Every so often there is a silver lining to bad news, and this silver lining in particular should resonate with independent filmmakers. As a recent New York Times headline blared: "Huge Summer for Hollywood, but With Few Blockbusters." What followed was a piece reviewing the "darker realities" behind Hollywood's seemingly "blockbuster" summer, which despite a 10.2% increase in ticket revenue over last year is replete with ominous signs. For one thing, ticket sales increased mainly because of the quantity of big-budget productions that were crammed in theaters, not the quality ... and indeed, given that 23 films released this summer had budgets of $75 million or more, it isn't surprising that there were so many duds. For every smashing success (at least financially speaking), like Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, and Fast & Furious 6, there were also bombs like The Long Ranger, Turbo, and Kick-Ass 2. Even high-caliber big-budget films that did manage to turn a profit, like Pacific Rim, often had their successes offset by the high production costs. Indeed, as the Times' article pointed out, some of the most lucrative movies this summer were relatively smaller fare, like This Is The End, which cost $32 million to produce and grossed $114 million, The Purge, which cost $3 million and grossed $85 million, and The Conjuring, which cost $20 million and grossed $240 million.
This information brings us to the two main questions insofar as independent cinema is concerned: Is there a Hollywood bubble that's about to collapse? If so, could independent films fill the void?
The answer to the first question is as simple as basic math. The rise of Netflix and online piracy over the past decade or so have already chomped quite a bit into the take-homes of the major studios; when the continued fashionability of ballooning production budgets is thrown into that mix, basic arithmetic makes it clear that at some point the studio system is going to spend more in aggregate than it nets. Observations similar to this one have already been made by sources ranging from the Huffington Post to Cinema Funk, and if summer 2014 shows returns anywhere near as foreboding as those posted this year, one can expect to see it reiterated even more.
The second question, alas, is a bit more complicated. Indeed, it brings me all the way back to the Manhattan Film Festival last June, where I saw the indie noir film, How We Got Away With It. Shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to speak with director Jon Lindstrom about the economics of making independent movies in the modern cinema market. As Lindstrom pointed out, there is no guarantee that Hollywood's loss will automatically translate into the indie world's gain. "I'm not sure it [the bubble bursting] will affect the indie marketplace in a significant way that it hasn't already," he observed. "By then, since the studios don't really support indies anymore unless it's a real breakout title, the filmmakers will have figured out a way to fill that gap themselves. But for now, sales agents and distributors are asking for fees upfront to help defray their own diminishing returns. That may only get worse."
Does that mean there is no hope for indie filmmakers? Hardly - it's just a field that requires a great deal of sacrifice, and more than a handful of grit, from those who choose to enter it. "The paradigm has not been refined to a point that returns money reliably the way the old studio system did, with its strings of theaters and distributors," Lindstrom explained. People who wish to break into the industry this way will need to view it as a "second job," one that consumes at least a year and costs at least $25-50,000 once the actual delivering of the film has been completed. It is quite the investment — in energy and time as well as money — but thanks to digital technology and the proliferation of market consultants, it's hardly impossible. "I think in the next year or so something will pop that gives everyone an idea of the most efficient way to get your work out there. " At the same time, he stressed, "right now, it's a pretty dismal option for making a living."
Considering the degree to which all of these issues remain in flux, perhaps it is most appropriate to end this article with the classic Hollywood stand-by, "To Be Continued." I prefer, however, to cap it off by urging our readers to endorse quality indie films wherever they see them in the only way that really counts — with their pocketbooks. Even as the fate of the Hollywood big-budget blockbuster remains in flux, we, as consumers, retain the ultimate power to support quality movies. Whether it's "How We Got Away With It," which is due out in early 2014, or one of the many intriguing offerings listed in a recent Houston Chronicle article on upcoming fall films, this may just be a matter of making sure that we're making the right decisions at the box office.