Wishful thinking is not a plan.
I’m currently involved in a handful of projects and have a pretty broad network, so it’s inevitable that friends and colleagues will read this piece and ask: “Is this about me?”
To that I can answer, unequivocally: YES. It’s about you. It’s about all of us.
Independent filmmaking has never been easy. Remember that scene in Die Hard where John McClane runs barefoot through broken glass? That’s close, but no cigar. Independent filmmaking is excruciating - from financing through distribution. Indie filmmakers routinely fly like valkyries in the face of factors that would crush lesser beings, so it’s understandable that they would hold out hope against hope that something will come along to break the coronavirus stranglehold on our entertainment business. Perhaps Chris Nolan riding in on a theatrically-released blockbuster, leading an army of syringes filled with an industry-saving vaccine?
I’m a big Chris Nolan fan, and I enjoyed watching Tenet in vacant theaters here in Taipei (although I rank it as my fourth favorite Nolan pic, behind Inception, Memento and The Dark Knight). But as admirable as Nolan’s windmill tilting is, his solipsistic self-indulgence isn’t the cure that folks were hoping for. In 2020, everyone already has a headache and can’t tell whether they’re coming or going. We don’t need a film which compounds that.
And then there’s the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine, which has even my most enlightened associates flirting with Trumpist thinking that a magic juice is going to burst through the wall - Kool-Aid style - and magically transport us back to 2019. It ain’t gonna happen, folks. Like everyone else, independent filmmakers and content creators face a long road through the New Normal.
The hard reality is that there ain’t gonna be no silver bullet, y’all. The notion that there will be a singular global vaccine available to the public - injected by enough people to make all this go away - is wishful thinking. There will be a hodgepodge of vaccines in different countries: unevenly distributed and surely not recognized as valid from one country to another, the way global politics are trending.
Even when legitimate vaccines are finally market-ready, they will have varying degrees of effectiveness and will not be taken by a large portion of the population, including: 1) anti-vaxxers, 2) folks like myself who vaccinate but are leery of injecting a rushed product, 3) people who cannot afford to or simply won’t bother to.
Responsible sanitizing and distancing precautions are our quickest, safest way out of this mess. Those measures are actually working in saner parts of the world. For best results, adapting your personal and professional plans to the New Normal is a better approach than relying on a slapdash wonder drug to make it all better.
To that end, let’s take a look at the coronavirus-compounded challenges facing indie filmmakers, and what to do about them...
- Financing challenges
Many prospective investors - from independent angels to corporate sponsors - are currently cash-strapped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others - by the grace of circumstance - are flush. But all are scrutinizing projects with a 2020 mindset rather than a 2019 POV.
With that in mind, two things are incumbent upon the indie film producer...
- Get your ducks in a row. If you show up like Steve Rogers at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, you won’t even have the courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson explaining things to you. You’ll be ignored. It’s a different world now. (If you’re at a loss as to what this means, see below.)
- Get your numbers down. As difficult as things have been for you before, the situation is a magnitude of order worse now. Whether or not you have money on your side - from whatever source - you want to come in “high and tight.” Your development runway and your distribution revenues depend on it.
- Development challenges
As observed here in previous posts, it’s funny how something like a global pandemic can suddenly reframe what’s important and what’s not – what’s relevant and what’s not. Those of us in the content development business can’t simply proceed as though nothing has changed. EVERYTHING has changed. But the coronavirus relevance reboot will mean different things to different viewers, and different things to different creators.
So, where to begin? Start by assuming that your 2019-era project has suddenly become an anachronism (for indeed it has), and face the following questions:
- What are audiences in the mood for now? Conversely, what have they lost their appetite for?
- What is your project’s stance vis-a-vis the virus? Why?
- How realistic and relatable is your content? Or in what ways is it refreshingly unrealistic and escapist?
Once you’ve wrapped your head around those questions and are ready to roll, you’ll be faced with the practical challenges of remote development collaboration - which you're probably already familiar with as a scrappy independent, and which are less thorny than the challenges of remote production collaboration. Speaking of which...
