Why Mark Gill Is Wrong. And Why It Matters.

4 Jul

About a dozen people sent me Mark Gill’s speech from the LA Film Festival.  (http://www.indiewire.com/biz/2008/06/irst_person_fil.html) in which he declared that the sky was falling on independent filmmaking (but it wouldn’t hit the ground… yay!)  Reading it the first time through I wasn’t pleased but I couldn’t tell if it was because he was spitting on my floor or if it was because I generally loathe prognostications.

But reading it through again, and considering the arguments he puts forth I have to say Mark Gill is wrong.

Mostly he is wrong because he isn’t talking about independent film.  He’s talking about two things: the independent labels that are/were part of the studio system, created to market “smaller” films to a smaller audience and the movies that fit within those specialty labels distribution models.  We’ve called this kind of distribution a lot of things: platform releasing, specialty releasing, and unfortunately we’ve also called it independent filmmaking.  It isn’t.  And when a movie is acquired by a studio, even the specialty arm, it is being acquired to perform within a strict set of corporate parameters.  So whether created by or purchased by this distributors, these films are already subject to rules that prohibit a fair number of good art films.

Independent filmmaking is making a movie outside the corporate production and distribution model.  Nothing more, nothing less.  You can make a movie with independent flavor (Pan’s Labyrinth) with independent style (Peter Berg and Jon Favreau do these well) or with independent talent (Diablo Cody’s new horror movie directed by indie director Karyn Kusama) but none of that makes the movie an independent film.

So lets look at Mark Gill’s examples.  First we have Picturehouse, Warner Independent, New Line, Paramount Vantage and Sidney Kimmel.  Well, Bob Shaye said himself at the 2007 Sundance Fest where he was being honored that he didn’t consider himself a part of independent film.  So lets take that Viacom holding out of the picture.  Picturehouse, Warner Indie, Par Vantage… all were just specialty labels of multi-billion dollar companies.  Of these only Sidney Kimmel moving away from independent film financing is a loss to up-and-coming and established filmmakers.  And for every loss there is a gain, notably Overture creating a distribution model with a cable outet and funding new indies.

The rest of his remarks are about Hollywood acquisition and distribution.  And that has very little to do with actual independent filmmaking.

The sky isn’t falling on us.  But Mark wants us to make better movies.  And by better he means funnier, faster and more marketable.  I don’t think that makes a movie better.  I think it makes it more homogenous.

If your goal is to make an independent film at an independent budget level and then get distribution like a big movie you have to ask yourself — how are you an independent filmmaker?  The modes of distribution for large movies should not and can not apply to 99% of indie films. But there are ways to get your movie out there and I think that the biggest danger right now is filmmakers trying to make a small movie that will appeal to a large audience.  When we judge our small budget films based on opening weekends we fail our films.  That isn’t what we do.  That isn’t who we are.  When we expect a movie like THE VISITOR to produce thousands of dollars per screen and that becomes our method of judging success we have truly failed some of the best and brightest working in film today.

I think that the biggest hurdle is not Hollywood but our own internal and external prejudices against alternate distribution.  When we begin to embrace VOD, DVD releases, cable television and the internet as the right and just way to send our movie to its intended audience we will start to see an emotional and financial uptick in the independent film community.  We’ve forgotten why we do this.

We have to stop expecting independent films to be more than they are and find ways to keep them safe, to show them to their audience, and to keep the voices who make these movies engaged in their own process.  The HBO doc series on Monday nights is a great start and proof that movies find their audiences if released appropriately.  Gill is addressing a symptom of a much bigger issue as if it was the disease itself.  I understand the temptation – it is a hell of a lot easier to get people to invest in your indie if they think it will lead to the Oscars but that isn’t why we make movies.

Look, I get the appeal of claiming that the sky is falling on independent film.  I just don’t think that is where the sky is falling.  I think it is falling on Hollywood filmmaking and I think it is falling on the smaller specialty pictures first.  Can independent filmmakers take credit for some of those films, and some of those failures?  Of course.  But I think that telling filmmakers to act like little studio executives is a terrible message to send, and a terrible way for filmmakers to behave.  I think responsible filmmaking, like responsible sex, leads to fewer accidents.  And by responsible I mean making a movie at the right budget level and understanding the limitations of distribution before you make it.  If it isn’t a blackbuster on the page it isn’t going to be one in the multi-plex but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get made.  Fantastic art and decent commerce comes out of creative filmmaking.  Mark Gill is wrong about this and I, for one, think it matters.  You know, in case anyone asks.

2 Responses to “Why Mark Gill Is Wrong. And Why It Matters.”

  1. La-Tonia Denise Willis June 12, 2009 at 9:13 pm #

    I’m going to link to this post on my website. Beth,you have just articulated everything that I have wanted to say in response to Mark Gill’s speech but was too uninformed to do so. Thank you for making my thoughts comprehensive … to me! –

    • bethshax June 12, 2009 at 9:21 pm #


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