When it comes to music, I am a child of the 80s and right now, Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” ballad is the soundtrack swirling around in my head as I write.
With Sundance wrapped and #OscarsSoWhite just around the corner, I find myself reflecting on the “state of the industry” — looking and seeing what Hollywood has to offer for independent artists. I find myself responding, “not much.” A large number of films bought at Sundance were purchased by Netflix or Amazon, and Netflix is credited with being partially responsible for the historic deal Fox Searchlight made as it purchased The Birth of a Nation for $17.5 million (the best deal in Sundance history). Netflix created a bidding war for the film. Sundance reflects the changing landscape for filmmaking and this year’s Oscars (coupled with last year’s also quite white Oscars) seems to illuminate even more clearly the crossroads the industry faces as studios cling to tentpole, blockbuster films and streaming video services continue to rise in relevance, audience reach and buying power. All of this is, in many ways good and bad news for indie filmmakers. The opportunities to connect directly with our audiences are there. The possibility of making a decent living while doing so, remains not-so-guaranteed. However, neither is banking on Hollywood, especially if you are a filmmaker of color or a woman. So many indie artists are still left out when it comes to the studio system, and The Birth of a Nation is a prime example. Nate Parker basically gave up his Hollywood job (regular acting) for two years, after shopping his film to studios for seven years, and invested a significant amount of his own funds to move the project forward and find investors. This bold step in which he took the film into his own hands is what led him to his recent success, not a studio purchase of his script.
I watch all of this unfold and am reminded of how oceanic the industry feels — perpetual motion. I see how the studios continue to falter in terms of their relevancy for independent filmmakers. The steady growth of crowdfunding and the increased options available to indie filmmakers as new, powerful companies emerge (like Seed & Spark, who recently launched their own distribution arm), all underscore one constant: there is value in filmmakers having a unique voice and using that voice to creating their own paths as they find their audience. In short, it looks more and more like we can all to “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” as we focus, instead, on building the indie industry (and audiences) we want and need.
The next big film market is Berlinale, which is just around the corner, and I’m remembering a highlight from last year’s festival. Eric Eidelstein interviewed Director Isabel Coixet and the interview was featured by Indiewire. Coixet boldly stated (as she spoke about her film Nobody Wants the Night):
“I will never ever again work for a studio. I did it before and it was a nightmare; it almost ruined my career.”
I’ve never worked for a studio either; I’ve never focused my efforts in that direction. But, I have taken more of the “studio” approach to indie filmmaking, by which I mean creating a film based exclusively on the idea of what is supposed to “sell,” what would be “marketable” and would get my company noticed by Hollywood or by a larger production company.
Of all the films I’ve ever worked on, that was the film that, for me, was a “nightmare” and which could have “ruined my career.” It’s why Coixet’s words resonated with me so deeply. We sold that film and were so proud to have done so. But (like so many other independent filmmakers), we have never seen a dime from that sale, despite the film being mentioned by IFC as one of the top indie DVDs to look for in 2009. In fact, today I couldn’t even tell you who owns the rights or why its IMDB rating spikes from time to time. Someone’s watching it, buying it, making money off of it, but not us. And, to be honest, I no longer care. It’s not my best work and I didn’t make it for the core audience I’d like to meet. It was a hard lesson, but an important one. It taught me to focus on making films that meant something to me.
Since then, I’ve avoided creating work with “Hollywood” in mind. I’ve realized that focusing on being discovered by a big studio is not the approach for me or for my company, especially given the type of projects we seek to create. We’re no longer letting an elusive hope of “Hollywood” discovery distract us from telling the stories we want to tell — stories that are not “one size fits all” or “white, white, white.” Our stories and media projects are often raw and gritty. They highlight the “underbelly”, those locked out or locked in (our latest film series is about solitary confinement), those shut out and left behind (we’ve made a multi-award winning narrative film about an undocumented mother and son and a documentary film about a low-income school’s quest for success).
Once we began creating media that actually mattered to us, and to the core audience we hope to attract, we began to view everything we did quite differently. And, we began to succeed. Now, I’m proud of the work that I create (like my latest feature SMUGGLED and my short film series The wHOLE).
In her interview, Coixet emphasizes that making your media your way is often very challenging. I know I’ve found it to be so, but she stresses that she’d rather have artistic freedom than more money or an easier film shoot, and I couldn’t agree more. What about you? Are you indie? Are you Fierce? Independent? Proud? Inspiring? If so, join me and let’s say goodbye to Hollywood together.
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