“We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.”
Last week saw the full publication of the Producers’ Roundtable report, a state-of-the-indie-nation survey, conducted and compiled by fellow producers Loran Dunn, Helen Simmonds and Sophie Reynolds. This caused quite the response from film industry participants, and told a pretty bleak tale of undercapitalised companies, a hand-to-mouth existence through production (and particularly in development) and production fees being the first thing to go in any budget squeeze.
Most troubling of all is the opinion of 82% of respondents that being a film producer has had a damaging effect on their mental health. The survey doesn’t set out to determine cause and effect, and it’s possible that natural risk takers are both drawn to the profession, and are more likely to have mental wellness challenges. However, irregardless, this is a troubling snapshot of our industry. None of these things is particularly surprising. Producing sits on the cusp of creativity and commerce – both spheres that have massive attrition rates for startup businesses and professional artists of all disciplines. There’s also an argument – made vocally across social media and in the comments on Screen – that there’s a kind of Darwinism at work. Nobody is entitled to become a producer, any more than they have a right to make their living through interpretive dance or free-jazz trumpeting. If people aren’t buying your shit, then maybe it’s time to find another gig.
The flaw with this argument is that it assumes a level playing field, a fair market. It assumes that the best projects will find their audiences regardless, and that the gatekeepers of production have an unerring instinct for what the public wants. And if you believe that, I have a prize-winning literary adaptation with an A-list director and cast for you. Going cheep (sorry). “Nobody knows anything!” shrug the execs channelling William Goldman, but it’s evident enough that the gulf between the clubby industry incumbents and those seeking to do something different is a mile wide. Entrepreneurship at large is a rigged game - and creative entrepreneurship even more so.
The systemic flaws in the way the British industry functions are worthy of a book rather than a paragraph in a blog post, so I’m not going to try and dissect that here. However, squint hard enough, and there are some really encouraging signs to see. The unpromising (on paper) Bait has blown past the furthest box office expectations anyone could ever have had for it. Admittedly, the release was underwritten by the BFI, but the sheer legwork Mark Jenkin put personally into promoting the film was exceptional. Frankly, if I put the DVD on, I half expect him to turn up at my front door with a bucket of stock and a cheery “Alroight boy!”
Blue Story was another notable success, although I’m not sure if the BBC or Paramount entirely anticipated the cycle of outrage, reaction and notoriety that surely helped it to box office north of £4m in the UK. However, the biggest driver was the fact that Rapman had already developed an audience and following through his innovative music-drama trilogy Shiro’s Story, which at time of writing has clocked up over 22 million views on YouTube.
Now both these films received ‘establishment’ support, and they are both exceptional, by which I mean they are outliers for indie-minded British productions. But the compelling takeaway is that the audiences are out there – there are people who want to hear what Jenkin and Rapman have to say, and they’re willing to get out to the cinemas and pay for the privilege.
Can alternative models of distribution emulate these films without hefty funding from traditional sources? Instinctively and intellectually I’d say yes, practically I’m yet to see it. Channels of distribution are no longer the preserve of the establishment, with direct VoD and a greater acceptance of event cinema and roadshows leading the way. It’s simultaneously awesome and dispiriting that Ryan Kaji earned c. $26m on YouTube last year for unpacking toys. So we can observe both the viability of the channel – and its model that fails to reward more adult fare. But it shows possibilities, we just have to work out how to exploit them.
At Greenlit, we are trying to break down the barriers between filmmaker, audience and funding. Crowdfunding is not a panacea – yet. We don’t have a magic bullet, a foolproof recipe for success, or much of anything yet – beyond a conviction that there’s a better way for filmmakers to do this. Most producers I work with, unless they’ve come from distribution, have a generally slight grasp on the principles and practice of marketing, until it’s reframed as “finding your audience”. Equipped with that insight, you can then move on to seeing which of the functions of a traditional distributor you can start to integrate into your own business model.
Believe me – there are thousands of people out there who want to hear what you have to say as a creator, as a team. The challenge is to discover, then build and sustain a relationship with them. If you can absorb this – along with everything else a producer has to do (!) – then maybe this is just, perhaps, a path to building a more sustainable production enterprise.
Greenlit, in association with Alliotts Media is hosting the Producers’ Symposium in London on 31st March. This is a networking and panel discussion event for producers, with the theme of “Building a Sustainable Production Business”. One of the comforts of the Roundtable report was that the most positive factor that kept producers going was the support of peers, so we're trying to galvanise that with a series of real-world events for producers to network and hear from prominent industry voices.
The event is invitation-only, and is open to producers who have made at least one feature film, and currently has one or more features in development. The event is also supported by Performance Insurance and Centtrip. Invitations are going out over the course of the next couple of weeks, but if you haven’t had one yet, and want to apply for a place, you can register your interest here.
Postscript: if you haven’t caught it yet, check out Dolomite Is My Name on Netflix, with Eddy Murphy in one of the best performances of his career. There are plenty of films about filmmaking that we all love – 8 ½ and Ed Wood for me – but this is the best, and probably only film I’ve ever seen about the challenges of becoming a vertically-integrated production and distribution outfit.
Post-Postscript: the quote in the headline ironically comes from Walt Disney - but I thought it was somehow appropriate here. Perhaps better articulated by Loran Dunn - "Here's my radical thought on Indie Producers. We're artists, creatives & visionaries. We are driven by ideas & possibilities and the love of story - not by spreadsheets, organising and business. We want to make work that resonates, impacts & inspires, but we need help to do that".