A common refrain in the indie/arthouse film world these days is that the field needs to act more punk rock in how we think about audience engagement. It’s something I say often, and I’ve been reading/hearing people say it more often lately. The idea being that back in the day, punk bands (and to be technically accurate, this would be the more modern hardcore punk, or even garage bands, not the earlier, official “P” punk) would reach audiences by going around the country in a van playing small gigs to loyal audiences who would then support them directly and while they couldn’t make a fortune they could make a living. The famous case-study being Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat. The argument continues that with the tools we have today to directly reach audiences and avoid middle-men, and given that audiences are increasingly downloading films for free or cheap, that perhaps we can offer more value, and thus make a bit more money, by connecting directly to our fans who will pay to meet us with our film in person and support an authentic experience.
But the notion also has something to do with the excitement a subset of us felt - the connection and being in the “now” sense of punk rock. The tearing down the walls (even self-consciously) feeling. Being a fan, you felt part of a visceral experience that mattered. For many of us, this led to lots of learning about music. My interest in punk led me to noise rock, to obscure forms of jazz and even to electonica, rap and even in an odd way, the same music that punk was originally against - disco. That’s not to say that everyone knew how to play their instruments, but that was the other liberating sense of the music - anyone could pick up an instrument and play (and frankly, have better odds of getting laid than from most other adolescent hobbies). People collaborated a lot - from making bands, to sharing tips for the road, couches to sleep on, etc. There was another similarity we could learn from as well - you learned about the music not from the mainstream press (at least not at first), but from your friends and from local experts (now called curators) - the local pub, the house that someone turned into a venue, the local record store clerk. Walking into a record store, you were overwhelmed with records, but you never thought “wow, there’s too many records in here.” Instead you thought, “awesome, lots of music to discover, I just have to flip through the bins for things I’ve heard of, or ask someone in the room what they think.” More often, you’d already listened to a band and were there to buy it because you had heard them on a mix tape you got for free (and this being a mix tape, not a disc, you could throw it on the ground and stomp on it and it would still play in your stereo). You had already sampled the music, possibly heard them live at a show, and wanted to own it. For the most part, this sense of excitement still exists in music, for most people, even if it’s not as strong as when you were an adolescent.
I think we can see most of the potential parallels for film today. Instead of elaborating on this more, I think it’s better to admit we may instead need to turn to what seems like a more apt metaphor for the future of film - classical music. Our continual evocation of punk rock is a way for us to romanticize the potential future of film, but I think a more sober assessment would place us squarely in the classical music camp, and looking at what’s going on there is not pretty. Analogies only last so far as arguments, but humor me for a moment as we compare the fate of classical music with the current state of and possible future for indie/arthouse film.
I recently read the book arts, inc. by Bill Ivey, the former head of the NEA who now runs the Curb Center at Vanderbilt. The book is worth a read for many reasons, but his analysis of the current state of classical music struck me as eerily similar to indie film. First, he notes that if you want to purchase a literary classic in a bookstore, you’d simply go to the literature or fiction section and look for “Thomas Mann next to, say, Thomas McGuane.” He quotes critic Alex Ross in pointing out that in music it’s completely different - you go to a record store (a rarity these days) and find popular music in one section and classical in another - automatically implying that classical is decidedly “unpopular music.” This fits with the classical music assertion that classical music is great and that the rest of what we listen to is trash. Classical music “employs a sales pitch that, right out of the gate, treats every other form of music as inferior. The process is not about finding ways to connect with the interests and concerns of listeners, but rather to convert consumers from the popular to the refined.”
