Once upon a time in Hollywood, the household name was D.W. Griffith. According to the text books, this man was the father of the cinema language. Today, if we were to poll the public and choose his successor, we’d go with Steven Spielberg by a landslide. He made E.T. which is one of the best movies ever… and Jaws, and Saving Private Ryan, and Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones… you get the idea. So, he’s got the goods to get the title, but does that mean he should be allowed to dictate how the entire system works, to erect unnatural barriers to entry into the market, and dictate who qualifies to be “in” in Hollywood?
Fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money, or to go to compete at Sundance and possibly get one of the specialty labels to release their films theatrically, publicly, and more of them are going to let the SVOD businesses finance their films, maybe, with the promise of a slight, one week, you know, theatrical window to qualify them for awards.
As a former college director who went through a curated four-semester program and finished my time at this top 5 American film program by financing my thesis on credit cards and emergency student loans, I can tell you that a run in Sundance or any other Tier A festival is easier said than done… unless you have deep pockets. And let’s be careful of how we use the word “competition” since the original meaning is so essential to western life and the ideal of opportunity for all.
Once upon a time in America, 25% of the theatrical screens were reserved for indie films. By the time the new millennia crept up on us, the studio Majors had begun to covet the financial success of indie directors from the 90’s. Previously they had not given any attention to this niche market, but after the original owners sold to giant conglomerates, the new owners soon re-classified indie film as a new revenue stream. They quickly acquired the existing indie distribution companies, or if they couldn’t buy, they created one from scratch. The open market for indie films vanished, virtually, overnight. That last 25% of American screens came under the rule of Studio Hollywood along with the other 75. So, for the emerging artist, 100% of the theatrical bookings are now subject to barriers-to-entry. In social system terminology, this situation is called “Market Power,” and it’s not good.
Mr. Spielberg makes it sound as if not “competing” via Sundance and not “competing” with marketing dollars (which is in the range of 25 to 50 million dollars, on average) is a choice rather than a force of nature. The reality is that the only way for an artist to compete in the market is to have a distribution deal because it’s the distribution company that finances the marketing. But, to get one of those you have to first get accepted into Sundance (which costs money) and then hope that you get a distribution deal, and you better be able to negotiate for a good deal where the distributor agrees to put a minimum, “competitive” amount of money into the marketing. This is how you “compete” in the theatrical market… it’s all about advertising, share of voice, and cutting through the clutter with big money marketing messages.
…if by some miracle, your small production is well funded, you know somebody high up, and have access to insider-info about what’s considered “Good” by X-Y-Z festival, then your snowball just… might… make it, but only because it’s been laboriously wrapped in your carefully-constructed insider’s snowball-in-hell suit.
Let’s try another angle by using the education system as analogy, where, hypothetically getting into a tier-A festival like Sundance is based on a score, like a graded test. Where the rich kids from the rich district have the most money and Daddy spends it on education resources like tutors and family field trips to make sure that junior gets an A++. Now, on the other end of the social spectrum we have public schools, we integrate kids from all different socio-economic backgrounds because well, that’s just how we roll as leaders of the free world. Now to even the odds, tests are graded on a curve, which gives poor kids from the poor district (indie producers) a fighting chance at getting into college (Sundance). Now imagine that you take away their chances by eliminating the grade curve. That’s what happened when the majors started making art films and pouring money into courting rituals during festival season. I’ve worked for festivals in the past, and let me tell you, the amount of clutter from submissions is astounding. Also, the quality of judging varies relative to the ever increasing work load vis-a-vis the organization’s progress in recruiting more judges. It’s fair to say that bias enters into this unwieldy set of market conditions.
Many of the films that made it into the big festivals in the 1990’s would never get through today. The reason they were successful was because the festival circuit, combined with the dedicated screen space gave them a league of their own, and therefore a handicap in the market. Now that the Majors have entered the indie-game, the handicap is gone. It’s like if the NBA allowed their A teams (with massive budgets) into the D- league (with their micro budgets) and then a coach from an A-team accused the B-teams of gaming the system because they found a new way to compete by the implementation of a new handicap. The film industry is plagued by a lack of parity between the different players in the market. It’s a playing field where shallow pockets have not a snowballs chance in hell of making it into the championship. I guess, if by some miracle, your small production is well funded, you know somebody high up, and have access to insider-info about what’s considered “Good” by X-Y-Z festival, then your snowball just… might… make it, but only because it’s been laboriously wrapped in your carefully-constructed, insider snowball-in-hell suit. It’s not a unique notion that inclusion at Sundance and the other tier-A festivals is no longer a reasonable expectation for the average small producer. Nor is it a unique problem for filmmakers. The traditional American way of “equal voice” has given way to “money talks,” and this progression has been building momentum since the beginning of the industrial revolution (See market system history.) The co-opting of indie film by entertainment industry conglomerates like General Electric and Viacom is just a fresh example of a stale problem, and it’s a disturbing one at that.
Blake is a filmmaker based in Austin, TX