Indie Film Blues
The skinny on ciné
Mynette Louie ’97 is an independent film producer based in New York City. Since beginning her career with a post-college weekend stint as a production assistant, she has co-produced Andrew Bujalski’s critically acclaimed Mutual Appreciation (2004) and produced several narrative short films by minority women directors. Her most recent feature film, Children of Invention (www.childrenofinvention.com), about two Chinese-American children left to fend for themselves after their mother is arrested, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and has won Grand Jury Prizes at festivals from Newport to Los Angeles. Despite that success, the movie has struggled to find an audience or turn a profit in an uncertain time for the independent film world.
KH: Explain what’s so challenging for independent filmmakers about the current environment.
ML: The do-it-yourself movement has revolutionized filmmaking and made it really cheap for people to make movies. Everybody’s doing it now. There’s a glut of content, so it’s a buyer’s market for distributors.
A lot of movies are not getting distribution—and if you can’t get distribution, it’s really hard to make back your budget and recoup your investors’ money. So investors are now pulling back because they realize there are a lot of films sitting on people’s shelves.
Films were getting bought out of Sundance for lots of money above their production budgets. People were getting rich off of indie film. There was a hedge fund craze, where all these funds were putting up production financing. As a result I think indie films started turning into basically low-rent studio films. They adopted the same formulas and they were not that interesting.
KH: You’ve been selling DVDs of the film at festivals and on your website—an unusual step for a film that has not been distributed yet. What went into that decision?
ML: Going into Sundance, our expectations were realistic. We understood that distributors don’t know what to do with a movie with no stars and Asian-American actors. We consulted with our executive producer, Dan Cogan [’91] of Impact Partners. It was his idea to start selling DVDs on the festival circuit. We were very hesitant about it. In previous years, if you did this, you were tainting your film. Selling DVDs prior to a theatrical release was basically an admission that you couldn’t find a distribution deal. We’ve done quite well selling the film to audiences at our festival screenings, and actually doubled the advances that any of my friends have been offered for a film. It’s still going to take a couple years to break even.
KH: Day-and-date distribution, in which a film is simultaneously released in the theater and on DVD, is generating a lot of interest. What do you think of it?
ML: I think it’s brilliant. The challenge is theater owners who are very old-school. They really believe you do theatrical first, a few months later you do DVD, a few months later you do video-on-demand [VOD], and then TV.
But I totally believe in collapsing all of those. It makes sense because studios don’t make any money selling tickets at the theater. People have acknowledged that theatrical releases are really just for marketing, and to get that New York Times review. It’s a marketing expense to play in a theater, so if you have a DVD and VOD in place, when that Times review hits, you have a lot of people reading that review, saying I want to see that, and I can buy it right now.
KH: New delivery methods have disrupted content production in every type of media. How have they affected independent film?
ML: With TiVo, VOD, iPhones, et cetera, as well as a glut of content, audiences are much more fragmented and people have shorter attention spans. I think because of that there’s been a resurgence in short-form and episodic content. You are seeing a lot of film people migrate to TV. Martin Scorsese, in fact, has a new HBO series [Boardwalk Empire, scheduled for broadcast this year].
It’s because there is more money that can be made developing episodic dramas. [In] the episodic series you can have your short, contained episodes for easy consumability, and you can build character and story, too—over a series of episodes. Everyone is saying that TV is where the best drama is happening today, and I agree.
KH: A longtime indie film executive recently said there’s a silver lining to the fragmentation of media, and it’s that because buzz—good or bad—spreads so rapidly, there’s a growing demand for quality films. Is that something you’ve noticed?
ML: People thought Snakes on a Plane, for example, was going to make so much money. But then when people actually saw it and saw how bad it was, they blogged about it and it didn’t end up doing as well as they expected. Word spreads like wildfire now, on the Internet and everywhere else, so if something does suck, you’re probably going to be dead in the water. I don’t know that the appetite for good content is different. I just think that people kill bad content.
Kevin Hartnett ’03 is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. Children of Invention opened in Boston for a “hometown run” on February 26 at the Brattle Theatre. It debuts simultaneously on March 12 in New York City (as part of a double bill at BIG Cinemas Manhattan) and in Los Angeles (at the Downtown Independent).