I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business this week.
Although the folks at Caltech didn't see anything on their seismographs, there was an earthquake in Hollywood last week. It was just a tremor behind the studio gates, but the fault ran directly through the heart of the independent film world.
Two things happened. First, the owner of the Independent Film Channel bought the Sundance Channel. In all likelihood, they'll roll the two indie television outlets into one. Then, Warner Bros. announced it was shuttering its two specialty film divisions, Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures. So three organs important to the health of independent film shut down in one fell swoop.
The general wisdom is that it's a dark day for those of us who love movies for grown-ups. And for sure losing an indie film channel on TV is bad, there's no two ways about it. But Warner's getting out of the indie game? Maybe there's an upside.
The studios' cooptation of indie film in the last fifteen years has largely been a good thing. Companies like Disney's Miramax, Fox Searchlight and Universal's Focus Features, have brought never-imagined money, marketing savvy and distribution channels to the best – albeit most commercial – of the smaller films. The mini-majors, "indiewood" or the "dependees," as they're known, brought these films into the multiplex and a much wider audience then just the old art house crowd.
But the studios have also marginalized the more indie of the indies, making them disappear with big ad budgets and pushing them out of theaters by their power over the exhibitors. Ironically, in the modern heydey of independent film, if your movie isn't one of the lucky few to get picked up by a studio at a festival, it's likely to be pushed into an obscurity even darker than before the studios got into the indie game.
What's worse is the overall softening affect Hollywood's had on the independents. As time has passed, indiewood films have started to look a lot more like Hollywood films. Budgets crept up and stars became more and more important to the process. A strong artistic statement started to lose ground to a strong opening weekend. Little Miss Sunshine replaced A Woman under the Influence as the quintessential American independent film; foreign films started looking more like The Full Monty than Rashomon.
No one should be surprised. What we're seeing here is the age old clash of artistic and commercial interests. And the studios are not to be blamed for wanting to make money; that's their business. You can't really fault indie filmmakers who embraced the new paradigm, either. Hollywood provided respectable budgets, access to talent a certain legitimacy. Fame, glamour and Oscars have their appeal, and the idea of suffering in obscurity for your art went out with Andy Warhol.
As production and marketing costs rise, the reasons the studios got into the specialty business in the first place is becoming less and less clear. Even the occasional hit like Juno can't make up for the losses…and even when a small film does hit it big, the numbers pale in comparison to what the blockbusters make.
So, what would happen if the studios were to get out the indie business altogether – and I am not saying that's what is going to happen – but what if they did?
In many ways, the studios would leave indie film better off than they found it. There are bigger audiences then ever for non-mainstream movies and more places to see them. There's a Landmark theater in Columbus, Ohio for God's sake! According to the folks at WithoutABox.com, there are perhaps as many as 7,000 film festivals worldwide, maybe ten times the number a decade ago. And Netflix now carries 1,300 indie film titles.
I acknowledge that the withdrawal of the studios from the indie business would mean hard times for indie filmmakers. Fewer films would get made and those that did would have to settle for smaller budgets. But I would argue that it also might mean a return to the independent spirit of truly independent film.
We'll have more about the future of indies with some of the major players in the business next week on The Business, Monday at 230pm.