A Nasty Pile-Up At The Indie 50000

Chaos is so chaotic. There was time when, for instance, owning a newspaper afforded power, access, prestige, noblesse oblige and just a sick annual profit. Thirty percent margins were ordinary. Now, as Jeff Bezos is fixing to learn, owning a newspaper affords the opportunity to set fire to $100 million a year.

The music industry? Let's just say the pool parties with the cocaine-mountain centerpieces are on the wane. Book and magazine publishing? Next to tweed and pixels, oil and water are positively synergistic.

But when it comes to digital mayhem, no medium has been more disintermediated than independent film. Twenty years ago, with the likes of Sundance and Miramax building both distribution channels and demand, indies briefly enjoyed something akin to an orderly marketplace.

Now it is utter and nearly irretrievable chaos.

Many reasons for that. Cheap digital production tools yielding an insane glut of supply….perhaps 50,000 new films a year. An exhibition economy built on Hollywood blockbusters. A zillion digital platforms, and none with the critical mass to deliver significant audience, much less a significant revenue stream for producers.

If a 97-minute cinematic masterpiece falls in the forest, and nobody ever sees it, does it make a profit?

Emphatically no. Sure, it's a bad time for musicians who record a song and proceed to get unnoticed or pirated. Now think of the same thing happening to producers of a movie that takes dozens or hundreds of people burning between $50,000 and $5 million over three (or seven or 12) years to create.

Oh -- and add this complication: the indie community is really and truly stupid about -- and often contemptuous of -- marketing. They expend blood, sweat, tears and their Visa credit limits to gestate their babies. Then, when the kid is born, they discover they have no idea how to parent, and no money left for diapers and strained fruit. The poor tots are then left in baskets on the steps of the Internet. They'd be foundlings…if they ever were so fortunate as to be found.

Indie film is, in short, the poster child for the Chaos Scenario. Supply glut. Hyperfragmentation. Revenues contracting faster than costs. As Producer Ted Hope has often brilliantly argued, however, much of the damage is self-inflicted. Not only do films get made with no thought to their care and feeding beyond a festival screening -- but apart from shooting and editing, producers have largely forsaken the opportunities afforded by the very digital world that has so disrupted them.

To make virtues, in other words, of vice.

In a 50,000-title-per-year world, the first problem is awareness.  This is true of movies shot by Paramount and movies shot by iPhone; the audience can't find you if they don't know you are there. Hollywood studios and big distributors address this problem the way they always have: huge advertising and publicity campaigns with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars -- this all to drive opening-weekend traffic, thereupon for word-of-mouth to kick in.

Alas, the strategy is unavailable to most indies, because they lack the marketing dollars, the distribution (5000-screen openings) and usually the star power. The art-house circuit is nice, but only a handful of pictures -- picked up by major distributors -- have access. None of that will change soon. On the contrary, Hollywood will continue to dominate screens with huge blockbusters, mainly about superheroes of the apocalyptic future coming out of retirement for one last job in the company of 23-year-old women in tight clothing. Plus maybe remaking "Jules et Jim" in 3D.

So what does the Internet -- and particularly social media -- have to offer for indie producers to re-imagine awareness, word of mouth and distribution? Well, plenty -- including two extraordinary opportunities.

The first is simply the ascending Relationship Era. In the post-mass age, in the absence of reach, marketing will be about aggregating individual relationships at scale. That means winning a friend or a fan and staying in touch -- via Facebook, email or whatever -- on subjects of mutual interest.

On that count, the movies have vast potential, because everybody loves the movies. The reason so much dumb money has financed such a risky business for a century is that people want to be associated with the glamor of the industry. From Seagram's Edgar Bronfman Jr. to the festival fan camping out at the red carpet, they savor a glimpse of the inside. They want to hang out on the set, get past the velvet rope, drop names of the cast and crew, and see what the outsider cannot.

From a simple Facebook page to a host of proprietary social-targeting platforms, this process can be institutionalized -- starting not a month before release, but in pre-production. Open up the casting. Crowdsource props. Post dailies, or send them out to select fans. In other words, build a community with a proprietary stake in the film.

The initiated represent not just a prospective audience but a de facto marketing team. And they will be predisposed to be with you -- and your talent -- for the next project, too. And the next. (Whether they end up liking the finished product or not.) And they'll kick into Kickstarter in the bargain.

The second benefit of the Internet is direct, streaming distribution. There are many such platforms, but none of them has achieved the magical combination of commerce and reach needed to build awareness, attract large distributors and actually generate cash. Yet clearly, reality dictates that indie films must stop aspiring to opening with a theatrical release. So then what?

Enter fittyflix.com. At the moment it is just a domain name, but it could be a curated, rolling online megafestival. Curious viewers could download and view any title for free…for exactly 50 minutes. If they wish to see the second half of the movie, they have to pay $5. They can rate anything with fittyflix stars and by their activity help the cream rise to the top --  to be skimmed by big distributors for subsequent windows, theatrical or otherwise.

First run is 60 days. The $5 ticket sale is split fitty-fitty with the filmmakers, who would have the option of keeping the film on fittyflix.com beyond the first 60 days or cutting a better deal elsewhere, or both.

Yes, these ideas blow up the existing indie model, such that it is. But it's kind of like an auto race. To prevent a mass pile-up, obviously, first everybody needs to be headed in the same direction.

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2 comments about "A Nasty Pile-Up At The Indie 50000 ".
  1. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications , January 6, 2014 at 11:46 a.m.
    As I read this piece I kept hearing myself saying 'right on'. But here is what I know, the industry is in chaos right now and that will change as all the fragmented pieces fall to the ground, sort them self out and emerge in a new operating model much as it did after the great studio era...in short we have seen this movie before...
  2. Michael E. Keenan from Keenan & Company , January 7, 2014 at 8:42 a.m.
    Garfield, as usual, is dead on. As someone who's seen this in big studios with Warner Bros. and others plus their faux-commitment to modern marketing time and again, can't feel sanguine about change. However, maybe looming disaster will awaken some to a better way at long last, e.g., the Coen Bothers would seem perfect for Bob's approach.