I'm currently involved in a handful of projects and have a pretty broad network. So it is inevitable that friends and colleagues will read this piece and ask, "Is it about me?"
I can answer that clearly: YES. It is about you. It's about us all.
Independent filmmaking has never been easier. Do you remember the scene in Die Hard where John McClane walks barefoot through broken glass? That's close, but not a cigar. Independent filmmaking is unbearable – from financing to distribution. Indie filmmakers routinely fly like Valkyries in the face of factors that would crush smaller beings. It is understandable, therefore, that they instill hope versus hope that something will come to break the coronavirus stranglehold on our entertainment business. Maybe Chris Nolan is riding a blockbuster released in theaters and leading an army of syringes filled with an industry-friendly vaccine?
I'm a huge Chris Nolan fan and enjoyed seeing Tenet in independent theaters here in Taipei (though I rate it as my fourth favorite Nolan image after Inception, Memento and The Dark Knight). But as admirable as Nolan's tipping the windmill is, his solipsistic indulgence is not the cure people have been 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 to put that together.
And then there's the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine that will make even my most enlightened coworkers flirt with Trumpist and think some magic juice will burst through the wall – Kool-Aid style – and magically get us back to 2019 transport is going to happen folks. Independent filmmakers and content creators, like everyone else, face a long journey through the New Normal.
The harsh reality is that there will be no silver bullet. The notion that there will be a unique global vaccine available to the public, injected by enough people to eradicate all of this, is wishful thinking. There will be a multitude of vaccines in different countries: unevenly distributed and certainly not recognized as valid from country to country as global politics do.
Even when legitimate vaccines are finally ready for the market, they will vary in efficacy and not be taken by a large segment of the population, including: 1) anti-vaxxers, 2) people like me who vaccinate but suspicious of injections are a rash product, 3) People who can't afford it or just don't care.
Responsible disinfection and distancing measures are our fastest and safest way out of this chaos. These measures actually work in more sane parts of the world. For the best results, it is better to adapt your personal and professional plans to the new normal than relying on a Slapdash miracle cure to make things better.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the coronavirus-related challenges indie filmmakers face and what you can do about them …
Many potential investors – from independent angels to corporate sponsors – are currently in dire financial straits following the COVID-19 pandemic. Others – by the grace of circumstance – are flush. But all are reviewing projects with a 2020 mindset rather than a 2019 POV.
With that in mind, the indie film producer has two things to do …
- Get your ducks in a row. When you show up at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger like Steve Rogers, you don't even have the courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson to explain things to you. You are being ignored. It's a different world now. (If you don't know what this means, see below.)
- Write down your numbers. As difficult as things were for you before, the situation is now an order of magnitude worse. Regardless of whether you have money on your side or not – from whatever source – you want to get “up and down”. Your development track and your sales revenues depend on it.
As observed here in previous posts, it's funny how something like a global pandemic can suddenly redefine what is important and what is not – what is relevant and what is not. For those of us in content development, we can't just pretend that nothing has changed. Everything has changed. However, restarting coronavirus relevance means different things to different viewers and different things to different creators.
So where do i start? First, suppose that your 2019 project has suddenly (and indeed did) become an anachronism and ask yourself the following questions:
- What's the audience in the mood now? Conversely, what have they lost their appetite for?
- How do you feel about the virus? Why?
- How realistic and understandable is your content? Or how is it refreshingly unrealistic and fleeting?
Once you look at these questions and are ready to roll, you will face the practical challenges of remote development collaboration – which you are probably already familiar with as a seedy independent and which are less delicate than the challenges of remote production collaboration. Speaking of …
In relative terms, animation productions are easier to hack than live-action productions because there is a lack of filming on set and it is easier to familiarize yourself with paradigms of remote collaboration. At the beginning of April I noticed on this blog how animation companies large and small were moving relatively quickly to work-from-home strategies and how the trades continued to pursue continuous development. (Not surprisingly, my pioneering friend and former student Jorge Gutierrez has a prominent role in many of these articles.)
The first technical hurdles in terms of equipment and bandwidth were resolved in a short time. It remains to be seen whether networked, fragmented animation teams create work that will live up to their best internal efforts. There's a lot to be said for the energy of interpersonal creativity, and Pixar's structural maintenance of random meetings and unplanned collaborations has had a positive impact on animation studios around the world.
What if people zoom in their underwear instead of chatting under an atrium while playing volleyball? Is the development process suffering? Is the production work losing something? We just have to wait and see. It has been said that animating is like a joke and then waits three years for someone to laugh. Hopefully in 2023 we won't watch trite, worn-out movies thinking, “Yeah. Coronavirus production. "
Light, camera, infection
Live-action productions have additional challenges – including the head of the "quarantine tax". What is the quarantine tax? This is the added logistical and financial burden on your filming as it takes time and expense to house and feed your cast and crew while they are quarantined before (and in many cases after) filming.
