October 25, 2002

Independent Film Distribution, or The Crisis of The Decade of The Week

In this article in Moviemaker Magazine, David Geffner lays out the latest crisis in independent film: distribution. Sure, DV and laptop editing may have spurred a renaissance in indie production (Hi, nice to meet you), but in the same period, a whole swath of veteran indie distributors ýflamed outţ or were bought out by studios.

Non-studio box office dropped as a pct of total [use whichever data source will get someone else to pay for your drink]: the-numbers.com says it's 7% in 1999 down to <5% in 2002. The Hollywood Reporter says it's down from 8.4% in 2000 to 3.4% in 2002. According to Moviemaker, while everyone else is dancing around My Big Fat Greek Wedding breaking plates, Indie Distribution is moping in the corner, wondering how little he can tip the valet parking guy.

Turns out it matters which numbers you use, especially if you look at B.O. receipts, which grew from $7.4b in 1999 to $9.7b (proj.) in 2002 (THR, Goldman Sachs). Using the-numbers' numbers, indie B.O. dropped from $521 to $468 million, the difference of a few films. THR shows a nearly 50% drop, from $645 (in 2000) to $331 million, the difference of a few companies.

But every year's take follows the 80/20 rule, with one or a couple of breakout hits (Crouching Tiger, Greek Wedding); so if one more independent film a year broke $100 million, the "crisis" could disappear. And on the company front, well, if Universal gobbles up couple of specialty distribs (and their releases get reclassified as studio product), it's the End of The World As We Know It.

So why do I feel fine? I read something about this in May. And I heard it was The End of The World when Miramax, New Line, and October got gobbled up. Hmm. Guess not. Peter Broderick (Next Wave Films, got slammed by IFC) issues the call for new distribution models, like ýthe Internet.ţ Seems like the Star Wars/Missile Defense approach to me. Turns out Indie distribution is like the campaign against Iraq: a lot of hysterics about a phantom menace, while the real problem, sitting in plain view, gets ignored.

Broderick laments, "Without a built-in core audience or a proven star, itÝs tough to cover your P&A costs, let alone make money when you open one of these films." And producer Scott Macaulay says stars won't return your heartfelt calls, either: "The days of getting some movie star to work for scale plus 10 because they love the project are over. Actors and agents are savvier and have come to make more demands." [note to self: stop needling yoga instructor about passing script to Fammke Jannsen's brother.] That leaves "built-in core audience."

My Big Fat Demographically Targeted Wedding--with it's It's Not Just For Greek-Americans Anymore! trailer--did for roots-proud, middle-aged mothers what God's Army did for Mormons and what Gregg Araki's The Living End did for gay Gen-X'ers: it found a new way to identify a "built-in" audience. Once these new audiences pan out, they're movied to death, of course. (Kiss Me, Guido could've hit the trifecta if only a pair of missionaries had knocked on the door.) Even if the Net's power as a distribution channel is still imaginary, it's a very promising way to build an audience, especially for an independent film.

Online, audiences or communities don't necessarily build so much as grow or accrete. Whether it's through weblogs, smart mobs or Quake III, innovation will appear in unexpected ways. Check out the fascinating emergence of computer game-based filmmaking (also known as machinima). IÍthis is a conference speech now, not a weblog entry. I don't remember hitting anyone up for a registration fee...

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative processÔÇömy own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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