- Production challenges
Relatively speaking, animation productions have an easier row to hoe than live action productions, given the lack of on-set filming and the ability to more easily hunker down in remote collaboration paradigms. In early April on this blog, I noted how animation companies large and small were shifting to work-from-home strategies relatively quickly, and the trades have followed up on the continuing evolution. (Unsurprisingly, my trailblazing friend and former student Jorge Gutierrez features prominently in many of these articles.)
Initial technical hurdles related to equipment and bandwidth have been addressed in short order. What remains to be seen is whether networked, fragmented animation crews will create work that stands up with their best in-house efforts. There’s a lot to be said for the energy of interpersonal creativity, and Pixar’s structural cultivation of serendipitous meetings and unplanned collaborations has influenced animation studios around the world to good effect.
What happens when folks are Zooming in their underwear instead of chatting during volleyball under an atrium? Does the development process suffer? Does the production work lose anything? We’ll just have to wait and see. It’s been said that animating is like telling a joke and then waiting three years to see if anyone laughs. Hopefully, we won’t be watching plodding, hackneyed films in 2023 and thinking, “Yep. Coronavirus production.”
Lights, camera, infection
Live-action productions have additional challenges - the “quarantine tax” chief among them. What’s the quarantine tax? It’s the additional logistical and financial burden on your film shoot given the time & expense required to lodge and feed your cast & crew while they are quarantined before (and in many cases after) filming.
Even when filming in devil-may-care locations where quarantines are not mandated, you should factor in two weeks quarantine time on either side of your shoot (one month total) for every cast and crew member on location - assuming you’ve been able to pull a permit. That’s an extra month of accommodations, meals, compensation, etc... with personal expenses varying above and below the line.
Then there’s the million-dollar question: regardless of your willingness and ability to address the quarantine tax, when cast and crew are weighing their pandemic-era risk/reward options, will they choose to take a chance on your prospective indie Oscar bait, or will they reserve the risk for mainstream films that carry a better paycheck? In the same way that you’d probably pass on a well-paid weekend conference or week-long workshop when it requires you to do a month in solitary, your production people will make similar value judgments about your film.
Assuming you do eventually get rolling, don’t expect the pace of the shoot to resemble what you were used to prior to 2020. Irrespective of your personal risk tolerance and your ethics regarding risk to others, you’ll need to adhere to the social distancing standards of the location you’re pulling a permit in - unless you’re shooting a documentary on the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
For any producer with a modicum of self-respect and social responsibility, filmmaker Shannan Leigh Reeve’s detailed account of her attempts to establish and maintain proper social distancing while addressing the demands of live-action production is required reading. Though written back in March, it is unfortunately still quite relevant.
And then of course, there’s the dreary fact that despite your best efforts, someone on your team may test positive at any time, bringing your entire production (or a significant portion of it) to a halt.
Consequently, your coronavirus contingency plan should acknowledge and address the following...
- For the foreseeable future, productions will incur a schedule & budget hit of 20% in the best case scenario, may take twice as long and cost twice as much in the most probable scenario, OR may never finish in the worst case scenario.
- What does your production plan look like in the first two scenarios? What principles will you follow and what measures will you take if you default on your obligations in the worst case scenario?
Projects, contracts and people come and go - but reputations are forever.
- Distribution challenges
If you do manage to complete your film, you have a rather barren theatrical landscape to look forward to. Theatrical distribution has always been a daunting prospect for independent filmmakers under even the best circumstances. But indie producers tilt at the windmills because watching films in theaters is the ideal way to enjoy the full cinematic experience, a potential avenue to necessary revenue, and a doorway to industry cachet. Unfortunately, most independent films fail to achieve any of these goals.
In a 2019 article for the American Film Market, film industry analysts Stephen Fellows and Bruce Nash shared some sobering observations about the theatrical fate of 877 independent films shot in 2017 (within the context of the domestic North American market). 40% of those films received no theatrical distribution. Another 35% had a nominal release with no appreciable box office. 220 films (25%) reported box office earnings, with 1/3 of those grossing less than $100,000 USD.
