Maybe the sky isn’t falling…

September 18th, 2013 by

In June 2008, movie producer and former president of Miramax Films went public with an opinion piece titled “Yes, the Sky Really is Falling” [I covered it here].

Last week, an old friend who is a director called to catch up. It almost seemed as if he was seeking reassurance.

“You good?” he asked.

My answer was simple: “How good can I be? I work in independent film.”

He laughed. And then he wondered aloud: “Do you think maybe Chicken Little was right–I mean, about independent film.”

Leave it to a director to hope Chicken Little might be a cinephile.

And again, my answer was simple: “Yes, the sky really is falling.”

The last thing I heard him say was “I have to go throw up now.”

Unfortunately, he’s not alone in that feeling these days.

In his article, Gill went through a laundry list of bad news that was occurring at the time… and it was a daunting set of examples.

But now about 5 years later, we hear another voice crying in the digital wilderness. Movie producer Jon Kilik who has 42 credits including Inside Man, Babel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Hunger Games and the upcoming Foxcatcher, sounded a different tone on Sunday when he delivered the keynote address at the IFP Market. Here are some excerpts:

A couple of weeks ago I was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York reading recent speeches and statements by some of our greatest American Filmmakers. This time, unfortunately, their words sent out more panic than inspiration. Steven Soderbergh, in his “State of Cinema” address at the San Francisco Film Festival claimed that “Cinema is under assault by the Studios, with the full support of the audience. The reasons for this are more economic than philosophical but when you add an ample amount of fear and a lack of vision and a lack of leadership you’ve got a trajectory that’s pretty difficult to reverse.”

In a recent talk at USC, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicted that the film industry is on track to have a “massive implosion” because there just isn’t enough time in the day for people to support all the films released in theaters. Lucas complained that it’s getting so bad it is even hard for him to get a film in a theater and that this should make producers of films very nervous.

According to these great titans, CINEMA is in danger of disappearing from the theaters and MOVIES are to be relegated to a lurid sensational experience akin to a theme park ride or Las Vegas Dinner Theater.

Many people have predicted the end of the film business. Or at least a cataclysmic shake up that destroys all modestly budgeted films of quality leaving us with only 4D motion control Blockbusters. These End-of-Days predictions have come before in our industry. The advent of Color was supposed to eventually doom Black and White – in which case we would have never had “Dr. Strangelove”, “Manhattan”, “Raging Bull”, or “Schindler’s List”. Or “She’s Gotta Have It”, “Stranger Than Paradise”, or “Pi” – giving birth to Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Darren Aronofsky. Television was supposed to doom the theatrical experience – why would anyone want to go out to a movie when they can get it at home. Cable TV and DVD’s were supposed to do the same thing. Video on Demand and companies like Netflix were supposed to do it again.

It hasn’t happened – what has happened is that we now have more ways to make movies and more ways to get people to see them than ever before.

The entire address, which you can read at Deadline here, is worth reading. Personally I found myself nodding head throughout. Indeed Kilik used some of the exact same language I have in discussing the movie business on this blog. To wit:

The Internet has allowed us to express individuality and form communities that were unimaginable before. Social Media finds like-minded individuals and bonds them together in the formation of these communities. That’s another word for an “audience”. And in this way, there may be more opportunity for independent film than there ever has been in it’s history. All of this sets the stage for a renaissance in Independent Filmmaking. Instead of being on its last legs I would argue that the Independent Film is about to spring to life.

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I’ve been lucky to work with a great number of talented directors. All of them have made the film for themselves first, and the audience second. That’s not out of vanity, or because they don’t care about the people who see their films. It’s because they know the only way to truly connect to an audience is to be as personal as they possibly can and share that piece of themselves onscreen.

—-

I’ve been talking to and advising up-and-coming filmmakers for a long time. Over the years, I’ve always given what I thought was some valuable advice, which is this: “Listen very closely to your inner filmmaker, be true to your own unique, distinctive voice. It’s all very well and good to study the craft and the history of cinema, but once you’ve taken all that in tell your story through your lens, through your unique perspective as an artist – and THAT is the definition of cinema. That is what sets cinema apart from mere movies.”

