Monday, August 25, 2008

Indie Filmmakers Won't Let Me See Their Films

Independent filmmaking demands vast resourcefulness. Daunting hurdles must be scaled in a market dominated by Big Blandness. So it's puzzling that the critical component of it all - the audience - is so haplessly disregarded. As I attempt to do exactly what independent filmmakers would presumably like me to do - view their movies and buy the DVDs - I find myself blocked at every step.

WHAT'S OUT THERE?
How do audiences learn about new independent films? For the handful of anointed indies enjoying mainstream distribution at any time, it's easy. Information is "pushed" at us. Trailers are viewed, titles are spotted on marquees, and articles appear in the so-called independent media (really independent-flavored corporate off-brands, which hype independent-flavored corporate cinema - and run its advertising - to the demographic deeming itself independent-minded).

For the rest of the field - the vast majority of films out there - audiences must pull information. And that's fine. Filmhounds like me don't mind doing a bit of legwork to ferret out unsung treasure. We sign up for festival mailing lists, stay on the lookout for poorly-advertised screenings, and eagerly read infrequent media round-ups (hoping mainstream critics will do some scouting for us, which they only occasionally do). Surprisingly enough, there is no central location for timely, thorough, audience-friendly info about the full field of current films - including those small ones in ad-hoc distribution. Even more surprisingly, there has been no apparent effort by filmmakers to organize one. The off-off-mainstream media, even on the Internet, is so fragmented as to be nearly useless.

Lacking a central resource, the cool kids hear about certain cool films via the cool kid grapevine. Indie directors, chronic cool kids themselves, seem content with this mechanism. The rest of us sometimes get wind of interesting lesser-known new films. I keep a running list of titles I'd like to catch somewhere someday. And that brings us to the next hurdle.

HOW DO I SEE IT?
It's easy to find a showing of Shrek, but if you're hoping to catch Billy the Kid or A Walk into the Sea, you can't just flip open your daily newspaper. You must hunt down errant screenings. And, naturally, no one helps you do so.

One option is to go to a film's web site for local screening info. But many films have no web sites, and many that do are unindexed by Google - and few filmmakers think to insert the URL into their IMDB entry. But even if you suss them out, film home pages are usually useless. They bombard the visitor with praise, awards, multimedia snippets, and the rotting carcass of the filmmaker's fast-abandoned blog. All hyped up with no place to go, you search for screening info, and find that most directors don't bother to update this info. At best, you'll find a page trumpeting triumphant upcoming appearances (six months ago) in Melbourne or Kuala Lumpur. If I had a penny for every indie film web site that keeps diligently current, especially on screenings, I'd be able to buy a pack of gum. Film web sites, when they exist, and when you can find them, are mostly shiny place-holders, offering audiences scant assistance in seeing or supporting the film.

If you've missed an indie movie in its first wave of appearances, good luck staying abreast of any errant subsequent screenings. No web site will let you plug in your to-see list and then alert you as screenings come up. Amazingly, such a service hasn't even been built for mainstream films! I've never seen the last two Lord of the Rings films on a big screen, and somewhere, sometime, they will be shown. But unless I'm willing to rake, into perpetuity, through listings for my entire to-see list like some overheated obsessive-compulsive, I'll never score. So most of the films on my to-see list are dead to me.


Let's say you've surmounted these difficulties. Struck by aesthetic lightning, you've miraculously awakened from your slavish addiction to mass market entertainment. With ongoing vigilance, you've sniffed out a lesser-known title of interest. You've raked faithfully to locate a screening, arranged your schedule to accommodate, and ventured from the comforts of your home to see a movie whose quality is completely unknowable (you pathetic freak, you!). You've made it to the theater, and - oh, joy! - you love the film! So, of course, you'd like to own the DVD!

Sigh.

WHY CAN'T I BUY IT?
Unlike musical groups, directors seldom hawk DVDs at screenings. No, your money is not to be accepted, because the filmmaker must first desperately, ambitiously, and often hopelessly attempt to milk every drab of sales potential out of the work before deigning to sell you a disk.

Months, even years, often go by with no DVD release. And few filmmakers would consider selling you a homegrown burn (for which you'd gladly pay $25). As audience, you're at the back of the line. Again.

WILL I EVER SEE IT?
Curious about future dvd release plans, you return to the film's web site for an update, and find the same frozen, static, buoyantly hypey billboard as ever. Perhaps you email the filmmaker via the chirpy "contact!" button. Odds are, the email account is dead (these are, after all, Potemkin web sites), but even if the message goes through, you likely won't receive a reply. The filmmaker is either busy with a new project, or busy being lavishly depressed at the film's dismal failure. At best, you'll get a vague response. When it comes to the topic of prospective DVD releases, erstwhile artistic types suddenly turn into polished corporate spokespersons, offering only carefully-worded vagaries.

