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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

On Art Versus Commercial Potential in Indie Filmmaking

Over on Hope for Film, Ted Hope posted a great piece by producer Karin Chien titled “.What American Indies Can Learn from Their Chinese Counterparts” And while there are a lot of interesting thoughts in that piece on how Chinese independent filmmakers fly under the radar, for me the most interesting aspect of Chien’s piece asks:

Here’s a thought: if there was absolutely no chance your film would receive commercial distribution in the US, would you still make your film? What would it look like, and would you cast/write/shoot/edit differently? And if that freed you to take creative risks, would that be irresponsible filmmaking or would it be truly free filmmaking?

That’s a hell of a good question, and one that independent filmmakers — or those who aspire to be such — really ought to ponder. Now, I would argue that there are indie filmmakers over here who do take creative risks, who aspire to realize a vision, to create “art” regardless of commercial potential. In the past year or so, I can think of a few films that take risks that put interesting, creative output over commercial potential. Here’s a few just off the top of my head: Calvin Reeder’s The Oregonian. Mike Tully’s Septien. Mark Jackson’s Without. Sophia Takal’s Green. And my favorite short film (so far) this year, Joshua Miller and Miles Miller’s sublimely weird, beautifully shot Pillow.

Azazel Jacob’s earlier films, The Goodtimes Kid and Momma’s Man, I would definitely consider highly creative without worrying about commercial potential. Even his most recent film, Terri, while more “commercial” than his earlier work, still tells an uncompromising story that’s not necessarily commercial on the surface: An overweight, bullied kid who’s just muddling his way through life and connects with an adult mentor who’s driven, at least in part, by his own experiences not fitting in at that age. If Terri is a more “commercial” film, it’s at least in part because it connects more broadly with audiences and it has a recognizable “name” in John C. Reilly as the assistant principal. But still, interesting, smart storytelling. Harmony Korine’s films fall into the category of smart and complex but not particularly commercial. He doesn’t make films that speak to everyone, no. But you’d be hard-pressed to argue that he doesn’t make films with a distinct voice and vision.

Miranda July’s The Future is probably the most commercial “artsy” film I’ve seen recently. Her films — her art generally — seem to connect with people even when they don’t expect them to, as with the cat, Pawpaw, who narrates The Future‘s tale about stasis and anxiety and drives a stake through your heart at the end. What I like about July is that she’s uncompromisingly unafraid to put her vision out there, and that you get the sense from her that the art she makes comes from who she is: A little weird by conventional standards, but almost always incredibly insightful about human nature and what drives the ways in which we interact.

Much as I’ve enjoyed her films, I love her book of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, even more. If you read those stories, then re-read them a few times, it’s the often scathing accuracy of July perception, the way in which she skewers right through to the heart of the insecurities and emotions and anxieties that drive us, that — for me, at least — pushes her work above the watermark of your average storytelling techniques of mere plot and character. She has a curiosity about other people, about what they think and why, that seems to drive her. Consider this note posted to her website Monday:

Whenever I stand before an audience I always wonder What did all these people do today, before they came to the theater? I imagine several hundred lives, filled with their intricicies (sic) and challenges and it seems like a minor miracle that they all managed to get here, on time, and are sitting so neatly like teeth. Most of you I will not see tonight at the Arclight — but I will see a couple of you. Right now you are looking at this website, but what else will you do today before I see you?

July gives voice to our own inner voices, and that either works for you and makes you ponder who you really are when you’re not being who other people want you to be, or makes you shy away from her piercing accuracy. Or it doesn’t connect with you at all, and if that’s the case, she seems to be just fine with that.

The Oregonian is perhaps the most bizarre film I’ve seen so far this year. When I first saw it at Sundance, I tried to watch it a couple times, but because my attention was being pulled by other things it just wasn’t connecting with me. I saw all this weird, jumpy, technicolor imagery, and my brain promptly said, “WTF?” and dismissed it. Then I juried at Sarasota a few months later and The Oregonian was one of the films in competition, so I had to watch it again. I groaned inwardly, remembering that I hadn’t much cared for it at Sundance. But then I sat down and watched it — really watched it this time — and got what the filmmaker was going for, visually representing what it might be like to be inside the head of a person who’s semi-conscious and hallucinatory and dying after a violent accident, and man. I saw the film in a completely different light. (It ended up winning the jury award at Sarasota, by the way.)

Likewise, Septien, on the surface, could be an easy film to dismiss as just being too bizarre to connect with anyone. But Mike Tully’s twisted tale of three brothers and what happens when one of them returns home after having disappeared years before, really works. I don’t necessarily think IFC marketing it as a “horror” film on VOD was the best decision. It’s not a horror film at all. There are layers and layers of tone and emotion in Septien, it’s complex and very smart, and maybe IFC didn’t know quite how to market that. Septien is actually a case where maybe an artsy film picking up a distrib deal wasn’t in the film’s best interest after all; but it made the filmmaker back his investment in it, I think, which I sincerely hope will allow Tully to continue making interesting, complicated films. So that’s something.