I’m a film producer but I know NOT to value a movie based on budget. Story is what is important. In whatever form you choose to tell yours, you have the opportunity to challenge the status quo, provoke thought, shine a light on an event, a condition, a time and a place, give a voice to those who have none, or simply make a love story, a comedy or a genre film. Tell your story. The work will outlive the format.

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Last year, thousands of them gathered in Austin, Texas to hear Bruce Springsteen deliver an inspiring keynote address at the South by Southwest Music Festival. Musicians, filmmakers and all artists can relate to his message. He said, “The one thing that’s been consistent over the years is the power of creativity. The power of the writer or creator. So whatever style your work, it’s all about how you’re putting what you do together. The elements you’re using don’t matter. The purity of human expression and experience is not confined to the tools you use. There is no right way, no pure way of doing it. There is just doing it.”

—-

In film, if you don’t have a vision for something it doesn’t happen. You’ve got to believe it to see it. Eventually you will find your audience or more accurately they will find you.

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So it isn’t true that cinema is dead, it’s actually a very healthy industry and as Soderbergh pointed out, it’s one of the few American exports that continues to do very well. But we can’t ignore that one particular sector of the market is getting squeezed and must be protected – the midrange budget drama – movies about HUMAN BEINGS.

But despite that squeeze, many talented filmmakers, young and old, have overcome the challenge and made a large quantity of quality independent dramas that are coming out this year. I have never seen so many high quality films entering the main stream.

“Blue Jasmine”, “Fruitvale Station”, “Mud”, “The Butler”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, “Gravity”, “Her”, “12 Years a Slave”, “Nebraska”, “American Hustle”, “Foxcatcher”, “Out of the Furnace”, “Captain Phillips”, “Rush”, “The Monuments Men”, “Prisoners”, “August O’Sage County”, “Philomena”, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”, “Saving Mr. Banks”, “Labor Day”, “All is Lost”.

I’m sure there are several more I’m missing. Has there ever been a better time for Independent Cinema? I can’t wait to see all of them. I’m predicting a great year. Thank you to all the distributors who bring these films to the theaters. All distributors both independent and major studios for continuing to finance and distribute movies about the human condition. For supporting handmade films by auteur filmmakers. Stay strong, stay committed, and we will continue to partner with you to grow the great history of American Independent Cinema.

Last year was a strong year for movies. The lineup for movies coming out through the end of December looks astonishing in its promise, plus we’ve already had some fine films released in 2013. So Kilik’s fundamental assertion seems sound.

Plus as @MysteryExec tweeted yesterday in reference to Kilik’s address: “Also, PEOPLE LIKE MOVIES AND WILL PAY TO SEE THEM.”

Yes, there’s that.

What takeaway for screenwriters? How about this from Kilik’s comments: “Tell your story.” What are the stories you have to tell, you must tell, the stories you are compelled to write.

Here’s a real life example.

TV writer and screenwriter Kelly Marcel somehow got it into her head that she was going to write a spec script about this:

When Walt Disney’s daughters begged him to make a movie of their favorite book, P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins,” he made them a promise – one that he didn’t realize would take 20 years to keep. In his quest to obtain the rights, Walt comes up against a curmudgeonly, uncompromising writer who has absolutely no intention of letting her beloved magical nanny get mauled by the Hollywood machine. But, as the books stop selling and money grows short, Travers reluctantly agrees to go to Los Angeles to hear Disney’s plans for the adaptation. For those two short weeks in 1961, Walt Disney pulls out all the stops. Armed with imaginative storyboards and chirpy songs from the talented Sherman brothers, Walt launches an all-out onslaught on P.L. Travers, but the prickly author doesn’t budge. He soon begins to watch helplessly as Travers becomes increasingly immovable and the rights begin to move further away from his grasp. It is only when he reaches into his own childhood that Walt discovers the truth about the ghosts that haunt her, and together they set Mary Poppins free to ultimately make one of the most endearing films in cinematic history.

Now from the perspective of Conventional Wisdom, what did this spec script have going against it?

* The movie is a period piece which is more expensive and supposedly young people dislike.

* It has a mid-range budget which is believed to be the kiss of box office death nowadays.

* It is a drama featuring lots of ‘talking heads,’ not something likely to catch on with international audiences.

* The two lead characters are both in their 50s, off the radar for the vaunted teen target demo.

* No aliens, robots, hot cars or explosions [see teen and international audience].

