I haven’t worked in the film industry for a long while and my clout in Hollywood is next to nil, nada, none. Instead, I’ve been working in digital marketing and advertising. The stuff I’ve learned. Wow. It’s allowed me see a gapping hole in the indie film industry.
The Missing Tool in the Kit
Out there in the world, talented filmmakers have access to so many tools that were once far out of reach. Film was expensive, an editing bay took up an entire room, and don’t even get me started about sound equipment. Now these tools are easily found in your pocket. Not only do they have easy access to the tools, they have access to the distribution channels! Some of these filmmakers are mediocre, a few are better off doing something else, but the lot of them have an acute ability to craft a story for the screen. But for reasons I can’t explain, their talent ends there. They lack the ability to get anyone besides their circle of friends and family to watch their masterpiece.
It kills me to see this happening. I try to help, but sometimes it feels like I’m screaming, “Hey, you guys!!” like Rocky in The Goonies, and no ones’s turning around. They’re too busy worried about the right gear, fearful their film might not get picked up at Sundance, or worse, get signed by a major studio only to end up going straight to DVD. (Poor things)
The Curse of Knowledge
If you made it this far, I’m here to tell you there is hope. All you have to do was build up hype using a great creative campaign. Sounds easier said than done, but it’s actually extremely easy these days. You can do the whole thing from the same coffee shop you wrote the script in. “But I made a Facebook page for the movie!” you say? Sorry, but making a film isn’t the Field of Dreams. “Make it and they’ll come” is delusional. It’s not your fault though, so don’t sweat it. Unlike a Pixar movie, this story has a villain in it and the villain is called “The Curse of Knowledge”. (I like to imagine it looking like the Eye of Sauron, but you can use whatever visual device works for you.)
“The Curse of Knowledge” is what happens when someone says, “So, tell me about yourself.” and you freeze. You don’t know where to begin. Since I was born? Do they wanna know what I had for lunch? You’re crippled and in a panic you start from the beginning. Luckily, “The Curse of Knowledge” has a weakness.
Kill Your Darlings … Kill Em!
If you don’t know the saying, “Kill your darlings.”, then you might wanna rewatch your film after I tell you. “Killing your darlings” means you should make characters we love suffer or say goodbye to shot that took 4 days in a real typhoon to get because it’s gonna make the film better. The same philosophy can be applied to killing “The Curse of Knowledge”. It takes time and careful consideration to select the ways you’ll convince someone to watch your film. Separate yourself from your film and think to yourself, “Why should I spend my time and money, moments in my life, to see this movie?” Your first 100 answers to this question will be shit, throw them away. Doesn’t matter how clever.
A lot of people will try to teach you SEO or social media marketing, but those are just tools. You have to learn how to sell yourself and/or your movie first. Alright, I’ve run out of steam for now but if you’re trying to make it today as a filmmaker, it’s an exciting time. Take this stuff to heart and read Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick, which dives deeper into “The Curse of Knowledge”. Learning to beat it can be applied to pitching your film to a studio, trying to get into a festival, and attempting to get a distribution deal. It works for even making your film.
Before I go into this diatribe, please let me tell you that Steven Spielberg is and will always be one of my greatest inspirations as a storyteller. More so than a filmmaker. The Hollywood Reporter was present at the opening of the new USC School of Cinematic Arts building with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, where the two were using their clout to make predictions about the future of the film industry. One such bold prediction was when Mr. Spielberg touted that the film industry was going to implode.
Sorry Mr. Spielberg, but I think you meant to say the studio system, not the film industry, is going to implode. If not, are you blind?
History Repeats Itself
The notion that history repeats itself is common knowledge, so I’m disappointed Steven Spielberg or George Lucas don’t see the history being “rebooted” in the film industry today. Any film history nerd knows about the fall of the Studio System, but I’m going to assume I have a diverse audience – so let me give you a short history lesson.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, the old Studio System was when Hollywood was comprised of a small number of HUGE studios. MGM, RKO, Warner Bros, Fox, and Paramount controlled nearly 100% of production and distribution. This is what film history calls the Golden Age, but unfortunately it wasn’t so golden if you weren’t a business man at the top of one of these studios. Actors, directors, and whatnot were bound to their studios by contracts.
