¡Fo Reels, Yo! (...and for rants, and for other things too.)

September, 2008

iFP's annual week long conference/market/festival "Independent Film Week" formerly known as the IFP Market, and more formerly than that, the IFM Market, celebrated it's 30th anniversary this past week.  

With promises of being bigger and better than ever before, FIT played host.

The conferences, nightly seminars at Haft Auditorium, kicked off to an array of questions:  Holy crap, what's happening to the indie subdivisions?  With the economic crisis, who's left to fund indies?  Is this year's weak box office a sign that the movie biz is going the way of the record industry?  How will the changing face of the Web and Video on Demand help the indie movement and/or hurt theatrical releases?

Questions, many.  Solid, definitive answers?  Not so much.  While it seems evident that change is coming, no one can predict what will grow to become the next HBO, or what will die off like the next WHT.  Like William Goldman said back in the day, the truth is, that when it comes to Hollywood, "No one knows anything."  To add to that, indies are like Hollywood on crack!  Shame on us for looking for concrete answers to begin with.

Instead, let's go back to what we've always known.  A film starts with passion over an idea.  An over the top passion to make this idea come to life on a big screen.  This passion is first realized through a script.  Not an OK one, or a good one (b/c that script will, more often than not be subjected to the tweaks ((some for the better, many for the worse)) of many outsiders) but instead, a great one.  After the gut wrenching procedure of coming up with a great script, even more passion is needed in networking.  Finding investors, finding "names" to cast, and using one to get the other.

This was the formula to successful filmmaking when Hollywood was born, is the formula today, will be the formula as long as movies are made.  Oh yeah, getting lucky is a good thing too.  Despite the recession, despite weak box offices, despite the end of specialty divisions, every year more and more film schools are being created.  As such, every year, more and more people are trying to make that formula work.

"No one knows anything" especially in these chaotic times, so anything else is simply talk. That said, there was some good talk at this year's Film Week.  While BkA could not make the festival screenings, and had no business in the markets, we did cover the nightly seminars.

Night One started with Kevin Smith grabbing the mic, making no statements (again, there isn't much to say) and instead fielding questions from anyone and everyone (including BkA) about his life as a filmmaker.  Many of his answers brought him back to a simpler time. The early 90's, when competition was less, the annual IFP annual market/conference took place in a small theater inside the Angelica, and just about anyone had a chance at the indie film biz.  In self-deprecating fashion, he laughed about how David Gordon Green considered Smith's movies the Special Olympics of indie film.

The one bit of juice, aside from the usual doses of fart and blow job jokes, came when discussing a now squashed feud with good guy/bad filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson.  The story is that Smith talked poorly of Magnolia, and for doing so, later had hell to pay from the pretentious film world, until Anderson himself, called off the dogs.  BkA pressed on about Magnolia sucking the way all bloated, meandering, predictable, 14 hour long, PT Anderson flicks suck, but Kevin wasn't having it. 

Night Two brought a more serious, yet positive tone as Geoff Gilmore (director of Sundance) and Christian Gaines (director of Withoutabox, formerly of Sundance and AFI) took the stage in addressing the State of Festivals.  Gilmore, who according to Peter Biskand, turned Sundance from a small regional festival to "the most important event on the indie calendar" and Gaines, who recently brought Withoutabox into the IMDB family, did echo a few of Smith's previous night's comments when comparing festivals in the "still fresh" early 90's, to the competitiveness of today. 

More importantly, however, they stressed that even though saturation may have hidden a few gems, more films were distributed in 2007 than at any time since the 1950's.  And that over the past ten years, despite the losses of popular subdivisions, the amount of major distribution companies has more than tripled, from 30 in 1998, to over 100 now. With added mail service featuring indies and even shorts coming from Netflix, and a future IMDB/Withoutabox online on demand service in the works, distribution will only grow.

The very near future seems like great news for true indies, especially on the heels of the demise of the psuedo-indie world.  But again, no one knows anything. 

As for the present, aside from breaking out stats, Gilmore and Gaines, also advised which festival markets (aside from IFP) new filmmakers need to hit and which to avoid.  To our surprise, Gilmore suggested staying away from the most prestigious fest of them all, Cannes, which runs a formal market, but is more interested in developing scripts than finding new fresh flimmakers.  Gilmore even called his own Sundance, now overrun by agents, sponsors, politicos, and hanger-on's, a "den of vipers."  He did have many good things to say about Toronto but hoped it didn't try outdoing itself by screening too many films, for industry insiders and the general public, to ever see.