Oh, and signing up for the movie's mailing list is more likely to draw spam about subsequent projects than updates on the one you're interested in.

And, finally, at the very end of the line, directors would rather damn their work to the scrap heap than post it online for all to freely view. Have the work seen by sympathetic viewers? Nah!


WHY IS THIS SO DIFFICULT??
You have bashed your nose against the final barrier. You realize, finally, that you are not in any way significant within this process. Right or wrong, this is the message received: "Sorry, chump, you may NOT watch my film. I am fighting too tenaciously for major league biz hook-ups to pay you the slightest heed. And if my dreams crash and burn, even as I bemoan my impoverishment, I'd scoff at your miserable one-time 25 bucks. I will clutch my film to my chest, ala Gollum, even as I fall backward into the fiery pit."

While there's no shame in an artist aiming high, there is no other medium in which the actual enjoyment of the work by ordinary appreciative folks seems so completely beside the point. "Very few filmgoers have ever contacted me, period, much less offered to buy a dvd," one young director protested to me. He is oblivious to the valiant efforts required to even reach such a point of contact. Every barrier I've described must shave away at least 50% of potential audience. Anyone who actually manages to track down an indie filmmaker's email address is either a freak like me or an out-and-out stalker.

I will never view most of the films on my to-see list. The filmmakers simply won't let me! Nowhere else in our economic system do I, as a money waving, enthusiastic consumer, feel so utterly thwarted. Though filmmakers complain bitterly about barriers such as financing, distribution, and marketing, some of the most impenetrable barriers in the system are those which deflect me, the audience. And it's maddening to observe how many of those barriers are erected by filmmakers themselves.

THE GRIM REALITIES
I understand what indie filmmakers are up against; the crippling workload, the heartbreaking impediments, the nerve-wrackingingly narrow financing, and the clueless gatekeepers. I understand that updating a web site takes time when all available energy is invested in production, and then publicity and marketing (but...hmm...isn't a web site part of that?). And after slaying dragons to get a film done and out, they need to move on to the next project, rather than flog dead horses for pennies. I understand, too, that filmmaking is a wholesale business where (wished-for) distributors are expected to promote and move the product, and filmmakers are not set up, temperamentally or logistically, to function at the retail level.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL
But the Internet has made it so cheap and easy to engage the public that it no longer makes sense to ignore it, hoping to shunt all that off on distributors. I'm not suggesting slick storefronts on every film site; just some current, useful information and general acknowledgement that folks who want to see or buy the film deserve consideration. Why neglect the potential fan base that would stick with a director from project to project, fill screenings, buy dvds, and create grassroots buzz?

Organizing filmmakers is like herding cats, but they should come together and create a central repository of
audience friendly info on new films. Meanwhile, they need to at least keep their own respective web sites and mailing lists updated. They should consider early quiet sales of barebones DVDS to serious-seeming fans (especially for shorts, which are mostly ineligible for DVD release deals anyway), and fall back to web video if all else fails. That would grow their audience - and the audience for independent cinema in general.

There are a number of directors whose work I'd always hope to catch and even own. But, energetic as I am in my follow-up, I will miss most of that work. I'll never see most of their films, and simply forget about many of these people. That's because they talk only to the business, and never to the likes of me. They are squarely in the "wholesale" mentality.

A LESSON FROM THE MUSIC BIZ
Musicians once deemed themselves wholesalers, too, holding themselves aloft from engagement with the hoi polloi consuming their work. They, too, once scrambled harder for biz attention than for audience attention. That changed years ago, when business conditions forced indie musicians to put fans first, and to develop creative marketing and repurposing tactics that made resourceful lemonade from the disintegration of their wholesale channels.

The forces which devastated retail music will eventually fully afflict film, as well. Filmmakers should take a cue from musicians about creatively adapting to shifting business opportunities, and about the primacy of audience cultivation. The time-honored pattern of flailing for fatcat attention while ignoring the public makes no sense in the current day.

Audiences are capricious, and we're being offered an ever-expanding number of entertainment choices. Even the most ardent buffs will, in time, grow less and less energetic in their efforts to overcome the hurdles placed before them by the independent film community. So things need to change quickly.

1 comment:

pat said...

This entry wouldn't have meant much to me until I read about a film I very much wanted to see. You mentioned it: Billy the Kid. It was a real circus trying to find a way to order it, whenever, if ever, it was available. I finally had to ask for help. It's ordered now, in advance of the release, Big discount of 25% too, though the shipping eats up almost all of that! I wonder how many other hung in there, jumping through hoops, and have ordered it too?

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