AN OPEN LETTER TO MEGAN ELLISON
I can call you Megan right? Okay, I'll stick with Ms. Ellison, because who am I to not rehash an old joke I only recently used.
I just saw the box office reports for Killing Them Softly, the latest release from your Annapurna Pictures Company, and I just have to say: "OUCH!" The domestic opening is dreadful for a movie opening in over 2000+ screens, and the "F" cinemascore from audiences means that everyone who wanted to see it, has probably already seen it, and the money watchers are wondering just how much money it will lose, despite its relatively tiny $15 million production budget.
That means that out of the 8 films you have produced or executive produced that have been released in one form or another at the time of this writing, only one movie, the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit can be considered a real unqualified success. The rest either barely scraped by, flopped entirely, or disappeared into the oblivion of straight to DVD.
That does not bode well for you, or for independent film.
I've written about this before when I rose to your defense when you were accused of "killing indie film."
If you're too lazy to click the link I'll sum it up by saying that you're not killing indie film, indie film was killed long ago. You're just trying to get the corpse moving again.
But I think the problem is your approach.
I'm old, so I have a little wisdom, very little, but more importantly, I can remember when independent film actually mattered.
I was going to film school in Toronto during the indie film boom of the 1990s. That meant I went to every indie movie I could, and more often than not, there were civilians at the screening too.
Sure, the big studio "blockbusters" were still around, but independent film was giving them a run, not just for the money, but for the hearts and minds of mainstream audiences.
Indie films had fresh voices with fresh ideas, and audiences craved novelty after the relatively bland 1980s.
Sadly the success of indie film, especially at winning awards, marked its doom. The big studios started buying up or otherwise absorbing the plucky young producers and distributors and changed their business model from finding fresh artists with fresh ideas to giving big Hollywood stars "street cred" and getting some pretty Oscars and Independent Spirit Awards for their corporate master's mantlepiece.
Soon independent film began to wither and die. One by one the companies that broke new ground in the 1990s were pretty much in the ground by the middle 2000s. Only two, Focus Features and Fox Searchlight have managed to thrive in this increasingly hostile environment because, even though they maintain their "artistic integrity," they are run more or less like businesses trying to fill the gaps left behind by the big players.
This shrinkage occurred among filmmakers as well, with decreasing number of "elite" filmmakers and producers being able to make films that get any attention at all because they have a track record with critics and award dispensing organizations.
The former rebels of the 1990s became the old guard, protecting their turf from new filmmakers by dominating the few remaining sources of investment and distribution.
And let's not forget the audience.... oh wait, independent film already did that by following the Canadian model of targeting film festival attendees, critics, and awards committees over the general audience.
Now let's get back to your approach to the film business.
Word is that your company's mission is to break from the "risk-averse" mold of the major studios and pursue quality drama.
Well that sounds all well and good, but just how "risk taking" you're being. For the most part you've been doing business with the same-old-same-old crew who have dominated the independent film scene since it started collapsing in on itself.
The only "risks" you're taking are on your checking account. You sign up with some long running festival-awards circuit darling, indulge their every whim like Santa Claus on a meth binge and then wonder where everything went wrong when the film sinks into oblivion.
The Master, cost too much to make, and was sold poorly. There was a complete and utter failure to capitalize on the curiosity that film was generating with its complex and potentially controversial subject matter.
There was no serious attempt to give the mainstream audience a chance to connect with the film. Instead they'd see reports about it, read reviews, and all they can see is indulgence, and not for the sake of the audience.
Killing Them Softly was doomed the moment I heard the star and the filmmaker describe it as an indictment of capitalism. Talking about the Marxist dialectical themes of the working class versus the industrial bourgeoisie as a selling point may win you points with critics and award committees, but it does the opposite with audiences. Audiences see people yakking about their film's political themes and the first reaction is to decide not to see it.
Those who disagree with the political stance will see a bunch of millionaire movie stars complaining about the system that made them rich and famous and write it off as an exercise in hypocrisy. If they discover that it was produced by a real honest-to-Xenu billionaire, they're going to write it off as an exercise of EXTREME HYPOCRISY.
Those who do agree with the film's political stance will most likely avoid it because no one wants to sit through a lecture, even one they agree with, when they're paying to see a movie.
Do you see what I'm getting out? You have to sell a film like that as a thriller crime drama, and let the audience find the themes themselves. When the cast and crew try to justify their own importance by talking about its politics, you tell them to shut the fuck up.
Now that you can learn from your failures, let's take a look at your biggest hit and what you can learn from it.
True Grit was made by the Coen Brothers who I like to hold up as a role model for independent filmmakers.
First, they show great budget discipline, and an ability to deliver their distinctive vision at a price commensurate with the film's potential audience. You could toss open the doors to the movie-money candy store, and they'd only take what they needed, because they know that their self-control is what helps them get their next film made.
Second, even at their most esoteric and obscure they still strive to entertain and emotionally connect to as wide an audience as possible through their odd mix humor and humanity. They're not looking to prove themselves better than the audience, they want to audience to come in and join the conversation, so to speak.
Are you seeing what I'm getting at here?
While it's great that you're didn't go the whole Paris Hilton route and are trying to make something worthwhile with your life and your money. However, films are made to be seen. If they are not seen they might as well not exist.
The first step of reviving independent cinema is to find what made it great in its heyday in the 1990s. New people with new ideas who are giving the audience what they are not getting from the big studios.
Forget the critics, the festival crowd, and the awards voters. Let them follow you, not the other way around.
That's the true secret of bringing quality and success back to independent film.
- Furious D.