Did anyone notice that the movies nominated this year by The Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature were the same movies nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for Best Feature, with the exception of one film, Love Is Strange? If the Academy Awards were created as a platform to showcase commercial Hollywood’s best and brightest, why were the Independent Spirit Awards created? Presumably they were created as the antithesis of the Academy Awards: a platform for independent Hollywood’s best and brightest.
Financially speaking, The Independent Spirit Awards deem an “indie” to be a movie made for under 20 million dollars, but if that 20 million dollar budget is coming from the same studio that made millions of dollars from the latest superhero franchise, is the film in question still capturing that “indie spirit?”
Let’s step back for a minute. 10 to 15 years ago, the studios had their own independent film divisions. They considered independent film a viable product for niche markets of film consumers, so much so that they were willing to blur the idea of what an “indie film” was in order to have a piece of the pie. Today, virtually every studio has dissolved those divisions. They are officially not in the independent film business any longer. This means the independent film is now quite literally independent of studio support. So, why then is an awards show dedicated to independent film, presenting the majority of its awards to films that are not technically independent? Here’s how the Independent Spirit Awards define the rubric of an independent film: “uniqueness of vision, original, provocative subject matter, and an economy of means (with particular attention paid to total production cost and individual compensation).”
If the studios aren’t funding lower budget, character-driven, niche films anymore, those who are funding them are most definitely not funding them to the tune of 20 million dollars. The days of the 5 to 20 million dollar independent film are over, and have been over for a few years. I’m not saying films aren’t funded inside those numbers currently, but they are very few and far between—so much so, that it is foolish to focus your sights as a filmmaker on making a movie within that range.
If independent film as we know it is dead—at least in the current state of the industry—what is left? What’s left are: studio blockbusters (i.e. movies made for 150 million dollars and up) and microbudget films (i.e. movies made for 1 million dollars and under, and more often far under). The number of studio films made this past year has shrunk by nearly half, while the amount of microbudget films has nearly doubled. The studios are making fewer movies and putting much more money into them. They’re taking huge gambles financially, and the way to offset that gamble is to ensure that the entertainment they’re selling appeals to as many people as possible. This approach, of course, dilutes the originality of the content. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. In other words, they alienate the actual film fans. Instead of making ten films that target different, more niche markets, they make one movie for the price of ten and bet it all.
The truth is that independent film is far from dead. In fact, it’s thriving like never before thanks to the technological resources at the disposal of hungry, young filmmakers these days. They are overwhelming and strikingly affordable. Behold the microbudget feature. Anyone with the right stuff can make a movie these days with production values that were simply unattainable just a few years ago. The stigma that was once attached to movies with budgets this low is no longer there—one can make a movie for peanuts and make it look like a million bucks. The barriers to making a feature film, and consequently announcing yourself as a filmmaker in this industry, have never been easier to overcome.
While this is encouraging, no doubt, this has lead to a surplus of low-budget films living out there in the world. For the consumer, there’s a deluge of movies to choose from, many of which have little-to-nothing in the way of traditional marketing. And, while the filmmakers’ methods of directing and producing films have changed, the industry’s method of buying and distributing them has, essentially, remained the same. This has lead to a business model for microbudget filmmakers that precludes them from making a living wage from their films. Ted Hope recently stated, “Filmmaking is not currently a sustainable occupation for any but the very rare.” There are approximately 141,000,000 jobs in the United States; approximately 100,000 of them are film directing jobs. Working directors make up about .0709 percent of the workforce. If more and more of the movies being made are microbudgets, that means a director’s salary is accordingly micro, if they have a salary at all. Therefore, the potential payoff rests on the distribution of the film, but getting your film distributed through the conventional channels may not lead to much of a payoff for the filmmaker.
The good news is that do-it-yourself distribution has not only gotten easier, but it’s quickly becoming an accepted practice. If the filmmakers are in charge of promoting their own films, why let a traditional distributor profit from your hard work when you can distribute yourself digitally through an assortment of online outlets and recoup the profits directly? This is an important question to ask if you’re planning on raising money for your own microbudget. DIY has never been easier, or more professional looking, as it is right now.
Yes, the market is more competitive—everyone with an iPhone can, technically, make a movie. And now that studios aren’t funding indies, you have major creative forces in the entertainment industry turning to microbudgets themselves: M. Night Shyamalan is making a microbudget, Spike Lee raised the money for his last movie on Kickstarter, and Mark Duplass just produced a feature film shot entirely on an iPhone. However, this is what’s important to remember: what matters is the value of the idea—of the story—not the money it took to bring that idea to the screen. That’s what art is. Art is valued by the painting within the golden frame, not the golden frame itself.
As I wrote in my book, DETOUR: Hollywood, “In the end, our purpose as filmmakers is akin to the purpose of the railroad, an apt metaphor that never ceases to disappoint in times of crisscrossing articulations: we are just human beings trying to connect…and it is story that connects us.” My advice: make your movie. But be sure to make it using your own unique voice. Be bold, don’t try to fit in, and maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will take notice.
DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter) is available in Paperback and Kindle: