State of the Industry: The Shrinking Piece of Pie
The South by Southwest film festival ended a little over a month ago, but SURELY you and your fellow young filmmaker friends have been in a heated debate ever since about the TOTAL SNUB it was naming Trey Shultz’s Krisha the Narrative Feature Film Grand Jury Winner over Benjamin Dickinson’s beautifully shot Creative Control. Am I right?!?! Go forth young internet users! Spread your anger across social media! Your voices can’t be silenced!
Wait, what’s that?
Okay, I’ve just been told ABSOLUTELY NO ONE was mad about the Krisha win.
Oh, there’s more?
Alright, as it turns out ALMOST NO ONE even knew there was a film called Krisha much less that it won an award at SXSW.
You would think that winning the top prize at one of the bigger festivals to happen in the U.S. would be a huge deal and that the national spotlight would be thrown on the young filmmakers who made it. After all, half of the Grand Jury Winners at Sundance go on to be nominated for Best Picture. But that just does not seem to be SXSW’s style. Yes, it’s a film festival, but it’s really so much more. It’s more like a fun conference getaway for the entire industry. Along with film, it has TV, videogame, and web events. Jimmy Kimmel even takes his show to the festival for the week!
Because of this, it came as no surprise that one of the biggest headlines to come out of the festival circled around the contents of keynote speaker Mark Duplass’ speech and not the films themselves. Mark Duplass you will recognize as one of the more successful independent filmmakers out there having written and directed (along with his brother Jay) films like The Puffy Chair, Cyrus, and Jeff, Who Lives at Home. If none of those ring any bells than you might recognize him for his acting credits in Safety Not Guaranteed and The League. The important thing to know is that Mark Duplass is viewed as a huge celebrity in the indie film world. One of the very few to ascend out of the rabble and into relative mainstream success. To this end, Mark took his opportunity as the SXSW keynote speaker to speak directly to all the struggling young filmmakers out there.
What wisdom did he offer? What were Mark Duplass’ keys to success? Here are the key takeaways:
“The first step is the $3 short film. We’re in a place now where technology is so cheap that there’s no excuse for you not to be making films on the weekends with your friends, shot on your iPhone – we had a feature film at Sundance this year that was shot entirely on iPhones and it did really well.”
(About getting into festivals) “Because it really doesn’t matter what your movie looks like – because if you have a voice and something interesting to say they will like you and they will program you.”
“This is a hard career. Don’t eat out. Don’t buy clothes.”
Pretty hard stuff. Especially that last one (I like buying clothes.) But that’s it, right?!? I should just be running out every weekend with my iPhone! What could possibly be holding me back? No wonder so many young filmmakers were sharing this speech on Facebook and Twitter. They could be at Sundance next year with their own iPhone movie! Fame and glory await!
But is that really the case? Look, Mark Duplass is a very talented filmmaker and his speech definitely had the right spirit, but there are multiple things that make this feel like a common wisdom argument that can easily be misinterpreted.
The first is that this argument suggests a quantity over quality approach. That if a young filmmaker annoyingly taps on the glass long enough someone will eventually look up. Another analogy that comes to mind is that if you keep giving enough darts to a blind person eventually they might throw one that lands somewhere on the target. But, as you can quickly conclude, if the goal is to hit the target then this is hardly the most effective or time efficient method.
The second way Duplass’ words could be misinterpreted is this suggestion that no one cares about the filmmaking quality of your final product therefore you should not either. But do we honestly think that’s true? Do we think that those people who made that Sundance film shot on iPhones were not trying to have a good looking product? I feel like if this were true we would see more films in festivals and in theaters that have poor cinematography, poor sound design, poor costumes, etc. Why should young filmmakers even bother networking with cinematographers and sound designers? Why do those jobs even exist?!? No one cares what your movie looks like!
Finally, Duplass makes the point that young filmmakers should not eat out and they should not buy clothes. They must sacrifice every last thing for the creation of their dope iPhone movie. Life is not about having fun, it’s about climbing the mountain of filmmaking. After all, if you’re chowing down at In-n-Out while wearing that new hoody you got at H&M do you, like, even care about this craft?!? This is where Duplass’ suggestion has a slippery slope. Young filmmakers read this and think, “If I’m spending time or money doing ANYTHING other than filmmaking than I’m not doing it right.” This is simply not true. In fact, the opposite is true. Filmmakers have to have a life outside of filmmaking. Preferably a bigger life than their filmmaking one. If not, what’s going to inform their filmmaking? What are they going to make movies about?