Even if you are shooting in locations where quarantine is not required, you should allow for two weeks of quarantine time on both sides of your shoot (one month in total) for both actors and crew members on site – provided you were able to obtain permission. This is an extra month for room, board, compensation, etc., with personal expenses varying above and below the limit.
Then there's the million dollar question: Regardless of your willingness and ability to tackle quarantine tax, when weighing their pandemic-era risk / reward options, the cast and crew will choose a risk to your potential indie – Take Oscar bait, or will they reserve the risk for mainstream films that have better paychecks? Just as you would likely hand over a well-paid weekend conference or weeklong workshop if you had to spend a month in solitary confinement, your production staff will make similar value judgments about your film.
Assuming you're going to get rolling at some point, don't expect the pace of filming to match what you were used to before 2020. Regardless of your personal risk tolerance and ethics about risk to others, unless you are making a documentary about the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, you need to adhere to the social setting distancing the standards of the place where you are going to seek approval.
For any producer with a certain level of self-respect and social responsibility, filmmaker Shannan Leigh Reeve must report in detail on her attempts to establish and maintain adequate social distancing while meeting the demands of live-action production. Unfortunately, although written in March, it's still pretty relevant.
And then of course there's the bleak fact that, despite your best efforts, anyone on your team can run positive tests at any time, bringing your entire production (or a significant portion of it) to a halt.
As a result, your coronavirus contingency plan should consider and consider …
- For the foreseeable future, productions will in the best case suffer a slump in the schedule and budget of 20%, in the most likely scenario take twice as long and cost twice as much, or in the worst case never end.
- What is your production plan in the first two scenarios? What principles will you follow and what actions will you take if, in the worst case scenario, you fail to meet your obligations?
Projects, contracts and people come and go – but the reputation is forever.
If you manage to finish your film, you can look forward to a rather sparse theater landscape. Theatrical distribution has always been a daunting prospect for independent filmmakers, even in the best of circumstances. Indie producers are leaning towards the windmills, however, because watching movies in theaters is the ideal way to enjoy the entire cinematic experience, a potential avenue to the necessary revenue and a door to the industry's seal of approval. Unfortunately, most independent films fail to achieve either of these goals.
In a 2019 article for the US film market, industry analysts Stephen Fellows and Bruce Nash shared some sobering observations on the fate of 877 independent films made in 2017 (in the context of the North American domestic market). 40% of these films did not get a theatrical distribution. Another 35% had a nominal release with no box office to speak of. 220 films (25%) reported box office receipts, 1/3 of which grossed less than $ 100,000.
Fellows and Nash conclude, “The numbers suggest that five times out of six an independent film won't make a lot of money in theaters. Knowing how to maximize home market revenues remains an essential skill for an independent producer. “And that is prepandemic.
I wish I could leave you
Indie filmmakers like to advertise comp reports that show their own film will succeed in "humble" comparisons (but often brave in 1,000 theaters) based on box office hits from "similar" films that have been cherry-picked to be issued). And filmmakers are still sticking to these compositions despite COVID-19 rendering records worthless across the board. (Maybe because a comp report is like having a girlfriend experience: you pay a lot for it, so you want to believe it's true.)
As of 2020, comp reports are useless and represent a pre-pandemic cocktail of revenue streams that we will never return to in the same way. This doesn't mean you can't pay someone to 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, predictive math always adds up. Make or break the assumptions that determine these fantasy football numbers. Independent producers will be lucky enough to see 10 cinemas in the future, let alone 100 or 1,000. Consider the following …
Anyone with common sense will think long and hard before putting themselves in group exposure situations – for example in a movie theater. When cinema audiences weigh their pandemic risk / reward options (a framework that reviewers are already using), they will choose to take a chance on this potential indie gem, or will they reserve the risk for big studio blockbusters, who "must" be seen in the theater, like Avengers: Infinity War?
Even if you are ethically comfortable basing your revenue assumptions on the careless gathering patterns of most Americans, understand that risk / reward ratings vary by demographic. Teens and young adults who have little impulse control and little masturbation will have little concern about coming back to theaters. Older viewers will take a break out of consideration for what they catch and bring home to more vulnerable family members. Overall, socio-politically sensitive group groups tend to avoid them than their less altruistic compatriots.
And let's face it – cheap horror films, right-wing propaganda imagery, and shark / tornado mashups aside – serious independent films tend to target a more educated, liberal, and reflective audience than big studio blockbusters. So if you're not Michael Pack, you probably can't rely on conservative American knuckles to serve as coronavirus cannon fodder to boost your theater revenue in the way that Donald Trump is banking on to improve his re-election prospects.
I stream, you stream, we all stream
What about streaming? Well, that depends on whether you are the streamer or the streamee. Streaming is an option for the independent filmmaker, but certainly not a silver bullet. Hollywood studios and home audiences quickly switched to New Normal when the cinemas closed. From Sony Pictures to NBCUniversal to Disney, the studios have accelerated their films for SVoD and TVoD at home or bypassed the theatrical release altogether – a strategy that began in China with the online release of Bytedances Lost in Russia in January (as a coronavirus crisis ) unfolded there while the US was recording its first case).
