Inspired by the recent fury directed at Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner we here at Steady Diet of Film have elected to take a brief break from dwelling on the misfortune and anxiety of the present economic climate. Instead, let us examine some of the good news for documentary/independent film-makers within the crisis.
1a. Venture capital removed from the financing process
Back when the economy was (artificially) good and there were millions of dollars in hedge fund proceeds with nowhere to go, many independent film producers found themselves on the receiving end of no- to low-strings attached investments. This money came from people with little to no interest in long-term careers in the film industry but who were excited to see their name listed as an Executive Producer on the big screen and the VIP treatment they received when visiting a film set. Unfortunately the projects that were most likely to attract this kind of investment were the ones generated from the odious and rapidly failing "Sundance model" of attaching A-list actors and actresses to projects imbued (not always legitimately) with credibility due to their lower budgets and quirky subject matter (thereby insulating the actor's reputation when they chose to follow up by doing movies with talking dogs). Films produced under these circumstances were unofficially dubbed the Sundance model because producers hoped their films would springboard from the annual Park City film festival to plush studio distribution deals.
In recent years, the viability of this model weakened. Fewer films were recouping their enormous purchasing prices. A few examples of spectacular Sundance failures are chronicled by the Onion AV Club here. As the Sundance model began losing steam in the narrative film market it was being applied to the documentary form with mixed results. A-list celebrities began doing voiceovers, on-camera appearances and promotional tours for documentaries with which they seemed to have little conceptual involvement.
Distribution is an incredibly lop-sided business tilting towards DVD sales. Very few films recoup their production, print and marketing costs theatrically. Yet they are forced to have some kind of run in theaters in order to garner press attention and avoid the stigma of going straight to DVD. Smaller films work with even tighter margins to ensure successful DVD sales. Ancillary revenues (such as television rights, pay-per-view as well as the embryonic but generally optimistic world of digital streams) pay out a much larger proportion of a film's final proceeds.
In the mid-aughts celebrity involvement was being courted more heavily to bring more immediate attention to documentaries. Theoretically, the hope was to elongate the theatrical runs and create more interest in follow up sales. In practice it proved somewhat effective for Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen's environmental documentary 11th Hour featuring Leonardo DiCaprio which took in just under $1M at the box office. But this strategy fell flat for Nicole Kidman with I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal, Don Cheadle with Darfur Now and Joan Allen with The Rape of Europa. While celebrities are human beings, perfectly entitled to personal investments in social and historical causes the present climate of celebrity culture is inextricably enmeshed with crass commercialism. This makes it difficult for the public to distinguish between an endorsement of a social issue and a line of Louis Vuitton handbags.
1b. No new social networks.
According to a recent report from the BBC Facebook's user base is up 25% from last year. The user base of Twitter, the recently en vogue micro-blogging startup is up 1689% (the only services with that kind of growth in this economic climate are food banks). Without venture capital money at the ready to be poured into new and exciting (but completely profit-adverse) social networking ventures, it's safe to say that already exisiting sites are going to continue to be the main online avenues people use to connect with friends, meet people and learn all about your awesome film.
Independent film-makers having been sternly lectured to by distributors, festival panelists and filmmakers from the trenches that their MySpace/YouTube/website presence is the troika of their (necessitated) internet presence. Having a closer relationship with your audience will also give film-makers a greater stake in how the embryonic but generally optimistic world of digital streams will take shape over the coming years.
2. Newspapers are on their way out and people need to get information somewhere.
As print journalism dies a slow and painful death, news consumption is actually soaring in the United States. The Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual State of the News Media report earlier this month. They found that not only are audiences gravitating towards individual journalists (and away from institutions of journalism) but that cable news networks have become perfectly acceptable venues for political discourse. Audiences have become too cynical to expect objectivity from reportage, but with increased access to their own universe of fact checking they are willing to give smaller outlets the benefit of the doubt. This creates a climate of receptivity to informative, thoughtful documentary work that critically engages its audience.
3. Audiences still pay to see movies
People are responding to economic uncertainty by cutting back on a lot of non-essential expenses like dining out and elaborate cell phone plans. But they're not willing to be bored no matter how bad it gets. The number of movie tickets sold dropped slightly last year, but it's worth noting that the gross revenues increased because movie-goers were willing to pay higher ticket prices than they had in previous years. The online movie rental giant Netflix hit 10 million subscribers in February 2009. In their 4th quarter for 2008 (when housing, insurance and stock markets hit crisis status), they posted profits up 19% from the previous year. Even Sony's pricey gaming console the Playstation 3 (starting at $400) trounced its top competitor the xBox360 (which starts at $250) in large part due to its built-in BluRay player.
4. Ken Burns is out of a job
No offense to the Emmy-winning documentarian who re-invented the slow pan of the still image, but the news that floundering auto giant General-Motors was ending their 22-year commitment to the film-maker signals great opportunity for film-makers down the food chain. Consider that Burns's previous films (covering the subjects of Jazz, WW2, Baseball, the formation of the West and the Civil War) have a combined runtime of 76.5 hours and have been PBS staples for the last 20 years. After Burns' six-part series on the national parks system airs this fall there will be an enormous gap in public television programming nationwide. Some of the larger PBS affiliates may respond by following in the steps of HBO Documentary and acquire more films from the festival circuits. Smaller affiliates may see this situation as an opportunity to work with more local filmmakers. Which brings us to my final point...
5. Film-makers will be forced to focus on their own backyards.
We do not need more western gonzo filmmakers heading to warzones to make documentaries about the experience of being a western gonzo documentary film-maker in a warzone. These films are at best shallow, slight works and at worst self-congratulatory. They shamelessly exploiting the suffering of others for the sake of adding more mediocrity to the world. It's the film world's contribution to cultural imperialism and it simply needs to stop.
In a perfect world, these films couldn't get funding. In today's troubled economy, they might not, which might allow for film-makers indigenous to these regions and conflicts to speak for themselves. But really the chief concern needs to be the cessation of crappy gonzo docs.Far be it for me to make light of events that are causing anyone anxiety or suffering. But in a time of chaos, when the systems we know are quickly eroding, there is opportunity for us to seize upon, adapt and destroy what doesn't work for us.