Is the sky falling on the indie film business?

16047__little_lThe Chicken Little metaphor isn’t mine. It comes from veteran independent film exec Mark Gill, who gave this speech citing dire conditions for the art-house movie business: the shuttering of such indie shingles as Picturehouse and Warner Independent; the absorption of New Line and Paramount Vantage by their parent companies; rising production and advertising costs, the drying up of financing from investors outside the industry, a bottleneck in distribution that results in most indie-made films going unseen, and competition for attention with mainstream movies that have 100 times the promotional budget and distribution muscle.

Less pessimistic, however, is Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey, whose essay went online the same day as Gill’s speech. Her sanguine assessment: Don’t worry, innovations in distribution (Netflix, legal downloading, on-demand cable, even releasing films in theaters and on DVD the same day) will save the indie business. Besides, things just look bad right now because we’re in the annual summer slump; indie films will flourish again in the fall, when prestige pictures are released in order to appeal to Oscar voters.

So, which is it? I don’t find Rickey’s argument as persuasively written as Gill’s; dismissing the empty seats in art-house theaters right now seems to miss the larger picture. We’ve already seen the foreign-film audience dry up to nothing (thanks in part, ironically, to the American indie boom of the ’80s and ’90s), and similar neglect could easily starve the rest of the alt-film business. Maybe the home-distribution alternatives she outlines will work, but that still means the art-house business, and the experience of seeing these movies in theaters, is dead.

Nonetheless, I think she’s right, that the industry can survive, albeit in some new, unimagined form. For one thing, the problems Gill cites (except for competition with the major studios) are all problems for the majors as well. The whole American movie industry is going to have to figure out a way out of this dilemma, and that lifeline could save indie film as well. In order for that to happen, however, there’ll have to be a major shift in the mindset of Hollywood; it’ll have to want to save the indie business. Right now, the majors are trapped in a mindset that would rather risk $300 million to earn $600 million (on a typical action blockbuster) than risk $4 million to earn $20 million (for an indie project), even though the entry cost, total cash risked, and return on investment (as a percentage) are all better on the indie side. There’s no reason the big studios can’t be making both kinds of movies, but they’ll have to commit their vast marketing and distribution resources to make it work. Hits like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine prove there’s a large audience out there for movies with an indie sensibility; it’s time for Hollywood to stop dismissing that audience — the audience that loves big comic-book spectacles but also movies that are about more than just popcorn fun — as a niche.

What do you think, PW-ers? Is the indie-film business dying or on the verge of reinventing itself? Or is the indie biz a canary in the coal mine whose symptoms indicate bigger problems for all of Hollywood? And what should be done to fix them?

Comments (20 total) Add your comment
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  • Eric Friedmann

    I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again…if people would simply stop paying their hard-earned money to see the onslaught of Hollywood movie crap that is being brought to us in the form of sequels, remakes and franchise films, then perhaps the Hollywood studio execs would have enough of a brain in their head to sit up and take notice of the other side of the coin and give us more independent films (even during the summer), which ultimately have more cinematic value than any stupid superhero movie ever will in a lifetime. If, in fact, the indie business is dying, then this is the only thing that will save it.

  • karen b

    I have a 90% of the time rule of thumb… if it cost over $100M to produce, they probably forgot to hire a script writer.

  • Nee Nee

    If the marketing for indie films were at least up-to-par with big-budget flicks, I think they would stand a better chance. I understand that’s a part of the charm, but if more people knew about these movies, they would obviously make more money. Juno, I think was well marketed, and recieved good word-of-mouth–two key factors in a movie’s success. Maybe indie film makers need to spend more time coming up with innovative ways to market and get the word out on their movies. I sure would hate to see the “sky fall” on that industry. Many of my all-time favorites are indies.

  • Snarf

    I think indie films will continue albiet it in a slightly different form – more likely hitting festival circuts first before going to DVD. Most recent example that comes to my mind was “Shelter”

  • Eric Friedmann

    This summer, so far, I’ve seen three movies. I, unfortunately, wasted my time and money on IRON MAN and INDIANA JONES. The third movie was an indie called THE VISITOR. It was wonderful!

