Independent Films vs Studio Funded – A Comparison Of Time And Dollars

By Julian Phillips

George Lucas was quoted somewhere or other in recent years, concerning digital film-making, in his feeling that tomorrow’s films will not only be created on digital-formats, but theatrical screens will also go digital. But just because it’s not celluloid, doesn’t mean it’s an independent film, at all. The new generation 24p HD cameras and the so-called ‘Red’-cameras, are routine as seen in Lucas’ later ‘Star Wars’ films, or popular films like ‘The Hobbit’ (2012), ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ (2012), ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (2012), and others—these entirely filmed on digital (Wikipedia).

Here’s a look at some recent comparative cost/revenue figures for independent feature films, vs. studio-funded films, or higher-budget movies, with a focus on this year’s under-dog indie, ‘The Artist’. Keep in mind, it’s not always clear what the term ‘independent’ really means, related to film production. Low-budgets are common, but often feature films are produced ‘outside Hollywood’ with budgets of a million dollars or more, and celebrity talent, too. As competition for audience-share and revenue remains very much the same (or, you might say, ‘demand’), the ‘supply side’ is changing dramatically, due to very low-cost digital cameras and new non-liner, non-film, non-analog editing/storage systems. From a business-model view, or an entrepreneur’s view, it is fascinating; from a creative-artist’s view, it can be very frustrating. Do audiences win, or lose? Let us consult the crystal ball.

One of the best websites I have found online for Indie Film-Makers, is Indie-Wire, or www.indiewire.com. They really do a good job, with lots of information, reviews, news, analysis and details. It’s all somewhat a run for the roses in the world of these kinds of small films. Everyone enjoys the process, the actors and stories, the scripts and art-work, the music, the prestige and social-status, parties sometimes, and the technology, lights-camera-action, the passion, and even sometimes pretty darn good money. Indie-Wire lists box-office for twenty-one ‘Indie’ films, for the week of December 8. Notice that the production/distribution companies are very well-known: The Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Strand Releasing, Paramount Vantage. Not-so ‘outside Hollywood’ at all for these.

Predictably, the better-funded and distribution-guaranteed films do better. Check out ‘The Artist’, from Weinstein Co., directed by Michel Hazanavicius, and with a star-power cast that includes favorites like John Goodman, Malcom MacDowell, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller. Wow, what a project! The Weinstein Company are hardly beginners. The film was released on Nov. 23, and is now showing at six locations or on six ‘screens’, (domestic) with a total gross-revenue of about $500,000. The story is about a silent-film era creative and his love-life. So, what was the production budget? How about $12 million, according to IMDb? But wait, it gets even more ‘independent’. The October opener in Europe had the film on 240 screens. By November, theaters with ‘The Artist’ in France alone numbered almost 500 venues. Euros poured in. Admissions, again in France (from IMDb), close to five-million, paying to see the film. Thus, foreign revenue since October, more than $13-million; domestic (US), $544,000. The film-company made their money back in less than three months, everyone had a good time, everyone was paid, and the year ahead looks good for all sorts of financial exploitation of a wonderful film.

Truly depressing for many thousands of much-smaller film-makers, with their craving lust and billowing hot fumes, to crash their way into the same levels of success. This is not even a very ‘big’ film. The new Harry Potter film, and the new ‘Transformers’ film, are both topping $350-million gross-revenues at more than 4,000 theaters, since late summer, four or five short months in release. Other recent indie films on Indie-Wires box-office (‘Shame’, ‘A Dangerous Method’, ‘The Descendants’) are doing about the same as ‘The Artist’, domestically, or much less.

A 90-minute feature film can be created these days for very little money, even almost nothing, if you have the tech-gear and determination. But when ‘independent’ means films like ‘The Artist’, with budgets far bigger than ‘Gone With The Wind’ (at about $4-million in 1939), and distribution-release ‘machinery’ built on many years of higher-level audience-share success (the Weinstein’s? Who?), other doors and business-model approaches are being attempted, as a sort of ‘consolation prize’ for disappointed film-students, with all their billowing hot fumes and passion for success of their own.

 Not the tech-gear, not the cool digital cameras, not the easy non-linear PC edit-systems, not the way-advanced FX or animation apps, not the do-it-yourself talent, casting, scripts and stories, music. Business-revenue models. And what is really new here, for those who are maybe too independent, for the independents, to depend on ever making a living from their hard work, skill, talent and studies?

Someone said, “A society is judged on the basis of the quality of its mercy.” Much could be said, and hopefully this Blog can review the topic more fully later. Many ideas and concepts, especially for online Internet ‘revenue’ models, have moved ahead. The TriggerStreet, or Project Greenlight, or Doritos Super-Bowl Video Contest models, and many others, continue to sustain interest. Willy Nelson’s, Robert Duvall’s and James Cann’s OpenFilm.com has a huge potential; small film-makers post their work online, and views or downloads are rewarded with a cash-account, from money viewers who choose to enjoy the works can pay, online. Merciful movie money for the masses? Or just another online concept that comes and goes? Too many of these to list, some private, some totally unknown, some on shaky financial turf or with revenue-models that seem to make no sense, some with really no audience, no famous-names, crappy ‘http’ work, even hopeless, and then ‘Gone With The Wind’ as well. But just like FaceBook vs. MySpace, or a hot wet spaghetti-noodle tossed against the kitchen wall, something will probably eventually stick, and could define ‘new media’ for much smaller films than ‘The Artist’, for many years into tomorrow.

Be there or be square at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, 2012, where ‘The Artist’ will receive the Sonny Bono Vision Award.

        –Julian Phillips


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