Indie downturn

I had a wonderful time at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year; more on my first visit there soon.

With the high cost of attending a film festival like Sundance or Toronto (once you factor in plane tickets, lodging, transportation, and the cost of a film ticket there, assuming you can even secure the tickets you want, the $20 you pay for a movie ticket, popcorn, and drink at your local indie cineplex seems like a bargain), it's worth considering whether such a trip is worth it.

One reason these treks are still worthwhile to me is the contraction of the independent film market. Anne Thompson sees the dearth of purchases at this year's TIFF as continuation of this trend. I still enjoy a lot of what people refer to as "independent films" but fewer and fewer of them cross that bridge over troubled water between film festival and theatrical release.

Yes, I can still wait and see the movies on DVD at some point, but call me old-fashioned, I still love the experience of watching a movie on a huge screen in a darkened theater in the company of others. Drifting into the theater with other moviegoers giving off that palpable sense of anticipation, watching the movie trailers and making snap judgments about what will succeed, nibbling on popcorn or some candy, standing outside the theater afterwards and discussing our reactions to the movie we just saw, I love it all. Some people complain about the price of a movie ticket, but for my money, $10 or $11 for a movie ticket is still the best value for 2 hours of entertainment on a night out.

Back to independent film, most wouldn't make enough on DVD sales alone to continue to subsidize their production. Financiers back these movies assuming some revenue from theatrical release.

So yes, for independent film lovers, there is still value in the film festival pilgrimage (it's also a great way to diet; rushing from one screening to another at TIFF, I learned to subsist on water, popcorn, and body fat).

As to the fate of the independent film market, I am not as gloomy as most, though there will be blood in the near term. It should come as no surprise given what I've spent so much of my career working on that the reason I'm still bullish is that little thing called the Internet.

What do independent films need? Publicity and distribution. The internet is very good at the former, and getting better at the latter. The stigma against the internet as a distribution channel is understandable given how conservative the entertainment industry has always been (just tonight, on the Emmys, Neil Patrick Harris played Dr. Horrible in a skit poking fun at internet distribution of television). And internet distribution is still handcuffed by certain factors, including the shoddy internet infrastructure in the U.S. and the somewhat shaky and long chain of software and hardware involved in watching video streamed live through said the Internet. The reliability and quality of streamed video can't match that of a DVD disc played through your DVD player. Yet.

But that won't last forever. Take out the costs of film prints and old methods of marketing an indie film, trying to open it big in NYC and LA, and suddenly the height of the cost hurdle drops in a massive way. Forego the traditional windowing system and release a movie through multiple channels simultaneously and take advantage of concentrating your marketing efforts on a narrower window. Many independent movies that play the festival circuit won't generate revenue across multiple windows the way a Harry Potter movie will anyway, so why diffuse the spend across multiple windows?

I mentioned above how much I love seeing movies in theaters, but I'd absolutely pay to watch some of these movies at home on my TV, through PPV or streamed or downloaded off of the internet for $10 a pop, if that meant these movies would continue to get made.

If anything good comes from this downturn in the independent film market, I hope it's that filmmakers of all sorts look past their prejudice against the internet as a means for sharing their work and apply the same creativity they use to make their movies to exploiting the internet.