Thursday, 16 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #181: A New Declaration of Independents

No, there hasn't been a time/space warp and it's July 4th again, it's Oct. 16th, and this is a post about how independent film companies can make it into the mainstream.

You see, Hollywood is going through one of its contraction cycles. It's making fewer movies, and the few movies it does make are mostly going to be over-sized, over the top blockbusters and comic book adaptations with the occasional Oscar bait "prestige flick." So basically, they're going to be doing more of the same of what they've been doing for the past ten years, only less of it.

So here is my plan for independent producers and distributors to carve a niche for themselves in these hectic times and become what I call New Independents.

1. DON'T DO WHAT THE MAJORS ARE DOING, DO WHAT THEY ARE NOT DOING. Trying to copy what the majors do, but on a tighter budget is a mistake, it's like over inflating a balloon, it's going to pop, and stick you in the eye. Look at the areas that Hollywood is ignoring, stories of modest scale, but widespread appeal, in genres of thrillers, horror, police procedural / crime, and small scale science-fiction and fantasy. When doing SF and fantasy, the stories don't have to have the entire planet or even universe in the balance. Don't be afraid to do a story with only a few locations and a small cast, if the story's good, and it's marketed intelligently, it will sell.

2. DON'T WASTE MONEY ON MAKING YOUR FILMS. When you look at film history, you will see that some of the greatest moments in cinema history were not brought about by hurling millions of dollars at the productions, but by filmmakers trying to achieve their goal and staying within budgets. Casablanca is one of the best films ever made, but it was essentially what used to be called a "programmer," a low budget film designed to fill a slot in the release schedule. They had a limited budget, limited resources, but people with the talent and imagination to work within those limits. People love the expressive shadows and razor sharp slashes of light found in classic film noir, but that wasn't a purely aesthetic choice, it was originally done to hide their cheap props and sets in a stylish manner. Money doesn't really solve production problems, imagination does.

3. EMBRACE THE AUDIENCE. Lately independent film has essentially become the dumping ground for self-aggrandizing projects designed to woo Hollywood stars, festival awards committees, and film critics, and not appeal to the wider audience. Now I'm not saying that you can't be challenging, or handle controversial subject matter, you can, but remember, the audience can stand being challenged, but they won't abide being insulted. They can smell an insult a mile away, and will stay away in droves, just look at the performance of the last crop of political films. They weren't designed to be challenging, because that would entail possibly challenging the shibboleths of Hollywood's elite, and that will not be done. I guess what should be remembered the most is that Hollywood can only make films, but Hollywood cannot make a movie a hit, only the audience can do that.

4. AVOID THE BLOCKBUSTER MONEY TRAP. Blockbusters are great to have, but they are lousy to pursue. One of the main reasons Hollywood is in the mess it's in right now is because they have trapped themselves into a mindset that the only films they can release have to make a minimum of $500 million in ticket sales just to break even. Now while having a film make $500 million or more at the box office is great, it's even greater when you don't have to make that much just to stay afloat. Deliver quality entertainment at a reasonable budget, so that you don't have to open at 2,000 or more screens on a holiday weekend, with $50-$100 million in ads to deliver the audience you need. Also, keeping the costs low, and the ambitions modest, is a great stress reliever because you won't have every Tom, Dick, and Harry sticking their nose in it. So aim for the widest audience, but don't be completely dependent on them.

5. EMBRACE NEW TECHNOLOGY BUT DON'T LET IT HYPNOTIZE YOU. The means of production have never been cheaper, yet the costs of making and releasing films keeps going up. That's because of bad business policies that believes that just because it's expensive and high-tech, it must be the right way. Look into new technology and ask yourself these questions: Will it be cheaper to do this scene on a green screen, or on location? Should I shoot on 35mm film, or that new Hi-Def camera that looks like 35mm at a 1/10 the price? Which would be more cost effective and creatively appropriate CGI, or physical effects with old fashioned rubber and silicone? Sometimes, the old rubber puppet with a little creative lighting would be way better than the fully lit CGI monster. Look for ways to make better films better, not just high tech for high tech's sake.

6. FORGET ABOUT THE STAR SYSTEM. Don't depend on "A-List" stars to carry your films, because no star, no matter how famous, can carry a film alone. The bulk of the "A-List" just isn't worth the expense for what they can deliver, which isn't very much these days. Forget hiring stars, make stars, by producing quality films featuring actors with talent and charisma.

7. FORGET ABOUT WINNING HOLLYWOOD. Mainstream Hollywood has become inbred that would make the most genetically maladjusted Appalachian backwoods hillbilly think they're the oddballs. The key is the audience, once you have enough bums in seats, and money coming in, you don't need the approval or praise of the Hollywood elite. You're in the business of entertaining the public, not a bunch of millionaires from the Axis of Ego, remember that and you cannot fail.

8. TREAT INVESTORS AS INVESTORS, NOT SUCKERS. Basically simplify your business model so that the people who invest in your films, including profit participants get their fair share of the profits when they are to be had. That might sting, because some imp of the greedy may be screaming in your ear to hoard it all for yourself, but remember, you want these people coming back to invest more with you to make more films and more money. Remember that when everyone makes money, more money gets made by everyone.

9. MAKE DECISIONS WITH YOUR BRAIN, NOT YOUR EGO. Don't let your success go to your head. Always remember that your success is on winning over the audience, not having the audience somehow come around to your world view.

10. SEEKING AWARDS CAN ONLY LEAD TO SUFFERING. That does sound very Buddhist, doesnt' it, but it's true. Awards are, for the most part, dispensed by elitist insiders to elitist insiders. Look at the Academy Awards, No Country for Old Men was probably the only Best Picture winner of the past 5 years to actually turn a modest profit, though it was mere pennies by Hollywood standards. Harvey Weinstein's antics over the upcoming drama The Reader illustrate that he thinks another Oscar will somehow save his company. He's forgotten that only the audience can save his company. If things keep going the way they are, the Oscars are likely to end up like Canada's movie awards called The Genies. They can't even get the show broadcast live on a major Canadian network, because the movies nominated haven't been seen by anyone except for a small percentage of Genie voters. Without that all important emotional connection with the audience, awards are merely paperweights.

I hope these points help, and if you have any more points to add, leave them in the comments.


  1. Hello again Furious D:

    Please forgive my delay in responding; I've had a great deal of technical difficulty.

    Wow, professor, a whole lecture! I'm overwhelmed and sadly back into the realm of further research required. I cannot debate you on this, nor should I. I am afraid, however, I remain skeptical of my innocence in the present state of entertainment. I like candy. I just wonder how much I can ingest before I become obese and diabetic.

    If you publish your ideas, as suggested in today's comments (Oct. 17), I'll buy, I won't likely understand, but I'll buy it just for the humor.

    Good luck,