  • DanOregon

    I’ve been amazed at how many good films I’ve seen with a well-known cast that I had never heard of before I saw them at a Redbox kiosk. Flawless with Michael Caine and Demi Moore is highly recommended.
    I think Indies will continue to thrive as long as there are good stories to tell and you can get A-list actors who will cut their rates for good material.

  • LJ

    I’m confused by the way “indie” is used as if it refers to a genre, rather than a production/distribution method.
    If the question is whether indie films will survive, of course they will. Whether the boutique labels of the major studios will survive is another question, and the cynic in me says that those movies have never really been “indie,” but just another attempt buy the Big Corporations to co-opt an organic and emergent form of movie-making. People with a real story to tell will always find a way to do it.

  • Eric Friedmann

    Dan, I know there are so many good stories still yet to be brought to the screen. Unfortunately, the greedy Hollywood executive morons who run the show will never give these stories the light of day because they’re too busy figuring out how they can con people into the next “Spiderman” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel!

  • Eric Friedmann

    LJ, I think the term “indie” has, over the years, become more of a public perception than anything else, in that people generally expect a higher qulaity film with more intelligence and wit from an “indie” film than you’ll traditionally find in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

  • Eric Friedmann

    Sorry, but I can’t seem to get off of this topic.
    There’s a cute little neighborhood movie theater in the Hamptons that I enjoy going to. During the summer season, they show most of the big budget Hollywood crap. Even though I don’t go to these movies anymore, I understand that it’s necessary for them to have these movies in order to stay in business throughout the off-season.
    The good thing is that right after Labor Day weekend, they begin showing most of the fall lineup of independent films that are released. It’s this time that I enjoy going to the movies more than any other time of the year.

  • fcunmys

    Right now, the problems experienced in the indie market can be traced to two overriding factors: 1) an oversaturation of films being made at a time when the number of art-house and revival movie houses nationwide that films of this variety would have played havve sharply declined since the late 1980s & 2)the decision of the Weinstein Brothers to absorb Wellspring, one of the preeminent independent and foreign film distribution companines in the U.S, into the Miramax conglomerate (i.e. Dimension Films, Dragon Dynasty, Miriam, etc.)effectively choking off a major distribution source of edgy and eclectic cinema all for the sake of the corpate bottom line.

  • EP Sato

    Indy movies and horror movies have one major element in common. Every few years some “insider” will come out and say the industry’s dying. Then, some brilliant director comes out of left field saves the genre entirely.
    Trends in popular culture tend to come and go in waves. Yes, Independent film as we know it IS dying. But I’d argue that the “independent” films weren’t that “independent” to begin with.
    “Independent” in the 1990s meant making a movie with maxed out credit cards and good friends (like Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez did), but in the 2000s it meant major financing and marketing via major movie studios for lesser known fare.
    Independent film will always be around. The question is how will the medium be available to consumers? Is the arthouse theater dead? Maybe. Are “independent” studios on the outs? Probably. But moviegoers will always appreciate the unique and quirky indy film experience that the studios will always be unwilling to risk.

  • sam

    My problem with Indie movies is the same one I have with most Oscar nominated movies. They are both usually overrated, have terrible storylines, and are depressing. Who wants to watch any of that?

  • Rob Grizzly

    Both Mark Gill and Carrie Ricky have good points.

  • t3hdow

    To Ep Sato:
    If there’s any popwatcher I’d nominate for a job at EW, it’s you. You have no clue how much you underplay your brilliant remarks. Funny you mention the slight irony behind the ‘independent’ label. Simon Cowell said something similar with rock artists competing for American Idol, even though rock represents anti-authority/anti-establishment.
    It’s true with of pretty much every medium available, which includes but not limited to books, theater, public radio, movies, comics, TV, rock and roll, videogames, cable, hip-hop/rap and the internet; and all the various subgenres between them. Each medium faces highs and lows but none of them truly die out (the Great crash of 1983 was pretty damn close though with the videogame industry). Eventually, they will be distributed by smaller means but will never face absolute obsolescence.

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