There is something wondrously primal and genuine about indie films. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against big Hollywood blockbusters, but those large budget movies are, by design, manufactured to please broad audiences and keep moviegoers in line for the next five sequels. They are not designed to challenge the spectator. They can’t. There is too much cash at stake for them to be too artistically, socially, or narratively audacious. Indie films, true indie films, those films financed with blood, sweat, tears, and a few skipped meals, are a crucial component of the cinematic conversation because they are where new voices can truly be heard.
TV is today what film was in previous decades. While mainstream cinema is increasingly becoming what many consider to be exclusively entertainment, there has been a liberating renaissance in television and we are seeing complex character driven stories like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones redefine the concept of a TV series. But shouldn’t we be able to have it both ways? Shouldn’t we be able to find art and depth in both mediums along with silly and fun superhero flicks?
Along with gluing us to our seats with each episode, these new series can generate gradual, yet long lasting empathy towards characters that we’d never allow in our living rooms. But there is still great value in the experience of walking in the shoes of a character through their entire journey in the span of only a couple of hours. Only a feature film can convey a whole new perspective in one sitting, and take you full circle in a life radically opposite to yours from one moment to the next. Bold, daring films can rapidly incite empathy for people in situations and conditions we might not otherwise understand, and they can instigate conversations that are important in society. For the most part, today, those types of films are happening in the indie world. A world that is finding itself more and more threatened in today’s film industry.
While most of the motivation behind the whole machinery of a blockbuster is monetary, indie films usually surface from a deeper, more visceral place. That doesn’t mean that indie films shouldn’t make money. If an artist is making money from their craft, then the craft is sustainable and the artist is able to advance such craft to the best of his or her ability. If a craft is not sustainable, then it is just a hobby, an activity for the weekends. Indie filmmakers must be able to make a profit from their movies in order to call “filmmaking” a career. But in a world market where 6% of all the movies officially released make over 80% of the revenues, what is the future of “sustainable” indie filmmaking? Is there even one?
Technology has both simplified and complicated things for the indie filmmaker. The digital revolution has made filmmaking so accessible that standing out from the sea of content has become more challenging than making the actual film. There are numerous new forms of distribution, such as Netflix, Amazon and YouTube (among others,) that can place a film one click away from anyone in the world, but “one click away” is a huge distance if a film’s potential audience has no idea that the film exists, and if they are so drowned in content that when they do hear about the film, it barely catches their attention. More indie films are being made than ever before, and yet, there is a crisis in the indie world, as dedicated independent filmmakers find it harder and harder to make a living simply because of supply and demand: more films are being supplied than there is demand for, and it’s very hard for films to rise above the horde.
This surplus of content sets media providers at a dangerously high advantage point, turning them into sharp double-edged swords for the indie filmmaker. Netflix has a large library of indie titles and has introduced many people to films they might have never seen otherwise, but Netflix also hides viewing data from its providers. In other words, the distributers of a particular film never see or know how many people have watched their film through Netflix. They never know how valuable a film is to Netflix because they have no idea how popular the film is. As a result, Netflix is at a much better position to negotiate the flat fees for each title because only they know the value that each film and type of film has for their audience. This is particularly tough on indie films because larger theatrical releases have indicators such as box office performance to assess a price but small independents do not. This not only makes it harder for good films to stand out and make more money, but it also makes it harder for investors to finance indies because they simply have no performance data; performance data that used to come from DVD sales and rentals, something that is virtually non existent today. Indies will continue to be made either way, but if there is no money to be made from them, then making them will inevitably become a hobby and the quality of the art will suffer. And subsequently the quality of Hollywood films, which are influenced and nourished by the Independent world will deteriorate as well.
Above all, for quality indie films to be sustainable, we need to generate systems in which the cream can rise to the top, systems that are more transparent and equitable. But that is easier said than done. A valuable aid for certain film projects that can inject credibility as well as capital for marketing and overall diffusion of a film is not-for-profit grants. Entities such as UN Women, which have sponsored film projects that deal with women in the third world, and the Independent Film Project (IFP,) among others, constantly sponsor projects that they recognize as relevant to their aims and values, but the grants aren’t exactly massive and organizations tend to care particularly about the statement that the film is making; so this type of grant might not be appropriate for every project. There is also crowd sourcing and social media, but so many people today want you to help them finance their “Kickstarter project” that to get a film financed this way, the filmmaker needs to be as skilled in social media as he is in making films.
Ultimately, It’s a tough world out there for the indie filmmaker, but, not to be too apocalyptic, the reality is that it always has been. Now more than ever, aspiring filmmakers can realize their projects, but this has made the environment noisy, and it’s now harder for individual voices to stand out. This boisterous atmosphere can discourage serious indie filmmakers who find it increasingly harder to make a living, but the truth is that indie films are important; they are important for the conversations they start, the viewpoints they present, and the future art they inspire. Quality indie films will find a way to survive and thrive because important things find ways to do so. Go watch an indie!