What Does The Sundance Film Festival Mean To Middle Class Filmmakers?

Sundance_Film_FestivalWhat does this year’s Sundance Film Festival mean to Middle Class Filmmakers?

Let’s first compare last year’s sales with this year’s sales. In 2015, the big Hollywood distributors bought the majority of the films showcased at the festival—Fox Searchlight bought “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”; Open Road bought “Dope”; Sony Pictures Classic bought “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Just around one year ago, various entertainment news outlets reported that the Sundance Market was “starting to look like the old days.” However, the three films mentioned above ultimately underperformed at the box office. These relatively small films seemed to have gotten lost among the much bigger budget and glitzier blockbusters that the studios released over this past year.

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Hollywood’s one percent is betting all their money on blockbusters; therefore, to ensure those bets pay off, they focus all of their marketing efforts on these films. They need these films to appeal to as many different demographics as possible, and to as many demographics in as many regions around the world as possible. Smaller, niche material, like the movies bought at Sundance in 2015, are simply not a priority for Hollywood’s bottom line. If one or two of their gigantic tentpoles bomb, it would potentially be enough of a financial disaster to collapse a studio. That type of risk is something that sends shivers down the spine of tinseltown.

As this year’s Sundance concludes, let’s take a look at what happened: streaming sites Netflix and Amazon eclipsed the traditional Hollywood distributors. While this year’s Sundance did see the largest sale in its history, and a studio made the sale—Fox Searchlight bought “Birth of a Nation”—most of the movies were bought by these internet tech giants. The welcome side effect of these alternative buyers opening their big wallets was that they drove up the bidding for the movies in general. If the erstwhile generation of Hollywood distributors wanted a piece of this year’s pie, they had to push their way to the front of the line at the bakery.

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Each year, I’m somewhat baffled as to why Hollywood becomes, more or less, a ghost town during Sundance. I’m constantly cautioned by colleagues to not pitch anything, take any projects out, etc., throughout the duration of Sundance, presumably because everyone’s there—in body, or at least in mind. If Hollywood cares so much about the indie films at Sundance, why do they care so little about releasing and marketing them? Perhaps it’s just a chance to party and pretend like they care. Harvey Weinstein criticized the establishment’s release model in his recent Op-Ed in The Hollywood Reporter: “We need to support independent film distribution (and, in turn, independent film culture) 12 months a year, not just the last four.” What is so clearly different this year is that it seems like the new kids in town do care about releasing and marketing these films. This leads us to pose the question: If the studios, and traditional models of distribution, are the establishment, are Netflix and Amazon the anti-establishment? As opposed to the current studio mindset of making essentially one type of movie, for a gigantic demographic, it’s in the best interest of Netflix and Amazon to provide their subscribers with an array of material on their menu. Subscribers are in control of their content, that’s why they subscribe, and the more options, the more control they have to dial in a movie that matches their specific taste. The studios operate in the world of the indistinguishable; Netflix and Amazon operate in the world of the specific—and this is good news for indie film and its middle class filmmakers.

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The trouble, of course, is that we are assessing this change in real time. We don’t know if Netflix and Amazon will see their bets on these Sundance films pay off. Are they looking to gain more subscribers, or simply keep the ones they have? How will they judge the success of these films, and furthermore, how will the industry judge the success of these films with respect to the filmmakers?

Netflix reportedly offered 20 million for the slave rebellion drama, “Birth of a Nation;” however, the filmmakers opted for a studio’s $17.5 million dollar offer. Why did a film that’s content is anti-establishment ultimately go with the establishment? Especially an establishment that is currently marred by accusations of racial bias? The reason seems pretty clear: Fox Searchlight can offer a guaranteed, and perhaps stronger, theatrical release timed during awards season. Netflix’s current model for these types of acquisitions is a day-and-date limited theatrical and streaming release (the movie hits big screens and streaming platforms on the same day).

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While the sales of these films to Netflix and Amazon reflect well on the filmmakers, history has taught us that the ultimate litmus test of their viability as working professionals is how their films perform at the box office. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” sold big at Sundance, but it didn’t do well at the box office. When the industry discusses that film, they don’t discuss it in light of its sale, but rather in light of its numbers. It’s all about the bottom line. How will Netflix and Amazon keep track of its numbers? Netflix has stated, quite adamantly, that it does not release its internal numbers to its filmmakers. This lack of transparency will no doubt prove detrimental to its filmmakers who are vying for their next gig—unless these tech giants are offering multi-picture deals to its talent (it wouldn’t be a bad idea, guys). Filmmakers are typically offered their next job based on how many people watched their last film—if that data is unavailable, it could potentially leave the filmmaker in a bit of a lurch.

