Short Circuit

Despite longer odds and smaller payoffs, America produces more independent filmmakers every year. What the hell are they thinking?

Recently a friend of mine, a film journalist known for his quick wit and somewhat forced but oddly endearing trash chic clothing aesthetic on weekends, launched the following into the social media ether: “The quickest way to become a millionaire in indie film is by starting out as a billionaire.” It drew nearly 100 likes from his over 1800 friends in just a few hours. Many of us laughed knowingly to ourselves in whatever nook we hunched over our computer screens. More serious “independent” filmmakers than you might think start out staring at the Hollywood star machine as impressionable children, beamed incandescently through media both traditional and new, thinking naively to themselves, “I too can get rich and/or famous being an artist.” It’d take a fool to think that way of course. The only filmmakers I know personally — and I know a lot of them — who’ve became millionaires started out as millionaires. Many of us will keep trying I suppose and a token few will succeed, keeping the dream alive for a new generation of suckers.

This mental illness described above is something for which the most recent iteration of the Eastern Oregon Film Festival is a welcome antidote. For the fifth time, La Grande, Oregon, the country’s largest fully enclosed valley and the second largest in the world, a remote and conservative municipality that gives zero financial support to institutions like film festivals, played host to far flung slices of American life rarely glimpsed on traditional movie screens: mildly autistic men who can bend steel, Norwegian Mormons dude bros in Hawaii, insecure ingénues trying to self-actualize in long black and white takes that make them seem dowdier than they really are. That these mostly unheralded works were made by young filmmakers who are on food stamps in Olympia, project managing home construction sites in Corvallis or, the most depressing of activities, shooting commercials for hire in Greenpoint in order to make the $1700 rent is a symptom of our sorry times. For these filmmakers, the rent is always too damn high and the audiences too damn small, regardless of the quality of their work.

And very fine some of it is. For instance, take Zach Weintraub’s third feature, You Make Me Feel So Young, which has bounced around festivals in Lima, Buenos Aires, and Portland but remains largely uncelebrated among the gatekeepers of American specialty cinema and the festivals of relevance that provide fresh new talent to the mini-major distributors. You Make Me Feel So Young unfolds in long, obliquely observed moments centering around the low simmering unease of a young woman named Justine. Played by the girlfriend of the director (Justine Eister), the character is at turns very revealing and impenetrable, her brown-eyed solemnity passing into near catatonia, the movie’s studied lugubriousness bound up in her pores.

Exposition is sparse. Eister and the director Weintraub play versions of themselves perhaps; their character names are Justine and Zach, they live in an anonymous part of the American Northwest, he works in the movies. As far as we can tell, she’s unemployed, awaiting a shot at grad school where she hopes to glean the skills to work with challenged ESL kids. He’s only marginally employed, hosting question and answer sessions at a theater in a town near where they seem to have grown up. They move in order for him to take the job, holing up in his new boss’s garage. She spends her days cleaning their improvised living space, drawing, and listening to Q&As from backstage, while he slowly grows disgruntled with the cinema gig. Go figure.

No blow ups, no loud discord; their relationship mainly dies of boredom or laconic resignation. The pointlessness of trying to build lasting affection in an era of decline and negative growth creeps just behind many of the film’s most seemingly inconsequential passages. What lives can these people possibly make together, here, in this garage? The movie doesn’t make a big stink about this, or, like Weintraub’s previous features Bummer Summer and The International Sign for Choking, anything at all really. Who needs to be strong armed into realizing that it’s near impossible for many of us born in the Reagan era to find paying jobs?

One would not be remiss for calling Weintraub and director of photography Nandan Rao’s style meditative. Everyday concerns are both the parts and the whole. The fleeting beauty and frequent boredom of small town, small time life are the plot points, if one could say these movies have such things. The language of dramatic writing, inciting incidents and story beats and such find little purchase here. Yasujiro Ozu made a career of such minimalism in another country and era perhaps, although not on miniscule budgets with no one to help but his buddies, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien might be a better east Asian analog anyway.

The refrain of low temperature conversations involving 20-somethings will cause many to lump it in with mumblecore or the so called New Talkies or whatever we want to call those movies that starting emanating from Austin (via Boston, Chicago, and Memphis) a bit over a decade ago, but Weintraub’s cinema is an altogether more sophisticated thing visually, playing on The New Talkies tired theme of youthful malaise and hook-up era sexual confusion with a finer tune. This is another way of saying it’s a serious movie, made for little to nothing, with no constituency other than the artists and a few folks in South America and the Pacific Northwest, that does a better job of sharing a common contemporary condition than so much of what passes for popular storytelling in the broad culture and hip storytelling among the cinerati. But for most of us, the film might as well be a tree falling in one of the nearly uninhabited forests Oregon offers in abundance.

