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Tribeca Takes: Ted Hope on Independent Film

Independent film producer Ted Hope is concerned with the current state of the industry he loves. Check out his latest—and impassioned!—call to action for all those involved.

Ted HopeA year ago (May 15, 2009) I wrote a blog post: 38 American Independent Film Problems/Concerns. Unfortunately, all of the problems I listed then still stand today; four or so from that list have improved slightly, but they certainly remain issues. Of more concern is that the list keeps growing and growing. I can contribute another 38 even more pressing issues today. You do the math: we now have over 75 things wrong with our industry that we are not taking action to fix.

In fact, we have no one to blame for this list but ourselves. It is our inability to be proactive that has brought on us this terrible state. Ask yourself what currently concerns and frustrates you about where film culture and the film business are today. What heights is our industry capable of reaching and how does it compare to where we actually are? Do we really have the capacity to sit and wait to get there? Isn’t our silence delaying the trip?

I must admit that I am a bit disappointed that I had no difficulty adding another 38 items to this list of where we are failing. The exciting part (and why #38 of last year’s list was “lists like this make the foolish despair”) is that these lists demonstrate a tremendous opportunity for those willing to break from the status quo and take action. Things may be wrong, but they could always be worse. From here, we just have to work together to make it better. It is that simple. Every deficit is an opportunity for the creative entrepreneur, right?

So how has the film biz continued to reveal itself to be troubled this year? What do I suggest we start to focus on, discuss, and find solutions for? This list is a start, and I wager we will expand it substantially in the days ahead.


1. We cannot logically justify any ticket price whatsoever for a non-event film. There are too many better options at too low a price. Simply getting out of the house or watching something somewhere because that is the only place it is currently available does not justify a ticket price enough. We still think of movies as things people will buy. We have to change our thinking about movies to something that enhances other experiences, and it is that which has monetary value. Film’s power as a community organizing tool extends far beyond its power to sell popcorn (and the whole exhibition industry is based on that old popcorn idea).


2. The industry has never made any attempt to build a sustainable investor class. Every other industry has a go-to funding sector, developed around a focus on the investors’ concerns and standardized structures. In the film biz, each deal is different and generally stands alone, as opposed to leading to something more. The history of Hollywood is partially defined by the belief that another sucker is born every minute. Who really benefits by the limited options for funding currently available other than those funders and those who fee those deals? We could build something that works far more efficiently and offers far more opportunity.


3. The film business remains the virtually exclusive domain of the privileged. Although great strides have been made to diversify the industry, the numbers don’t lie. The film industry is ruled by white men from middle class or better socioeconomic backgrounds. It is an expensive art form and a competitive field—but it doesn’t need to a closed door one. Let’s face it: people hire folks who remind them of themselves. These days everyone needs to intern, and the proposition of working for free is too expensive for most. Living in NYC or LA is not affordable for most people starting out. We get more of the same and little progress without greater diversity. And although I essentially mentioned this last year (#36), the continued poor economy limits diversity even more now.


4. There is no structure or mechanism to increase liquidity of film investments, either through clear exit strategies, or secondary capital markets. The dirty secret of film investment is that it is a long recoupment cycle with little planning for an exit strategy. Without a way to get out, fewer people choose to get in. Who really wants to lock up an investment for four years? Not investors, only patrons…

5. Independent filmmakers (and their industry advisors) build business plans based on models and notions selected from before September 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed and everything changed. It is not the same business as it was then, and we shouldn’t treat it that way. Expectations have changed considerably, probably completely. Buyers' and audiences’ behaviors are different (those that still remain, that is). Products are valued at different levels. We live in a new world. Our strategies must change with it.


6. The film business remains a single product industry. The product may be available on many different platforms, but it is still the same thing. For such a capital-intensive enterprise to sell only one thing is a squandering of time and money. Films can be a platform to launch many different products and enterprises, some of which can also enhance the experience and build the community.


