Indie Filmmakers Get Education at School of Hard Knocks

Budding Indie Filmmakers

One of my guilty pleasures is to read the dozens of mini reviews of new indie films that run Fridays in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. I admire their commitment to support the indie scene with reviews, but it’s daunting (if darkly amusing) that nearly all of them are pans.

Hence, the film titled “Plastic” is dismissed as “a cheap knockoff.” On “The Scribbler,” the critic says “someone should have scribbled a better script.” The review of “Space Station 76” advises that cast and crew “are lost in space.” One exasperated critic for the New York Times scolds in his review of “Swim Little Fish Swim” that too many young filmmakers “have a camera or tape recorder but little insight to put into it.” “Not Cool” draws the unkindest cut of all: “No one involved with it should ever be allowed to work in the movies again.”

Here’s the paradox: Despite the chorus of nattering critics, more and more indie films are being made, and the funding available to both the indie and studio sectors is greatly expanding. The sources range from Daddy’s credit card to Chinese multinationals to billionaires looking for new adventures.

Consider the announcements of the past few days: Jeff Robinov officially unveiled Studio 8 with Chinese backing, and with Sony as a distributor; Mark Burnett disclosed formation of a rejuvenated United Artists banner; and Robert Simonds hired two former studio production chiefs, Adam Fogelson and Oren Aviv, to run a still unnamed company. All this comes at a time when Paramount, Disney and DreamWorks revealed they are cutting back their release schedules.

What kinds of films will be forthcoming? Simonds specifically has staked out the $20 million to $80 million bracket, arguing that the studios have created a vacuum by obsessing about blockbusters. Robinov’s target is tentpoles or semi-tentpoles, explaining: “The trick is to focus on movies that are basically commercial but somehow feel different, and hence can cut through the clutter.”

The problem: Do they just “feel” different or do they actually have something different to say?

Skeptics like Harold Vogel, the veteran entertainment industry analyst, remind us that “newcomers start with good intentions, but we’ve heard these things many times before.” He feels the economic realities of the business are more ominous than tyro investors want to believe.

But the newcomers intend to forge ahead anyway. Certainly, members of the billionaire girls club, as they are known, have shown the greatest zeal — and perhaps the most success. Megan Ellison has been around only a short time, but her producing credits already are imposing: “American Hustle,” “Her,” “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Inevitably, the principal beneficiaries of this new largesse will be the hot filmmakers of the moment (does David Fincher really need an agent?). But somewhere down the line, the young guns should also get their chance. That means that someone besides me will have to sift through the long list of films dismissed by the critics to find that spark of originality which, augmented by appropriate resources and discipline, might push through the clutter and make an impact.

Yes, the survivors of “Not Cool,” “Plastic” and “Swim Little Fish Swim” do deserve another shot.

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  1. GKN says:

    It’s a herd mentality. All you see are requests for the next ‘Juno’, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or ‘Paranormal Activity’. If you offer ANYTHING they haven’t seen before, no one is interested – at least among smaller producers, supposedly ‘open’ to new writers (only because they can’t afford well-known ones). And of course, the better producers – those more apt to do something original – are locked in ivory towers and totally inaccessible, Mr Bart, doncha’ know?

  2. Joe The Producer says:

    As one of those indie filmmakers who has suffered bad reviews, while getting great word of mouth, I can tell you the problem. Most of these critics are star fucked. They don’t go to see films in a theater on their own dime, and expect private screenings or in the case of indies demand dvd screeners. They think indies that don’t have major star power are a waste of their time. The NYT has already let its disdain known through editorials so if they are already predisposed to panning indies, what do you expect?

  3. John Shea says:

    So century-old United Artists is now an indie, $80,000,000 is not a blockbuster, and NYT and LAT critics matter?

  4. JL says:

    “The trick is to focus on movies that are basically commercial but somehow feel different, and hence can cut through the clutter.”

    1) Who really wants different? Looking at box office metrics, the overwhelming success of sequels concludes audiences just want more of the same.

    2) How “different” can it really be when it is still seen through a “white lens”. No matter what it is, it is still a justification of imperial culture.

    3) It’s more about conditioning than entertaining. A “trick” indeed.

    • David says:

      The summer box office was in the doghouse domestically, pretty soon foreign auds will get tired of big bang nonsense. There is a market for “different” films, The Fault in Our Stars is an example. The much under served adult audience will come out if the movie is good, but besides Oscar season–what are the options?

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