Ivey goes on to show how classical music was originally not a “fine art,” but was turned into this by an elite trying to separate themselves from the masses. Classical music had been “presented side by side with what today would be viewed as popular culture, with venues and audiences indistinguishable from those associated with prize fights or fiddle contests.” Critics, mainly in Boston, began to equate old world compositions with the sacred, which were therefore more lofty, of higher regard and of course, much more difficult to understand than popular music. Classical music became something rarified that “exist(ed) for the few who understand.” It became something you had to attend at an expensive symphony space, paying a lot of money for the privilege. As it continued to creep into exceptionalism, it had to be supported by the same elites blessed enough to understand it - ticket sales couldn’t support it, so foundations, philanthropists and the NEA needed to step in and subsidize it. As it became more and more irrelevant to the masses, attendance dropped and most orchestras today are running deficits. Once ubiquitous on radio, classical music has been pushed off the spectrum by talk radio and country. No major label classical recordings are made anymore, it isn’t on TV or in the movie soundtrack and we are left to buying classical music on iTunes or buying a satellite radio to pick up a broadcast.
Some look at this situation and argue that we are actually in a golden era of classical music - it may not be on the radio, but sales are up on iTunes and other online platforms and there are actually more recordings than ever. A classical music fan can find what they want in the long tail of content online, and as long as one has an internet connection, you’ve got access to a trove of material. I agree with this, and think it’s great, but unfortunately, there remains a problem - popularity and discovery. As Ivey points out, “we’ve got more classical music than ever, but it doesn’t mean as much it’s not in the mainstream of expressive life, as it was a half-century ago.” As with much of our fine arts, classical music has been “made so special that no one cares.” It is preaching to the converted, only, and converting very few new listeners. It is no longer a vibrant part of the cultural conversation. It may still exist, but it no longer matters.
This is precisely what we see happening with indie and arthouse film. There was a time when even the most cutting-edge arthouse cinema could be seen at the theater much the same way we watched any popular film. In fact, it was popular. Now, most great arthouse films are seen by an elite few - those who have tickets to Cannes or Toronto - rarely to reach the masses. Yes, IFC may pick up a fair amount of them, but to see them in their theater, you must live in NYC or pay for a VOD offering - which you will only have heard about if you are a cinephile who follows what plays at Cannes through IndieWire, or from reading the New York Times. Between iTunes, Amazon, pirate sites, Snag Films, IFC and numerous other platforms I do have more options to watch indie and arthouse films than ever before. But like classical music, it’s no longer part of the cultural conversation. Like classical music, it exists in its own section - since when was independent a genre? Did Netflix invent this? Blockbuster? Sundance?
We put our arthouse/indie films in a self-limiting niche - The Auteurs website, for example, specializing in Criterion collection films and obscure foreign fare and classics. This is great as far as it works - which I am willing to bet is going to maximize with reaching all the current lovers of auteur cinema. This isn’t a bad goal and may even keep them profitable, but if we want to expand the audience for great cinema, we need to reach the non-initiated and truly build new audiences. The conventional wisdom is that you should specialize in a niche, but to me (and possibly to the future of the artform), that’s a limiting proposition. I actually think it’s a rare person who goes online or to the TV and says “I think I want to watch an independent film tonight.” Most people who like niche cinema happen to also just like to watch a lot of cinema. There’s even a study that has shown this with statistical analysis of rentals and purchases, so this isn’t pseudo-newman-science. By putting ourselves in such a niche we may be limiting our potential audience right out of the gate.
If a film gets distribution, they may have reached the holy grail, but will still likely not reach a mass audience. Most distributors book the few such films that get a theatrical release into small, independent arthouse cinemas - a place no one but the anointed frequent. Our awards shows honor films few people have ever seen and it’s a critic’s favorite game to take swipes at those few indie films that manage to engage the masses and become a box-office success. We focus our attention to getting press in the usual places, the NYTimes, a smattering of blogs and art cinema journals - all of which are read by the anointed, not the masses. I’m willing to bet my friends under the age of 18 (maybe even under the age of 30) don’t read any of these blogs or papers, and they’re the audience we need to be converting.
