Peak Indie

I’ve been trying to watch the new season of Project Greenlight on HBO, and really struggling with it. Something fundamental seems to have changed in the 10 years since the last season, and even moreso since the beginning of the series in 2001.

Back then there seemed to be something earnest and heartfelt about the show, as it attempted to shepherd an eager young aspiring filmmaker through the process of making an Actual Movie. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were our guides, pulling back the curtain of tinsel-town mystery to reveal all the nitty-gritty details of the feature filmmaking process over the course of (I think) 20-some episodes; the baffling and overwhelming multiplicity of variables that must align for a movie to turn out well.

The producers of this new season of Project Greenlight seem genuinely uninterested in the process of making a movie, except as a backdrop for interpersonal drama. The only interesting choice made this season so far (I think I’ve watched the first five or six episodes) is the director they selected from among the thousands of applicants (or supplicants?) – a perfect stand-in for every entitled, millenial, privileged white male 30-ish film snob that is clogging up the industry with their MFAs and their high-minded ideas of film as art, shooting 35mm rather than digital, etc.. The show barely contains its contempt for this quietly abrasive dude, and this ultimately seems to be the whole point of the season, to mock his hubris and chart his downfall.

If I were to give the show the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that it’s possible that they were already midway through filming before they realized that “How to Make a Movie” isn’t a novel subject for a reality show or docu-drama anymore. It has been thoroughly documented; in addition to the How-To books that have been around for years, these days there are many thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes featurettes (which used to be DVD extras, I’m not sure how they’re packaged now) along with Youtube videos, other making-of shows, etc..

In 2001 it was still possible to be benignly curious about how movies are made; today, if you actually want to know, you can just find out easily enough on the internet. In addition, the equipment is far more available to the general populace; a few hundred dollars will get you a pretty good DSLR, and some video editing software is included with most new computers.

This began, perhaps, with digital video cameras, which were still pretty new in 2001 – the film program at USC, which I attended from 1997-2001, was just beginning to invest in Canon XL-1 DV cameras and Adobe Premiere edit suites, which are now ubiquitous at colleges and high schools as well.

Today pretty much anyone can get their hands on filmmaking equipment (phones today shoot better video than a $150,000 broadcast-quality video camera ten years ago) at pretty much any age, and meanwhile hundreds of film programs have been churning out thousands of new graduates per year, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. As a result, lots and lots of people know how to make movies, and they are actually doing it – generating content in unprecedented quantity, at a higher basic quality overall, too, than was possible ten years ago.

Roughly 12,000 films were submitted to Sundance this year, compared to 862 in 2001. Now, 862 is still a lot, but 12,000 is a truly staggering quantity… in 2001 it was theoretically possible for one person, watching three features per day, to get through every submission in a year. Today, watching at that same pace, it would take eleven years to watch one year of submissions.

I think it’s a good thing that anyone who wants to make a movie today can make a movie. And it doesn’t actually bother me at all that they’re not all good movies. Anyone who is using their own free time and discretionary resources gets to make whatever they want, for whatever reason, and call it art or messing around or person expression or therapy – god bless.

But along with the change in accessibility, a shift in motivation is not just a good idea, it’s inevitable. All 12,000 of those movies will not succeed, according to any traditional definition or metric of success. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day, for any of us, let alone the juries and audiences of the (also proliferating) film festivals around the world.

Those 12,000 filmmakers have no doubt poured blood, sweat, tears, favors, time, energy and cash x12000 into these projects, and IF the ultimate goal of each one is packed auditoriums, awards, distribution deals, wide theatrical release, a career directing George Clooney… well, that is both individually and globally unsustainable for any length of time, for even one year, let alone over the course of a decades-long career. Which means, by my estimation, that at least 11,900 of those filmmakers will be disappointed, perhaps devastated. And that’s A LOT of devastation. Granted it’s only art, or entertainment, and hopefully not too many second mortgages were taken out in these pursuits.

100 happy people (generously) and 11,900 devastated people isn’t a net gain for humanity, it’s actually adding a lot of stress, struggle, churn, and strife to the cultural equation. If the potential viewing audience isn’t big enough, could never be big enough to accommodate all of those artistic visions, what can possibly be done to bring this back into balance?

  1. Most of those people can stop making movies. This may happen regardless, but only after many of them give up, run out of steam and resources. In a lot of cases I have seen this cause frustration, anguish, anger, depression, and can lead to a general turning away from artistic pursuits. “I tried, I failed, I’m not good at this, I give up.” – is a familiar train of thought to most anyone, especially an aspiring artist.
  2. We can adjust our expectations, hopes and dreams. Not necessarily in terms of what we choose to make as artists, but in how we expect it to be received by the world.