Fellows and Nash conclude: “The numbers say that an independent film will, five times out of six, not go on to make much money in theaters. Knowing how to maximize revenue from the home market remains an essential skill for an independent producer.” And that’s pre-pandemic.
I wish I could quit you
Indie filmmakers are fond of touting comp reports which demonstrate how, based on the box office revenues of cherry-picked “similar” films, their own film will be successful given “modest” comparisons (which nevertheless often boldly assume exhibition in 1,000 theaters). And filmmakers still cling to those comps, even though COVID-19 has made data sets worthless across the board. (Perhaps because a comp report is like a girlfriend experience: you pay a lot for it, so you want to believe it’s true.)
As of 2020, comp reports are useless, representing a pre-pandemic cocktail of revenue streams that we will never return to in the same way. This isn’t to say that you won’t be able to pay someone who will tell you what you want to hear. Of course you will. The numbers will look great and be “objective.” But as I’ve learned from experience, the predictive math always adds up. The assumptions driving those fantasy football numbers are what make or break you. Independent producers will be lucky to screen in 10 theaters going forward, let alone 100 or 1,000. Consider the following...
Anyone with a lick of common sense will think long and hard before they put themselves into group exposure situations - such as sitting in a movie theater. When theatrical movie-going audiences are weighing their pandemic risk/reward options (a frame that reviewers are already applying), will they choose to take a chance on that prospective indie gem, or will they reserve the risk for big studio blockbusters that “must” be seen theatrically, such as Avengers: Infinity War?
Even if you’re ethically comfortable basing your revenue assumptions on the heedless congregation patterns of most Americans, you should understand that risk/reward assessments will vary by demographic. Teens and young adults, low on impulse control and high on self-gratification, will have little reservation about cramming back into theaters. Older audiences will give pause, out of consideration for what they may catch and bring home to more vulnerable family members. Overall, the sociopolitically empathetic will tend to avoid group settings more than their less altruistic countrymen.
And let’s face it - cheap horror flicks, right-wing propaganda pics and shark/tornado mashups aside - serious independent films typically cater to a more educated, more liberal, more reflective audience than big studio blockbusters. So unless you’re Michael Pack, you probably can’t bank on conservative American knuckleheads serving as coronavirus cannon-fodder to boost your theatrical revenues in the way that Donald Trump is banking on them to boost his re-election prospects.
I stream, you stream, we all stream
What about streaming? Well, that depends if you’re the streamer or the streamee. Streaming is an option for the independent filmmaker, but certainly no silver bullet. Hollywood studios and home audiences were quick to pivot to the New Normal as movie theaters closed. From Sony Pictures to NBCUniversal to Disney, studios fast-tracked their films for home SVoD and TVoD, or bypassed theatrical release altogether - a strategy that was foreshadowed in China with the online release of Bytedance’s Lost in Russia back in January (as the coronavirus crisis was unfolding there while the USA recorded its first case).
In the absence of alternatives, housebound consumers drank from the streams like parched wildebeest. Netflix viewing parties became a lockdown trend, and overall streaming traffic doubled or tripled from country to country. Desperate parents either didn’t know that their $20 USD “purchase” of Trolls World Tour was actually only a VOD rental fee good for 48 hours of viewing, or they simply didn’t care. And streaming services certainly didn’t mind racking up repeat payments to satisfy the obsessive viewing demands of restless, home-schooled children.
Any hopes that distributors had of holding out for theatrical release as life returns to “normal” have been dashed by the realities of the pandemic’s persistence. Major studios, trying their best not to ruffle Wall Street, continue to engage in a hapless game of quarterly release date nudge. Universal’s No Time to Die and Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman 1984, both repeatedly rescheduled, are currently slated for November release dates that no one believes will hold. Disney/Pixar’s Soul, recently rumored to premiere on Disney+, has also been announced for theatrical release in November (which promises to be quite a month all around). Marvel’s Black Widow has taken a more realistic stance - deferring theatrical release until the summer of 2021 - but Natasha Romanoff is nothing if not pragmatic.
