The fact is that the majors as well as the larger indies are risk averse and want to have some one else spend the money and make the film so they can see it when it’s in the can and then make a deal. And why not? All those folks who think they have a good project and are willing to bust their tails to raise money and make it,are just waiting for their 5 minutes in front of a Gill, it has been thus since the old days, just more noise, welcome to the new world of film making.
June 30, 2008
The Media Equation
Little Movies, Big Problems
By DAVID CARR
Hollywood is having a good-to-great summer. Box office is marginally up — mostly on the strength of increased ticket prices, but still, there’s over $4.52 billion already in the bank this year, according to Media by Numbers. The big studios — the sworn enemy of moviegoing snobs — have used great casting, like Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man,” Steve Carell in “Get Smart,” filmmaking innovation in Pixar’s “Wall-E” and “Wanted” and smart retreading in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and “Sex and the City” to leave both audiences and the people in the studio corner office happy.
Once you start looking under the tent poles, though, perhaps for a film where nothing is blown up, things become grim. This summer, it seems only “The Visitor” will hit the classic indie trifecta of good reviews, strong word of mouth and staying power in theaters.
There’s no small wonder like “Once” on the horizon, let alone miniatures with big breakout potential like “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine.” The rest of the movies — lots of moody family stories, dysfunctional parables and eat-your-vegetables documentaries — come and go without notice in these long, hot summer months.
Why are there no independent movies worth seeing? As Yogi Berra might say, there are just too many of them.
At least, that’s the view of one veteran independent film executive, Mark Gill. In a speech he gave at the Los Angeles Film Festival a little over a week ago (a speech that set tongues to wagging after it was published by IndieWire, a Web site devoted to independent film), he pointed out that the number of films submitted to Sundance, the Valhalla of the indie film industry, has multiplied by 10 in the last 15 years to a total of 5,000. But that embarrassment of riches is really just an embarrassment.
“Most of the films are flat-out awful,” said Mr. Gill, the head of the independent company The Film Department. “Trust me, I have had to sit through tons of them over the years. Let me put it another way: the digital revolution is here,” he said, and boy, is it underwhelming.
Especially for movie people who manage, despite long odds, to make a film worth seeing. If last season is any indication, there will be blood, lots of it. Great films — “Lust, Caution,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Lars and the Real Girl” — were buried in clutter and pushed out of theaters by far-less-well-conceived indie efforts.
One reason for the phenomenon, he said, was something we ordinarily see as a good thing: democratization.
Filmmaking, back when that meant real film, was a heinously expensive activity. Now anyone with access to digital equipment and some gullible friends, relatives or investors can put their precious thoughts on a large screen for all to see.
“Five thousand movies got made last year,” Mr. Gill told his audience. “Of those, 603 got released theatrically here.” He said that there was room for probably only 200 of those. (The studios, punished by the same numbers a few years ago, took the hint: Disney releases one-quarter of the films it used to and Warner Brothers has cut its output almost in half.)
Last year, I hosted a public interview with Sidney Lumet, the legendary director who made “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” It was an amazing film, with stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei. But someone in the audience got up and said that after he recommended it to all his friends, they couldn’t find it anywhere.
Why? Too many little movies waiting their turn, projects financed by private equity folks looking for their little piece of tinsel and a place to store money.
That won’t be a problem going forward, Mr. Gill said.
“The $18 billion that Wall Street poured into Hollywood last year has slowed to a trickle and shows no signs of being replaced at even remotely the same levels.” He said a pal of his who is an entertainment banker had told him he knew of at least 10 independent film backers who were looking for the exit from darkened theaters.
The current contraction in financing will take care of much of the glut. Anyone who doubts that most of the stupid money is gone and some of the smart money will become choosier has not been reading the newspapers. Warner Brothers has folded Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures and reduced New Line to a shell. ThinkFilm, a New York independent, is having difficulty paying its bills, and Mr. Gill suggested that five other companies are deeply troubled. Even DreamWorks, built on the backbone of Steven Spielberg, one of the most reliable auteurs of the last several decades, had to go to India to find backing.
Mr. Gill was once the president of Miramax Films, a place where he helped the Weinstein brothers figure out that if you thread the needle of closely managed budgets, connect with a press cohort hungry for good film, and perhaps take a walk to the podium at the Oscars, you can make enough money to pay your bills. He has since struck out on his own and now finds himself fighting it out with the imitators and competition created by the success of Miramax Films.
The movie business always ebbs and flows as people learn their lessons anew, but the most recent wave of new blood and new money was not always warmly received.
When I talked to Mr. Downey recently, he spoke bitterly of his time working for various newly minted auteurs before he was cast in the blockbuster “Iron Man” : “What is creepy and obvious is that the market was suddenly flooded with morons who thought, ‘If I’ve got $500,000, I can make a baseball cap that has a company name on it and say I’m a filmmaker.’ ”
Reached on the phone late last week, Mr. Gill said he had received a torrent of feedback after his speech, with most thanking him for being frank about the dimensions of the crater — financially, creatively and strategically — that independent film finds itself in.
“I spoke up because actors, directors and producers keep asking me why I am being so hard on them,” he said. “I am seeing all kinds of pitches for films that are just not even in the ballpark.”
Maybe they should stop asking Mr. Gill and start asking the audiences, if they can find them. Persuading a sentient adult to leave the house, with its cocoon of media delights, and spend precious gas and $10 to mix it up with the popcorn-chomping, cellphone-texting, stage-whispering hordes is no small matter. It takes something wonderful, or more likely, something explosive, a big event, to get people to the movie house.
“ ‘Good enough,’ ” Mr. Gill said, “is hardly good enough in this environment.”
“I think that Mark said a brave thing,” said Mark Harris, a columnist at Entertainment Weekly and author of “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.” “There are too many movies, and too many of them are terrible and dull. The overproduction is a breach of faith with the audience, and they have become skeptical. I know I have.”
Some of Mr. Gill’s peers in the industry told me he was more Captain Obvious than prophet. Still, he got people’s attention because by the time he finished talking, it sounded as if he were pitching a particularly gruesome horror movie: “The strongest of the strong will survive and in fact prosper. But it will feel like we just survived a medieval plague. The carnage and the stench will be overwhelming.”