10th Annual Business of Film Conference
Presented by the Southwest Alternate Media Project
Check website for event schedule and venues
Talk about getting the right man in the right place at the right time. For their 10th annual Business of Film Conference this weekend, the masterminds at Southwest Alternate Media Project – aka SWAMP – landed a well-nigh perfect keynote speaker: Ted Hope, a living-legend luminary who has loomed large in the world of indie cinema for a quarter-century.
As a producer, Hope has served as partner, mentor, and/or champion for such filmmakers as Ang Lee, Hal Hartley, Michel Gondry, Edward Burns, and John Waters, while working on the creative teams for movies as diverse as The Brothers McMullen, Adventureland, In the Bedroom, Ride with the Devil, The Savages, Eat Drink Man Woman, Happiness, The Ice Storm, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 21 Grams and Martha Marcy May Marlene. (H-Town cineastes, take note: Hope also was a prime mover behind Simple Men, the 1992 comedy Hal Hartley shot in and around Houston, and Pushing Hands, Ang Lee’s first feature, which had an early showcase – with Lee in attendance – at WorldFest Houston.) More recently, he served as artistic director of the San Francisco Film Festival, became CEO of the Fandor online subscription film service, and wrote Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions, a fascinating book that sprang from Hope’s copious postings on his long-running blog.
During the recent Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Hope to talk about various issues facing indie filmmakers – issues that, of course, he will discuss during his 5 pm Saturday keynote speech at the Rice University Media Center – and to swap observations about the ever-changing indie-film landscape. Right from the start, we agreed that, given recent advances in digital production and distribution, today’s indie filmmakers have undeniable advantages over their predecessors. But there still are daunting challenges associated with getting your film into the marketplace. And, once it’s out there, making people aware that it’s available for viewing.
Joe Leydon: Whenever students and colleagues and total strangers ask me how they can become film critics, I give them my stock answer: There has never been a time in history when it was easier to become a film critic. But there’s never been a time when it was harder to make a living as a film critic.
Ted Hope: Sounds very familiar.
Would you say the same holds true for independent filmmakers?
One hundred percent the same. I would add that there's probably never been a time when you could actually become both a better filmmaker more readily and, I would argue, a filmmaker who actually breaks new ground, too. But good luck earning a living.
In your book, you list various problems and obstacles facing new filmmakers. And I notice you mention how many newspapers have laid off their own film critics, the very people who might introduce indie films to their readers. It’s true that there are zillions of websites devoted to film, and scads of great writers on those sites. But the people who go to those sites are already inclined to see movies. Whereas a film critic for a newspaper might reach mainstream readers by happenstance, while the readers are paging through, looking for the comics section.
Or the horoscope. Really. People used to buy newspapers for the horoscope – the number one driver of sales — and they happened to learn of a revolution in the Middle East. Or a good movie. That was discovery. The irony of this best of times, worst of times, is that people have access to everything, and discover less. Because, absolutely, those film websites are about feedback loops, silos. They're not about bringing different people in at all. They’re not about the establishment of a long-term conversation.
Whereas with newspaper film critics — even critics that I didn't agree with, I had a relationship with as a fan, because I knew what their takes really were ongoing. So I evaluated that. There was a critic when I moved to New York that I hated. Anything he disliked, I made sure to go see because it was absolutely what I would like, I figured. We've lost that.
Of course, it’s an even bigger problem for people who release their films as video on demand – VOD – either before, or instead of, traditional theatrical release. Most traditional print outlets, even trades, don’t review VOD releases until they hit theaters. If indeed they ever do hit theaters. And there really aren’t many authoritative online guides to the wealth of download-ready movies available.
I have to think that that's got to change. But the other piece that goes with it – and I say this even as someone who runs a streaming platform — theatrical is the most important part of the process, period. An online cinema experience is a decidedly different type of experience. I very much believe context presentation is part of what cinema is. I'm thrilled that we can access the wide range of movies that we can have. I'm thrilled with what we're doing with our online platform. But it's not the same thing. You see the movie differently whether you watch it on a small screen, on a television screen, or in a public space. That's a different experience.
