The More Films, The Better

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.

 

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at chris@digitaldorr.com or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • DavidLarkin1

    Sundance is about art, and that is how it should be, and from that perspective, the more films the better. Waxman is really talking about the business of film. Unlike someone painting a picture or recording a song, films are capital intensive to make. They are usually structured as an LLC with investors that likely aspire to a financial return on their investment. On the indie side, it does seem that the supply of films is increasing faster than total film revenues, so on average there is less revenue available per film. The percent of films that make a profit has always been fairly low, I wonder if it has gone down? On the other hand, it is possible to shoot a film for less money and an expensive theatrical release is no longer required. One thing is for sure, the business of film is changing, and the incumbents are not happy.

    • chrisdorr

      David, Thanks for your smart comments. Also worth adding that with Kickstarter and Indiegogo a filmmaker does not have to pay back funds received in the same way, often they only owe rewards that cost less than the monies received and new revenue opportunities using Vimeo and VHX where filmmakers can sell directly to their audiences make it possible for filmmakers to get a larger share of the revenues. All of these are only in their nascent state and will continue to grow.

  • Grateful Regardless

    Yes and no, Chris (like most things of import). Yes, Sundance 2014 had twice as many submissions as five years ago and no, the films selected weren’t twice as good.

    To create a viable economic model in which film-makers (included producers) can make a living, a glut is a problem (see Gresham’s Law).

    But there’s no stopping an artist hell-bent on making moving pictures, and I guess that’s only right.

    When there’s no barrier of entry except talent, there’s going to be a flood of immature crap, ungratifying except to the maker.

    And maybe it’s true that cream rises. Beasts of the Southern Wild wasn’t “financeable” based on star attachments; quality got it made.

    But lack of quality sure isn’t preventing a lot of other less notable pictures from getting made.

    See the infographic analysis from Adam Leipzig in Cultural Weekly for a reality check.

    Regrettably, when so much investment yields so little return, it’s not likely to fund a professional marketplace. As a producer with an affection for independent films and a long history of making them, I actually find all this activity somewhat depressing, since it’s amateurish in the worst sense.

    If film-makers didn’t have to think about the appetite of an audience, wouldn’t that be great for artistic freedom? Not really. Even artists as great at Balanchine knew that if they didn’t sell tickets Saturday, they wouldn’t be mounting performances Tuesday.

    The discipline of the marketplace isn’t inherently tyrannical or corrupting. Movies can’t exist without audiences and few things are as discouraging to an audience as a waste of time and money and attention. They’re getting washed away in the flood.

    • chrisdorr

      I think the “quantity lowers quality” argument is a false one. Does anyone really think that if more songs, poems, novels, short stories, TV series, web series, etc. get made quality goes up or down? Or if fewer of these cultural products get made the quality goes up or down? No one can prove a correlation of quantity to quality in either direction. It is time to stop worrying about it. Instead, let us focus on finding what we think is good and support it–whether as audiences or investors or crowd–funders–and support platforms that do that more effectively for all involved. And who “we” is, is now a much broader construct as the Internet continues its disruption. What is mediocre to one audience may be great for another audience. Let many audiences proliferate! Audiences do not want less choice, they want more. My impression is that Sundance does the best it can every year to find a wide range of what they believe are “quality” movies without regard to their eventual box office success. As they and all other film festivals should. But their version of “quality” will not be someone else’s version–nor should it be.

      • Grateful Regardless

        First of all, I didn’t argue that quantity lowers quality. My point was a proliferation of cheaply made, amateur films can overwhelm an audience’s attention and the “quality” work can get lost in the flood.

        Even a flood of well-produced movies can do have the same effect. Look at the results of the influx of hedge-fund money in 2005-2007 — distributors and audiences were inundated by a production spike that nothing to do with satisfying an audience. The money was there to be spent and it was.

        But while production went up, and production costs went up (since talent and crew both got more pay for their time,) and distribution costs went up because it cost more to fight for attention, mediocre films got made that otherwise wouldn’t have and the audience didn’t expand. Many independent distribution companies vanished, along with all that hedge fund money. I was there. So were you.

        In an age of increased access to tools and declining barriers of entry, talent and craft aren’t infinitely expandable to the same degree that production is.

        “Let many audiences proliferate!” you enthusiastically say. But it’s not how the world works. After consistently being underwhelmed, audiences get bored with paying for unsatisfying experiences and find other uses for their time.

        The flood won’t be stopped. We agree there. The solution may be authentic curation. Sundance offers one model. There are others, perhaps more suited to different tastes, but undifferentiated production will not have a good outcome, either for the audience, the makers, or the art form.

        • chrisdorr

          You raise good points. One thought–I think many in the indie film community think there is such a thing as a indie film audience–a group of people that follows what indies are producing and seek it out in art house and main stream movie theaters. I think that is no longer the case and people who stick to this notion fail to see what is really going on in our media world. There are many audiences who buy indie movies in theaters, on cable VOD, on iTunes, Netflix and directly from the filmmakers themselves via VHX and Vimeo. This ecosystem is new and rapidly changing and plays to a whole host of different audiences. But you have to focus on how this ecosystem is changing if you want to understand how people are now discovering movies—and how filmmakers can make money for their work. This ecosystem is entirely different than what existed in 2005-2007–thus there is no comparison to that period. Now curation is becoming more important–whether done by the old guard–such as Sundance or newer online entrants–and needs to improved. Many are working on this problem–hopefully great innovations will result–and I believe that they will help everyone realize that there is no such thing a unified “indie” audience, there are only people of all types who love great stories told with moving visual images.

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