The future for independent film is either extremely bleak or fairly bright. It all depends on who you talk to.
6 Oct 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 5:30 PM

The independent film business in the US is mired in crisis, starved of funds and distribution slots, while younger audiences are deserting cinemas for other forms of entertainment.

Crisis, what crisis? Times may be tough for old white guys, but the industry is in the midst of a creative renaissance driven largely by emerging young talent.

Those wildly diverging views were aired last week at an Indie Summit in New York and at the Independent Film & Television Alliance Production Conference in Los Angeles. For better or worse, the business is going through dramatic changes as DVD sales fall worldwide, companies like the Disney-owned Miramax slash staff and reduce annual output by half, and many films are left on the shelf, unsold.

Among the optimists (who, it must be said, are outnumbered by the doomsayers) is James Schamus, co-president of Universal's Focus Features, who produced Taking Woodstock, Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm. “There are plenty of good movies out there,” he declared at the summit. “I go to festivals and see movies that I hope will get acquired. There's a renaissance creatively.”

Presumably Schamus hasn't spoken lately to Ted Hope, his former producing partner. Hope told the summit that of the 60 films he's produced, just five were profitable. He didn't identify any titles but I'm guessing his loss-makers include The Savages, American Splendor, Human Nature and The Laramie Project. However Hope said he could name 18 young filmmakers whom he thinks will go on to do good work.

Tribeca Enterprises' Geoff Gilmore, a former director of the Sundance festival, lamented the “magic” had gone from many of the movies he saw at the recent Toronto fest, and he criticised filmmakers for relying on genres rather than generating fresh ideas.

Some panelists asserted the solution lies in new distribution pipelines such as Cinetic Media's new Film Buff service, which will release films in the US direct to homes via cable Video-on-Demand, as IFC does now.

Others urged filmmakers to market their own films, booking cinemas directly and bypassing distributors. Ira Deutchman, an indie veteran who runs Emerging Pictures, a New York-based digital film production and exhibition company, argues this strategy will only work for films that have a very specific target audience, who can be easily and cheaply reached with clever campaigns. “I've played a number of these films in the Emerging Cinemas, and in spite of the filmmakers' best intentions, no one showed up,” he related.

At the LA conference, Pandemonium Films' Bill Mechanic warned that core audiences are being lured away from cinema by alternative forms of entertainment. As evidence he cited a 21 percent drop in admissions among the under-25s and a 24 percent fall in 25-39-year-olds in the US this year.

A former chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, Mechanic has struggled since he launched Pandemonium in 2002, turning out just three films: Coraline, Terrence Malick's The New World and Walter Salles' Dark Water.

“New money is going to be hard, if not impossible to find,” Mechanic predicted. “Ad sales are down, so TV networks around the world, other than cable, aren't buying. Add in a confused video market, and it's going to be tough. To my mind, the next few years will be about survival.

“Those without the ambition or the brains to figure their way through these tough economic conditions are going to be the heart patients who cannot be saved. No one has a birthright in this business.”