Thursday, 18 October 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #962: Too Rich For Indie Film?

Sometimes people can get swept up in a wave of hyperbole when they're trying to make a point.  A recent example is Sharon Waxman's piece on billionaire heiress turned indie producer Megan Ellison in which she claimed that Ellison and her company Annapurna pictures is "ruining" independent movies.

While I will accept that a case can be made that Ellison has made some mistakes, but I don't think she's ruining the business of independent film. The business of independent film was ruined long before she tossed her hat in the ring.

First let's look at the mistakes Ellison may have made, specifically with her most famous production Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.

1. THE COST: Waxman does make a point that The Master's budget of $35+ million was probably a bit high for such esoteric subject matter. A more experienced producer may have tried to bring costs down. A good way to start that would have been by asking if shooting the film in 70mm film was absolutely necessary. 

70mm film is literally twice as large as the 35mm film and was traditionally used for filming grand large scale epics.

It fell out of favor in the late 1960s because it is extremely expensive to buy, shoot with, and process, while improvements, first in the quality of 35mm film, and most recently digital video meant that the advantages the format once held in image resolution were quickly lost. In fact, The Master was the first movie shot in 70mm since Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Hamlet in 1996.

In this case, she could have asked Anderson if his desire to shoot in 70mm was a serious and absolutely necessary artistic choice, or just Anderson fulfilling an urge to indulge and expecting to get what he wants simply because he's the award winning genius auteur and must have his wishes granted or have anyone who dares deny him risk being condemned as an artless philistine.

While it's nice to be the Santa Claus of cinema giving presents to all the good boys and girls, no one really can't afford to do it forever, even people who have a few billion in the bank. To be a good producer you have to be the adult who is willing to say "no," and know when "no" is the right answer.

2. THE RELEASE: Another mistake was in the release of film. Public curiosity about it was high, mostly because of the comparison's between the cult at the center of the film and the Church of Scientology, and that curiosity and controversy could have been used by an ambitious distributor to sell the film to the general public.

But Ellison's Annapurna Pictures sold the distribution rights to the Weinstein Company.

Harvey Weinstein's general plan for releasing films is to target Academy voters and critics in the hopes that Oscars and critical praise will somehow lead to a "bump" at the box office.

However that's a rare bird these days because...


You see, I promised to get to the problems with the indie film business, and I keep my promises.

I was in film school in the 1990s and I remember that decade's "indie film boom" as if it was yesterday.  Indie movies were showing a whole new model for the movie business. Indie producers and distributors were lean and hungry, fueled by a seemingly endless stream of new talent and new ideas, and together they were giving audiences films what the big studios wouldn't give them because they were thought to be too "niche."

Lean budgets and efficient production methods, and smart marketing and distribution meant that these films could make a profit, and win awards.

That development marked the beginning of the end.  

The big studios looked at the money, which was small in comparison to their big blockbusters, and were tempted, slightly. However, when they saw the awards being won by indie films, they all yelled "ME TOO!"

The major studios either bought up the independent distributors and producers, or started their own "faux indie" divisions.

This marked a sea change in the entire indie film industry.

The target audience went from the ticket buying public looking for something different to movie critics, and Hollywood's award voting peers. The flow of new talent and new ideas was bottle-necked into a trickle with only a handful of people being able to sustain any sort of a career.

Indie film stopped being an attempt to balance art and commerce to a machine designed solely to feed egos.

You can't run a railroad on ego.

One by one the "faux indies" folded, until only a couple remained.  Why? Because the general audience gave up on independent movies.

Now this is where Ellison can forge a path for herself, her company, and independent film in general if she follows these simple steps.

1. Learn about budgets. If you want to be a film producer and financier, you need to know the exact price and value of everything.

The "price" is how much it costs to put some element, from actors to props, in your project, and the "value" is what that element brings to your project to make it appealing and potentially profitable.

Knows these things and you're on your way to become a producer.

2. Don't assume "commercial" is somehow "bad." While everyone wants to do "worthy" flicks like The Master, you can only really afford to make them if you have a comfortable base. That base comes from making good quality financially low risk films with good commercial potential. 

This is a billionaire investor's insurance, because as the old saying goes, nothing makes someone a millionaire faster than being an billionaire that invests in movies. It also helps rebuild that lost trust with the audience.

3. Find a reliable distributor and make a home there. Shopping each film around is a recipe for ulcers. If an independent producer can present a slate of commercially viable projects they can then make a deal with a capable distributor who need product that puts bums in seats to put on screens. Profitable films can make it a hell of a lot easier to get the more "artsy" films out as well.

Then, and only then can indie film be the vital, viable art form it is supposed to be.


  1. Blast Hardcheese19/10/12 10:07 am

    I saw "The Master", and as a fan of PTA's previous films I have to say...

    Meh. Still not sure what the whole point of the movie was.

    Amazing performances by P. S. Hoffman (naturally) and Amy Adams (surprising), and a borderline irritating performance by J. Phoenix, who seems determined to get as many tics into one character as the screen will allow.

    No reason at all for the 70MM format, since it was mostly interior shots and close-ups. It should have been a $10-20M film, and spent more money on getting an actual ending.

  2. Two words: tax deduction.

  3. I don't know the complexities of the US tax code, but I don't think any deduction makes losing that much money worth it.

  4. Blast Hardcheese22/10/12 9:59 am

    SsssPRINGtime for Hitler!...

    Sorry, couldn't resist :D