Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gill, Gibney and the Numbers

There’s been much ado lately about Mark Gill’s “Sky is Falling” speech. I read the speech, and the millions of other bloggers responding, but still have to ask – where’s the news here? And how does this apply to 99% of IndieWire readers?

In my job, I speak to filmmakers almost daily – young, old, established, emerging, successful, under-appreciated, good, spectacularly good, mediocre and incredibly bad. I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years now, and I have yet to meet the filmmaker that has had good things to say about the state of the industry – particularly as it relates to their film. Whether it’s the difficulty of raising funds, or the inability to make money back – even on films that are seen as successful – they all bemoan something. Even the Hollywood types have horror stories about either troubles getting their film made, or not getting paid what they feel is fair. No news here.

Mark Gill’s analysis, even the parts I would debate, is fairly accurate, but pretty much meaningless to 99% of the indies I (and you) know. For most of us – those making truly indie films, and those watching them – not one of Gill’s thirteen disaster points mean anything to us.


Picturehouse, Warner Independent, etc and all – wouldn’t distribute most of the films that I've seen and/or supported this year, have nothing to do with what we call Indie, and are for all intents and purposes meaningless to us. I’m not saying I haven’t liked any of their films, or that they haven’t been important to the movie business. I am saying that few of these companies would ever pick up 99% of the films accepted to Sundance (or any other fest) anyways, and that whether or not they tank has no real impact on the majority of indies I know. For them, they haven’t truly had a distributor for their films since perhaps the early 90s, if ever. And they’ll keep making their films, their audiences will keep finding ways to see them – be it at festivals or online or through a hand-me-down VHS tape. So, for the rest of us, points 1-13 add up to possibly one thing- less parties to try to get into at Sundance, but not much more in terms of indie film.

Everyone in the film business seems to be completely aware that the entire marketplace is changing as a result of digital and its attendant changes, and that we better do something or end up just like the music business, but no one seems to be offering any good answers yet. Gill essentially offers two bits of advice – “Make fewer better” (from Goldwyn) and make sure there’s an audience for the films. Well, we all know this, but newsflash – that’s not going to stop the wave of digital crap that Gill thinks has come from the digital revolution. Go ahead and hold your finger in that hole Mark, but the deluge is going to break through. There’s a good chance you’ll make fewer films, but not much that the world will. (Don’t take that as a slight against Gill, it can apply to anyone). And while I have no bad feelings against Gill (we’ve never met, and I’m glad this speech was published), I do have to take exception to the idea that the digital revolution sucks. While none of these are "films" in the strict sense, I’m very glad that my 8 year old nephew turned me on to lego Star Wars, Kill Vader and that so many amateurs could inspire and star in Weezer’s Pork & Beans. I’m sorry, but once you see this stuff you can’t put down the revolution, even if none of those hundreds of thousands of viewers add up to quarters for your Vegas trip. It all adds up to something pretty cool for our culture, and I can't imagine that more people having access and making more media won't be a good thing in the long run, even if it means we have to work harder to break through the clutter.

As suggested in this piece, we should look to the music industry - Well, we’re not seeing less music being made, and frankly, I’m glad to have so much stuff to wade through – my musical selections aren’t making anyone a lot of money, but neither I nor the people making the music I like are in this game to make a lot of money. (Trust me, Ken Vandermark knows he’ll never be famous.) Same with most of the filmmakers I know – they are passionate about making films, want an audience and would like to just make enough to live on. The suits are in it for the major profit, and for them the sky is falling – it actually fell a long time ago, but all that dumb money kept the eyes glazed enough not to notice it. So, from the rest of us to all of you just joining us – welcome to our party, it’s not making us any money, but some of us are still finding what we want and having fun. What we need now is gatekeepers, but not the old types that spent a lot of money to get us to see that which we could do without, or that think that unless a film can gross millions, it wasn’t worth being made. The new “gatekeepers” needed are those that can help us wade through the junk to find the gems, and these gatekeepers will probably be my friends (or maybe just my nephew) as often as some studio division head.

A more important article in IndieWire was their excellent piece on Alex Gibney’s suit against ThinkFilm. The most relevant part to this discussion was the money – Gibney received $150,000 for selling the film to Think for 20 years – that’s a long time in this age, btw – and a $50,000 bonus for winning the Oscar. This in itself should be a wake-up call to all the indies trying to make their films. I assure you that Gibney spent more than this making the film – while many indies can get by for less than 100K, ITVS still finds an average cost per hour of $500K for indie docs aimed for public television.