In the 1950s, the landscape of entertainment was changing rapidly. Television was taking a piece of the pie now, and the actors and unions were starting to form. The tipping point came when the big studios lost a landmark anti-trust case (United States v. Paramount Pictures), which sent ripples running through the industry. All of this paved the way for actors, directors, and other artist to choose the films they wanted to work on. It gave rise to art house films and the spread of international films to the United States. The latter brought us the likes of Truffaut and Fellini, the likes of who would give birth to the household names like Kubrick, Scorsese, and other greats in the 1970s.
When the dust settled, the studios lived to fight another day. After all, filmmakers still needed a middle man to handle their marketing and distribution.
Filmmakers Aren’t Too Fringe-y For Movies
The studios have almost always been run by suits. What’s a suit? It’s the opposite of a creative, or in this case a filmmaker. They’re in the business of making money, not movies. They just happen to make money from making movies. It’s a paradox. Since the collapse of the old Studio System, the suits have been turning the film industry into an industrial complex of rising profits by making movies bigger, with more special effects. Budgets were growing and growing. Then comes along the computer, which begins to do everything faster and better. (For God’s sake, George Lucas is the reason for this part – at least a little bit. Did he forget?) This starts to make VFX cheaper and faster. The playing field gets leveled and now they need to use marketing to convince you to see the latest film in IMAX, and now it’s 3D they think will reel you in.
Even before the rise of 3D, producers and studios have been making hand over fist – even if the film flops at the box office. This is the reason I defend overpaying actors and directors. They deserve a piece of that pie and letting the suits have all the dough was a thing of the old studio days. Well now the average studio film cost over $250 million dollars. Meaning, we now we have less movies per year, each with their equated, minimal risk.
When Spielberg says that young filmmakers are having a difficult time getting their work into theaters, he blames them for being “too fringe-y”. Too fringe-? Sorry, but young filmmakers aren’t lacking ideas that have a mass appeal. The problem is that studio profits have flatlined. They’ve developed a well-oiled machine that makes a profit, but at the cost of quality storytelling, which has taken a backseat to sure-to-be-successful comic book movies, reboots, sequels, and more. I mean, you can’t blame them really. The current top grossing films are mostly sequels. (There’s money in dem der hills!) This bland, boring, and predictable lineup of films is causing a slowdown in their cash flow and in turn makes it harder and harder for them to take a chance on an independent filmmaker. That was until the internet grew up.
The New Breed
What’s happening and will eventually consume the film industry is the rise of independent filmmakers, not the way we saw in the 70s and 90s though. A whole different breed of filmmaker is on the rise and the catalyst is the internet. Indie filmmakers in the 70s and 90s didn’t have a way to build awareness and market their films; they also didn’t have a distribution network. They needed the studios to advertise their films on TV, radio, and billboards. They needed studios to mass produce the reels of film for distribution to theaters. Well guess what? None of that shit is needed anymore. Marketing and advertising is at your fingertips online with Google Adwords and social marketing/content strategy. Theaters download their movies. They don’t get a heavy shipment of reels anymore. Even theaters aren’t as important as they once were, too. Look online where content producers are making a decent living by telling stories on YouTube. Sure it isn’t the same as a theater, but neither were the art houses in the 60s with rickety wooden chairs and crap concessions. They succeeded in their time.
So there you have it. While it might not be history repeating itself verbatim, it sure sounds like a song I recognize. The digital revolution has already disrupted other industries the same way and did so without the entire industry imploding. Only the useless middle man, in this case the studios, being left in the cold. If this all seems like hogwash to you, just take a look at the music and publishing industries. Each has prime examples of artists who’ve cut out the middleman and taken their 10% cut of the profits and turned it into 70%. Maybe Seth Godin or Macklemore & Ryan Lewis can give you some tips on how to do so.
Alright, alright. I was already stoked at Linklater’s sequel to Before Sunset and Before Sunrise, but Dazed and Confused is one of those movies that I refuse to turn off when I stumble upon it while surfing through channels. It seems that it wouldn’t be a sequel, but a movie about college that continues in the spirit Linklater captured in the wildly popular hit, which introduced us to Matthew McConaughey.