***

The geographical term for the mountain chain enwrapped bowl that is La Grande is a continental depression. Many ambitious young locals flee when they’re newly ripe. The festival’s programmer, Ian Clark, a skinny, mustache and glasses wearing post-grad who resembles the kind and generous brother the unibomber never had, is among them. Clark attended the University of Oregon’s graduate film school on the other side of the state, in Eugene. His hometown, a former gold-mining, sugar-processing, and lumber mill town of just over 13,000, has a state school in it, but it doesn’t offer film education, and the one cinema in town only plays Hollywood and star-driven indiewood fare. The three-day, non-competitive festival he’s started there has little resources to draw on but the good nature and hospitality of its board and local volunteers, which is ample. Clark’s mother Brenda annually treats the visiting filmmakers and guests to a marvelous breakfast at a trio of tables in their family home, one which sits right at the base of one of the mountains that encases their community. The window in their living room provides a view stretching across the vast valley in which the small town rests.

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View from the Clark family home | Photo by author

The local three screen cinema, The Granada, opens up one of its screens to the festival; The Stage Door, a thirty seat theatrical space in an alley a few streets away, plays host to the rest of the three day program. Live music, parties, rickshaws, odd bourbon and goat milk cocktails called albino bumblebees, hatchet throwing and BB gun shooting with alcoholic mountain men; the organizers toss in every bell and whistle they can think of to entice people to come out and watch small films made by people under 40 who don’t have health insurance (and the occasional wealthy vacuum cleaner heiress). Still, it’s a mighty struggle.

Opening and Closing nights in Eastern Oregon were sell outs. Both Dave Carroll and Ryan Scufaro’s Bending Steel and Eddie Mullins’s Doomsdays are, even though they’re about an old time strongman and peak-oil crazed vandals respectively, crowd-pleasers. Each was accompanied by rousing question and answer session with the filmmakers, the former including the film’s subject actually twisting pieces of metal into impossibly mangled structures with his bare hands, the later featuring a very drunk but still quite charming director piped in via Skype. Still, no matter how many seats were sold, the margins are working against the people who show up and show their films here if they intend to pay themselves or anyone else for their labor. And many films, from Sundance winners to regional shorts, played to half-full houses or less.

Getting people to support these films with their eyes, let alone their dollars, seems almost intractable. The question of how does one encourage the consumption of independent films effectively was bandied about during a discussion on the festival’s final day, its participants sitting in a circle in the town’s recently renovated Arts Center. It was initially proposed as a panel, but none of the city’s rank and file showed up, so the filmmakers talked to themselves. If you’ve been to a film festival in the last five years, you’ve heard people say the same things you heard here about long tails, video of demand, reviving the theatrical experience through microcinemas and lower price points, crowdsourcing to build a pre-invested audience, educating youngsters in media literacy and motion picture aesthetics in order to foster smarter, more adventurous audiences and, perhaps most alarmingly, making movies, somehow, that can match the aesthetic excesses of Hollywood movies on a fraction of the budget.

Of course, the futility of it all, given the brutal efficiency of Hollywood’s global marketing apparatus, one that bludgeons the body politic into total awareness of the most asinine, regurgitated narratives, hung in the air. There was some complaint and quaint argumentativeness, but no answers. Someone cited a study presented at the recent Art House Film Convergence, a convention for specialty cinema programmers and entrepreneurs, that suggested audiences for these kind of films just keep getting older, richer, and whiter, while Hollywood tentpoles still do their best to bring in young, infantilized men. Some of us left to go take in a film, others to smoke dope and eat, others still to watch the final full day of Olympic coverage or take a nap. Perhaps events like the one Clark and his partner Benjamin Morgan throw each year or so in La Grande are a way to start to reverse this trend, but few of us left the room feeling secure with that.

***

Nandan Rao, the guy who manages construction sites in Corvallis, has his own plan to save indie film. He co-founded Simple Machine, an online distribution portal that connects filmmakers without traditional means of distributing their films with non-traditional theatrical exhibition venues. Both filmmakers and venues can sign up, create a profile, browse, reach out to others. Rao envisions Simple Machine as “an airBnB for cinema.” A bar or club, restaurant or art gallery, anyone with a projector, sound system and a big enough white wall really, could hold screenings of new indie films found on and delivered by the site. If enough spaces chose to screen indies for a small fee as opposed to, say, Ghostbusters, a small network of spaces could provide an alternative distribution network for indie films that has never before existed.

Making bar matrons into curators who cater directly to the taste of their audiences might seem like a desperate hope to save indie film from being solely the province of the super privileged. If early adoption is an indicator, trouble awaits. A year into the venture and there are plenty of films available on Simple Machine’s sleek website, even in Beta form, but the problem remains eyeballs. There are almost no participating venues. Bartenders hosting movie nights are still out there illegally showing Ghostbusters. Few folks with loft spaces and remarkably cheap HD quality projectors have jumped into the exhibition sideline. It’s easier to just watch whatever HBO is playing, or has played, or plays in perpetuity in the age of On Demand.