Without and Green are both small films with distinct vision and smart insight into human nature and emotion, for all that they’re very different stories. Without follows one young woman who’s dealing with a traumatic loss; Green looks at what happens to a couple when a third person enters the fray. What’s interesting about both these films is that they are both exploring very internal, insular stories that are very much driven by what’s in the heads of their protagonists. Without takes the approach of creating a great deal of suspense through the way in which the story is told, by placing just enough doubt in our heads about the protagonist’s mental state to leave us guessing as to what’s really going on. Takal takes a similar approach with Green, although in that case I think she gets a bit lost in her storytelling when she makes a very abrupt tonal shift about 2/3 of the way through. Still, a smart and insightful film, and I want to see more out of her.

And then we have Pillow, which won the shorts competition at Oxford Film Festival — a fest that, for all that it’s small and regional, has worked very hard to up the ante by putting some challenging films on their slate in the past couple years. I saw quite a few good shorts at Oxford this year, but Pillow is by far the one that has most stayed with me. Almost no dialog, a story told through action and reaction, gorgeously shot with a painterly beauty that belies its dark core. Brilliant little film.

There’s really no commercial potential at all, like almost all shorts, but man. If you’re going to make a short film to be your calling card, this is the kind of level you want to be aiming at, folks. Distinctive, professional, succinct storytelling. It’s just an outstanding short film directorial debut that indicates the Miller brothers have a vision to share with you. If I was in the business of producing other people’s films, a short like Pillow is exactly the kind of film that would make me interested in seeing what else those guys had in them.

All of these films (with the exception of Terri and The Future, which I believe actually had something more resembling real budgets) are excellent examples of indie filmmaking that raise the bar on just how good your independent feature, for all that you lack the financing of a bigger budget, really could be. And conversely, all of these films make it much harder for me to tolerate indie films that tell the same stories in the same ways, without ever quite getting there. So back to the question Chien posed in her piece: If you weren’t worried about whether your film would get commercial distribution, would that free you to be a different kind of filmmaker?

The rub is, we all have to pay our bills, and making films, even “microbudget” films, isn’t free. It’s a conundrum, to be sure. It’s (relatively speaking) cheaper and more accessible than ever to make films these days, but so many low-budget indies seem, at their hearts, to still have commercial aspirations, and that in turn gives us film after film after film that look and feel pretty much like the same thing.

And then the films that do aspire to have that reach are very often divisive among critics, derided as pretentious, or precious, or twee, or whatever the word-of-the-moment is that means “this doesn’t speak to me.” It feels like very often, a filmmaker has to choose: Share my vision, or share a vision that a majority of people watching it will connect to easily. I do believe that film, like most art, isn’t made in a vacuum; film is as much about what the audience brings to viewing it, and how the storytelling connects and resonates with every single person who sees it, as it is about the story the filmmaker thought he or she was telling.

What connects with me may not be what connects with you, and what connects with either of us may bear very little resemblance to what the filmmaker thought we’d feel when we watched his or her creation. But for me, the best films are the ones that challenge me and engage me, that do more than just aspire to entertain. I like stories that are philosophical, or insightful about human nature in some way, because that’s what interests me personally, as both an audience member and a storyteller. And I respect much more those films in which you can clearly see the director’s vision; films that have that reach are much more inclined to make me ponder them long after the closing credits have rolled.

The films I mentioned here are certainly not the only ones I’ve liked in the past year. But they are films that made me sit up and take notice of the filmmaker, that engaged me, that I’m still thinking about months after seeing them. And most of them don’t have what you might call broad commercial appeal. So how do filmmakers find that balance between envisioning smart, complex, artful films and drumming up the money to actually pay for them? What kind of films would you make, if traditional distribution wasn’t the ultimate goal?

5 Responses to “On Art Versus Commercial Potential in Indie Filmmaking”

  1. Ted Hope says:

    Great article Kim! It is such an important question. As these films you mentioned and others indicate, we can make films these days without market concerns. We also need to develop the audience for these films. Just like in the music world, there is room for a great variety — if we don’t allow the corporate giants to complete overshadow the authentic and unique. We need to call more attention to the truly beautiful. Thanks for doing just that. I really loved the experience of watching both SEPTIEN & GREEN precisely because of that — and I enjoyed the films too. I hope to get a chance to see the others.

  2. I agree, it’s a question worth considering as a producer, and any responsible producer who believes in earning back the budget for investors should hesitate to answer ‘yes’ unless that film adds something to the world that is more valuable than money (a concept that is hard to grasp if it’s your own money being lost).