And how about this for a kicker: There was only one studio who could be a viable buyer — Disney. Nobody else would dare touch a movie featuring Mary Poppins because Disney would likely threaten to sue them six ways to Mickey.

So just about everything in the world was against Kelly Marcel in taking on this project. But clearly, this was a story she had to tell. Her passion for it combined with her obvious talents as a writer led to the script Saving Mr. Banks landing on the Black List in 2011 which led to this:

The Walt Disney Company is near a deal to acquire Saving Mr. Banks, the Kelly Marcel-scripted saga of how Walt Disney persuaded Australian author P.L. Travers to sell him the rights to make a film out of Mary Poppins.

Which led to this:

So maybe the sky was falling 5 years ago. But 5 years is a long time by Hollywood standards. Sure, the DVD cash cow has collapsed. Now it looks like VOD is gaining traction among consumers which bodes well especially for indie films. There are a ton of movies being produced nowadays, most of them not good, but if the last 2 years are any indication, an increasing number of them are good.

What is the opposite of “The sky is falling”? Whatever that is… perhaps that’s what’s happening right now before our very eyes!

Do your part! When you see a movie that you think looks great, support it by going to a movie theater or access it through Video On Demand. Spread your positive feelings via social media. The only way to sustain good movies is to support them. And remember: Declare Your Independents!

For the rest of Kilik’s speech, you can read it in Deadline here.

6 thoughts on “Maybe the sky isn’t falling…

  1. Aurélien Lainé says:

    Hi Scott,

    I might be wrong but i’d like to believe that the opposite to “The sky is falling” is “Earth is rising” and if that’s the feeling that independent filmmakers can provide to their audience, I see a beautiful future for the indie film industry. As you said, there are many more opportunities to distribute films these days thanks to VOD, IPTV and internet in general.

    Independent filmmakers don’t need 200 millions dollars to make a film. The lower the budget, the greater chances to make profit and therefore to make another film after that.

    1. Scott says:

      Aurélien, couldn’t agree more. Budget is one reason why story concept is so critical. Just by limiting locations and keeping cast and crew small, you start off smart. So make those considerations part of your calculations when it comes to what indie story concept to write.

  2. The world changes. That might be a wicked observation for most people, but it really is the nature of things.

    Why should we trust Spielberg and Lucas who invented the blockbuster in the first place? Didn’t they bury their own legend with INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL in 2008? And wasn’t it Lucas who sold his rights for Star Wars just recently to Disney for a Billion Dollars?

    The world isn’t ending just because some prophets every now and then proclaim the Apocalypse. The only thing we can do is work on our craft, invest in our future with hard work and be prepared for every opportunity we get.

  3. Bryan Colley says:

    A few thoughts:

    1. Black and white is dead. One or fewer movies a year doesn’t mean it’s alive. It’s dead. Deader than westerns.

    2. We don’t have great years for movies any more. We have great 4 months for movies. All the decent films come out Sep-Dec and rest of the year is super heroes and crappy horror. I know you’ll point out all the exceptions, but a person can seriously avoid the cinema for 8 months out of the year and not really miss anything worthwhile.

    3. Why isn’t Julie Andrews playing P.L. Travers? That’s a casting no-brainer. Hooray it got made, but I predict the movie will do about as well at Hitchcock did last year ($23 million). If it had Julie Andrews you could easily double that, because the press would go ga-ga.

  4. John_Hess says:

    I did this a few weeks ago as a thought experiment… take any 10 years in film history and compare the films being made at one end of that decade films made at the other end of the decade. The industry is in a constant state of flux. True this is a challenging time, but not worse than rise of the television when movie attendance dropped 50% over the course of 10 years. Things are changing, a storm is coming… but what’s new ;)

    1. Bryan Colley says:

      Whoever answers that question always seems to become filthy rich.

      What I expect to happen (and maybe it’s just wishful thinking) is for the final obstacle to the U.S. finally having a truly independent film business will finally be overcome – distribution. That’s the one thing the big studios have always had because it cost so much to distribute a film. With internet delivery that cost will shrink to nothing – you’ll be able to deliver your film all over the world at almost no cost. We’re almost to that point where streaming (user choice viewing) takes over from cable (middle-man choice viewing) That’s a very big change from the past.

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