7. We have done very little thinking or discussing about how to make events out of our movies. The list seems to have stopped at 3D. There’s only been one Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the first one is very, very old. Music flourishes because the live component is generally quite different from the recorded one, and the film biz could benefit from a greater differentiation of what utilizes different platforms.


8. We ignore film’s most unique attribute. As demonstrated by how little of people’s online time is spent watching content (30%), we know that people want connectivity & community more than anything else. There used to be film societies, just like reviewers once placed films in cultural context—we need to recreate a community aspect to film going. If you wonder why people don’t go to the movies more, it is not as much about the content, as it is about the lack of community. Without that, why not just stay home to watch? Film’s strongest attribute is its ability to work as a community organizing tool. Film forces us to feel, to think, to engage—let’s not ignore that.


9. Independent film financing is still based around an antiquated foreign sales model, despite the fact that all acquisition markets are collapsing and fee levels shrink market to market. This old model is centered around stars’ perceived value—an attribute that has been less reliable than ever before. There has got to be a better way than the foreign sales estimate model, but no one talks about it, or even admits to needing one. The participants who get most hurt by this are the investors who take the advice of the “experts” that this is the way it’s done. It used to be done this way, but we have to move on before we burn to the ground.


10. Filmmakers don’t own their audiences yet (and few even attempt to). What will happen when agents start to cut deals for their clients who have 1 million engaged fans, people who will pre-order their content, promote it passionately, and deliver more of their friends? There is a shift in the balance of power about to happen, and those that have prepared for it, amassed their followings, will be able to change the conversation significantly.


11. We’ve failed to develop fetish objects to demonstrate one’s love of cinema. The only merchandise we sell is “fan-boy” toys. We need to come up with items that demonstrate their owner’s sense of style and taste. Beyond the books of Tashen, what is there? We can do better. Such products manufacture desire and enhance identification with the art form. We need to streamline the process of the transformation of leisure time into both intellectual and social capital (i.e movie going and its byproducts). How do we identify, reward, and encourage those that appreciate our work?


12. Creators, distributors, and marketers have accepted a dividing line between art and commerce, between content and marketing. By not engaging the filmmakers in how to use marketing tools within their narrative and how to bring narrative techniques to marketing, we diminish the discovery and promotional potential of each film. We limit the scope of our art by restricting it to the plane of the 90-minute product. Movies should find us early, lead us to new worlds, bridge us to subsequent experiences, connect us to new passions and loves, help us embrace a more expansive definition of cinema, life, and self.


13. We don’t recognize that one of film’s greatest assets is its ability to generate data. Filmmakers and financiers should be insisting on owning the data their films generate. It is an incredibly valuable commodity. The VOD platform allows for tracking of where and when and who in terms of the business, yet this data is restricted to aggregators, not creators. When you license something for a small fraction of its costs, shouldn’t you share in everything that it generates?


14. We fail to utilize the two years from greenlight to release to market our film and build our audiences. Despite having the key economic indicators (i.e. stars & concept) in place at the time of greenlight, we underutilize that 2-year period when we could be sourcing fans, aggregating them and providing them with both the ramps and the bridges necessary to lead them to our work and then carry them to other new work.


15. Why can’t our industry develop more stars? The talented actors exist, but they don’t have “value.” Why is it that we don’t have more serious actors who are worth something financially? Isn’t it just about giving them the roles that help them build audiences? Why don’t we encourage more actors to take more risks in terms of the characters they portray? Audiences, filmmakers, financiers would all be better served by industywide initiatives to launch more talent. Say what you will about the studio system of old, but they were damn good at developing new talent.


He's got 23 more... Keep reading: 38 More Ways The Film Industry Is Failing Today


Also, please take a few minutes to complete this UCLA survey on independent film.


21 Grams, American Splendor, Happiness, In the BedroomTed Hope, co-founder of This is that and Good Machine, has produced close to sixty films, including three Sundance Grand Prize winners and the first features of Ang Lee, Hal Hartley, Nicole Holofcener, Michel Gondry, and Alan Ball. Ted actively blogs on TrulyFreeFilm and is co-founder of HammerToNail, the indie film review website.


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