I’ve always been of the opinion: I want as many people to see my films as possible. The making money part has always been second to that. The good news is that Netflix and Amazon can make that first part a reality—introducing middle class films to their millions of subscribers. The not so good news is, the growth of the filmmakers they showcase, and the route to a sustainable living post-sale, is an unknown.

Me and Earl and the Dying World of Independent Film

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When I first saw Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I referred to the film as Me and Earl. The choice to shorten the title was a subconscious one, but it was still a choice, and the choice was to avoid the elephant in the room: that a girl is going to die in the movie I’m about to see.

This is a very un-Hollywood thing to do. And the filmmakers say as much in their film, when the main character, Greg, reassures us in the voiceover: “Bear with me, I know you’re bracing to see a sweet girl die; but she doesn’t, she gets better.” Here’s the thing, she doesn’t get better. She dies. You may be mad at me for not issuing some kind of “spoiler alert” prior to me writing that last sentence; but tough, if the title of the movie didn’t spoil the ending for you, my words certainly won’t. The truth is, this is just symptomatic of a larger problem: Hollywood has trained us to anticipate happy endings, and as a result, we become infuriated if we aren’t rewarded with them (this type of fury is few and far between, because movies made inside and outside of Hollywood these days rarely end on a low note). I’m a firm believer that good movies should be metaphors for our own realities. Yes, this is a movie about filmmakers dealing with a cancer growing in the blood of their friend; however, not discounting the seriousness of the plot, this film is also about filmmakers—and by extension, the audience—dealing with a dilemma growing in the heart of Hollywood.

The film opens with these two kids, Greg (the narrator) and Earl, his co-worker, “not his friend,” which he, ironically, goes out of his way to say. These two might seem like they’re obsessed with movies, but they don’t really act like it. It’s more like movies are just a part of their lives—an indispensible part. The movies they watch inform their views of the world. One of the first movies we see them watching in the film is Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which is about “the search for a golden city that doesn’t exist.” It’s no coincidence that the filmmakers use the plot of a movie within a movie as an analogy to the lure of Hollywood. Many have likened the selling of a script, or the booking of a role, to the modern day gold rush—a rush to become the next big thing.

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Greg and Earl are friends with the outsiders, if friends with anyone else at all, which leads to the befriending of Rachel, the girl who’s dying from leukemia. They are the true independents, finding their way through the world outside of the system—namely, high school—by making movies as a means to coping with the often turbulent and, literally, life-threatening task of growing up in this relentless world. In this world—the world of reality and not of Hollywood movies—the hot girls squash you, your friends (excuse me, co-workers) punch you in the stomach, and people close to you die out of nowhere. It’s called life, and movies help us deal with it—movies are human antidotes to woe, when they’re made by artists, that is.

The influence of pop culture surrounds these characters: it is a wall-tacked picture of Hugh Jackman, after all, who tells Greg to stop being insensitive and not joke about death with a dying girl. Moments like this achieve two things: 1. They highlight the significant role that Hollywood plays in our lives on a daily basis, particularly the lives of our youth; 2. They emphasize the fact that Hollywood gets it wrong. Are we to ignore the elephant in the room? Are we to repress our feelings, only to let them eat us alive from the inside out? Humor, often black humor, is the life preserver in a choppy sea of sorrow, misery and the hardened indifference of the natural world. Hollywood makes its living—a very, very good living—sugarcoating this reality.

Through his narration, Greg telegraphs the beats that Hollywood often mandates in its films; specifically, that the girl doesn’t die at the end. If this had been a Hollywood movie, not only would this girl make a miraculous recovery, but Greg and Rachel would’ve also fallen in love, and it would be that love, that B-Story, which leads to her survival. Love conquers all, triumph of the human spirit, buddy stories; are these phrases applicable to your own lives? I would say, mostly, no. I know some, particularly those in this business, who argue that viewers want an escape from their lives; they are willing to pay for that escape, and Hollywood exists to provide that escape. I would argue that that tentpole mentality is just as myopic as most of the industry’s output of megabudget blockbusters.

