (Sony/Columbia), Fox Searchlight (Fox), and Miramax (Disney).

Now I talked about the rise and fall of indie cinema before (read it here) but right now I'd like to specifically tackle the rise and fall of these faux-indie companies.

Back in ye olden days, known as the early 1990s, movies were in a strange place. Cartoonish action movies, repetitive slasher/horror franchise films, low-brow sex farces, and teen comedies dominated the movie business through the 80s, and it looked like the trend was going to continue if the studios had anything to do with it.

Sizable segments of the audience were getting bored with the same old, same old, and were hungry for something new. Most of the independent companies operating then, like Cannon Pictures, weren't really interested in tackling new ideas or markets, preferring to make cheap imitations of what the big studios were making.

A new strategy emerged, taking advantage of new talent and technology, smaller companies started to make a name for themselves. They used carefully structured release plans, review driven marketing, and positive word of mouth to sell their films, and they were starting to sell pretty well. Now these are not blockbusters we're talking about here, but as I like to say, they didn't have to be blockbusters to be profitable.

The business model for these indies was pretty simple. Since they were not part of some huge mega-corporation with deep pockets and law firms on retainer, they didn't have the luxury of screwing everybody over as a revenue source. Their films had to make money, so their investors would be happy enough to invest again, so they could make and release more movies. To be blunt, they actually were in the movie business, not in the creative accounting business.

Then the "indie boom" happened.

Films like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects caught on with audiences, doing gangbuster business and winning awards left, right, and center. Then indie films started to dominate "critics best" lists, the Oscars, and the Sundance Festival exploded from an obscure little festival into a massive industry schmooze-fest.

Well, the big boys started to covet. They coveted the money, and most of all the respectability that the "indie" label bestowed.

And that's when things started to stumble.

Independent production companies and distributors were either bought up, or smashed up, by the majors who then started their own "independent" or "classics" labels to buy up and sometimes actually release the films they see at Sundance.

Soon after independent film wasn't about satisfying audiences with stuff that the mainstream studios weren't making, it became about wooing elite critics, and winning awards that made the executives who greenlit them look and feel important.

Independent went from meaning daring, original, and often entertaining, to become elitist, isolated, and often tedious.

Meanwhile, these very same companies were choking the life out of the independent cinema. Shifting from the carefully planned marketing strategies of the small players, to the big-money tossing marketing campaigns of the big boys, but without the big money or even the careful planning.

It also got harder to get even faux-independent films into theatres, with the parent companies booking their "blockbusters" into hundreds, if not thousands of screens more than they needed simply because they hope the economies of scale could deliver that big #1 opening weekend before folks realized the movie was crap.

So theater owners started turning away even studio released movies, in favor of the latest George Clooney / Nicole Kidman bomb, simply because their ad campaigns and release plans were just too big to pass up.

Which leads us to where we are now.

The big companies
bought out the smaller companies, hoping to cash in on their success, and then made it impossible for those smaller companies to do business. All the while these very same companies are acquiring or creating outlets for movies and television content, and are unable to fill those outlets with new content. That's because a movie/TV company, no matter how large, can produce only so much original content without some outside source.

This is why Hollywood needs a new business model. The current strategy of crush, consume and consolidate hurts more than it helps. A certain amount of production outside of their narrow little realm is actually necessary for movies, both as an art and as a business. An independent film scene, dedicated to satisfying audiences with what the mainstream can't or won't deliver, infuses fresh creative blood, promotes new ideas in storytelling, technology and technique, and provides much needed content for media outlets.

My advice, birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and independent films need to be independent.

However, for that to happen, Hollywood needs to find not only a new business model, but a whole new mindset.

That's my opinion, and I'm always right. ;)

1 comment:

  1. I feel your pain, and am saddened even by the death of the faux-indie studios. However, I think that it's all cyclical - a new crop of independent studios (truly independent) will pop up and take with them some of the awards and respect that the indies of the 90s had.

    Of course, then they'll be bought again and so on and so forth, but we ought to at least get a few good years out of them...