Monday, September 22, 2014

In Defense of Unmarketable Films

When I put on my producer hat, it is often for projects that could be categorized as risky. Or unconventional. Or, if one is being less polite, unmarketable. And, being a person who tries to make a habit of looking at the world through multiple perspectives, I can understand that categorization and how it makes potential investors, production companies, even actors, a bit nervous to get involved. Even if they personally like it, they worry that they will be in the minority; that their money/time/reputation is on the line for something that might just not play to the masses.

I'm really glad I saw Welcome to the Dollhouse. I'm really glad I saw SafeMe and You and Everyone We Know. Schizopolis. American Astronaut. Pi. George Washington. Pink Flamingos. Memento. I'm glad these films exist. But if you were to look at these films on paper--their market potential, the established success of similar movies--would any of them have been considered a safe financial bet? Doubtful. Does that factor in to whether they should have been made? I don't believe it does.

These films and many more like them, while perhaps not for everyone, made an impact on the world of cinema. They challenged audiences and influenced a generation of filmmakers to try weird shit. Challenging norms is important. Sometimes this translates into mainstream success, when filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky and Stephen Soderbergh are given their shots at bigger projects and the freedom to incorporate their sensibilities and they end up shifting the way movies are made in Hollywood.

But some people don't make a weird indie films in an effort to gain entry into the larger industry. Some filmmakers can't be (or don't want to be) contained in that universe because their vision is not designed to be mass produced or marketed. John Waters, Todd Solondz, Miranda July, Cory McAbee. Their filmmaking is driven by something less definable--to push at the boundaries of things, to explore the crevices, to scratch an obscure itch, to poke, prod, provoke. They have something to add to the conversation that is truly different--something people may not even realize is missing from the current landscape until this new and unique thing comes along.

New and unique don't work in the marketing paradigm of our current system. Today's marketing is all about reaching out to a known, definable audience and building from there. A book sold well--let's adapt it. A movie did great business--time for a sequel. There's a beautiful foreign film that Americans will never watch because they hate subtitles--take the reading part out and remake it in English! Find something that people already like and then feed it to them again in a new form. It may be solid business sense, but how many times can you regurgitate something before it's completely inedible?

We are living in a particularly risk-averse time. People are downloading movies for free, no one is going to theaters, and distributors are making way, way, WAY less money than they used to. What that means is that they are spending less money on fewer acquisitions. What that means is that the people who finance films in the first place are seeing less return and getting more cautious about what they invest in. Which translates to those financiers trying to determine which films are the safest, what attachments will bring what amount of sales in foreign markets, what movie this movie is like and how can we tap into that audience that already liked that other thing and get them to come back for more. The people who invest in art for art's sake are pretty busy trying to keep theater, opera and ballet afloat. What time do they have for the less noble world of for-profit cinema?

You can say that these films are small and niche and should be budgeted accordingly, but what about that ambitious new idea that simply can't be pulled off for a micro-budget? Should it just not get made?

I don't know the answer to these questions. All the arguments for familiarity, consensus, and repetition of patterns follow a financial logic that I can't really argue with as a person with no capital on the line. But there's this nagging question that escapes that line of reasoning: If no one supports the visionaries, what will become of the visions?


  1. Meg, awesome points about the business chain involved and why shifts are occurring that make me sad. It's good to have these illuminated.

  2. my answer to your questions to the above is this:

  3. Excellent article. As a female writer/director who just finished the process of distributing my first feature, Gone Doggy Gone, I am now painfully aware of all you said above. It's funny to think in 2013 when I began this process, I was so naive to all of it. I looked to the Duplass brothers as a model for my career trajectory. I thought if I made a quality, personal film and won festival awards I would be immediately on my way to being a paid writer/director. I now know I am one of a small percentage who even aquires distribution at the indie level, but that if I see a dime from my mid-level distributor for my R-rated, dark, dog comedy it will be a miracle. I also know, in going into my second film that I have to continue making movies that are uniquely me, that I feel a connection with, because I know that there are other people out there that will be drawn to it as well. Because of this, I am also dealing with the struggle of securing financing, knowing where to turn. Regardless, when I go back to my EMT job everyday, I still feel excited knowing there are others out there like me who keep plugging along despite the environment we find ourselves in, excited remembering the making of my first film, and thrilled when I read my next script and think about being on set again doing what I love to do, share stories.