Once again, I maintained my tradition of not making it through the Oscars. I haven’t cared much about the show itself in years, and I have even less patience for the pre and post-game buzz about everything that’s right or wrong with Hollywood, with the nominees themselves, with the Academy, and most especially with what anyone is wearing. Okay, I’m a curmudgeon. But not really. Because the truth is a love/hate relationship with Hollywood has been part of the American story since before the L-A-N-D came off the famous sign that gives the town its name. Even the word movies was originally a pejorative adopted by the farming community of Southern California to describe those decadent idolaters who made those damn “flickers.” I really don’t think it’s possible to have an industry built on so much passion, ego, fear, sex, and money without people finding it alternately alluring and repulsive. I also believe it is never quite possible to love cinema without liking Hollywood at least a little.
For one thing, what many people think of as independent cinema isn’t necessarily independent from Hollywood so much as it is codependent on Hollywood. Big film and little film are more symbiotic than they are competitive. For example, the indie producer who needs to pay lower day rates to actors or skilled technicians is able to hire those folks because big movies pay well enough that they can afford to take on low-budget projects between the larger ones. But the symbiosis is even more intrinsic than that. For instance, if the production designer of a low-budget, indie feature has also done massively complex, studio projects, he is going to be a huge asset to that smaller film, as will any other experienced member working in another department. A novice director can live or die by the experience of the people willing to work for him or her. Additionally, little film benefits from the technological advancements driven by big film. And then, of course, big film looks to little film for new talent and fresh ideas. So, the line between Hollywood and independent cinema isn’t so much bright red as a kind of fuzzy pink.
How “independent” a film is really depends on how much creative control is maintained by the visionary (or visionaries) who want to make the work in the first place. Naturally, if a filmmaker needs five-hundred thousand dollars from a small group of private investors, she has a better shot of keeping creative control than if she needs a hundred million dollars from a couple of large, corporate financing companies. On the other hand, an example I often cite is Steven Spielberg, whom few people would describe as “independent” even though he is certainly a director who has full creative control over his films. So, independent isn’t necessarily about scale or budget; and it certainly isn’t about the style or content of a film. Plenty of absolute garbage has been produced independently, and plenty of great movies were produced by the old studio system. But I suspect that because the golden age of indie (from the late 1980s to the early aughts) lost much of its gleam about the same time the Internet began to blossom, and big studios generally transitioned into franchise fare, this helped calcify the “us” and “them” sensibility that assumes a separation between “the creators” and “the industry.”
Make no mistake — Hollywood studios certainly have executives with MBAs who wouldn’t know which end of a camera to blow into. Such is the nature of large corporations. Still, the symbiosis between big film and little film exists, and this remains relevant because there is a persistently naive sentiment floating around in cyberspace that digital technology somehow enables truly visionary creators to “bypass the gatekeepers.” This sounds idyllic, but as you run beyond the cliff edge and hang there Wile-E-Coyote-like, feet treading air a thousand feet above the desert, you have to ask yourself, “Bypass to go where exactly?”
Simply put, digital technology has only lowered the barriers to entry by putting certain tools of production and distribution into everyone’s hands. And this is unquestionably cool. But entry implies a portal of some kind — we might even call it, well, a gate. Maybe it’s the literal, iconic gate of Paramount Pictures, or maybe it’s the metaphorical gate of investors willing to back a second film based on the relative success of a first. By the way, finding a distributor for that first film requires passage through another kind of gate, if you will. But it’s really that next project that is the key. Technology indisputably helps get a first film done, but any experienced filmmaker will tell you that you can only make a movie on favors and Fluffer-Nutters once. As a general rule, you have to pay people to work on the second film, which means at least some gatekeepers (i.e. investors) are going to get involved, and they’re going to want a distribution plan that involves at least some return on that investment. And there is nothing about digital technology that overturns this basic business model.
With the approach of the Oscars, piracy of the nominated films spiked, and concurrent with reports of this increase came predictable comments that “the industry” must respond by making films available across all platforms simultaneously. This is supposedly the only answer to piracy because “producers need to understand the way consumers want to watch films.” Perhaps. But it is interesting that the prevailing faith in the Internet as an expansive, inclusive, incubator of diversity also ignores just how homogenous this demand for universal distribution actually is. For one thing, there is no “the industry” in this context because there is no one way to market and distribute the broad range of films. Both films and audience trends will continue to shape one another, and we should not assume there is a single strategy that suits all projects.
No matter what, piracy is universally harmful, especially to the small filmmaker most eager to experiment with new platforms. I just met a writer/director who self-financed a small movie and made it modestly profitable by splitting up the rights and negotiating a fairly complex schedule of distribution windows, licensed to various channels from DVD to VOD to streaming. That’s not a new approach to licensing, but what serves both the filmmaker and the audience is the expansion of legal platforms, giving both producer and consumer more than one way to engage in a viable market. Meanwhile, that same film was also heavily pirated upon its release, and the plus-or-minus x% on a modest film expecting modest returns will surely be the difference between attracting investors to the next project or not. Meanwhile, how did this filmmaker self-finance his film? With money he made working on big, Hollywood movies. See what I mean?