Netflix has cultivated a reputation for being “indie-friendly” - not from any particular sense of altruism, but because their disruptive business model requires it (especially as rival studios such as Disney circle the wagons around their own streaming services). Independent creators have been encouraged by the “Netflix Effect” - when a new movie or series rockets to instant international exposure, catapulting unknown talent to overnight fame.
To date, rival streamers have been unable to emulate this phenomenon in quite the same way. Netflix’ content creation efforts are comprehensive, well-funded, and frequently firing on all cylinders (the Netflix original movie Bird Box was viewed by 45 million subscribers in its first weekend). What indie producer wouldn’t want a piece of that action? Very few wouldn’t, as it turns out - especially now.
Whether you’re in Burbank or Beijing, it’s a buyer’s market when it comes to content acquisition. Streamers from Netflix to iQiyi cultivate relationships with established creators and talent agencies, employ teams of executives and buyers who take pitches for series and movies, and acquire finished works at film festivals and other venues - in addition to developing and producing content internally.
The cold, hard reality is that if you haven’t been solicited by the streamers - or if you don’t have a relationship with a connected agent, producer or executive - you’re in their “consumer” category as opposed to their “creator” category. Streaming studios aren’t easy targets, and they aren’t desperate (at least not currently). That will have to wait for the next disruption.
On that note, let’s take a cue from the recent TBI Vision article on Disney’s live-action MULAN release, which observes...
“While Covid-19 has undoubtedly ushered in a new layer of disruption for the theatrical sector, it appears the conditions are increasingly priming studios to distance themselves from traditional models and begin to experiment.”
While the word “disruption” in this case refers to the relationship of major movie studios and theater chains, indie creators are free to run with that word in a way that truly disrupts and evolves the content consumption paradigm.
“The questions are the same, but the answers have changed.” - Albert Einstein
I don’t have the answers to our conundrum, but I have a direction:
Think. Outside. The box.
Superficially trite, but substantively true. In his TEDx talk, “Why the Majority Is Always Wrong”, high performance guru Paul Rulkens postulates that when people hit a wall, they typically respond either by doing more of the same or by doing less of the same, but seldom by doing things differently - even when doing so may be the most reasonable, risk-free approach.
Consider the following analogy. I’m an off-road race car driver. With my pedal to the metal, I’ve won every race to date. There’s been some risk of losing, but I’ve always prevailed by barreling ahead. I’m now approaching a cliff. If I keep the hammer down, my risk of death is certain. If I brake or pivot, I have an opportunity for survival.
“What got you here will no longer get you there.” - Paul Rulkens
Rulkens observes that if you want results you’ve never had before, you need to start doing things you’ve never done before. You need to think outside the box. The catch is that the “box” that we set for ourselves is actually a subdivision of the larger box of potentialities bounded by physical, technological, legal and moral constraints.
The first step in devising your coronavirus contingency is to recognize your box - the boundaries that may have served you reasonably well to date, but which are weak sauce for the New Normal. The second step is to think about what is important to you, what isn’t important to you, and how to promote the former while shedding the latter.
From furniture companies that decided to no longer assemble furniture for their customers (IKEA), to computer companies that decided to no longer sell computers in stores (Dell), business history is distinguished by innovative organizations that dared to defy conventions which were presumed to be central to their business models, but were actually peripheral.
“Breakthrough innovation, extraordinary results, happen when people decide to finally break the standards or the norms in their industry.” - Paul Rulkens
Business history is also marked by blinkered companies such as Kodak, who ended up filing Chapter 11 after failing to understand that they were in the imaging business, not the photographic product business. On the other hand, Kodak’s chemical addiction is apparently so strong that they now plan to start a new division, Kodak Pharmaceuticals, with the help of the U.S. government - so perhaps they’ve always been in the chemical business after all, and just needed bankruptcy and a pandemic to clear their heads.
Whatever it takes to clear your own head, you’ve always had free license to do things differently. You now also have the perfect excuse. We can thank the global pandemic for that reset button. Don’t beat yourself up over what has (or hasn’t) happened this year, but don’t let yourself off the hook either: pull your head out of the sand, dust yourself off, assess the landscape, and get to it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go follow my own advice.