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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Building the Indie “Brand” — If We Build It, Will the Audience Come?

I was just mulling over the importance of indie filmmakers and regional film fests in the afterglow of the Oxford Film Festival and the slew of upcoming regional fests, when lo! A trend (well, if you can call two articles a “trend”) arose this month on pieces about the whys and wherefores of Hollywood making shitty movies. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about why this is so.

First, after sifting through nearly 200 comments on the post Seriously? on The Hot Blog, I stumbled across this jewel from commenter IO: An intelligent article over on GQ, wherein Mark Harris ponders exactly that question.

This is a really excellent think piece. In particular, Harris nails the problem of a Hollywood where, even in the wake of the success of a film like Inception, studios are still grappling with fear over making big movies that don’t have the built-in safety net of familiarity.

And then Ray linked to this piece on The Moki Blog, which offers visual evidence that movies are getting worse. Visual evidence, people. It’s in the form of an interactive graph that’s actually pretty darn cool, although it’s maybe a little questionable how statistically relevant their stats are given that there’s a fair amount of subjectivity involved in sorting what they’re graphing. Nonetheless, what they’ve done is taken how “polarizing” the 20 most popular movies for each of the past 20 years are and put them into this nifty graphic representation.

This is the part where it gets a little subjective … you’ll have to decide for yourself how valid their definition of “polarizing” is and whether you agree with their editorial conclusions. One interesting conclusion they reach in the piece is that sequels are almost always more “polarizing” than the originals (one might also say, they tend to suck more than the originals, Toy Story 2 and 3, Shrek 2 and Spidey 2 notwithstanding), and that there has been a recent spike in highly polarizing (crappy) movies. Their argument is that movies based on adaptations of existing popular material are more polarizing because they appeal to an existing fanbase but have wide ratings distributions (for example, the Twilight films).

This chart dovetails pretty nicely with the GQ piece, which eloquently makes many of the same points, but without the charts. More and more, Hollywood is regurgitating sequel after sequel, rehash after rehash. It’s not just me and you and all the smarty pants cinephile friends we know who perceive that to be true — look at the way both of the above pieces break it down.

David makes a very strong argument for the other side in a thoughtful piece over on the Hot Blog … such a strong argument that it makes me wish I was in LA this week so he and I could go head-to-head in a discussion on this issue. There are two sides to the argument, and David makes some valid points in his that I’ll address separately.

Of course, there are some potentially flawed premises in both those pieces. Hollywood could (and likely will) generate a couple of awards season films worth watching, and maybe a couple of the blockbusters won’t be half bad.

But when all’s said and done, the real meat of “good” films — particularly smart, well-written, well-crafted adult dramas — are playing on the fest circuit, not at a multiplex near you. Maybe, if you and the filmmaker are lucky, at art house theaters for a short run. If you’re real lucky, at art house theaters outside of New York and LA. Or maybe, there might be a DVD release so you can maybe track it down through Netflix or your local obscure movie store.

There was a time — really, not all that long ago, when Hollywood still valued artsy films and artsy directors. The trailer for Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually touts the presence of Francois Truffaut in the film as a selling point! I know, right? Imagine one of today’s summer tentpole films having a trailer that brags about the presence of a French director making an appearance in the film. Transformers XX — with Agnes Varda!

The GQ piece goes on to make a point that’s been over-discussed: did Hollywood abandon us, or did the collective “we” abandon Hollywood — or at least the idea of Hollywood making and selling good films — by opening our wallets consistently for crappy blockbusters? Yes, probably we did, but I’m just not sure that it matters anymore who did what to whom, and when, and why.

What is relevant is that there’s clearly been a shift, and I would concur with Harris’ thesis in the GQ piece that this began roughly around the time of Jaws and Star Wars (1975-77) and that it’s highly unlikely that we’re likely to experience Hollywood shifting away from the idea of movies as brands to sell and back to the idea of movies as art to appreciate, anytime soon. Or ever. Brands are safe. Brands return on investment. Smart adult dramas are inconsistent in this regard. Okay, Hollywood, we get it.

Which leaves those of us who watch movies to appreciate them as art or something like it with the realm of indie cinema, a world in which, as with most artistic fields, people do it for the passion, the love of what they’re doing, because they have stories to tell. No one aspires to be an indie filmmaker for the money. It costs money to make a movie, though, even a “cheap” indie film, and filmmakers who aspire to art are going to have to continue to get creative in figuring out how to get their films actually seen by people outside their circle of family and friends.

Further, I think there’s room for smaller distributors — who have the agility and ability to maneuver more quickly than giant studios anyhow — to get smart about how to monetize indie film. People turn out for regional fests in droves. How do you reach those people as a potential audience for other indie films that maybe aren’t playing a fest in Oklahoma City or Idaho or Texas, but that the same people who go to those fests for a weekend would like to see — would PAY to see — year-round?

Regional fests are making independent cinema more accessible than ever to people who don’t live in New York or LA. What are the new delivery models for getting the movies that aren’t playing at the multiplex to those people going to be? This — right now — is the time for the indie film community as a whole to get it together and figure this out.

I’ve been talking to a lot of indie filmmakers, and a lot of folks at regional fests, too, about this conundrum. There seems to be a whole lot of consensus out there that we need to evolve new distribution models, figure out how people can make back their money on the investment in making an indie film, keep filmmakers making art. No one seems quite certain how to actually pull this off, but putting brainy, passionate heads together is a start.

In the absence of substantial government funding for arts that many countries have (don’t hold your breath for that here in the US, kids), we as a community are going to have to figure this out for ourselves. I’m hearing a lot of ideas floating around out there, seeing quite a few filmmakers playing around with distribution models, and I’ll be spotlighting some of those over the coming weeks in a series of pieces on indie distribution.

What I’m waiting for — dreaming of — is some big convergence of all these ideas floating around gelling into something that will be, perhaps, greater than the sum of all these parts. The New Hollywood? A more robust and profitable Indiewood? There are a lot of possibilities out there, and a whole potential year-round audience for indie film being evolved as we speak by the explosion of regional fests drawing audiences who maybe never would have considered seeing indie films before. The next generation of audience for arthouse films is in middle school and high school now … how do we sell them the “brand” of indie film and convert a percentage of them from a mainsteam movie audience to an arthouse audience that appreciates cinema?

These are some of the questions we need to be asking. We need to be smart in figuring out how to out-maneuver Hollywood to garner a big piece of that box office pie for the indie film world. We need to think, to a degree, like Hollywood thinks — what’s the indie film “brand” that differentiates what “we” do from what “they” do, who is the market for that, how do we make it available so that market can easily sift through, access and buy it?

The GQ piece and the Moki piece are great, but we need to stop mucking around with moaning and wailing about whether Hollywood is a graveyard when it comes to art film. It is, okay? Agreed. So what are we going to do about that?

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon