Indie Film: Understanding a Counterculture.
Despite Hollywood, despite cable networks owned by huge media conglomerates, there are still people that want to make movies. They want to make the next Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. They believe they can be successful.
So what makes them think this? By the numbers, we can see how immensely difficult landing a spot at a film festival can be. Sundance Film Festival receives over 4,000 feature-length films every year. They are reviewed, and 4%, 120, are chosen for a screening spot. (Rosen 1)
Independent film is often thought of as low-budget, niche-oriented, and offbeat. The term “indie” denotes personal, artistic, and creative qualities. You could call it alternative. It developed these attributes because of it’s dichotomy with traditional Hollywood cinema.
An indie filmmaker will tell you that kids today are drooling over simplified stories, celebrity obsession, and overdone computer graphics. They will tell you Hollywood values money more than art. Which they do.
In the 1990’s, Hollywood saw a trend happening. The arty independent films that contrasted against their high-budget blockbusters were making money. People liked these personal, deep stories with most of the plot happening through realistic dialogue. They liked seeing the extraordinary emerge from the ordinary. And Hollywood liked money, so they made an investment.
When Disney bought the independent studio Miramax, which started churning out extremely popular indie-type films, it started a larger movement of mainstreaming indie culture. By producing the idea of a counter-culture and exploiting consumer’s need for alternativeness, huge media companies could create competition and profit from both sides of the culture war. Through this, the co-opting of indie by the mainstream improved its standing as a cultural category. Indie flourished in the 2000’s, a sign of the shifting cultural taste.
Miramax was closed down in 2010, paving the way for the new wave of giant cultural phenomena and Hollywood studio dominance. Avatar broke box-office records, then came the superhero movies to end all superhero movies: The Avengers. Twilight and The Hunger Games captured teen audiences, bringing a flood of social media activity with them. Hollywood used this online popularity to burst into social networks. We’ve recently seen the emergence of an independent industry whose spending rivals that of Hollywood, but is denied support through the mainstream mass media.
Indie film is in a very tough spot right now when it comes to the distribution and consumption methods available to small time filmmakers. Theatrical releases are hard to acquire and can backfire, causing a film to lose money because it’s too niche, or there is not enough marketing. Ira Deutchman, a managing partner at Emerging Pictures states, “Many of these films are being released theatrically for the wrong reasons. Either they are doing a faux release to trigger cable TV or VOD [Video on demand] deals, or they are vanity projects. These films clog up theaters and add to an environment that makes it hard to get attention for the films that deserve it. Hopefully, as online distribution outlets reach some kind of maturity, these films will find ways of reaching audiences without requiring a theatrical platform.” (2)
Streaming entertainment in the form of TV shows and movies is rapidly shifting to the internet. Billions of dollars are being spent to upgrade the infrastructure necessary to stream high-quality films straight into people’s homes. Businesses like Netflix and Hulu are developing platforms that allow large-scale catalogs, spanning hundreds of genres, and thousands of TV shows and movies to be sorted, voted on, recommended, and personalized. This is the long tail niche market and the popular mainstream hits coming together at last, duking it out with 5-star ratings and fan-bases. This is where indie film could have its best visibility. But Netflix, right now, is not the place for your indie film.
Jason Brubaker, an independent film producer and expert on movie distribution says, “If you are fortunate enough to get your title into the Netflix database, you still need a gazillion people to request your movie in their Netflix queue. This is called queue demand. And this metric will influence the actual amount of money Netflix will offer you. For some filmmakers, I have heard numbers around the $1,300 range. (I wish I was kidding.) From a business perspective, this model allows Netflix to predict demand and also acquire movies for minimal dollars.”(3)
Netflix is less interested in bringing a wide range of movies to your device than it is in dominating the industry. Jason recommends piracy for word-of-mouth, and Amazon for hosting your content. There, you get a bigger slice of the ever-growing pie.
The newest boon to the independent film industry, crowdfunding, looks to be the most promising yet. Websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are reversing the marketing and funding strategies of the past. On Kickstarter, you are able to make a video about your idea, set a fundraising goal, and ask people to pitch in. In return, you promise that funders will receive certain products based on their contributions. For example, a copy of the finished film on DVD for a pledge of twenty dollars.
This means you can pitch your idea to the internet, gauge interest in your idea, receive feedback from a community, and set up a funding platform at the same time. Some call it democratic fundraising. Hopefully this form of fundraising will continue to finance projects worthy of attention for years to come.
1. Rosen, David. “Sundance and The Contradictions of Independent Media.” Real Politick (2008).
2. “So Many Indie Films, So Many Reasons.” ArtsBeat So Many Indie Films So Many Reasons Comments. The New York Times, 9 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 May 2014
3. Brubaker, Jason. “Sell A Movie To NetFlix.” Filmmaking Stuff., 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.1.