by James Killough
We were doing bong hits and watching TV one night in New York City when I was a teen, sprawled out on the floor of my friend Ted’s bedroom. I’d just moved back from Rome, Italy, a culturally confused Ameropean, and I had fallen in with these rather hip actor-musician types, who either still went to or had just graduated from High School of the Performing Arts. They had all been in Fame in one capacity or other, some with lines, others without, and I, who wanted to be an actor more than anything in the whole wild world, was in adolescent awe of them.
At a certain point, Ted groaned a heartfelt prayer as he tried to find a worthy channel for us to watch: “Dear God, please don’t let me be doomed for television.” It was one of those opinion-setting comments from someone you admire as a youth, which determines your attitude forever more. That is unless culture resets itself in some unlikely manner, as it has for television in recent years.
For some time now, since at least The Sopranos, original content made for premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime, which were originally set up to screen feature films that had recently been released in cinemas without commercial interruption, has been raising the bar on what viewers expected from TV. But in the past couple of years the tables have turned completely: TV is now officially cooler than theatrical motion pictures.
A perfect storm of circumstances lead to this shift, this cultural resetting. With revenues from theatrical releases and DVDs shrinking, the studios have been taking fewer chances than ever, and they were never very adventurous to begin with, or not since Spielberg invented the blockbuster and its ancillary income streams for merchandizing, theme parks and the like. Since the recession began, it has become nearly impossible to set up a film unless it is a ‘tentpole’ or a sequel that is part of a franchise, often created by that tentpole.
In other words, the crap from the studios just keeps getting crappier. Over the past twenty years or so, the blockbuster has been offset by the rise of quality indie film, but that sector of the business has been even more severely affected by the economic crisis.
The reason is, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, an indie film deal is rarely financed from a single source, in part because of the huge costs involved even on a “low budget” production, but also because you need to mitigate the risk for a single individual or company, or it’s just too scary.
There are usually at least four or five financing components in an indie deal, whereas the studios either bankroll a film completely themselves, or with just a few financing companies, rarely individuals. A crucial component, and the most difficult to obtain, is the private equity financing, usually form the discretionary capital of a high-net-worth individual. In other words, you have to find some rich guy to close the deal by writing a check from his own stash, which he can afford to risk completely, or at the very least not expect to recoup for ten years.
Very few businessmen are up for that sort of scenario, which is why we often find ourselves in bed with some unsavory characters sporting heavy Russian accents.
You can buy or even build a very nice house—in some instances a sizable hotel—with what it costs to make an hour-and-a-half indie feature film, so it has always been supremely challenging to scrounge up private equity financing. When the crisis hit in the fall of 2008, and gazillion trillions of private wealth were wiped out across the globe, what was supremely challenging became well nigh impossible.
If you were a lucky indie filmmaker with a great track record, let’s say an Alexander Payne or a Christine Vachon, you went scurrying into premium cable TV, he with Hung, she with Mildred Pierce. If you didn’t have that record, you were basically left out in a long Siberian winter with no shelter. Even seasoned TV showrunners—producers who create and deliver content to networks—were now being crowded out by the Sundance refugees looking for a decent paycheck in an environment that not only allowed them to create their style of content—more cerebral, creative, edgier—but allowed that content to expand beyond the feature film theatrical time limit.
With the lead times that we have in making theatrical product, i.e., at least a couple of years from script to release, I’m guessing that what we are seeing now in theaters—basically crap even from the indie sector, side by side with the even-safer crap from the studios—is the knock-on effect of having the independent sector effectively shut down for a few years, from the fall of 2008 till now.
This is good for super-small films that might not have had a theatrical release in the crowded indie pre-bust heyday, like Anson Mount’s Cook County, which was released last weekend despite having been made four years ago. That is a production I happen to be familiar with, but I’m sure there are plenty of films out there with similar circumstances.
The domestic box office is currently down almost seven percent over this time last year, which itself was down over the year before. This isn’t good news for the studio crapmeisters, but maybe they need to look at the quality of their content rather than blaming shifting consumer trends and the economy.
This is because consumers are now being spoiled by the former perennial second-rate-geek-turned-cool-kid-on-the-block: television. Why spend money on predictable schlock in the theaters when you can sit at home and watch better for free, or get a whole month’s worth of premium content for what it costs to take the family to a single 3D film?
Even the award contenders have so far been relatively dismal; I can’t recollect a year quite like this, when I’ve just had zero enthusiasm for the race. For instance, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and Scorsese’s Hugo have both been nominated for Best Dramatic Picture Golden Globes. The former is even more boring and predictable than Payne’s Sideways, which at least benefited from the brilliantly odd pairing of Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church, and the latter should at most be given technical or design awards. If the other nominees for Best Picture—The Help, The Ides of March, Moneyball, and War Horse—are indicative of the best of the past year, I get a feeling I’m not turning on the TV in February to watch the Oscars. That is, unless the best film of the year, which has so far been overlooked in the States but is sweeping awards in Europe, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, somehow makes it into the running.
Truth be told, I actually don’t turn on the TV for anything; I usually go sit in a bar to watch the Academy Awards and show off my knowledge to my fellow drunks. I either download or watch TV shows on DVD, so that I can follow the narrative unbroken in its entirety, a whole season in a few sittings. And I have seen some truly brilliant shows over the past year: Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Damages, American Horror Story, Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, to name a few. I look forward to catching up on those I haven’t yet seen, like Homeland. There is nothing I’m excited about coming up in cinemas, not even Iron Lady.
But for those of us indie folk left out in the cold the past few years, relief for our frostbite is in sight, if not already here. A producer friend of mine, who had to take a low-level job at a major studio under her married name in case they Googled her and found out she really wasn’t low level, brought to my attention a few months ago the fact that Video On Demand (VOD) was riding in to save the day.
At first I was skeptical about this, until I read industry reports about the numbers: VOD is now delivering revenues on average four times the amount of what a middling indie success can expect at the box office. This isn’t great news at all for the studios because their crap costs too much to make for these numbers to have the kind of effect on their bottom line as it has on ours.
What this means is that we who make low-budget content can plug in verifiable numbers from VOD sales into revenue forecasts and give investors a far more reasonable expectation of not only recouping their money, but actually making a profit. This is almost like that scene in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when the wicked witch flees, winter thaws and spring bursts forth.
While I doubt that sitting at home watching something I’ve created air on TV can ever match the excitement of seeing it screened in a theater, the fact that the boob tube is now the cool tube is a good thing: looking down my nose at it was beginning to make me cross-eyed. And anything that shakes up the film business and forces it from complacency is welcome.