An aside, stay the hell away from the Cinema City International Film Festival!  Both Gilmore and Gaines listened in shocked anger as an audience member told the story of how she had her 90 minute feature hacked into a 30 minute short, as this was her only way to gain acceptance into the CCIF.  Festivals that the two approved of included the AFI fests, Palm Springs, Aspen Shorts, and on a smaller scale, and more locally, Schenectady.  Of course, we'll add Coney Island to the list, but more on that next month!

Finally, Gilmore did BkA a huge personal favor.  While discussing the do's and don'ts of submitting to festivals, he advised that filmmakers ask for extensions rather than submitting unfinished work to make a deadline.  We asked if Sodom by the Sea could then get an extension into Sundance.  Gilmore granted us, everyone else in the room, and in turn, everyone else period, one!

Things were slightly less positive on Night Three as Bob Berney (President of the soon to be defunct, Picturehouse indie subdivision) spoke on the State of the Industry.  Less positive in content, not delivery that is.  Berney (who just earlier this year was the executive producer of the Academy Award nominated Mongol but is now days away from unemployment) came off as gung-ho, and can do as anyone around, while outlining the many directions that the film world is going in. 

While Big Studio overhead has lead to the death of subdivisions like Picturehouse, and online piracy (which has incredibly hindered the recording industry) is a growing a concern for all, Berney remained upbeat about fast growing technology.  From the proposed MGM/Paramount pay digital service, to other soon coming VoD services, to a new IFC/Sundance sponsored docs channel, to a new IFC/Sundance sponsored shorts channel, to more creative word of mouth buzz created by filmmakers themselves, Berney was constantly "glass is half full."  Again, despite the demise of his own subdivision. 

Aside from subdivisions and piracy, Berney's only other concern was for movie theaters.  With increased piracy, increased legal stay at home options, and with a poor economy, the theaters themselves have been the biggest losers at the box office. Of course that also means more bad news for the studios.

Although being a fan of filmmakers and not necessarily of theaters (and certainly not of studios!) Berney was interested in the changes they'll be making as well.  One change is happening now in Australia where one theater in particular is looking to recreate the movie experience of the past.  One supersized screen (unlike the multiplexes later generations grew up on) with unmatched sound, larger seats, and a more opera-like lobby.  At the not-so-retro 35 bucks a pop prices, however, this place better be stocked to the ceilings in Oscar caliber films.  Or at least offer free snacks!

Night Four featuring, Tom Bernard, of Sony Classics, the biggest subdivision left, and one of the most acclaimed producers in movie making history as well as one of the classiest men in the biz, expanded on the change is coming theme when speaking of the State of Distribution.  Movies like Michael Moore's Slacker Nation and Wayne Wang's The Princess of Nebraska have recently premiered online (Moore on his own site, Wang on YouTube) offsetting some of the bad news.  That that the bubble is bursting and even though more movies are being made now than ever before, fewer of these movies, despite distribution, are being released theatrically.  Like Berney, Bernard (uhm,,, no relation) remained positive about the distribution options of the future.

Night Five provided the clearest proof that change is really here.  Not in the early stages of VoD, but instead, in the exploding world of doc filmmaking.  Particularly doc filmmaking in a war zone.  Perhaps the only miniscule, little, tiny kernel to even hint at "some good" seen from this country's bloody and illegal invasion of Iraq, is that it has allowed a few of our braver filmmakers to document what war looks like in rarely before seen fashion.  Technology has allowed these few to expose what the news divisions of companies like NBC (owned by weapons maker, GE) are not allowed to.  While it doesn't serve GE's corporate interest to explore the truth behind current day Iraq, and it does NBC no good in ratings, and thus commercial sales, to dig for this same truth, a few brave souls are now offering more than the usual soundbites which today's compromised news services deliver.

Due to a prior engagement with the Twin Cities Underground Film Fest, there was no Day Six, Film Week closer for BkA.  Just a thank you to people like Jon Alpert, Mathew O'Neill, Alex Gibney, and Alan Oxman who made Night Five possible.  No one knows anything?  Well, turns out that some with full faith in an expanding web, and others, filmmakers who risk their lives to document war and war torn regions, do know something after all!*