In the absence of alternatives, domestic consumers drank like parched wildebeest from the streams. Netflix viewing parties became a lockdown trend, and all streaming traffic doubled or tripled from country to country. Desperate parents either didn't know that their $ 20 "purchase" of the Trolls World Tour was just a 48 hour VOD rental, or they just didn't care. And streaming services certainly didn't mind making repeat payments to meet the obsessive viewing needs of troubled home-schooled kids.
All hopes that the distributors had to campaign for the theatrical release when life becomes "normal" again have been dashed by the reality of the ongoing pandemic. Big studios, doing their best not to upset Wall Street, continue to play an unfortunate game with a quarterly release date. Universal & # 39; s No Time to Die and Warner Bros. & # 39; Wonder Woman 1984, both repeatedly postponed, are currently slated for November release dates, which nobody believes will apply. Disney / Pixars Soul, which is slated to premier recently on Disney +, was also announced for release in November (which promises to be quite a month). Marvel's Black Widow has taken a more realistic stance – she has postponed its theatrical release until summer 2021 – but Natasha Romanoff is nothing if not pragmatic.
Netflix has built a reputation for being “indie-friendly” – not out of any sense of altruism, but because its disruptive business model requires it (especially as competing studios like Disney are cranking out their own streaming services). Independent creators have been encouraged by the "Netflix effect" – when a new movie or series immediately gains international recognition and catapults unknown talent to fame overnight.
So far, competing streamers have not been able to mimic this phenomenon in the same way. Netflix's content creation efforts are extensive, well funded, and often carried out on all cylinders (the original Netflix movie Bird Box was viewed by 45 million subscribers on the first weekend). Which indie producer doesn't want a piece of this action? As it turns out, very few would – 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 developers and talent agencies, employ teams of executives and buyers interested in series and movies, and acquire finished works at film festivals and other venues – in addition to in-house content development and production.
The cold, harsh reality is that if you haven't been approached by the streamers – or if you have no relationship with an affiliated agent, producer, or manager – you are in the consumer category, not the consumer category. Creator ”category. Streaming studios aren't easy targets and they're not desperate (at least not for now). That has to wait for the next malfunction.
With that in mind, we're taking a hint from TBI Vision's recent article about Disney's live-action release MULAN, in which …
"While Covid-19 has undoubtedly ushered in a new level of disruption for the theater sector, conditions seem increasingly to prepare studios to distance themselves from traditional models and to experiment."
While the word “disorder” in this case refers to the relationship between large film studios and theater chains, indie creators can use the word in a way that really 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 riddle, but I have a direction:
Think. Outside. The box.
Superficially banal, but essentially true. In his TEDx lecture "Why the majority is always wrong", the high-performance guru Paul Rulkens postulates that people who bump into a wall usually either do more or less, but rarely do things differently – even if this is the most sensible and risk-free Approach is.
Consider the following analogy. I am an off-road racing driver. With my pedal on the metal I've won every race so far. There was some risk of loss, but I always prevailed by going ahead. I'm approaching a cliff now. If I hold the hammer down my risk of death is certain. If I brake or turn, I have a chance of survival.
"What brought you here will not bring you there again." – Paul Rulkens
Rulkens notes that if you want to get results you've never done before, you need to start doing things you've never done before. You have to think outside the box. The catch is that the "box" we set for ourselves is actually a subdivision of the larger box of possibilities limited by physical, technological, legal, and moral constraints.
The first step in developing your coronavirus contingency is to recognize your box – the boundaries that have served you quite well so far but that New Normal are a poor sauce to. The second step is to think about what is important to you, what is not important to you, and how to promote the former and drop the latter.
From furniture companies that have decided to stop assembling furniture for their customers (IKEA) to computer companies that have decided to stop selling computers in stores (Dell), the company's history is characterized by innovative organizations that have it dared to defy the adopted conventions central to their business models, but were actually peripheral.
"Breakthrough innovations and exceptional results come when people decide to finally break the standards or norms in their industry." – Paul Rulkens
The company's history has also been shaped by blinking companies like Kodak, who eventually filed Chapter 11 after failing to understand that they were in the imaging business and not the photographic products business. On the flip side, Kodak's chemical dependency is apparently so strong that they are now planning to create a new division, Kodak Pharmaceuticals, with the help of the US government – so maybe they've always been in the chemicals business after all and just needed bankruptcy and a pandemic to clear their minds.
Whatever it takes to clear your own mind, you have always had a free license to do things differently. You now have the perfect excuse too. We can thank the global pandemic for this reset button. Don't worry about what happened (or not) this year, but don't get off the hook either: pull your head out of the sand, dust yourself off, judge the scenery, and get there.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll have to take my own advice.
Kevin is the author of AWN's Reality Bites blog, which explores the arts, technology, and immersive media (AR, VR, MR) and AI business. You can find Kevin's website at www.kevingeiger.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.