Monday, September 28, 2009
Swing for the Fences (SFTF)
SFTF is my new Acronym For The Future of Indies
Thanks to Ted Hope’s speech at TIFF, there’s been a lot of buzz about DIY and DIWO lately. I now propose a new acronym - SFTF.
What? Why? Let me explain.
TechCrunch just held their TC50 event, a tech start-up pitch session that I didn’t attend in person but followed sporadically online. Soon after, Sarah Lacey (a reporter with TC critiquing their own event, imagine this happening in Variety (WTF??)) posted an article entitled “Memo to Start-Ups: You’re Supposed to Be Changing the World, Remember?” where she reported the feedback from many of the pitchees, panelists, VC’s and others behind the scenes, and many complained that no one was really pitching the next big idea. One tech guru said he didn’t care if “one of the companies he judged, succeeded or failed because it was so meaningless in the world.” Others said that some of the pitching companies could succeed, maybe sell for $100 million, but they still wouldn’t care. Why? Because none of them were trying to be the next “big thing” that changes the world, and that’s what they think everyone, especially in Silicon Valley should be aiming for (this is a gross oversimplification, read the article). This paragraph sums it up:
I did interviews with most of the TechCrunch50 experts backstage and there was a common gripe about the companies launching there: Not enough passion, not enough swinging for the fences, not enough trying to change the world. There were too many people building safe businesses, too many companies just trying to make existing things slightly better, and too many people wanting to be the next Mint.com, not the next Google. Nothing against Mint, but Silicon Valley wasn’t built on $170 million exits.
This resonated with me me in thinking about the current state of indie film. I’ve written a fair amount about the changes I think we need to address, but I think the TechCrunch article spurred me to realize what I think is my main complaint (and wish) - there’s not enough “swinging for the fences” out there, not enough focus on “changing the world” and that’s precisely what I think is needed - and hope to see more of soon in film - we need to all swing for the fences and try to change the world. Thus SFTF (quick aside, I could have chosen CTW, but it’s so Sesame Street).
Obviously, there are exceptions to this generality, so let me be clear up front - I’m not saying that no filmmaker, no nonprofit, no entertainment company, and no one else is doing anything interesting or game-changing, nor am I saying I’m not guilty of some of the same behavior I castigate here. Rather, I am saying not enough people are focused on really SFTF, and that’s the only thing that interests me. Sure, not everyone needs to change the world, or change it the same way, and not every film needs to break new ground. But I’m very uninterested in the status-quo and it seems to me that most proposals and ventures I read about in my sector are more snooze-inducing than awe-inspiring. We need more people SFTF.
I read a lot of proposals for films, read too many scripts, watch pitches at festivals and markets regularly and while I watch less films than I did as a programmer, I still see more than the average person. It’s increasingly rare to find that filmmaker that is really trying something new - be it through narrative structure, documentary style or (god help us) new story-telling methods. It’s even rarer to find someone who has thought about their audience, the impact they want to have (even if impact means not saving the world but making me piss my pants laughing) and how they might use new methods to reach their audience, raise their funds and make a living.
Too many distribution companies are doing the same old routine with every film they have and seem oblivious to the fact that we’re (collectively) not doing a good job at reaching audiences. Many exhibitors seem scared to death of the changes facing the field, but few of them are trying anything new to change the system. Film festivals, even good ones, are doing the same thing year after year. Even many of the new platforms/companies that have launched are still using an outdated model - essentially trying to bend the new realities of the web to their existing business model rather than truly do something new and amazing. Worse, some are exploiting filmmaker’s lack of knowledge about these changes to keep intact an unfair system that doesn’t serve filmmakers or audiences (nothing new here, really). Many of the nonprofit organizations supposedly serving filmmakers (including youth media) have settled into routines that seem better fit to filmmakers of the 70s than those of today. Don’t get me started on the trade publications...anyone who reads them knows how out of touch they are.
Now, to stop being negative, I do see some very positive examples of “big ideas” in film. People like IMPACT Partners have sprung up and become arguably more influential in effecting change than many of the largest foundations. The MacArthur Foundation has been funding innovative new experiments by people like BAVC, who are helping filmmakers harness new technologies in their projects (disclaimer, I’ve also received their funding, so maybe I’m biased). The San Francisco Film Society has gone from a nice festival and screening organization to a regional powerhouse supporting filmmakers and audiences in entirely new ways, and in some aspects is becoming a model for the nation. Filmmakers like Thomas Allen Harris are thinking about how their films can do more than just play on PBS, but can spark the imagination of their audiences, engaging them as participants in bigger projects. Journalists like Karina Longworth and Anthony Kaufman are smartly bringing film criticism and reportage into the digital age, while maintaining integrity and putting forth insight that often exceeds that I received via print. Industry leaders like producer Ted Hope are prodding the industry to wake up and smell change, and be active in creating the future. They SFTF.
These are all good signs, but recently I was speaking with someone about how many people/organizations we think are truly SFTF and between the two of us, we counted very few beyond the examples above. I got interested in film because I’m just barely old enough to remember the excitement of that time when indie film was rising and seemed so vibrant - anything was possible, and the next, new, exciting vision was right around the corner. People then really did SFTF even if it was DIY, DIWO and helped by IFP, the NEA or AIVF. I still get that sense of excitement, of seeing an entire industry transform now, but seldom from film - I get it now from people launching new web companies, iPhone apps or platforms like Spotify. I get it from my ten year-old nephew’s stabs at machinima and those doing it more professionally. I get it from crazy viral videos and from new gaming platforms, but rarely are these revelations coming from anywhere near the indie film world. Yes, I still love movies, and festivals and filmmakers and every last one of you, but that sense of excitement is often missing from the air. I see a lot of DIY, and some DIWO, but very few people seem to be SFTF.
In her article, Lacey makes a stab at what was missing from TC50. Speaking of start-ups she points out that:
If what they’re trying to do makes clear business sense, a bigger, better-positioned company would do it. A start-up’s only edge is that it’s not built into legacy businesses and preconceived notions and can do something, well, crazy.
Replace start-up with indie and you have a business plan for the future of indie film. I think this spirit of craziness is what’s needed for indie film today.
So my new mantra is to Swing For The Fences and support those who do - SFTF.
Conveniently, this is appropriately and aconymically close to WTF, the exclamation you should make when you see someone who has SFTF. I can’t always say what it is, but I know it when I see it, and I usually say, “man, this is genius, WTF,” or even better, I don’t understand it for days or weeks and am left speechless. SFTF should be the new mantra instead of or in addition to, DIY or DIWO - those are great slogans and great business plans today, but let’s now support those who aim sky high, even if they fail.
P.S. Do I expect this phrase to catch on? No, not as an acronym, but boy I hope it does as an action-plan. SFTF, SFTF, SFTF....
Addendum - In searching for an image to accompany this article today, the first Google Images result was the great photo included here, linked from a blog post by my friend Jacques Thelemaque talking about the need for filmmakers to SFTF in their scripts, so I guess he needs some credit here as well.