Note further that Think has made just $275,000 on the theatrical release of Taxi to the Dark Side. Don’t make the mistake of doing simple math and think they are $75K ahead of the game here – they probably spent more marketing this film and releasing it theatrically than they made back. That’s even if they did they poor job of releasing it that Gibney claims. Now, this is a tough film – a film about a war that most of America wants to ignore. None of these films are doing well, but this is a filmmaker with a track record, a well-known distributor and a lot of press. It is safe to say that 99% of indie docs made won’t do even this well. A quick perusal of IndieWire’s box office charts (from Rentrak) any given week will show you that few “truly” indies are doing any better at the box office. Even more interesting is to peruse the total theatrical numbers at The Numbers from 1995-2008. There are well-known Indie Distributors that in that entire time have made less than a million dollars on theatrical releases.

Now, we all know by now that theatrical only exists anymore to market the film. (I know, I know, and I love films in theaters as well). Most revenues will be made in ancillary, mainly DVD, markets. No one tracks those very well, but you can find some sense of these at The Numbers and in talking to filmmakers who have been distributed. Guess what? These numbers don’t add up much either.

Bottom line- very few people are doing well in the film business. Kinda like in America in general, but that’s another blog post. It’s about time that filmmakers wake up to this fact collectively, and come up with their own models. No one can afford to keep making films per the usual model. People are spending a lot more making their films than what they are earning back. I hope IndieWire can use this pair of articles to re-imagine what they can offer to us, their readers. I know them well, and don’t mean this as a strong critique, because they can only do so much, but I do think that more articles adding up the numbers and exposing what is and isn’t taking place in the market will have a much bigger impact on the indie film world than any iPop photo of the latest festival party (not that those aren’t fun).

I don’t have the answers here, but these articles did get me thinking – as well as many others who emailed me about them this week – that we need to really get some good heads together and think this stuff through, re-imagine what we are doing and come up with some new models. I’ve been speaking with many people about putting together some kind of forum for this soon, and if you want to be part of it, let me know.



Anonymous said...

Excellent, excellent piece - - -

Anonymous said...

Great post, Brian. As you say, there is no real news here, but I do like Gill's talk because it serves as a good reference for a range of evidence that the film industry is so messed up. I still find many filmmakers who are just getting started and are planning their lives around the old myths of independent film. It's nice to have one link I can send them for their nasty dose of reality.

You mentioned that we all need much more exposure of the numbers, which is true. A huge obstacle to getting the information we need is the tradition of secrecy around film financials. Apart from publicly available box office data (which doesn't include films that screen off the standard weekly schedule), budgets, revenues and deal terms are frequently closely guarded. In my experience, this is usually because distribution contracts require it as a way to keep other filmmakers in the dark and limit their ability to negotiate. Keeping those secrets doesn't seem to offer any benefit to filmmakers, and it hurts us all by preventing us from learning what works and what doesn't. I hope your forum can start a move away from this tradition.

Anonymous said...

RE: starting a forum for exploring new distribution models... Lance Weiler's site is a great resource.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Brian. Thanks for taking the time to say it, and to say it right.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and by the way, I'm interested in being involved with your forum if the invitation is open.


JH said...

IMHO, show "business" has always been a rather crude and brutal path in the pursuit of profit. I can only wonder if there has been a content creator comfortably chugging along experiencing a humble yet secure 8 to 10 % growth? Year after year. Decade after decade.

I kind of doubt it. Seems like every aspect of this business is completely dependent upon the theory of "tent pole" salvation.

I doubt media can ever be consistently profitable . . . profit seems to require service to broader, less challenging, and clearly defined markets.

I have to wonder if the frenzied growth of independent media over the years has been fueled by an overestimation that a content explosion could cut through already saturated or locked broader revenue streams and the potential return of smaller yet passionate alternatives would suffice as backup?

Personally, I'd rather see media makers first committed to their craft rather than reinventing the wheel simply to answer dwindling returns . . . thus the paradox that Brian's post considers, I guess.

The bean counters are still winning.

Anonymous said...

