I started using the phrase “a complete systems reboot” to describe what was needed for the film industry. Unless this happened, we were fated to stay mired in an outdated and unsustainable model. In the 1990s, two key tactics of independent producers were to make movies for underserved audiences and to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. Independent film used to be a business of singles, not home runs — where a producer aimed for a million-dollar box office gross on a $200,000 spend. This approach allowed directors to experiment and take real risks in both form and content. And it worked because there were more newspaper film critics, arthouse theaters and foreign sales. But then “Pulp Fiction” exploded on the scene, and independent filmmaking became the business of profit margins rather than the underserved audience. You now had to make movies for everyone (be it “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Juno” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). And those movies cost a lot to market. Then along comes the Internet, giving us the opportunity to truly target audiences, and here we are full circle. Now you can make movies for those niche audiences again.
And this is essential, because it’s folly to think you can still make movies for everyone, using less and less money — unless you’re making low-budget horror films, that is. The producers of the “Paranormal Activity” series figured this out. But for all those other kinds of movies, it’s time to think about going after the easy-to-find underserved audiences, not unlike the way we used to target communities with the movies of the New Queer Cinema or the Black New Wave.
We also need to shift the terms of our industry. As opposed to “I made a great story; I want people to come to it,” it’s more like, “This is where everyone is gathered; let me give them a great story that will encourage them to stay together.” So while working with my wife Vanessa on her movie “All Eyes and Ears,” I took a new approach. Although people might still call the film a documentary, we consider it more akin to a “story world.” Yes, it’s a feature film, but it’s also composed of 20 other short films. Different people can engage with it at different times and in different ways.
When I write treatments for feature-film projects now, I’m also writing up proposals for collaborative storytelling platforms with a handful of narrative extensions and social-engagement opportunities united around consistent themes. I was inspired by “Star Wars Uncut,” a giddy marvel and shot-for-shot remake of “Star Wars,” which was 100% crowdsourced. Complete with sock puppets and adults in far-out costumes, and authored by a team of thousands, it was just the first ripple of a tsunami that was about to shake up the culture. And in the same way that I need to have a supportive funder, a great cast and a talented crew, I also want to bring in an enthusiastic marketing partner or shrewd outreach coordinator on every project, and ideally a community that is already primed to participate in the experience. As we take responsibility for the life cycle of our film, our responsibilities also expand.
During my days at the San Francisco Film Society, Vanessa’s film became increasingly important to me. After working all day in my Presidio office, I needed to feel the passion of making something original and unique. I’d retire to the edit room across the hall. There, Vanessa and I would watch cuts and restructure the film. It made me feel alive. It made me feel heard. I again felt part of something.
As we worked on “All Eyes and Ears” and I witnessed Vanessa’s unwillingness to settle for merely good enough, it reinforced my commitment to do something significant. I wasn’t going to look for a job or even just make another movie. I had to find a way to improve things, particularly for the people and communities I cared about.
The pleasure I had making Vanessa’s film also clarified something I had been struggling with for some time. When we produce movies for our living, our commitment is to get movies made. Regardless of our integrity, just getting the movies made often takes precedence over making them well. I was determined that whatever I did next, I was going to produce films not for my own profit, but for my passion. I needed to earn my living in a new way, and think of filmmaking more as a hobby.