Why Won’t These Movies Sell?

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Wed, 10/21/2009 - 20:00 -- Nick Dager

One of the implicit promises of the digital cinema transition was that the lower cost of production and post-production tools would empower more filmmakers to do more work and in turn that the best of those movies could be screened – again at lower cost – in digitally equipped theatres. That this promise has yet to be fulfilled and in fact shows signs of never coming to pass has created a small firestorm in recent days in the independent film community. From the business media to blogs and chat rooms the topic of conversation is the same: independent filmmaking is in serious trouble. Perhaps the highest profile filmmaker to fail to secure a distributor for his film in recent days is Francis Ford Coppola a man who has won countless international awards and who is one of the best American directors of his generation. Coppola told Bloomberg News writer Ladane Nasseri “The cinema as we know it is falling apart. It’s a period of incredible change. We used to think of six seven big film companies. Every one of them is under great stress now. Probably two or three will go out of business and the others will just make certain kind of films like Harry Potter – basically trying to make Star Wars over and over again because it’s a business.” Coppola told Nasseri he attributes some of the problem to the fact that there are so many things competing for the public’s leisure time and leisure dollars. He told her he believes “that the cinema is going to evolve into something more related to a live performance in which the filmmaker is there like the conductor of an opera used to be. Cinema can be interactive every night it can be a little different.” Meanwhile if necessary he says he will self-distribute his new feature film Tetro which is based on an original screenplay and tells the story of a young man of Italian descent who sets off to Buenos Aires to reconnect with his long-lost older brother. Coppola financed it with revenue from his vineyard in California. This most recent incarnation of what is an issue that has a history as old as cinema itself picked up some serious momentum at this year’s Toronto Film Festival in September. Chicago film critic Roger Ebert in his blog Roger Ebert’s Journal wrote this: “Every year good films show at the Toronto Film Festival that never open anywhere near you. This year some good films played that may never open anywhere even if you live in Toronto – or New York San Francisco Los Angeles Seattle Austin or upstairs over a Landmark Theater multiplex. Toronto is traditionally a lively marketplace for the purchase of film rights for new non-studio product: Indies docs foreign films. This year Harvey Weinstein paid $1 million for A Single Man and that was that. One sale one movie one million – probably as little as Harvey has paid for a movie in some time.” Ebert went on to quote Anne Thompson who has her own popular blog Thompson on Hollywood and wrote that “The old independent market is over.” She added a list of the movies that were well received in Toronto but left without distribution deals. They included: Creation the opening-night biopic about Charles Darwin. Get Low Robert Duvall's first lead role in awhile. Bruce Beresford's Mao's Last Dancer about a dancer hand-picked by Madame Mao who defected to Texas after falling in love with an American woman. Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child which left some viewers weeping and stars Naomi Watts Annette Bening and Samuel L. Jackson. Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime. Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass with its remarkable dual performance by Edward Norton as twins and Atom Egoyan's Chloe? Ebert continued: “The feeling is that it's too expensive in this economy to successfully open an unknown film. Most Indies feel they must open in New York the most costly media market in the country and of course that means an ad big enough to be visible in The New York Times buys in the other major daily and weeklies maybe some public transportation posters maybe some radio maybe some television maybe some Internet and pretty soon you're talking maybe more money than the movie maybe cost.” To date as Ebert and others have observed Internet marketing alone has failed to generate a big enough audience to sustain a theatrical run and even during the week theatres need a certain number of people to make a release viable. In his entertaining blog Ira Deutchman who is himself a movie producer distributor exhibitor and Columbia University Professor has been tracking this conversation for sometime. Recently he ran a lengthy post from independent producer and president of Strange Matter Films Tyler Davidson who has proposed a public option for filmmakers. Davidson’s most recent movie is Swedish Auto which is being distributed by IFC Films. Davidson said in part “Just as a few U.S. insurance companies have a stranglehold on our country’s healthcare system so too do a few Hollywood studios on our film industry.  Instead of exploding healthcare costs and millions of people uninsured our industry sees a once-flourishing independent film community decimated and a substantial swath of independent filmgoers underserved.”  Davidson concluded that “Progressive-minded healthcare reformers understand that real reform requires choice and competition in the marketplace. A public option. Why not apply that same logic to the film industry? Canadian films are primarily funded by a mix of government funding and incentives government mandated funds from broadcasters broadcasters themselves international financing partners and film distributors.  Smaller films are often funded by arts councils and film collectives. Canadian films almost never turn a profit because their distribution system like ours is dominated by Hollywood; but films are made filmmakers get paid regional film production centers thrive and the Canadian economy is boosted by production expenditure. A similar public-private system in the U.S. – with a more potent balanced reach than the nominal state-by-state tax credits we now see – would allow independent distributors to acquire films at lower costs without devastating equity financiers who have virtually no chance of recouping their investments in today’s market.  Savings on distributor advances could be allocated to marketing campaigns giving quality independent films better opportunities to find an audience.  But most importantly it wouldn’t be the million-to-one do-or-die scenario we have right now.”   All of the issues raised here are troubling to anyone who cares deeply about movies and I certainly include myself in that group. But I want to concentrate here on Davidson’s public option proposal in part because it’s one of the first and best specific ideas I’ve heard of yet on this issue but also because I’m not certain it would be accepted here. First in the current climate a public option for film production is an absolute political non-starter and is not worth discussing outside the film community. Our country has been wrangling for a year or more about the current version of a public option for health care and the resistance has been strong. And that’s quite literally a life and death proposition. Any politician would take one look at today’s record box office numbers and argue quite convincingly to the public at large that the movie business isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed. On the contrary: it isn’t even a problem. Assuming some daring politician saw the situation more clearly the pushback from Hollywood – the very people Davidson wants to subsidize this – would be fierce. As for hoping that Hollywood might accept this notion for the greater good well do I need to continue? Second getting past all these hurdles still leaves the problem that the United States has never fully embraced the idea of subsidies for the arts something that’s a much stronger and better accepted tradition in Europe and Canada. However I’m not suggesting that Davidson’s idea be dismissed out of hand. One of the strengths of his proposal is that it puts the added revenue in the hands of distributors and that strikes me as the critical point of need. Still this situation seems likely to get worse before (if?) it ever gets better. Each year Hollywood cuts the number of feature films it produces. If as Coppola suggests the number of studios shrinks it seems quite likely that trend would probably continue. The optimist in me believes that if there are fewer Hollywood movies available the digitally equipped exhibitors in the US will be more receptive to experimenting with new independent films. The realist in me wonders if that’s possible.