In college, we didn’t dwell on the reality that 7 out of 10 movies fail at the box office. Instead we focused on being the next Stephen Spielberg, or Howard Hawks, or Quentin Tarantino. When you undertake such a risky endeavor, lessons learned back in your “younger days” tend to bubble up to the surface…”believe in yourself.” As you put one foot in front of the other, maintaining a positive self-image, you project this optimism onto your path like a light directing your sure-footed progress. Your belief is that when the universe delivers her call-to-action, your fearless acceptance of your assignment, this journey, an endeavor fraught with risk will certainly secure your destiny. You’ll get your place at the table of your chosen craft, after all, you did ante-up. You made a conscious decision, come what may, to follow your inner voice and diverge from a more secure, more conventional path. Surely, this act of reverence could not be ignored by the career Gods. Well, graduation came and went and no industry folks came out to see how you were coming along with everything, the film, your creative process, your post-graduation plans, or ask if you wanted to come out to the coast to apprentice and learn the ropes? Then you were proactive and reached out to the industry upon graduation. Positions were available and you signed up, but when it came time to accept your reward in the form of a more challenging assignment and the chance to advance up one more rung on the ladder of industry respect, you were met with denial in the form of these ubiquitous words: “You don’t get respect until you earn it.” Sounds fair to the naive young adult because you can’t be sure that you aren’t overlooking something , but after 15 years of drinking that cool-aid, it becomes clear that this attitude does not speak any truth. Rather, it’s just run-of-the-mill caprice, courtesy of the entertainment industry ego. It’s not good-natured advice or constructive criticism intended to help the next generation. It’s simply another Ogre that rears its ugly head from time to time. True, it’s only one of many obstacles, but it’s a BIG one. Some obstacles are natural barriers to entry in which case, I don’t hate that, but this one is not a natural barrier. It’s one constructed to keep you out. The result is that, in the end, even our best and brightest, who worked diligently to pay their dues, can’t expect to receive a real opportunity. So my question is, after all that work, how the hell do to you get a shot in the biz? In a market dominated by a few monolithic conglomerates and living in an era where corporate conscience is more exception than rule, only one answer comes to mind; get lucky (or, if you don’t like that you could always adopt this mantra: “The people who rise to the top are those willing to do what their competitors are not.”
“I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nominations”
“Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation,” said an Amblin spokesperson. “He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.”
– Anne Thompson – IndieWire
That describes the goings-on in the lair of the evil overlords of the aging 20th century media industry. Meanwhile, across the cities…. in the basements of run-down office buildings all across the country… the recent film school grad works his craft. After all that rejection… Why? What’s the point? Our hero can’t possibly compete with the majors, the owners of all the distribution channels in the land, right? Right! At least, that’s how it used to be around the year 2000. Fast forward 15 years and there’s great news for the intrepid artist who never lost hope. Technological advances have given new distributors the ability to offer alternative media platforms and have totally changed the distribution game. For example, Amazon and Netflix with their streaming and Video-On-Demand (SVOD) services are now so big that they dwarf the Majors. We should commend the Academy because the current rules give small firms a shot at competing with the majors by virtue of the quality of the story being told. Because technology has eliminated old guard barriers-to-entry, in 2019 we saw a small film get nominated for 10 awards and it walked away with three. That is true competition. In academic terms, what we’re seeing is an increase in atom-ism in the market. Granted, it would have been nice to see Roma in the theater, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the story and the execution of the script.
…but after 15 years of drinking that cool-aid, it becomes clear that this attitude does not speak any truth. Rather, it’s just run-of-the-mill caprice, courtesy of the entertainment industry ego. It’s not good-natured advice or constructive criticism intended to help the next generation. It’s simply another Ogre that rears its ugly head from time to time.
While Spielberg is clearly a veteran filmmaker, it’s also true that not even he knows everything. One thing that he’s overlooked is the American principles that provide for our egalitarian society and emerging filmmakers are people too. Egalitarianism is guaranteed by a revolutionary social system that got its start back in the early 1500’s called “The Market System”. The tenets of this system give us all responsibility to determine our own destiny, then diligently pursue it. And this is what young filmmakers have endeavored to do. But, even if we had big marketing budgets, we wouldn’t be able to compete in this environment because as artists, we focus on mythological storytelling, and myth cannot be easily tailored to a certain platform or format. In our formal training, we studied a craft; Story-Telling (notice the Capital-S.) We were taught to think outside-the-box, boot-strap it and get the film in the can, but without our own competitive league, without an indie handicap, I can’t possibly afford the advertising plan that would deliver an adequate share-of-voice (SOV) to compete in the major league. So what would be the point at learning the ropes of marketing & distribution? And, Hellooooo!… indie film wants, more than anything, to be in the theater for more than one miserable week (Otherwise, how would anyone ever experience our carefully crafted stories in their native environment?.) The reason that we’re not has nothing to do with intent, just empty pockets; no money to buy our way in. So, as the small-time entrepreneurs that came before us, we look to new technology to give us the edge we need. It’s a changing landscape and anyone who tries to prevent progress is a detriment to the future of our country.
So if Academy members get to witness a small film take on a big film, then isn’t this exactly the kind of match-up that American’s want to see? Yo Adriaaaaan!
SVOD platforms are now part of the competitive landscape, and if the Academy were to use discrimination to eliminate this small-firm competitive edge, it would be a form of market manipulation and would be considered anti-competitive by those well versed in FTC issues. If Mr. Spielberg wants competition, then he should remember that the USA has carried that flag from the beginning and as a nation, we frown on monopolies and other types of unnatural barriers-to-entry. And after all that, let’s consider what it is that we’re competing for. Is the award called most effective movie studio, best business management, most efficient advertising campaign? No, I’m pretty sure Spielberg is more concerned with awards like Best Picture. It’s all about the Craft; a craft full of techniques and traditions that we share with old-guard filmmakers who can now afford the luxury of a long theatrical run. If all I can accomplish in my thread-bare, crowd-sourcing, boot-strapping state is one week in the theater, it does not mean that my work is any less cinematic or has any less integrity relative to the tenets of the craft. All it means is that, I ain’t got no money!
If we keep marketing concerns out of the equation, then the smallest productions have a shot up against the biggest for a win. Spielberg himself should concur that the Underdog story is the most popular kind of story in recent American history. So if Academy members get to witness a small film take on a big film, then isn’t this exactly the kind of match-up that American’s want to see? Yo Adriaaaaan! It’s just like if a small market NBA expansion team made it into the finals against the deep pocketed LA Lakers. Eeeeverybooody tunes in. In the end, if the story is good, the writing is good, and the execution is good, then it deserves to be there. This opportunity is what the American people want. But it sounds like Spielberg wants to create an autocratic set of rules that will increase the power of the board of governors and weakens the members’ power. That sounds like a move away from our national principles to me. Maybe we should stick to the democratic way, which is immune to tampering, rather than giving away the farm to a board that meets behind closed doors and has all year, every year to rig the system. Let Americans (Academy members) decide which films are best rather than a small group of business insiders who are starting to sound apologist for profit-oriented traditionalism.
The SVOD platforms, in combination with existing Academy rules give underdogs like you and me a handicap which keeps a reasonable level of openness in the market. ultimately, I’d like to see the return of our homelands that were taken by force in the early 2000’s; our 25% of the theatrical market. But for now, I’d settle for just a foot in the door.
Blake is a filmmaker based in Austin, TX