By Gregory Bayne, April 11th, 2010

I don’t want to sell my work to corporations. I want to sell my work to, and share it with, people.

I don’t know why it has taken me this long to land upon this thought, but it hit me like a ton of bricks today. For some time now folks in the ‘industry’ have been crying, rather loudly, about how the system of independent film distribution is broken. I usually took that to mean that they (the individuals telling me how broken things were) simply felt overlooked by a cruel system, which in many cases they perhaps didn’t fully understand, I know I don’t, but now I realize, the shit IS broken. But, it’s not film distribution, it’s much deeper than that, it’s the entire system of American entrepreneurship we so pride ourselves on. For all our ‘rugged individualism’ we sure seem to prefer the role of sheep, even in our art.

metropolis

We have fundamentally shifted our value system. The rich history of American entrepreneurship, of innovation, of ‘going it our own way’, feels stunted by our inability as 21st century Americans to sustain any kind of long view. It seems that everything, including our art, has become disposable, not built to last. We no longer start new business (or make films, or make anything) in an effort to carve out and create new, and sustainable industry (or culture), we plan exit strategies. And, nearly 100% of the time, that exit strategy means selling out to a corporation, no matter what your business.

This is so very prevalent in the world of independent film. The whole business, if we can call it that, to date, has been built on exit strategy. Many filmmakers “just wanna make films”, and not be bothered with those troublesome technicalities of how their genius makes it onto screens, just as long as their genius is recognized. So, producers package this profundity in a manner pleasing to the tastes of corporations, and simply role the dice, as the independent film industry has no actual sound business model for bringing a product (film) to market. And, since the strategy for the producer is based on the exit, throughout the entire process of production the actual end user, who in most cases will not be the corporation, but rather everyday people, have never been considered, brought in to the process, or otherwise engaged. Because it would of course diminish the art, and mystery of our cinema.

It’s 2010 folks. Take a look out your window. There is not much mystery left under the sun, and the golden age of indie film, those long lost 90’s, have so sanitized the idea of cinema it’s turned filmmakers into some of the least adept people at revealing the deeper struggles, meanings, and questions of this life through their art. Of course we’ll deny that loudly, and stake our claim as the preeminent art of this age, as we continue to chase down ‘industry’ desperate to be seen, to be scooped up, coddled, and told how wonderfully exciting we are. But, the reality is, we’re struggling to stay relevant in an every changing world, and doing a bang up job of proving it as we continue to produce sub-par rehashes of our beloved 70’s, and our roaring 90’s cinema. YouTube is relevant, you’re boring.

metropolis robot

Because of all this, and because enough people have lost their shirt pursuing their independent film careers (dreams, fantasies…), the conversation has obviously turned heavily toward “how do we sustain?” It’s a new era of responsibility across the board. It may costs less to make, and distribute independent films now, but it still costs money. And, as long as it costs money, and we are going to assume it is a business, there is a responsibility placed upon the filmmakers to ensure the work makes as much, or more money than it costs to produce. If we can not fulfill that promise, then we might as well call it a hobby.

When you actually just stop and think about it, it’s completely insane. Independent film, as ‘business’, depends on audience, on people to pay for tickets, DVDs and downloads. But, generally doesn’t, in any tangible way, consider that audience at any point in developing, producing, and marketing their wares. Even when we all get together and talk about developing, producing, and marketing our wares. We’ll engage in conversations about what the market wants, ie. the corporations, but it’s somehow taboo, and an affront to the art of cinema to talk about the audience on which we all depend.

Part of the reason we find ourselves in this debacle, and in this conversation, is because the business of producing ‘independent’ film has never been about the distribution. This is at the heart of the great, and growing divide between what is considered the ‘independent film industry’, and the growing micro-budget or diy ‘movement’. The ‘industry’ depends upon financiers funding budgets to provide salaries to sustain, in contrast the ‘movement’ generally does not have the luxury of budget, and depends on (figuring out new means, and methods of) distribution to sustain.

Based on that assertion alone, which ’sector’ as it were, do you think will be leading the way in the next decade? Where will the innovation come from? And, how long can a business that doesn’t consider itself dependent on the distribution of its product, and that for all intents and purposes is a form of legalized gambling, actually sustain?

From where I am standing the writing is on the wall, and the message is clear. If you want to carve out a sustainable career as a 21st century ‘independent’ filmmaker (or artist, or musician), forget trying to appease the gatekeepers, because the gates are crumbling, and swiftly revealing the mess of an ‘industry’ that was built more on magic, and illusion than anything else. It’s time to dig in, take the long view, take responsibility, and get to work. Go out and make friends, lots, and lots of friends, and be willing to openly share your work with those new friends at every stage of the process, understanding that the ability for you to sustain and thrive from your work, (and yes -we’re talking dollars here), depends solely on your audience for that work. You cannot getting something for nothing, and if you build it -they will not automatically come, so put in the face time, digital or otherwise, and get to know the people who want to know you, and embrace their embracing of your work.

It’s time to revel in the fact that you can make films for less money, and with less crew. It’s a good thing. Time to take pride in your uniqueness, and to have pride of ownership. Strive to be one of the artists driving cinema forward. Stop chasing industry, and start building relationships. While corporations are looking for tried and true, there are a lot of people out there who are looking for something off the beaten path, and refreshingly new. Take heart in that. Be bold. Be consistent. Be vocal. Be open. Concentrate of your craft, and lead the way.

In the next 2-3 years we will see a Hollywood more and more dependent on spectacle, which they do well and will likely thrive at, and an independent film industry decimated under they weight of its own bloated self importance, if it continues in it’s long held practice of producing for exit strategy. There is only so much money out there.

The choice for us ‘independent’ artists seems very clear to me. Pioneer a new and sustainable film culture based on relationships with people, rather than corporations, or go the way of the dinosaur.

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Gregory Bayne is a filmmaker and artist working in film, video, motion graphics and design. His work as has appeared in several short, feature length and documentary films that have shown theatrically, at film festivals worldwide and been broadcast nationally on PBS, ESPN and the Sundance Channel. Currently, Bayne is preparing the release of his feature directorial debut PERSON OF INTEREST, and is in production on his second film, DRIVEN, a documentary about legendary mixed martial arts fighter, Jens Pulver.

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COMMENTS

  • Introvert

    "so put in the face time, digital or otherwise, and get to know the people who want to know you, and embrace their embracing of your work." How is this done? I'm an introvert. I like to work. This sort of thing is scary.

  • Miguel82

    Thank you Greg. This is all I wanted to hear. Let's make films.

  • Here's a link to the twitter discussion on this article:

    http://bit.ly/bNbbtr

  • Excellent post there Greg. It certainly seems there are a lot of us thinking this way now, and the great thing is we can still build an audience, even if we completely muff it up. In fact, making a complete hash of it is often the way forward (what would have happened if Woody Allen had got his way and stopped the release of Manhatten?) As long as we keep talking, the audience will still be there.

  • Exit strategy is an interesting way to define it. If a distributor follows the same business model as their competitors how are they different or independent other then size? Miramax, in the early days, is considered the epitome of the indie distributor. But how and why? They exercised more control over the filmmakers then the studios did, Harvey W was notorious for that. They used the same release and marketing tactics and most importantly took long term ownership. The DIY movement to me feels like the birth of indie film. Yes we have had brave filmmakers for the last 40 years who have 4-walled it by they are few. It's too early to know if the DIY filmmaker can create a sustainable career. But your main point is clear. Now we can, and should, make films for an audience and not just what the distributors will buy. Success will depend on support from that audience. But I think the chances are better now then ever before.

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