Just before the Sundance Film Festival opened last week, Manohla Dargis started a conversation about independent film with her piece As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity.
Dargis bemoans the fact that the NY Times reviewed 900 films during 2013. For her that is just too many. She goes on to write:
“But I have a little favor to ask of the people cutting the checks: Stop buying so many movies. Or at least take a moment and consider whether flooding theaters with titles is good for movies and moviegoers alike…There are, bluntly, too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain bad movies pouring into theaters, distracting the entertainment media and, more important, overwhelming the audience.”
Apparently the villains of this piece are the people who write the checks. They should keep bad movies away from us by financing and distributing fewer movies. An odd argument wouldn’t you say? I thought the sign of a vital film culture was a large variety of films from which the audience can choose.
Sharon Waxman joined the conversation with her piece, 5 Cold Truths from an Uninspiring Sundance:
“There are TOO MANY movies being made … and we see it in the middling quality of too many films that are not getting bought. The production tools that make filmmaking accessible to just about anybody are resulting in a glut of films that aren’t nearly good enough to attract an audience of consequence. How can we make it stop?”
Let’s look at the logic of this. First, remember that Sharon Waxman has not seen every movie at Sundance so she is not using her own critical judgment in making this statement. She simply believes that if a distributor is not buying a movie, it does not possess the right ‘quality”. Secondly, she believes that because “anybody” can make a movie now, it therefore follows that most movies are simply not good enough.
Then she lays out her second “cold truth” where she, like Dargis, blames the funders.
“Crowdfunding is creating a bottleneck …The wonderful financing platforms of Kickstarter and Indiegogo are fueling dozens of new projects. That’s a great thing for filmmakers, and a big problem for the indie business. Because now hundreds of movies are getting financed that have no prayer of financial return for the filmmaker. Yes, there is distribution on VOD and Vimeo and Netflix in addition to Sony Classics and The Weinstein Co. Good luck paying your rent with that revenue.”
First, how does crowdfunding create a bottleneck, when more money is raised? I thought bottlenecks restrict the flow of something, not increase it. Is this because the filmmaker will not be able to earn any money from a crowdfunded movie? Well, guess what, thus far the record shows that some filmmakers make money and some do not. Does Waxman have some numbers to share with us that actually show how these filmmakers have fared financially? Not amongst her 5 cold truths.
And how exactly, does this hurt the “indie business”? Apparently the indie business is hurt simply because there are more movies. Perhaps the Waxman solution would be to have indies stop making movies all together for at least a year or two. Then the market glut would disappear and movie quality would rise—especially for those movies that never got made. Her argument is based on zero empirical data and makes no sense on its face.
Dargis and Waxman blindly believe that scarcity is a good thing and as a result they fail to recognize the real value of abundance. They naively feel that the gatekeepers who create scarcity are a positive force in our society. They would argue that whether those gatekeepers are distributors, film financiers, or the various insiders within the film industry, they help the audience discover quality. In other words, they want to hold onto the old mass media world that is highly restrictive. They act like medieval scribes who have just seen their first Gutenberg press: angry and fearing for their jobs. As I wrote in my previous post, they can’t get the movie theater out their heads.
The Internet disrupts gatekeepers and it does so by empowering audiences and creators alike to connect to each other in ways previously unimagined. Audiences can fund or market a movie and the movie creator can connect directly with his/her audience without a middleman. And guess what, gatekeepers who understand this new dynamic can adjust and continue to have a role in this new movie ecosystem. They can discover quality along with creators and audiences, but to do so, they have to change how they think and give up old prejudices.
Tim Wu understands this new media ecosystem. As he writes in More is More in Independent Film:
“It is tempting to think that fewer films would mean fewer duds, but accepting this logic would be to misunderstand contemporary media markets…It’s easy to look back at a year of films and say that only the good films should have been made, but that’s like saying that venture capitalists should fund only the Twitters and Googles and not bother with anyone else. It just doesn’t work that way.”
He states further:
“The larger question is: Who exactly gets hurt if too many movies are made? If making films weren’t challenging and fun for the people involved, they wouldn’t do it… The average film might start with an exciting idea, turn out to be not that great, and fail to gain much attention or interest. Big deal…. It may sound strange, but visible failures are the sign of a fertile cultural industry.”
Dargis and Waxman believe that easy access and abundance breed mediocrity. I disagree. Wu argues that the more movies produced–the greater the chance that something will really connect with us. I agree.
Only when more filmmakers dare to fail and venture forth with movies that may or may not succeed will we create a more vibrant film culture in the age of the Internet. The audience is not overwhelmed. As a matter of fact, it is happy to be part of the ride.
The more films, the better.