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How the Recession Hits Independent Film

A weak economy is often said to be good for Hollywood. Movie going is cheap entertainment, so ticket sales typically rise in a recession. But what about the world of independent film? Film festivals are scaling back, indie directors are being forced to do more with even less than usual, and producers are finding that grant-giving institutions are strapped for cash.

Still, if you listen to the voices from the independent film world, you’ll hear a surprising sense of optimism. How do they remain so upbeat in a bear market? One reason is that independent film is a tough business in any climate. As UCLA film professor A.P. Gonzalez put it, “A lot of people say filmmakers are crazy — and they are. But how nice it is to be around creative nuts in any economy?”

The Director
Becky Smith, director

“I shot an indie feature, 16 to Life, a year ago and raised the money through venture capitalists in the Midwest, where the story takes place. If I were attempting to raise the money now, I think I’d have a much harder time.

“We are in the process of seeking distribution for the film. The numbers indicate that more people are watching movies since the economy took a tumble, so we hope that bodes well for distribution, as well as the buzz we got at our festival premiere, where we won Best Picture [at the 2009 Method Fest Independent Film Festival in Calabasas, California].

“I suspect, as we go out to raise money for my next film, I will try to cut more costs and keep the budget lower. Distributors are leery right now, and even a good film is probably not going to see much upfront money, so the lower filmmakers keep their expenses, the more likely they are to see profits. Several producer’s reps and distributors have advised us that films over $1 million and under $10 million have a very hard time getting in the black because they aren’t in the category of low-budget indie, but they aren’t studio films either. To recoup their costs, they need to hit the jackpot — and to have a large P and A budget behind them.”

The Producer
A.P. Gonzalez, producer, director, and professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

“In terms of narrative independent films, there are fewer companies that exist. Major studios that had small independent wings have folded those and are focusing on making higher-budgeted studio movies. Big marketing, big stars, big money.

“I’m working on a two-hour documentary about Latinos in baseball called El Beisbol. One reason I started working on a documentary is because there are fewer equity financiers around for indie narrative features.

“This is a big, popular subject, so we’ve been going to big corporations for financing. We’re approaching them with a credible team and a turnkey program. Still, they take months to decide and most come back to us saying they love the project and, in any other year, they would have funded half or even all of it–but they can’t spend the ad dollars right now.

“I’m not completely pessimistic, though, because I’ve seen it happen a few times in my life. It always seems to be dire when we’re in the middle of it but, like every economic movement, it will change. And while it’s bad, people just have to be creative.”

The Screenwriter
Richard Walter, screenwriter, Chairman of Screenwriting at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

“I haven’t seen [the economy] weaken the world of independent film – at least not yet. Nothing has changed about my job. Economics aside, dramatic narrative remains the same as it has since Aristotle’s day and earlier.”

The Film Festival
Nancy Schafer, executive director of the Tribeca Film Festival.

“We have scaled the festival back a bit with fewer titles and fewer venues, but we’re still confident that we’re putting on the best festival we’ve had to date. People still really seem to want to go see movies and I think attendance is going to be quite strong.

“We got as many submissions as last year. People were still making movies up to our deadline. Of course, it takes more than a year to make a movie, so we may not see the effects of the economy on filmmakers until next year or the year after.

“Tribeca has always been focused on issues that are relevant to the world. This year, we looked at more escapist films. More comedy. We’re always looking for the best films submitted, but this year, we have a lighter fare than last year or the year before.”

The Foundation
Carole Dean, president of From The Heart Productions

“We try to keep our grants at a minimum of $30,000 to $40,000 and I have not had a single one of our donors scale back. Some, however, have gone out of business, and I’m working harder to raise money to make up for those.

“To filmmakers, I would say film is always a risky business and in this economy you have to be especially tough. I find that the films that don’t get made had investor packages that were poorly done. An investor-friendly package is paramount to funding. When working with financiers, you have to know your numbers and be able to explain the return on investment. Filmmakers have to stop being afraid of the money side.

“I’ve definitely seen more interest in my grants this year than in prior years. That’s given us a wonderful group of projects to select from and a wider selection of topics. I give a free consultation for everyone who applies for my grant. If you do not win a grant, don’t despair. Find out how to improve your pitch and try again.

“Screenplays have an energy and a life of their own. So don’t put something on the shelf unless it’s a multimillion-dollar project that really can’t be funded. If it’s an excellent script, then move forward with it.”

The Recent Grad
Jeremiah Friedman, MFA, graduate of the AFI Conservatory

“It seems the entire industry is tightening up. I graduated from the AFI Conservatory in 2008, and most of my graduating class is having a hard time finding even entry-level production work. I have friends who have been laid off, too. It seems like it’s the people at the bottom that always feel it first.”

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