Indie producers tell you that they can’t get their projects off the ground. Hollywood heavy-hitters like James Cameron think it’s very difficult. Everyone from The Wall Street Journal to Filmmaker Magazine seems to think that there’s no business model for indie films anymore.
Well, here’s a reality check on all that, from a very specific perspective (a New York-based line producer).
I’ve been working professionally since 1994, and semi-professionally (i.e. unpaid and/or part-time) since 1990. During that time I’ve seen three and a half boom-and-bust cycles in film and television production in New York. After each bust, something new started up. The early 1990s bust led to the rise of reality television – cheaper, disposable material that could be shot quickly using the then-new small-format video tools (hi8 and later DV). It also led (very slowly) to the creation of a better NY film commission office, and to the rise of indie non-union production.
For a brief moment, before everyone went apeshit over “new media,” it looked like savvy investors could put $200K to $1M into an independent film and at least break even. When digital video became a reality the budgets lowered considerably (which was good AND bad news for crews; more ways to advance at the low end of the totem poll, at the cost of a decent wage). Directors, actors, writers, producers, and crew who started their careers in the early 90s were, by the latest 90s, working in studios. The studios bought up some of the larger players, or created indie versions of same, and used them as labs.
The second bust followed after people realized that many “new media,” “internet start-up” and “interactive” companies were little more than shell games played by MBAheads with dad’s money. Telecom companies woke up and realized that they had absorbed a lot of debt trying to “synergize” and gobble up small startups. Startups used IPOs as rounds of Venture Capital funding. People wanted to build a railroad to the future but hadn’t figured out how much the tickets should cost. Affordable broadband delivery was a nice idea but it was still (as it turned out) a few years away from reality. When the plug got pulled, telecoms retracted their money, other companies followed suit, and indie filmmaking went down the drain as well. Shooting Gallery was probably the most infamous example of a working, solvent company that gambled on the wrong internet crap and lost. But it’s hardly the only one (Den, etc.) Then 9/11 put the nail in the coffin on a bunch of smaller companies that had been hanging on by a thread. I personally knew about five or six boutique production companies that went under after losing three months of business because they literally couldn’t get to their offices.
Enter the 2000s. Fueled by FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate), people with more money than they knew what to do with became film producers. Other companies and people funded these folks. Studios went back on a buying spree. Every town in America put on a film festival. But the game had changed. Now you needed to fit into a genre AND/OR have a star AND/OR be shot on something “good” for your film to get out there. One of the upsides of all this is that states, realizing that entertainment money is a green as any other, started enacting aggressive tax incentive programs. And cheap HD tools made it possible to achieve far better results than before, for not a whole lot more money. A lot of people went to work on their dream projects, making movies in their neighborhoods for less than $100K.
However, it’s not surprising that, just like the rest of the U.S. economy, indie filmmaking was fragile and unsustainable. And just like in the previous busts, the film industry will reorganize, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and keep going. This is NOT the end, folks.
At the risk of being completely, utterly wrong, I’m going to make a few predictions about what the next steps out of the abyss will look like. This will form the basis of the next blog entry. Hang on to your seats, folks!