Festivals could be the great democratizer, and they claim this on grant applications (because they aren’t sustainable) regularly. But look at their programs, and with a few notable exceptions, they are playing the same films, and variety doesn’t mean mixing in some popular cinema, but rather having your Hong Kong action flick opposite your mumbling Midwestern indie. We all know well the elitism purposefully mustered up by the New York Film Festival, but many a film festival yearns for just such royalty when they state they want to show the work that otherwise wouldn’t get seen in their town, or that they want to “challenge” their audience. When Tribeca launched in Manhattan, the film industry, the critics and the assorted hangers-on reveled in ridiculing the populism of the nascent festival, but it was all too easy to see that they were just upset they would no longer be among the few who got to see these films outside of Telluride. (disclaimer, I worked at Tribeca, but I defended their idea of a festival long before I knew them). They were no longer going to be able to tell their friends with a haughty voice - “oh, I saw that back when it premiered in Toronto, it was ok.” They were upset that the magic of the latest French masterpiece would be sullied by the inclusion of films like Spider Man. Did they bother to ask local audiences what they wanted? No. Because if they had, they would probably have heard that most local non-film-industry audiences wanted an exciting, festive celebration of cinema of all sorts, and not more elitism.
There have been studies (link is to PDF) that show that the greatest predictor of attendance at classical music venues is whether or not someone has ever learned to play an instrument. If you have musical training, you feel a more visceral connection to the music and you search out many types of music, including classical. I believe that likewise, in film, we now have legions of young people who have learned to shoot a camera, edit and make a film. The “industry” tends to dismiss these as amateurs and complain about the torrential flood of films submitted to their fests every year. But instead, we might just have the perfect generation - one that feels a visceral connection to film and wants to explore more. Film is no longer something mythic for them, hard to do or just for an elite few. They now know how to make it, and this commonness may just lead to more discovery and participation. Too bad we’ve limited their ability to do so, by limiting ourselves from discovery with labels and niche sites that too few mainstream people will explore and by trying to make film exceptional again.
Just look at the trends in mainstream cinema now. There we have the MPAA racing to drag their fans, er pirates, to prison, instead of encouraging discovery. (Lots of research (PDF) shows that perhaps piracy doesn’t correlate with less sales, but quite possibly increases exploration and later purchases.) The industry is pushing towards more 3D in an effort to make going to the cinema a better experience than watching at home. But it comes with a price, and not just the extra $3-$5 charged, but that in making film exceptional instead of accessible, we might turn away an audience that no longer finds a connection. Theaters are building fancier cinemas, with plush seats, reserved seating and fancy food. Sounds like an evening at the opera to me. Perhaps it’s not just indie film that’s sinking into classical music land.
Mind you, I’m not opposed to film festivals, to VOD or to the Auteurs. Contrary to some public opinion, I’m not even against distributors. I would probably prefer to see a film in a cushy seat with a beer, and I’ve been known to freak out when I have to watch a film with “the masses” instead of with an industry audience at Sundance. I’m not belittling any of these folks who are just trying to get great films seen. I’m just pointing out that by putting ourselves in a little niche (or allowing ourselves to be niche-d) and by continuing to rarify the arthouse/indie experience, we are quite possibly making ourselves less relevant.
We may have already lost the battle. When I speak to young kids today, they don’t speak about wanting to go to the movies. They haven’t heard of Sundance. They love watching YouTube, but even more, they love playing video games and making their own mash-ups and machinima. Listen to the “net generation,” which is much older than kids, but younger than me, and their idols are the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, not Scorsese. The excitement level has shifted away from film and towards computers and the net. Some of this is because these are the new, next things. I would point out, however, that they are also very accessible things, especially if you are young. Anyone can make the next Google or Facebook. With a little practice, nearly anyone can mash-up a video game and create a viral sensation. The net is very participatory, and thus vibrant.