Still, an outlet such as Fandor can be an invaluable learning tool for any serious student of cinema.
Not surprisingly, we're meeting great enthusiasm from cinema studies professors who want to assign Fandor [to students]. I also think that people use Fandor and other sites to educate themselves, or to learn more about someone whose latest film they enjoyed. We definitely see that when a filmmaker has a new movie out, that the films of theirs that have collected on the platform get more activity, and people go back and reference them. Even in the lead-up to new films. Before Ira Sachs's Love Is Strange came out, we had his Keep the Lights On available.
Getting back to giving advice to would-be filmmakers: I have heard it said that independent filmmaking is a young person’s game, because there are just so many times you can ask friends and associates to work for nothing, or next to nothing. It’s not a case of your wanting a Porsche. But you might want a porch.
Or health insurance.
So how do you encourage young talent to stick around and become middle-age talent? Or grey eminence talent?
Excellent, excellent question. You know, I got the plane here this year, and I met up late in the evening with two friends who are producers. They’re my age. And one proceeded to tell me that they haven't been paid for four films in a row. No fees, period. They earn money in other ways. The other one said that their last seven films have failed to recoup. So they're not making money for themselves, they're not making money for their investors. They say that their investors don't mind. I’m not sure I buy that, but they're saying investors don't mind because they're in it for the art. They know they’re making culture.
Well, yes, we've always had a system of patronage and all of that. But I know for me, because of who I am and my character, I cannot give away my labor. It pisses me off. I'm a devoted, mission-driven person, but I want a just world. I want the work I do to be valued. I want people to recognize it has value. I'm from a profit-oriented culture. I like to see that my movies make money. It makes me feel good. I like operating in that realm.
And on top of that — let's be real about what the film industry is. It's filled with lying, narcissistic, egotistical, malcontent misanthropes, right? How can you not be corrupted by that? It's a culture that worships wealth, power, youth. If you’re not careful, you start to kind of feel bad that you're not achieving in the right way, and you become resentful of it. I'm not sure where I first heard it — I'd take credit for it, but I'm sure I’m not the first to say it — but there's this idea: How do you make sure what you're doing today leads you to feel less resentful 20 years from now? How do I maintain my sense of wonder, enthusiasm, passion? And how do I make sure that I'm making work that succeeds on its own terms? That’s the challenge.
When you attend events like the SWAMP program, I’m sure you’re constantly asked the same question: Not just how can I get into filmmaking, but how can I sustain a career as a filmmaker? Is it cynical or is it tough-love honest to tell someone: You're probably going to have to lower your expectations, and decide what type of lifestyle you are willing to live, because there's a good possibility you may make a living but you likely will never get rich?
I think that's the right advice right there. Basically, when I walk people through it, I tell them to figure out your other means of income. You have to figure out another means. You can't expect to just earn your living these days writing, directing, producing. You need to find something. Even at Good Machine, we had to find that other business model, the foreign sales, to bring in the income.
The thing that's surprising – though I know exactly why it happens – is that filmmakers of all ilks, producers and directors both, have a one-off mentality. Like, “I’ve got to get this project made, this is my passion project,” as opposed to looking at the continuum. Filmmakers come out with just one project, and so they pitch one project. To me, if I'm going to raise a million dollars, I'm not going to put it into one movie, I'm going to make three films for that. I'm going to figure out how I can be consistent on a regular basis. I want to be prolific, ubiquitous, and that means I want to be radically collaborative. How can I have a plan so I can deliver work, set the agenda of what the conversation is, tell the story that I want to tell, establish how I want you to perceive me. That's what young filmmakers should be trying to do.
We now have a situation very similar to what musicians have always enjoyed – we have far greater room to experiment. There's a whole array of ways you can experiment in style and mood and tone and pace. Those demonstrate that you're not just a thriller director, or a comedy director, or whatever. The people that are like Ang Lee, who are stylists across different genres, are still incredibly rare. I think that the opportunities we have before us now call for more folks to experiment and show a wider range.
If you want to build a career, and not just make a movie.