WE ARE ALL SCABS: Some Contradictions in U.S. Independent Film Culture
Attending the five-day Filmmaker Conference at this year’s Independent Film Week, organized by the Independent Film Project and held at Lincoln Center, I was reminded of the synopsis for an Abel Ferrara film that has yet to be made. It’s a film that playfully pivots on the mythologies and contradictions of the American independent filmmaker:
In a parallel universe, where independent filmmakers literally wage battle against the studios in a war-torn Hollywood, a 24-year-old former indie actress-cum-underground war hero decides to join the studios to direct her first film.
Hollywood cinema has always explored scenarios of individual struggle against systems of power and control, and there has been a romantic discourse of independent film using this archetype to describe its struggle against Hollywood. But in the decision “to join the studios to direct her first film,” Ferrara intimates the more pragmatic instincts of many filmmakers: to make their film at any cost, even if it means collaborating with forces that are politically and culturally destructive. As producer and social media powerhouse Ted Hope put it on one conference panel this year: “We are all scabs. We’re all willing to undercut each other [to get our film made].”
Acquiring studio financing for a first feature is an extremely rare privilege. But in the past decade, even the once-prevalent model of independent film financing—a mixture of private investment, foreign pre-sales, and, at the other end, depending on the endorsement of A-list festivals and critics, an all-rights buyout by an established distributor—has become both a rarity and oftentimes a financial loss-maker. In its place there has been a flurry of experimentation in fundraising and distribution, for which the internet has been pivotal: if you’ve already come across terms like D.I.Y. distribution, crowdfunding, and transmedia, then you know the terrain. These new models have become home to the kind of contradictions Ferrara plays with above. The mini-industry of talks and panels which has emerged alongside this experimentation is perhaps the best place to observe these contradictions in action—and IFP’s Filmmaker Conference, which exists alongside the market and workshop stands of Independent Film Week, is one of its foremost iterations.
Among these emerging models, “cutting out the middlemen” is an enduring theme. In a key polemic on his blog three years ago, Hope wrote that we were on the verge of a “truly free film culture” which would bypass the influence and interference of “those that control the apparatus and the supply.” Hope’s implication was that film had not been truly free or independent up until this point: despite the “demystification of production” since the ’90s, most films still needed to be filtered through corporate distribution outfits in order to be seen widely. Peter Broderick, a D.I.Y. distribution guru and consultant presenting at the conference this year, speaks of a shift from distributor control to filmmaker control and from “anonymous consumers” to “true fans.” Both Hope and Broderick use mythic language—Hope calls for us to “fight for our independence,” and Broderick speaks of emigrating to the “New World of Distribution”—to suggest a vision of a radically democratized film culture in which autonomous creators and audiences engage with and support each other directly.
They were joined at the conference by another key theorist, Jon Reiss, who launched a book, co-written with the Film Collaborative and marketing strategist Sheri Candler, entitled Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul. Their conception of soul-selling seems to be epitomized in the all-rights distribution deal, in which filmmakers relinquish control in exchange for a flat fee that often barely covers their costs and a percentage of revenues that rarely materializes. Instead, they cite filmmakers who customized and managed their own distribution and marketing, mobilizing social media-generated fanbases to earn revenue through a mixture of theatrical screenings, direct and third-partner DVD and VOD sales, and crowdfunding.
This discourse has not gone unquestioned in the filmmaking community. One rebuttal came in the form of last year’s “Take-Back Manifesto,” posted by filmmaker Michael Tully on his indieWire blog. The manifesto repudiates the fashion for pre-production marketing, asserting that “the final product is all that matters,” and “all of this talking about ‘finances’ and ‘connecting’ and ‘publicity’ is the insidious language of a corporate, numbers-before-content mindset.” Around the same time, producer Mike Ryan, another of this year’s panelists, wrote a piece for IFP’s own Filmmaker Magazine, warning that “in the rush to embrace new methods of promotion and distribution…worthy yet seemingly unpromotable films will be completely ignored.” Ryan even went so far as to say that the reason that many great films are “having a hard time finding an audience” is because of the influence of the “corporate consumer-entertainment machine” on audience tastes, not poorly devised social media campaigns.