Cinema was never very participatory. Sure, people may have jumped out of the way for the oncoming Lumiere train, but for the most part we’ve sat in the theater and watched. There have been moments, however, where this changed. Star Wars became an ongoing experience for many fans - and some even participate to the point of dressing like a Storm Trooper for the Christmas parade. The american avant-garde went to great lengths to require an active audience. In the early 90s, low budget indies like Sarah Jacobson or Russel Forster drove around the country in vans, showing their films at clubs and selling VHS tapes (pre-DVD acceptance) directly to fans. Today, these same ideas are being repackaged into fancier words - transmedia storytelling and DIY Distribution - and my hope is that we embrace them fully, as they just may keep us from sliding further into the classical music bin.
So what’s my prescription for the future? I don’t have all the answers, and that’s not the point of this post, but I have a few thoughts. First, it’s just about recognizing there’s a slight problem here, and coming up with responses. Ted Hope recently asked a similar question in his post “Can Truly Free Film Appeal to Young Audiences.” He also noted the differences with rock, and suggested three things - really put on a show, make things more participatory and he also suggested a think tank on these issues. Great ideas. Here’s just a few more. Post more ideas here, or email them to me.
- Diversify - in all senses of the term. We need more color behind the camera, for many reasons, but especially because youth today live in a more diverse world and if our cinema doesn’t reflect that diversity, it will be meaningless to many. But also we need to diversify our programming at film fests, our writings in blogs, etc in terms of genre. Mix it up - review/program anime, machinima, Hollywood and foreign films in the same places.
- Break the niche - indie isn’t a genre. Push storytelling, push media, push film but indie and arthouse are a bad niche. I don’t think any of the movie sites will succeed until they get out of this mindset as well.
- Tour - like a punk band. Sure, you’ve played the fest circuit, but did you just show up and take the applause, or did you really engage with your audience and fans? Did you make sure to sell your DVD, did you do a q&a with the local radio? Did you use the tour to build an audience of fans who will follow you?
- Copy what DIY musicians are doing - they’re years ahead of us in adapting to digital, and the good artist’s techniques translate to film easily.
- Think about alternate venues. One of the most exciting things in classical music right now are the people going out and playing in bars and clubs, outdoors and at venues like Le Poisson Rouge. Think about skipping theatrical for a tour of alternate venues.
- Explore transmedia - it’s a trendy term that I hate, but in the end it’s about engaging your audience. Today’s audience wants to participate - give them the ability to do so. An engaged audience is more likely to stay engaged.
- Festivals should get over themselves and the premiere thing. Your audiences don’t care about it (unless you are truly an industry event), it makes film too “special” and it limits your programming choices. It will also allow you to diversify your fest’s programming more. (side note - fests are doing a better job than most in building a cool future, so I don’t want to slam them too much here).
- Embrace peer to peer sharing, piracy and free. Yes, you should get paid for your work. Yes, the MPAA may succeed in shutting down piracy someday, but that day isn’t now. As many have said before me, filmmakers need to worry about obscurity not piracy. You’re more likely to gain a fan, who may pay later, than to lose a sale. If you can’t stomach that, then at least make sure your film is available online for very, very cheap, very early in its release. And know you’ll be pirated anyway.
- Ted suggested a think tank - I would propose that we have lots of nonprofit orgs supporting filmmakers, and while they (like fests) are doing a lot with a little, I think they are the right players to study new ideas further. How about more panels/talks about possible futures and less about company X pushing their particular model. What about a series devoted to such ideas? How about mixing worlds - artists, musicians, gamers all talking with filmmakers? How about an online journal exploring these issues?
- Focus on collaboration. Not just in making the film, but in exhibiting it. Collaboration is a key trend with the net generation. Collaborate with your audience. Collaborate with festivals (believe it or not, many a fest will tell you they don’t get enough help from filmmakers in pushing their film). Collaborate with other filmmakers in strategizing new ideas (OpenIndie is doing this well). Collaborate with...anyone and everyone.