Even With the Help of Big Names, Indie Directors Are Hard-Pressed to Make a Living

It's Tough for New Independent Directors in Today's Film Business
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In 1997, Anthony and Joe Russo came to Slamdance with their first feature, “Pieces,” a non-linear tribute to the French New Wave, funded with credit cards and shot in their hometown of Cleveland. “It wasn’t exactly a calling-card film for making commercial movies,” Joe Russo says. “In fact, the only person who would have responded to a movie like that was Steven Soderbergh.”

He knows this because Soderbergh was in the audience. Soderbergh took the Russos under his wing and produced their next feature, “Welcome to Collinwood.” The $7.5 million film was released by Warner Bros., via Soderbergh’s Section Eight production company.

In 2014, the Russos returned to Slamdance and discovered writer/director Jay Alvarez. They helped the 26-year-old find representation and are now helping make his next feature, “Dizzy Pursuit.” It has a budget of $28,000, being raised on Indiegogo.

It’s a fairy tale when an A-list director adopts a scrappy indie filmmaker. But these days, many of the details of the Russo brothers’ origin story are unthinkable: auteurs with a studio production deal? A $7.5 million budget? A studio release?

“The environment has changed,” Russo says. “It’s much more difficult in this market to get smaller films made, and crowdfunding is now the best route for a film like Jay’s.”

That’s putting it mildly. Studio movies today are either aspiring blockbusters or Oscar bait. Of course, the TV renaissance has done a nice job of filling the gap for once-indie filmmakers like Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”), and Jill Soloway (“Transparent”). The expansion to outlets like AMC and Netflix has resulted in an increasingly cinematic product, but TV remains the domain of the writer.The reason these filmmakers were able to become showrunners is they have the writing chops to deliver satisfying 10-episode arcs. What about talented directors incapable of writing the next “Mr. Robot?” Where do they turn after making a low-budget festival film?

Director Ryan Coogler followed up his Sundance breakout “Fruitvale Station” by reinventing the “Rocky” franchise with “Creed,” and is now poised to tackle Marvel’s “Black Panther.” It’s a rare talent who can seamlessly make the transition from Sundance to franchise, but in 2016 that’s simply the next rung on the ladder.

Indiewire recently ran a series about female directors we believe have demonstrated the ability to leap to blockbusters. We received some pushback from fans, questioning why a personal filmmaker like Lynn Shelton would want to “graduate” to Marvel. Fair enough — but what’s the alternative path to a sustainable career?

If we look back a generation at directors who are now in their 40s and 50s, we see there used to be more possibilities. A majority of America’s great directors from Soderbergh and the Russos’ generation cut their teeth on second features costing $5 million to $15 million — films like “Boogie Nights,” “Memento,” “Rushmore,” and “Pulp Fiction.” Further, films in the $20 million-$50 million range — “Seven,” “Go,” “Three Kings” — were a steady part of studios’ production slates.

Studios no longer back such films unless they offer the hope of awards. The new home for this type of content — and hence, the paid work for promising directing talent — is TV. But TV shows are well-oiled machines in which a rotation of directors are brought aboard to execute an established plan; the director is more a steward to the larger story and style, rather than the principal storyteller. A show like “The Knick,” directed by Soderbergh, is a rare exception.

Technology does offer a new path for up- and-coming directors. Digital cameras and post-production tools can help them turn $28,000 into something cinematic. Alvarez, especially with the Russos’ support, might create the hit of Sundance 2017. Still, no-budget filmmaking is not a career. And at some point, 20-somethings become 30-somethings.