April 9, 2010

When the Conversation Stops.

By Vadim Rizov

If you're a sane human being interested in film but still harboring an instinct for financial self-preservation — if, in other words, you're interested in watching rather than making or writing about movies — you're probably not aware of events like The Conversation, in which a few weekends ago (to borrow the official copy)you could join in a day that promised to "bring together media-makers, techies, and social media strategists to share experiences and advice, map out the future together, and ideally begin some lasting collaborations." (Translation: network and chatter.)

conversation.jpgTopics of discussion: marketing your movie, making use of the pestilent chimera known as "New Media" and so on. Bloggage ensued, though pretty much exclusively from participants. Still, nothing could top this quote from Kino Lorber president Richard Lorber: “everything’s possible but nothing’s working.”


That's the problem in a nutshell: all the talk of becoming "early pioneers" and "using social media" — often nebulous and implicitly self-congratulatory — could remind you of, say, Barbara Ehrenreich's definitive evisceration of business books a few years back, with their specious language covering up the fact that not much is getting done. And for all the talk of new ways of connecting with audiences, it was hard not to get the feeling (as Twitter feeds clogged and dispatches consisted largely of participants congratulating each other) that much was being said and little had a chance of being actualized. Everything was possible but nothing was working.

Why should you care? Well, part of the problem here is that — for all the talk of finding new audiences — you don't. Let's be nice for a few moments though: one of the good things about events like "The Conversation" and DIY Days is that they at least start destroying the stupid '90s vision of the independent filmmaker as someone (a la Kevin Smith) with nothing more than talent, a dream and a series of maxed-out credit cards, a business strategy that destroyed god knows how many lives. For anyone who keeps their ear close to the ground before embarking on a grand filmmaking adventure, it's probably a good thing to have, out there, reminders that filmmaking involves actual money that has to be accounted for one of these days.

I once saw Claire Denis nearly bite an NYU student's head off in response to one of those stupid questions about how to make the movie you wanted without compromising with your backers; she simply told him that you have to make movies with responsible budgets, and there was an end to it. That's a good message to trickle down to audiences that want to romanticize filmmakers (especially considering how Denis isn't exactly synonymous with "soulless budget disciplinarian.")

On the other hand: the professionalization of indie film — accelerated by the proliferation of innumerable internet technologies designed, one way or another, to promote networking, all shooting it out with each other — has led to a kind of parody of normal Hollywood business gossip. The assumption seems to be that now that the vast public has been trained to care about box-office receipts, maybe previously tough-sell indies can reach the same status by marketing themselves aggressively, even before they come out (an especially bad idea: the "story" behind your movie is just as important a tool as, say, a positive review).


Hence the increasing popularity of panels and conferences designed to reassure participants that they're doing it right. The problem here is that the collective noise behind "business" will drown out discussion of the films themselves. Vladimir Nabokov once snidely noted that "Intellectuals do not join collectives," and the same message could be valuable for directors: when you're producing and directing and spending more time hyping your movie and yourself rather than thinking about the work — even if that's the only pragmatic paradigm you've been offered — something's probably gone wrong somewhere.

The thing about these events is that they come at a peculiar time: as the independent film economy becomes more visibly fractured than ever, both filmmaker and viewer are sort of landed in the same boat, trying to figure out which opportunities are worthwhile and which a time-suck. The truth (as ever) is that no one knows anything, and even detailed case studies will only get you so far. In a sense, the history of independent film has been one of improvisation and trial-and-error for a long time; witness the endless stream of films released to no notice and subsequent rediscovered years or decades hence by groups of crazed fans. At a time when the entire economy is in free-fall (or tentative recovery, who knows), it's odd to host panel after panel about the professionalization of one of the least professional arenas of film production.

Honestly, I just want to spit bile at these events, which at best combine sporadic specific advice with generalities and networking. Nothing wrong with the latter; it's how many things get done, for better or worse. What's unnerving here is all the talk of an "audience" and "new strategies" that -- despite years of the internet colonizing society -- have yet to yield a breakthrough. The old system (paying a good publicist to push your movie through festivals, waiting on crucial reviews) wasn't necessarily much better -- but the whole system's been flawed, as it always will be for any marginalized commodity.

As Michael Tully says, "hasn’t this always been a freakish lottery? Hasn’t it always been a once-in-a-lifetime three-quarter court buzzer beater?" Pretty much. The thing is, if you make movies with the right people, they'll always be fun, and who knows how many folks make movies just to (for the reason Godard allegedly did) meet girls or whatever. But the effort to professionalize independent film feels like a (fun, with lunch) way to ignore the cold truth: most people have never cared, don't care, and never will care. It's impossible to run around that by draping the trappings of corporate America upon a weird industry. This panic will pass -- ignored, now and in the future, by an "audience" that's referenced rather than reached.

The panel movement is one of the most superficial out there; at the end of the day, things will still get done based on an insular series of meetings and mutual interests. No need to publicize it like anything's actually being extended to the outside world. The only good thing: if you, the reader, ever pick up on it and realize the whole era when independent filmmakers could be fetishized as financial rebels and romantic outsiders is over, that would be grand. Assuming such viewers still exist.

Postscript: Meanwhile, read The Take-Back Manifesto on indieWire, by Michael Tully and with spice by yours truly.

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Posted by ahillis at April 9, 2010 12:01 PM

Great piece guys. Spot on analysis. Thanks for writing this.

Posted by: sami at April 9, 2010 1:34 PM

Just discovered this and am going to raise a glass of Rioja and toast. One of the best pieces I've read in a long time.

Thanks for a great piece of writing, insightful comment and on the nail analyses.

I had to step away from twitter for a while recently because of the trite, inane and financially suicidal advice dished out with copious amounts of fawning.

Well said, well done. Have bookmarked this blog.

Best wishes,

Luke :)

Posted by: Luke James at April 9, 2010 1:37 PM


There's no better way to market yourself than to present yourself as the only way to heaven. Just look at how many books Jesus has sold.

Posted by: Ray Privett at April 9, 2010 5:48 PM

This is great. Thanks for this.

Posted by: John M at April 10, 2010 7:29 PM

This was a good piece, Vadim -- though only last night I attended one of the better panels I can recall in some time: Irena Kovarova's Disappearing Act II panel discussing the "New World of Foreign Language Film Distribution," with IndieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez, IFC's Ryan Werner, Film Movement's Meghan Wurtz and Cinema Tropical's Carlos A. Gutierrez. This proved and hour-and-a-half's worth of smart ideas and interesting examples, plus some good questions from a rapt audience. You never know.

Posted by: James van Maanen at April 13, 2010 8:38 PM

Thanks Vadim and Kim. In the old story about the better mouse trap that could not sell because of poor marketing one often forgets that for starters you need "a better mousetrap" I am a career businessman, author, and speaker and now co producing my first feature length film "Shamshara" with Avenstar Productions. The distribution possibilities form social media, to festivals, to theatrical, to DVD etc etc are dizzying. I really like to try and keep things simple. Make a great movie and then sell it like crazy! Hard work, great timing, and a product that hits at the heart of the consumer. Has anything really changed? Andy

Posted by: Andy Feld at April 24, 2010 3:35 PM
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