There is no doubt that Duplass is correct in his assessment that technology is far more accessible these days and that young filmmakers need to take advantage of it. The effects of this can already be seen. Take a look at this chart showing the number of films released in theaters over the years:
As you can see more and more films are coming out in theaters every single year and the trend is that it’s going to stay that way. That’s good news for all the young filmmakers out there! While it’s nice to say that you make films to simply fulfill your passion of filmmaking, every filmmaker out there really just wants their films to be seen by a large audience. You don’t spend years of your life making a film only to put it on the bookcase and say, “That was nice.” NO! You want millions of people to watch and appreciate the work you put into it. And if you can actually make money while doing it that would pretty awesome too. After all, is that not the dream? That some day you can live comfortably and be a full time filmmaker. The question now is, what films are actually being seen in theaters? Does Mark Duplass’ quantity over quality philosophy work? Well, the big 6 studios definitely have the opposite approach
For anyone out there who might not know what we mean when we say “big 6” studios, your intuition has probably taken you half way to the answer already. The big 6 studios are exactly that. They are the biggest creators, distributors, and marketers of films not just in the U.S., but worldwide. They are all a part of larger media conglomerates that include television networks, music labels, news divisions, and even theme parks. When we say big 6 we are referring to the following studios:
- Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios (with Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm)
- Warner Bros. Studios
- Universal Studios
- 20th Century Fox
- Paramount Pictures
- Sony/Columbia Pictures
Like I mentioned above these 6 studios seem to have a different approach to filmmaking than Mr. Duplass, which at first is obvious considering they are a studio and he is a single man, but I'm talking about approach in a theoretical sense. To show this, let’s look at a couple charts showing how the percentage of studio films per year has changed. I’ll point out now that these charts are only looking at live-action films since I’m going to assume that Mark Duplass is not suggesting that young animators go out and animate a new short every weekend:
As you can see the films from the big 6 studios are actually taking up less and less of the marketplace over time. In 2014 the studios actually made the same amount of films as they did in the year 2000! The only thing that has changed is how much competition the studios have to face at the box office. But why would the studios, with their seemingly infinite power not try and dominate the marketplace and drown out any competition? The reasoning behind why the studios have remained at this static position over the years requires a BRIEF look at history.
For anyone out there looking to understand the philosophy behind the current studio business model take a look at Anita Elberse’s book “Blockbusters”. Anita is the Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School so we can all agree in assuming that she’s pretty damn smart. Because of this, I have no problem egregiously borrowing from the book’s first chapter.
She begins by taking us back to 1999, when Alan Horn became President and CEO of Warner Bros. Studios. Upon arriving, Horn looked at the current business strategy and decided that it needed a change. That strategy, which had been put in place by Michael Eisner over at Disney, was that studios don’t need to hit home runs with every film, just singles and doubles. A logical approach, but Horn thought differently. Instead of making multiple adequate, mid-range films what if you disproportionately tipped the scales to only making a few big budget blockbusters? Studios had made blockbusters before, but no one had, “really pursued it as a strategy” as Horn puts it. So he chose to single out four or five so called tent-pole or “event” films—those thought to have the broadest appeal—each year and support those picks with a disproportionately large chunk of the studios total production and marketing budget. Later, Horn would describe his strategy this way:
“The idea was that movies with greater production value should be more appealing to prospective moviegoers. Audiences respond to movie stars, but those lead to higher costs. Audiences respond to special effects, but those lead to higher costs, too. And you have to let audiences know you are there with your movie—really market it as an event—but that of course further adds to the costs. You can only do so many of those big films in a given year.”
The strategy is so simple. Throw all your money at the big movies and give the audience what they want. So what if we can’t make more films per year? It was risky. If audiences did not show up for the big movie then the business would implode.
The question now is, did the plan work? And, more importantly, did the other studios catch on? Let’s take a look at a couple of charts comparing the market share of studio films at the domestic box office over the years:
Studio market share grew! The strategy worked! Without even having to release more films the studios ended up taking even more of the annual moviegoing audience. Horn’s plan was so successful that, back in 2012, after being retired from Warner Bros. for almost a year, Disney asked Horn to come aboard and lead their film division where, to this day, he now oversees two of the biggest franchises in film, Marvel and Star Wars.
How does this all relate back to Mark Duplass’ speech at SXSW? Well, the answer is in that second graph. As we can see, the studios are not making more films, BUT they are taking a larger chunk of the audience, meaning that more and more independent films are having to fight for a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. The conclusion being that it’s hard, really hard, for a young filmmaker to have his or her film reach an audience in theaters. Mark Duplass would suggest that the young filmmaker abandon theatrical releases altogether and just focus on releasing their film digitally, but I can’t help but feel like I’m having to accept defeat with that solution. I’m all about facing reality, but that does not mean you can’t turn reality around. So how would young filmmakers course correct this situation? The answer is actually in Duplass’ speech. You just have to look deeper into what he is saying and get at the philosophy behind it. You cannot take his words at face value or else you’ll just be contributing to the problem.
Duplass suggests that you go out on the weekends and shoot something, anything. While I’d argue that quantity over quality is bad, the real idea Duplass is getting at here is that you do not have any excuses for sitting around and waiting to make something. You have to be driven and you have to be persistent. You can’t win the game if you don’t play but, as with everything in life, moderation is key. Take a deep breath. Think about your idea before you rush out the door to shoot it. Quantity over quality is what got us in the situation we are now. If there is one thing audiences definitely will not respond to it’s poor storytelling. Find your idea and take the time to nurture it. Fight to get it made. Don’t let yourself use development as an excuse to not start shooting (but definitely develop nonetheless.)
Secondly Duplass suggests that you shoot your film with whatever equipment you have available, your iPhone even, because in the end no one cares what your film looks like. But did the studios not just prove that production value is what earned them their large (and growing) audiences? Again, looking deeper into what Duplass means, it is true that technology is so accessible these days you really have no excuse to not make your project, but that does not give you a free pass to not care about the look! Duplass is right, understand the reality of your independent capabilities, but use that reality as a box with which you can now be creative in. Own your limitations and make what you can look as amazing as possible.
And above all, the most beneficial thing a young independent filmmaker can do is get a life. Find friends, spend time with them, do something completely unrelated to film and just relax. Audiences want to be taken on a journey that shows them something true about life, not what’s true about the filmmaking process. If your independent film can find truth, there will always be an audience for it.