Indie Filmmakers: 'Chicken Little Was Right'

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'Ballast' i

Trying times for indies: Despite a strong showing at Sundance, Ballast, starring Micheal J. Smith Sr., wasn't picked up by a distributor. Alluvial Film Company hide caption

itoggle caption Alluvial Film Company
'Ballast'

Trying times for indies: Despite a strong showing at Sundance, Ballast, starring Micheal J. Smith Sr., wasn't picked up by a distributor.

Alluvial Film Company

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Mark Johnson i

When Ballast didn't receive any offers from distributors that would allow him to recoup his costs, producer Mark Johnson decided to release the film himself — city by city. Jesse Grant/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jesse Grant/Getty Images
Mark Johnson

When Ballast didn't receive any offers from distributors that would allow him to recoup his costs, producer Mark Johnson decided to release the film himself — city by city.

Jesse Grant/Getty Images

For moviegoers who aren't quite satisfied with a steady diet of superheroes and sequels, the world of independent film has always been a welcome refuge.

But the indie business is getting tougher. Just ask Mark Johnson: He's produced a lot of big films, including The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as smaller projects, like the as-yet-unreleased film Ballast, about the effects of a suicide on a Mississippi Delta family.

Ballast is a very small film — no movie stars and a budget of less than a million dollars. Johnson didn't expect to get rich off of it. (Or, we should say, richer.)

Still, when Ballast won best director and best cinematographer at the Sundance Film Festival this year, he figured a film distributor would pick it up.

"I thought that, at the end of the day, quality would win," Johnson says. "We would like to think that if something is made well, it ought to be able to pay for itself."

But though he received a few offers for the film, he didn't feel like they were high enough to recoup the costs of production.

So Johnson and first-time director Lance Hammer are releasing the movie themselves, city by city. It's a laborious process — and a bit of an experiment.

"You have a 99-percent chance of being a failure if you are an independent film," says Mark Gill, a veteran film executive from the art-house world.

Gill points out that 5,000 smallish films, with budgets under $10 million, are submitted to Sundance each year. Of those, maybe one-half of one percent ever make any money in the theaters. (Gill elaborated on the state of the industry recently at the L.A. Film Festival.)

A Bright Idea From Among the Beehives

John Sloss has another option for independent films looking to make money. He runs a company called Cinetic.

Each year, Sloss and the Cinetic team are a big presence at Sundance, where they drive tough bargains for filmmakers selling their wares to studios. The company sold Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and Supersize Me.

Now Sloss is starting Cinetic Rights Management, looking toward what he calls "the digital future of film consumption." It's an idea that first occurred to him 10 years ago, when he was working on a film called Ulee's Gold, in which Peter Fonda plays a beekeeper.

"All of a sudden, all these beekeeping societies started contacting us, wanting to buy videos and book screenings," says Sloss. "I realized that if beekeepers are a community, there are an infinite number of communities any number of films can be marketed to."

The digital revolution provides the opportunity to sell these disparate communities — not necessarily by making a deal with one studio — but in bits and pieces, through the Internet, Netflix, video on demand and so on. (See sidebar.)

Meanwhile, Gill thinks there's still room for as many as 100 to 150 independent movies to reach theaters each year. But the bar for those movies will be high, he warns.

"Good enough isn't anymore," Gill says. "We used to say that mediocrity will be punished. Now, the good will be punished. You have to be very good, or great, or you will die."

Web Offers A Few Bright Spots For Indie Auteurs

"I've never seen more depressed people in my life than I did in Cannes last month."

So said ex-Miramax president Mark Gill in a provocative June 2008 speech headlined "Yes, The Sky Really Is Falling," about how bad things are right now in the independent-film world.

But along with his dire analysis — "it will feel like we just survived a medieval plague; the carnage and the stench will be overwhelming," Gill said of what the landscape will be like for those who survive the current shakeout — the indie veteran offered his colleagues a few glimmers of hope.

Among them, he listed the notions that "there actually is a growing audience for quality," and that "in this Darwinian new future, there will absolutely be a premium for good films on TV, pay-per-view, on-demand, Internet — or whatever that large pipe that goes to all of our houses will be called."

There's no Holy Grail on "that large pipe" yet, no one-stop Web shop for easy-to-find, easy-to-watch indie content. Not yet, anyway.

But some sites are working to serve that "growing audience for quality" — and the indie filmmakers they admire. Among them:

Slamdance.com, the Web home of the festival that's been the beginner-filmmaker alternative to Sundance since 1995. Regular Web-watchable features include Anarchy, an online short-film competition judged by the site's audience, and $99 Specials, a series of short films shot in 99 days on an under-$100 budget. The latter spawned the TV series Significant Others, which ran two six-episode seasons on Bravo.

Jaman.com, a favorite of film blogger and About.com indie-movie guide Marcy Dermansky. It's got a slick, eye-friendly interface, user-powered social-media features including an inventive "Find by Mood" feature that helps you find the right weepie for a rainy afternoon, and streamable, ad-supported freebies both classic and new. And for those disinclined to spend two and a half hours in an office chair watching a Bollywood musical, it's even got an interactive how-to on hooking your computer up to your TV.

SnagFilms.com, recommended by James Rocchi, senior writer at the movie blog Cinematical. It's documentary-fan do-gooder paradise: Browse by topic (politics, health, music and arts, etc.) or by channel (ITVS, National Geographic, PBS and so on), or search by filmmaker. Find something that sounds good? Watch online, then introduce the impassioned auteur you've just discovered by embedding her whole movie on your blog. (Or your Facebook page, or ...) And if you're moved to action, SnagFilms invites you to support the cause she's documented by donating to a charity she's selected.

Among bigger players, Netflix's Watch Instantly feature (and its TV-connected option), Amazon's Unbox service (and its partnership with TiVo), and Apple's iTunes (and its allied AppleTV) all offer a varying selection of indie films to watch online, download and play later, or push to your TV.

But most of the films you'll find at the outlets listed above will need to have found a distributor or won a film-festival slot — both increasingly rare these days.

Which is where the just-launched IndieRoad.net sees a niche. The site aims to be a kind of indie-movie iTunes: Filmmakers submit their films; you buy, download and watch.

The pitch, explains co-founder Vince Di Pierro, is that IndieRoad is the brainchild of indie-industry veterans, who are scouring festivals and film-school campuses for up-and-comers and screening submissions for quality.

That expert filter is meant to help indie auteurs dodge what Cinematical's Rocchi describes as the YouTube dilemma: "I've made this piece of art — you can find it between the Mentos experiment and the sleeping cat."

The hope, says Di Pierro, is that without the clutter, on a site devoted exclusively to indie films, one of those up-and-comers will find a following — and that Di Pierro and his partners will be able to work their connections and broker a more traditional distribution deal.

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