Tully raises a key point about the pervasiveness of corporate marketing strategies within models that are supposedly radical because of their evasion of corporate mediation—and in fact there are several filmmakers, such as Hunter Weeks, one of the subjects of Reiss and Candler’s book, who use their self-built fanbase as leverage in making deals with corporate brands. Ryan is also acute in recognizing audience taste as a contingent, social construction rather than a reality to be catered to. But Tully ends with the plea, “Can we get back to talking about movies, please?” And while he’s right that, in the rush to discuss these new models, questions of formal innovation in cinema seem to end up all but ignored—retreating into cinephilia doesn’t address the central problem.
Jon Jost, a brilliant and long-suffering stalwart of U.S. cinema, is probably the grouchiest detractor of the D.I.Y. marketing discourse. Commenting on a post by Hope listing 20 things “we must all try to do before shooting,” Jost lists a ream of great auteurs who he doubts “ever gave 10 seconds of thought to the above. This is not about filmmaking, it is about marketing. This is 100 percent bought and sold into the Great Market Economy mentality, and there isn’t a milligram of ‘truly free’ about it at all.”
The mentality Jost identifies isn’t going to just disappear by ignoring it—and for any filmmaker who wants to create his or her work full-time and find a way for people to see that work, it’s very difficult to escape it entirely. Any attempt at sustainability or distribution inevitably involves building and trading various forms of social and symbolic capital. But that doesn’t mean these processes need to be acquiesced too unquestioningly either.
In a presentation entitled “How to Design a Winning Distribution Strategy,” Broderick spoke of changing the world as one of the primary goals of most filmmakers he meets. He argues that persuading corporations is the most effective way to do so because of the great difficulty of achieving anything through legislative, electoral, or grassroots campaigns. Instead, he says, “if you can persuade corporate decision-makers that the change you are seeking is in their interest, hundreds of thousands of consumers can be affected.” The unexamined assumptions here are too numerous to mention, but let’s at least point out the treatment of consumer identity and corporate power as a priori universalities, which apparently can be harnessed for change but are in themselves immovable. The apparent ubiquity of these views in the media world (look at most TED Talks for further evidence) may go some way towards explaining why the rhetoric of democratization and filmmaker control has so easily obscured the ways in which capitalism is extracting value from these new experiments.
The middlemen haven’t gone away. Out of over 100 panelists speaking at the Filmmaker Conference, it was striking how few were filmmakers and how many were agents, publicists, distributors, and festival programmers—reminding me of the quip that the most lucrative consumer base in the indie film world is indie filmmakers. The impression was that the New World hadn’t made these roles redundant so much as forced their renegotiation. Several of this year’s distributor-panelists stated that they weren’t interested in acquiring a film unless its makers had already “built” their audience and achieved a powerful social media presence, effectively offloading a layer of their marketing duties as a positive externality.
Whereas in previous times films were offered up to the distribution circuit to be either rejected or accepted as viable commodities, their makers are now being asked to lead that process of commodification themselves, to integrate it into their art and sometimes package themselves along with it. In a way, this “democratization” of the commodification process creates an opportunity for filmmakers to think more critically about how their work functions in, and serves, current social and economic arrangements—and ask how they might be able to interrupt and challenge these arrangements rather than feed them.
Simultaneous to the opening of Independent Film Week, Occupy Wall Street began its intervention in downtown Manhattan. Strangely enough, some of the same questions posed at Lincoln Center have been posed in this ongoing occupation. Questions like, “How can we spend more of our time doing what we love to do?” But while downtown the emphasis was how to free ourselves from monetized work, uptown it was how to turn our love into monetized work. And yet we all know that independent cinema wouldn’t exist without networks and affinities of cooperation, friendship, and trust—and new models of distribution do create new possibilities in this regard.
There are old possibilities, too. Director-producer Antonio Campos talked on a panel entitled “Paying the Bills” about how, for the past 10 years, he and his collaborators have split every paycheck three ways, rotating work-for-hire duties so that at least one of them could be dedicated to creative work at all times. Another panelist interjected, “Are you saying we should all become communists?” To which Campos replied, “Yeah, well, essentially that’s how it works: you’re a communist until you’re a capitalist.” I wonder about the inevitably of that “until.”