    The realities are such that, you can’t ever know how successful something will be and perhaps that’s why wonderful films like all of the above were made and have inspired this conversation. I’m particularly glad you brought up PILLOW because I know of that short as being mentioned by the recent deadCenter Film Fest in OKC as one of 4 ‘Spectacular Shorts’ in their selection this year, which also happened to include my short BEDFELLOWS, something I was somewhat shocked to discover as a gay short.

    I made BEDFELLOWS thinking it was this strange gay fairy tale and that the best it could ever accomplish commercially is end up showing on Viacom’s gay channel LOGO at 4am. That won’t even happen now, since LOGO stopped buying shorts for that exact reason of no one watching them. More than 100 film festival acceptances, almost 30 awards (mostly from mainstream fests since the large gay fests ignored it), 3 international DVD deals, an international sales agent, a highly successful launch on YouTube’s Screening Room rental site, and now its own iTunes app, ‘FestSelects’ from The Film Collaborative, BEDFELLOWS may go down as one of the most visibly successful gay shorts of all time, if not of any shorts category, period.

    The lesson is, if you fear what you won’t get, you may never earn the good fortune to be in the same great company as films like PILLOW or the features mentioned above. I thought I would have to simply cut my losses on making a short, but after selling a dozen of my U.S. DVDs after a screening on Thursday night, or reaching 500 rentals on YouTube, I’m not so convinced you can’t find a paying audience if the material really connects with people. So here’s to those who answer ‘yes’ to that question and find their risk was worth it.

  3. “Monte Hellman is the ultimate outlaw filmmaker.” – Steve Erickson, Los Angeles
    Magazine; “‘Road to Nowhere’ reaffirms Monte Hellman’s status as one of the
    great visionary artists of the American cinema.” – Harvard Film Archive

  4. So long as film exhibition is tied to commerce, filmmakers will always have to give thought to commerce and “selling” their films. Even filmmakers who choose to not think about commercial viability when they make their films hope audiences will see their work in a theatre, which means tickets. Festival programmers, contrary to what they admit, are trying/hoping to SELL tickets. All of the films mentioned here were seen in theatres where tickets are sold (presumably), so they had SOME commercial viability. In the old USSR, and somewhat in China today, filmmakers could make state-funded, art-driven films so long as they didn’t speak negatively about the government. That was their “creative restraint.” So long as we (filmmakers) make films in a capitalist society we have to “sell” our films if we want audiences to see them. That’s not an excuse for making pandering crap, but it is a hard reality of making films here rather than in China.

  5. Kim Voynar says:

    Well, yes. If you’re a filmmaker who wants anyone besides family and friends to see the fruits of your hard labor, of course you hope to show it theatrically and have it seen by as many people as possible. But I would argue that there is a HUGE difference between the output of indie filmmakers seeking to take the vision in their head and put it on screen, often on a shoestring, and the output of a director working within the constraints of the studio system. Not that good (or even great) films can’t get made either way, but it’s still different.

    In particular, I think there’s a point some indie filmmakers reach where they’ve garnered enough attention off their super low-budget efforts to get someone interested in ponying up significant financing for them to make their next film where you have to really guard your vision that much more and figure out what you really want to be when you grow up. Getting paid to do what you love to do is awesome, but it ironically sometimes means having to compromise the very artistic creativity that got you noticed to begin with.

    That’s a conundrum also, I think, for producers and potential investors in a filmmaker to think about: What is it about this filmmaker’s style that interested you to begin with? If you’re wanting to produce or finance this or that hotly buzzed indie director’s Next Big Thing, can you do so while giving him or her the freedom to be the director that interested you to begin with? And if you’re a filmmaker: Is it worth it to you to get a bigger budget for your next film, if that means you no longer have the freedom to make the kinds of films you built your reputation on?

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 “Teaching how to make a film is like trying to teach someone how to fuck. You can’t. You have to fuck to learn how to fuck. It’s just how it is. The filmmaker has to protect the adventurous side of their self. I’m an explorer, I’m an inventor. Doc Brown is the character I relate to the most and he’s a madman. He’s a madman alone, locked up with his ideas but he does whatever he wants. He makes what he makes because he wants to make it. Yes, the DeLorean has to work in order for him to be a madman with a purpose—the DeLorean should work—but the point is I think everyone should try and find their own DeLorean. When Zemeckis was trying to get Back To The Future made, which he was for seven years, he was trying to get a film made where basically a teenager gets in a time machine, goes back to 1954 and almost —-s his mother. That pitch is extremely subversive and twisted in a way. My point is, he had a fascinating idea that no one had done before, but was clearly special to him and he stuck to it and made it what it was. When you do that you can create culture, but I think a lot of movies are just echoing culture and there’s a difference.”
~ A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night Filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour

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2. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.
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4. If you think there’s good in everybody, you haven’t met everybody.
5. Friends may come and go but enemies will certainly become studio heads.
6. No one ever lost anything by asking for more money.
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