It used to be what separated studio films from indie films was the ending: studio films ended happily, independent films ended bleakly, at worst, or ambiguously, at best. There was a time, not that long ago, when studios funded these “independent” films with depressing-ish endings. Not so anymore; not even close. Fifteen years ago, Walt Disney Pictures produced a David Lynch movie to the tune of 10 million dollars—a movie about an elderly man who embarks on a journey across state lines by way of a tractor to see his brother before he dies. As the millennium advanced, studios continued to fund independent films, but they began to not-so-subtly guide these films into mainstream territory. Take Lars and the Real Girl as an example. With a budget of 12 million, the movie explores the life of a delusional young man who dates a sex doll he procured from the Internet. This is a great indie idea; however, the film embraced a tone much more reminiscent of mainstream studio fare: it wasn’t stark, it was sentimental; it wasn’t edgy, it was wholesome. It was executed as though it was the sister to Sleepless in Seattle. Lars is an example of a number of “indies” that adopted a mainstream tone as a means of, in my opinion, attracting larger, broader audiences to more niche material. Ultimately, the movie didn’t do well at the box office. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s because the movie’s tone conflicted with itself; it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be.

Fast-forward ten years later and that independent film production and distribution model that existed within the studio system—the system within which Lars was made—has completely disappeared. There are only megabudgets (movies made for 150 million dollars and up) and microbudgets (movies made for under a million, often far under a million). There’s nothing in between. Barely nothing. Even the movies that make it through no man’s land—the movies made between 5 to 20 million—are largely anomalies (i.e. movies by a handful of auteur directors, like the Andersons—Wes and Paul Thomas—who cemented their careers when indies were being regularly funded). The ones that do make it through still largely operate with mainstream mechanics. Whiplash, the kid becomes a veritable superhero in the end and conquers all with an astonishing drum solo; Boyhood, despite the odds and a series of questionable father figures, the kid has the whole world in front of him (it ends with him staring into a horizon); Birdman, the film ends with the onstage suicide of its main character (but, wait, maybe not? In a moment of magical realism, he wakes up in the hospital, injured, but optimistic, so much so, he opens the window, jumps out and flies into the great blue sky). I liked all of these films quite a bit, actually; but it does appear as though they’ve been influenced by Hollywood’s expectations.

What is refreshing about Me and Earl, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is that the movie itself flies in the face of Hollywood and its expectations. While some have criticized the film for characters that border on caricatures—the alcoholic single mother, the quasi-magical black friend, and the girl who dies to teach the self-absorbed protagonist a lesson—it’s a film that is aware of itself with respect to the movies that have come before it, and these characterizations are part of its point. Greg’s narration misleads viewers into believing they are sitting back and watching a movie that adheres to Hollywood’s rules, which guarantees a happy ending that will continue to resonate its happiness on the walk to the parking lot.

In the end of Me and Earl—excuse me, The Dying Girl—there is, well, there is a girl that dies. An innocent one, who never did anything bad to anybody. As if to add insult to injury, she dies while watching the movie Greg has spent the entire film making for her. On top of that, we are forced to stare at the dying girl as she’s watching the movie, and dying, and we don’t get to see it. We don’t get to see the movie Greg has toiled over, the movie that results in his grades going down the toilet, the movie that may, or may not, be his first and final expression of love and affection for Rachel. We will never know what the movie is about. We will never know, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the power that movie has on both Rachel watching it, and Greg having made it, and the power the movie within which that movie is being projected is having on us as we watch it in the theater. Movies have the power to not only move us emotionally, but also provide the shared experience of experiencing that emotion with others—and that experience is nothing short of transcendent.

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Greg grows up watching movies with his father, with Earl, and with Rachel. Greg is you and I. Movies have a lasting, meaningful effect on his life as well as ours, and that effect demands that we as the audience are not lied to. As The Dying Girl shows us, moving pictures are life—they live on after death. They continue to point us into the direction of the people we respect, care for and love the most; they point us into the direction of eras, societies and cultures past; they point us toward the origin, the end and the rebirth of ourselves. I have no doubt that most people working in the system will speak of their passion for movies, but if they’re really passionate about them, they’d make more films like The Dying Girl. When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, or the desire to sell in other countries, they alienate that portion of the audience that wants to see unique, personal films. Movies are an amalgamation of art and commerce; however, there must be an equal balance between the two for a movie to matter.

When it comes down to it, we are all film fans. We, as human beings, are compelled to tell stories; it’s how we make sense of the stories of our own lives. Hollywood, when operating at its best, is one of America’s greatest industries. Please, let’s not take that power for granted.

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