Sunday, 22 January 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #840: Sundancing Over The Cliff

The Sundance Film Festival is currently clogging the streets of Park City, Utah with SUVs, stretch limos, stretch SUVs, celebrities, their entourages, and the paparazzi and reporters who buzz around them in a self-sustaining, if vapid, ecosystem all of its own.

The incomparable Nikki Finke took a moment to look at how the films that got all the buzz from last year's Sundance did with audiences.  

If you're too lazy to click the link, then here's the short answer:
Not well, not well at all. In fact, it's making Don Draper cry.

The biggest film was the Weinstein Company stoner comedy Our Idiot Brother, which came and went like a puff of pot smoke, potentially making a profit after P&A, but at best only a small one, and was quickly forgotten. The biggest effect that film had on popular culture was giving me a cheap excuse to post a picture of its co-star Zooey Deschanel.

None of the other films failed to crack the $10 million mark, and most failed to crack even a million like Morgan Spurlock's heavily hyped documentary about product placement Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold which only made $638,456 in theaters.

I really don't like this development, because I can remember when indie films actually mattered.  

I was in film school during the indie film boom of the 1990s, and independent film was the most exciting thing in town, even with people who weren't film nerds.  People outside the entertainment industry, and its watchers like me, talked about independent movies.


Because independent movies were giving the audience what they wanted. Intelligent movies that bucked the group-think and dependence on stars, money, and opening weekend grosses that dominated the films coming out of mainstream Hollywood. 
They used their small budgets as an excuse to use a little something called "imagination" to get things done, and audiences appreciated it. Sure, most of the movies weren't big block-buster hits, but films and audiences could make that precious connection.

This golden age didn't last, especially after Hollywood discovered Sundance, the awards the movies could win for the studios, and the "credibility" that celebrities could get from doing independent movies.

Everything went to hell shortly after. Every major studio started their own "indie" division, and stars started inserted themselves in all sorts of independent movies.

Soon the connection between film and audience was forgotten. In its place was a new connection, between Sundance and Hollywood.

Instead of bucking Hollywood's group-think and dependence on stars, indie films were swallowed up into it. A lot of movies were getting made not because of their merits, including the merit of finding an audience, but whether or not they'd get a name actor an award nomination.  The festival changed from one that built around finding an audience for indie movies to giving celebrities a spot for photo-ops to show off their apre-ski wear.

Now I'm not saying that independent filmmakers stopped making good movies. Lots were being made, but they were drowned out in a sea of faux-sincere, faux-edgy vanity projects.

With awards and riches failing to appear, most of the major studios shuttered their indie divisions, and the market more or less collapsed.

But that wasn't the most important thing that went down in the indie film market.

The most important thing that was lost was trust.

You see, the audience must trust that the film they're going to see is at least going to try to entertain them. They must trust that it will challenge them, and not insult them just for being them, and independent film completely lost that trust.

The film Margin Call got good reviews, but poor box office, because the audience couldn't trust the filmmaker to handle the subject matter of the 2008 financial crisis without making it into some sort of strident polemic against the lives that most Americans live. Even those who would have agreed with Hollywood's point of view avoided it, because they don't want to be lectured as much as the other guy.

Then there's the movie The Ledge, which pretty much embodies everything wrong with current independent film, and it's $9,125 box office take really shows it.  It's a film with three name actors, Liv Tyler, Terrence Howard and Patrick Wilson, and it's all about how evil, crazy, and homicidal American Christians are.

The plot of the film revolves around a heroic atheist who has to sacrifice his life on the titular ledge to save his married lover from her psychotically evil Christian fundamentalist husband.

Now the American audience will take having their intelligence insulted as long as its wrapped in a colorful and entertaining package, but they will not stand to have their existence insulted. And even those who agree with Hollywood's only permitted prejudice will avoid the film, because the whole thing promises to bore the bloomers off them. So you get the majority of the audience insulted.

It still got made, because the purpose of the film wasn't to make money, or find any sort of audience. In fact, its failure to make money is seen as a positive.  The purpose of this film was to make the people who made it and starred in it feel all smug and better about themselves. They get to claim to be "edgy" and "daring" while doing nothing that actual challenges the shibboleths and prejudices of anyone who might hurt their career within their immediate social circle. Then they can use the film's financial failure as a badge of honor and sacrifice in the face of the horrendous stupidity of the great unwashed who buy movie tickets.

The only audience that matters to too many indie films and filmmakers now is Hollywood, and even the citizens of the Axis of Ego don't have to see the movie for it to have the desired effect. Even films that actually are trying to find a wider, real audience, are burdened with a mark of Cain that seems visible only to the audience by these movies.

Technology has made it possible to do professional looking film-making at prices not seen since the advent of sound, new avenues of distribution are opening up, and it's now possible for indie films to find their audience, no matter how niche, yet independent film is struggling to find even niche audiences. It's struggling because it's turning into the English Canadian film industry, where that trust relationship with the ticket buying public is gone, and something drastic is going to have to be done to get it back.


  1. Furious D this is a great piece because it speaks the truth. I have watched sooo many indie films that were tedious pretentious wastes of time.This includes several Oscar nominated films,the type gushed over by toadying film critics.The critics would love to take over the palace and institute their choices 100% every year and the mistakes they make. The film business is split in two with fantasy films on one side and dud indie dramas reflecting Hollywood political and or social issue positions. Geez I'm bored just writing about the wonderful world of films and film criticism and those indies and indie film festivals.

  2. All this plus your two recent cinemaniacal pieces (, make me wonder: where's the love?

    No, wait, think about it. The one common thread that leaped out at me pointed out here, and in those other pieces is: movie makers seem to longer love movies.

    I know you've talked about how hollywood is an unholy amalgamation of business & art, yet for both of those, one must have love. As a business, one must love money, but one must also love the art itself. Heck, whatever else one might say about those old 'b' movies is that it seems undeniable that the makers of said movies loved movies in general and wanted to put out the best craft they could (even if they knew it wouldn't be great). Nowadays, do even the blockbusters have an air of love to them? The only ones I can think of (recently) would be Taken, John Fav[sp?] Iron Man 1 & Cowboys & Aliens, and most work from Pixar (except the Cars series).

    It seems to me that the problem with film makers nowadays is that they're looking at movies as a means to an end, and don't have any love for the craft any more. And that's probably caused Sundance to fail more than anything else.

  3. Oh yeah, well I just RELEASED an indie movie last year and we didn't get into Sundance or even Slamdance. Plus I bet Furious D hasn't bought our DVD, the cheapskate.

    And we don't have any teenage angst anywhere in our whole movie, and the closest we get to a broken love affair is when the main character mentions briefly that his wife and daughter died years ago in the flu epidemic of 1919.

    Plus we have aliens and stuff.

  4. Nate- There doesn't seem to be much love for movies coming from the people that make movies these days. I think that's why everyone is so excited about The Artist despite it being b&w, silent, and French. Even the previews just drip with love for cinema and its power as a medium for storytelling.

    Sandy- Damn right I'm a cheapskate. I am mostly Scottish. :p

    As for genre indie movies that aren't dripping with angst, well they have their own problems. If you want mainstream publicity, you need to get into Sundance. To get into Sundance, you need to be seen as a Sundance type of movie.

    You should have made the aliens dead-eyed suburbanites whining about the emptiness of their consumerist lives and you'd have landed a distribution deal with the Weinstein Company. It wouldn't have been released at all, but you could at least say you had a deal. ;-)