Why Indie Movies Aren’t An Endangered Species

By  · Published on February 1st, 2011

If you’ve ever wondered about the intimate hell of finding financing for an independent film, Edward Epstein has written a strongly worded, easy to understand primer on the subject that should be required reading for anyone even remotely interested in making their own film through traditional channels.

As a (frustrating) standard, his essay is incredibly compelling, but even though his points are all correct, his ultimate conclusions about the possible negative fate of indie movies is slightly off.

It’s not independent movies that are endangered. It’s the corporately-sponsored brand most have gotten used to that’s really in trouble.

There’s little use arguing against Epstein, as his points are largely unassailable. Plus, the story he paints is as accurate as it is depressing.

Back in the 1990s, an independent filmmaker could seek out financing from domestic markets and use the buzz built by the promise of domestic distribution in order to get foreign markets to sign on for the rest of the money needed to start the cameras rolling. Unfortunately, as domestic financing dwindled from 50% of the needed capital to 0% today, that also caused foreign markets to grow stingier or to shut down pre-sale altogether.

The reason for all of this: the studios shut down or sold off their independent arms. This caused a domino effect that left filmmakers looking around for cash that didn’t exist.

Without the safety net of securing financing, filmmakers had to look to the banks in a major way (during the worst economic crisis of the modern era no less). Epstein shows his work for full credit, but the math breaks down to aspiring directors and producers being able to snag $4.8 million from the $8.8 million dollar loan they were able to secure thanks to a completion bond, some foreign pre-sale, and the tax credits of various shooting locations. The hoops to jump through are even more maddening, and the money is all dependent on completing the $10 million film within the specifications of the agreement that garnered the $4.8 million.

The bottom line is that making the movie, no matter what, will be a gamble.

Fortunately, the world is full of gamblers.

It’s no secret that getting any movie (be it an intimate indie or a bloated tent pole) to theaters is nearly impossible. Everything has to come together at the right time, in the right way in order for the idea just to get from one arduous step to the next. However, it’s a perilous journey that many still seem willing to take.

There are three reasons that the indie movie world isn’t endangered.

One, indie movies have been around since people were protesting the Edison Trust. There have been booms and busts, but there’s always been a steady stream of visionaries that were either unwilling to or not allowed to work within the confines of the studio system. That’s the common sense answer.

A few years ago, Andrew O’Hehir wrote an insightful piece about the evolution of indie films, and it’s premise still holds basically true to this day. Sure, new media didn’t turn out to be the savior of the prospective filmmaker (or at least it hasn’t yet), but the indie world is ducking and weaving because it has to.

Two, the trends that Epstein rightfully points out are, in most part, due to the changing tide in Hollywood and the overall bleakness of the economy over the past few years. Things are shifting in Hollywood, but once it rights itself and finds a new working infrastructure, the health of their indie arms (those newly minted and those newly bought) will also seem flush again – picking all the dominoes back up again. If not that, the economy is on track to rebound.

In fact, there are two basic options for the future. Either America will descend into flaming madness where people fight against each other for the last scrap of food in a dust bowl wasteland while Satan laughs in the background, or the economy will get better. The latter seems more likely, and when the economy is strong, people seem to lose their aversion to risk. With more spending money, investors will again look to foolishly financing scripts they believe in.

Third, since we’ve already established that the indie film itself is in no real danger, we have to figure out what really is. After all, this is a perilous climate, and Epstein is dead on about how terrible and tragic the labyrinthine path to getting a film finished without studio backing can be. Something out there is on its last legs.

What we hear dying in the distance right now is the faux-indie. The kind of indie that inexplicably still has the Fox logo in front of it. The world of studios purchasing indie productions is a whole other beast, but the one right now that’s dying is at the hands of the major studios releasing or shutting down their indie arms absolutely. That caused the domino effect of doom Epstein is keen to point out, but even as those types of indie movies die, different types are being born all the time.

Two come to mind immediately.

With rising location costs, and the lowered costs of equipment not mattering all that much in the grand scheme, several filmmakers have been forced to relearn the powerful lesson that two people talking in a room together costs very, very little. Strangely enough, that formula is dressed in new garments as movies like Skyline and Monsters see theaters. One is a moderate budget (which is concealed by the ownership of vastly expensive equipment by the producers), and the other was a mirco-budget labor of love by a director who literally broke his back to make the movie.

The small-budget effects-driven sci-fi movie is an unlikely heir to the throne, but it’s another type of indie that’s emerged over the past few years.

The other type, of course, is the talent-driven indie film. Danny Boyle teams up with James Franco to make a story about a guy caught between a rock and a hard rock, and they have an independent film on their hands. They secured financing because of the names (and possibly because of the appeal of the source material). That’s not something just any indie filmmaker can do, but the alternative is to set up shop in your mother’s apartment and point the cameras at yourself and everyone you know. That’s a tried and true method, and it seems to work as well as ever.

Rest assured there will be indie films for years to come. Sundance won’t be canceled next year. The Independent Spirit Awards will go on. That arthouse cinema down the block will still barely be in business.

However, to end this revelation on a sour note, filmmaker Ted Hope was exactly right when he wrote recently that it’s the indie filmmaker who is dying out. Making small films for a sustainable profit is nearly impossible at this point, and just as non-profit employees started doing years ago, indie filmmakers are in a position where they have to use that world as a springboard to bigger for-profit things (see Monsters director Gareth Edwards) or starve.

It’s no longer the case that writers, directors and producers can hang around in the indie world indefinitely. There will always be more indie films, but the names will change, and a new crop of fresh filmmakers will emerge year after year while only a very small number find a comfortable niche to keep cranking out movies they care about while still being able to make their rent.

It’s bittersweet. The perfect tone for an indie film.

What do you think?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.