Yesterday’s issue of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER (one of the two old-guard industry trade papers) had a round table interview with a number of men (and they were all men) involved in the independent film world: Newsweek film critic David Ansen; Kirk D’Amico, president and CEO of Myriad Pictures, a production and sales company; Cassian Elwes, co-head of William Morris Independent; Mark Gill (pictured at the left), CEO of finance and production company the Film Department; and Avi Lerner, co-chairman and CEO of Nu Image/Millennium Films.
There were a lot of interesting things discussed, but the three things that caught my eye, have to do with distribution realities and how they impact production choices. The first was from Lerner, who was commenting on how the international film market is getting more selective in what they will buy from indie filmmakers.
What we have done, like most of the big independents, is we moved our target from the straight-to-DVD movie to more theatrical films. Today, with the exception of “event” movies, we are doing the same movies as the studios, just with less money.
Mark Gill then had two comments about the types of movies that get that distribution.
So one of the things we looked at as we were raising the money is, where is the market demand? And it occurred to us that, internationally, it is between about $10 million and $45 million. Once it gets over $45 million, the studio should do that. Also, the studios will tell you their return on movies that cost between $50 million and $100 million is 1%, and on the ones over $100 million, it’s about 35%. That’s a kill zone, there in the middle.
and, in response to a question about what different kinds of films Gill is now making:
We realized increasingly the bulk of what we do has to be wide-release and has to fit cleanly within a genre — whether that’s drama or romantic comedy, action or thriller. You have to fit in that box nicely — no “tweeners,” thank you very much. And they all have to be high-concept, because it is getting harder and harder to get attention.
I’ve talked before about how theatrical distribution has backed itself into a corner from which there is no clear escape (see “The Dismal Future of the Film Business” and “The Future of Theatrical Indies“). I’ve mentioned that seeing theatrical distribution as the Holy Grail of filmmaking is a trap that will sink most independent producers. Filmmakers like Jesse Cowell, creator of the awesome “Drawn By Pain” have gotten theater play after establishing themselves as vibrant storytellers on the web.
What Gill and Lerner seem to be saying in the Hollywood Reporter roundtable is the following:
- foreign distribution is key to raising money for an indie film
- foreign distributors are now requiring domestic distribution as part of their deals
- domestic distributors can only release a very particular film, at a very particular budget
- therefore, indie films need to be of a very particular kind and budget in order to be made
Of course, there will always be the films that sneak under the door — Harmony Korine’s MISTER LONELY looks like one of those and I can’t wait to see it, but the “smart money” (at least as far as theatrical is concerned) looks to be sandboxed into genre pictures, with American stars, at a low budget range (see Lerner’s comment above).
I don’t know how much more evidence filmmakers need before they realize that they need to stop chasing the Holy Grail of Sundance-style theatrical pickups, and start to pioneer real distribution, to real people, using really modern techniques. It would be great if Apple wanted to go that way with the iTunes store but, as someone told me last night, they’re really just into shoveling as much content through the store as they can, so that they sell more hardware. Someone is going to have to combine digital distribution and social networking, and add a dollop of indie sensibitlity (Netflix is way too broad-based for that), in order for this to break through.
Perhaps, when enough Drawn By Pain and It’s All In Your Hands (which seems to have moved off iTunes and onto Ning and Hulu) type filmmakers have created enough content and have gotten enough business expertise, they’ll band together and do something together. What’s needed is a super cool destination site for indie film, and a site that has figured out how to make money off of it. When that happens, you’ll see filmmakers going the route that indie musicians are increasingly going (thanks to the collapse of the majors) — ignoring major distribution and making it happen outside of the traditional companies.