Great response, Brian. I think many truly independent filmmakers are thinking similarly. As a newcomer to the numbers side, I agree that more concrete data about how things are shaking out is important. I know for myself, that the concept of deliverables was pretty new to me as I began production. Even films that get a 75k advance may have 100k in deliverables and this is rarely talked about, which I think would be healthy. Too often filmmakers tap every resource for the first film and it restricts their ability to make a second. I'd love to talk part in your forum if at all possible.

I've found that IFP, the workbook project, and self reliant film are all great resources, encouraging new models. I look forward to finding more.

Anonymous said...

All distributors are involved in White Collar Crime. Not just a few. They employ MBAs to skim the cash flow, accountants to maintain two sets of books and lawyers on retainer to bamboozle the naive filmmaker victims of massive distribution fraud. If the independents weren't so vain, timid and insecure, they would band together with a hard-nosed savvy lawyer and sue the bastards under the RICO statute, put a few in jail and start cleaning up the distribution business. I hear that self-distribution is the answer. Yes, if you handle every phase of the operation and have advertising funds. But then how do you deal with piracy? They only rip off the best sellers and remain safe from punishment. Their illegal action is protected by the Copyright Laws. Yes, protected, because the FBI is inundated by a backlog of cases to pursue....mostly bank robberies, jewel thieves and convicts on the they can't help filmmaker victims. I speak from experience after reporting an intellectual property crime to the Feds. They gave me a number to stand in line (2,936) and four years later reported that the pirate had fled to Mexico with all the money. Case closed. When my feature film, "Is There Sex After Death," featuring Buck Henry, opened to rave reviews in New York City at the PLAYBOY THEATRE on West 57th St. (now the Directors Guild Theatre), the distributor conspired with the theater manager and box office employee to sell fake tickets to soldout audiences. Then at night in the secrecy of a dark room in the basement, they separated the legit tix from the fakes and kept the corresponding dollars from the illegal tickets. It was a win-win situation that amounted to my losing $700 a night for two months. After confronting the crooks, they resigned and the DA wouldn't prosecute them unless I produced the plates that printed the fake tickets!!!!!!!!!! Lots of luck filmmakers. Consider going to Med School or returning home to mom and dad. Your room is waiting along with a job at Uncle Tom's place of business.

Anonymous said...

Hello Brian, Great piece, my comments are that people change and evolution happens. No one can stop the Digital age, its like trying to stop george bush 8 years ago, it wasnt going to happen.

You have to go with where the power is and understand how to use it and do your thing with it. So the power is Digital, so get on the band wagon or get left. Study the market, look at successful projects that have been released not long ago.

Create a plan and a realistic goal. Strategically come up with a plan and a budget. Know your target audience as well as there spending habits.
Know the power and reach of the talent that will be acting in your film

Include a Publicist in your plan, one that knows how to target your market, do your homework make your film and graduate to the next level.

Finish what you start but follow the blueprint.

Im actually in the film game to make great projects and to make money.. By the way I own GreenLight Star Productions, we have our first feature in the can. It is titled "Jury of our Peers". We are an Indie that is focused on the Bigger Picture.. For us its Art and Business.

We dont have the wealthy uncle or dad to fall back on if our film flops,,so we have to read articles like this learn from others wins as well as there losses and keep it moving.

Im James J.B Brown and id love to be on your forum,,,hey , don't fix it if it aint broke,,
why reinvent the wheel just put some rims on it,,lol... heck use myspace it free,,,matter of a fact check us out on it,,

Hey Brian can we get a domestic home video deal..?
we have part 2 in script development...
You know a closed mouth doesn't get fed!!

Matt Hanson said...

I am still astounding by how many filmmakers are still stuck in a loop of making it in a 'traditional' sense ...

I almost got lynched by a few student filmmakers after presenting A Swarm of Angels at Power to the Pixel, at the London Film Festival, last year. They don't want their dreams broken... they just didn't hear the alternative message that there's so many opportunities out there if you think outside conventional parameters.

Anonymous said...

Great come-back piece! As you said I don't think that any of us working already in the indie market were particularly alarmed by Gill. I do however think that it is a good wake-up call for those doe-eyed first time filmmakers that have not really embraced what is happening within indie filmmaking.

I work with new filmmakers that come to me for help with marketing their films and though I still encounter some naivety as to where their film fits in the marketplace I have within the last year seen an increasing change as filmmakers are coming to me with already with a basic concept for a self-distribution roll-out. And I really do think it is exciting to see filmmakers becoming savvy – knowing the stakes and going for it!

Jennifer Warren said...

and I would love to join your forum!