I can easily hear the Heroic voice of dissent raging against this idea, that change is required, that we’re doing more harm than good to ourselves and our culture. The heroic impulse has been ingrained in me as much as anyone: “so what if there are 12,000 submissions to the festival? That just means mine has to be THE BEST of all those 12,000!”

Well, fine. From deep in the trenches of a heroic worldview, that is a valid response, perhaps the only culturally acceptable response, that we’ve been trained to believe, that will keep pushing us forward to the point of desperation. But when it doesn’t work out for 11,900 of us ardent art heroes, then what? Generally speaking, chalk it up to a heroic learning experience, call it your second-act low point, and try to muster the resources to regroup for your heroic comeback. If that’s not possible, you’re in trouble.

But the thing about #2, above, is that you actually get to keep making movies. Whether or not you are the big global success you dreamed of being. Filmmaking doesn’t have to be a high-stakes, winner-take-all equation, a pyramid that can only accommodate a couple dozen heroes at the peak.

Historically, when huge deposits of gold were discovered in California, a few intrepid people were in the right place at the right time, were also hard workers, smart, tenacious – they were able to capitalize on this unique moment in history, this abundance of resources, and it allowed them to prosper and become wealthy and successful.

Many thousands of people, inspired by their example, came afterwards and had a wide range of experiences, everything from great to moderate success to utter bankruptcy and destitution. To this day there are still people in the world mining and panning for gold, and some probably earn a living. Nobody is telling them to stop – they get to decide that this is how they will spend their time and energy, and that there’s some value in it, for them and perhaps for the world.

Ditto striking oil in Texas, fracking in North Dakota, and in a somewhat more abstract sense, “discovering” innovations in finance on Wall Street and designing apps in Silicon Valley. There was, no doubt, a beautiful time and place where a new field of possibility was opening up, new resources being discovered and/or new technologies available to exploit those resources… each time, there were smart people in the right place at the right time, got there first, took advantage, and reaped the epic benefits.

And in each of these examples, it wasn’t JUST the miners or frackers or coders who benefitted. Whole economies inevitably grow up around these speculators and entrepreneurs to meet their needs for tools, equipment, fuel, lodging, food, shipping, etc. The people providing these secondary goods and services often do as well, or better, than those actually digging or drilling away, in search of gold or oil.

I haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact moment of Peak Indie, but I’m firmly convinced that it happened sometime in between 2001 and today. I was at the Cannes Film Festival as an intern in 2002 and 2003, and even back then I heard plenty of whispering and grumbling that the financial foundations of the glamorous scene were already beginning to deteriorate – there was far less money for worldwide distribution each year. I haven’t been to one of these high-profile festivals in quite a while, but my guess is that the pervasive mood these days is some combination of desperate and grim. Not among the headliners, mind you, but in the much more financially substantive Film Market area of the festival, where the actual deals are struck.

There are thousands upon thousands of filmmakers, many with pedigrees from top-tier film schools, who can perhaps scrape together the resources for a first or second feature, but have no hope of a sustainable, long-term career as a feature film director. And, many more aspirants continue to pour into the independent film ecosystem each year, because the ancillary economies, the support services, are still making money; the film schools, the manufacturers of cameras, lights and accessories, the festivals themselves (who charge for film submissions and for tickets to screenings), certainly Netflix and Amazon and V.O.D. subscription services for the handful of movies that make it even that far.

I would never advise anyone to stop making movies. I love making movies, I teach these skills, and I think they can be tremendously powerful and valuable. Neither would I advise anyone to stop panning for gold, drilling for oil or designing apps, if that’s what makes them really happy and they can do it sustainably, without harming themselves or anyone else.

But the gold rush has passed, the fracking boom has passed, Peak App is coming any day now… and Peak Indie certainly came and went at least a decade ago. We can each do what we want with our creative energies, but we can’t will more gold into the ground or bigger audiences into movie theaters – and apparently, neither can Matt Damon or Ben Affleck, in spite of all their movie stardom and Oscars.

If this season of Project Greenlight makes any sense to me at all, it’s as a sort of misguided elegy for a mythical era in Hollywood called the 1990s, when genius was routinely discovered among piles of random submissions to festivals and contests, and a star film director could be lifted up by the benevolent hand of the industry, a million dollar budget, and a reality tv show on HBO.

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