Last spring, Rao wrote “Start Showing Movies: A Call to Arms,” in which he pleaded with filmmakers to put down their cameras and pick up their projectors, at least every once in awhile:

Your brother-in-law’s co-worker might have donated to your Kickstarter, but she still doesn’t care about movies as much as you do. Don’t expect her to start spending her free time reading HammerToNail and getting psyched about the next big festival lineup announcement. She won’t. But you will, and she trusts you, that’s why she donated to your campaign in the first place, so if anyone is going to get her to check out some off-the-radar shit, it’s going to have to be you, and she might not be reading your every status update, so reposting that Richard Brody review on your timeline doesn’t actually help her watch the film.

And it’s not just this fictional philistine co-worker who doesn’t care about movies as much as we do, nobody does. It’s hard to see that from inside this tiny bubble of film-centric blogs and Twitter feeds, so it can be frustrating when none of your friends from high school “like” the amazing movie you shared via NoBudge. But what if you liked that amazing movie enough to literally share it, like IRL?

…We all want a slice of the pie, but somebody has to do the baking, and we should probably all pitch in. Making a cinephile ain’t easy — it’s a slow-ish conversion process. But the main ingredient is known: exposure to a lot of interesting movies. So if you’re going to create more cinephiles, you’re going to need to find some Luddites and show them as many of said interesting movies as possible…

…If you’ve ever screened your own work at a film festival but felt like “nothing happened” afterwards, it’s because I saw your movie and I didn’t do anything about it. There is no mysterious higher power that handpicks certain movies for greater recognition and exposure. It’s just people, and mostly people who read things like this, a room full of other filmmakers, bloggers, critics, die-hard fans, and the small handful of remaining distributors. So if anything’s going to “happen” to a movie post-festival, we’re the ones that are going to have to do the “happening.” It’s not of much real help to tweet good things about a movie if that movie isn’t available anywhere. End the incestuous cycle of “for us, by us”, make the movie available in your hometown, screen that shit to your neighbors, tomorrow.

He published it in on the website of a well regarded magazine for and by independent filmmakers, one that you might find in a Barnes & Nobles magazine section, but not on many waitresses’ coffee tables. I suspect the Luddites never heard him. Besides, he’s got other things to do. While serving as cinematographer for Weintraub and Sophia Takal (Green), Rao’s developed a signature style that involves delicate, roving and very slow pans through remarkably color-saturated spaces. He’s also a director in his own right; his two terrific and unmarketable features The Men of Dodge City (recently recut by filmmakers Andrea Sisson and Pete Ohs as The Other Men of Dodge City) and Hawaiian Punch are both available on Simple Machine.

The later of the two is a real find. A sumptuous, academically minded romp about a pair of white Mormon men, one of whom is Norwegian, is such a gorgeous and thought provoking thing that in a fair world it would ensure its maker the opportunity through broad, communal recognition of its brilliance to spend all his time making more movies and not out being a hustler. The arts rarely work out that way though. In reality, the formally disjointed if quite beautiful “story” of two Mormons who’ve just turned 24 and still don’t have wives (a communal taboo), passing the time until they do with Notorious B.I.G. rap-alongs, trips to McDonald’s, and impossibly dangerous seeming cliff jumps that are filmed just a hair soft, right at magic hour, doesn’t let you quit your day job, even if its got film rhetoric to rival Godard’s. So Rao’s had to keep finding houses to build in Corvallis for his family’s business. He’s not complaining, but perhaps we ought to be.

***

The average value of a typical low-budget “independent” film has never been lower since their potential monetary value became something interested parties found worth calculating. Domestic film production has never been higher – although the studios have consistently trimmed their production slates since the mid ‘90s, Sundance received a whopping 4057 feature film submissions for its 2014 edition (that’s up from 325 20 years previous in 1994). Most of these films will go undistributed and unseen. Even among those precious 120 or so Sundance does choose to screen — mostly pictures they’ve been tracking and invested in through their various support programs for some time — the distribution deals available for all but a slim portion of buzzed titles offer paltry returns upfront. When making The Ask, experienced and lauded producers of formally adventurous films privately suggest to their backers that a return of investment is unlikely, focusing instead on the cultural cache such productions will bestow on the benefactor.

The status update my friend posted last week speaks to an altogether more sinister sentiment within contemporary motion picture production, one that supersedes the obvious implication that indie movies is mostly a rich kid’s game since only the rich and their brood can afford to lose money. The sense is that aggregators and the portals they use to aggregate are the ones profiting from motion pictures, especially small ones, as they move to digital spaces. Many more movies than the culture can sustain reach a small number of theaters for a week, simply to garner a trade or Times review. Increasingly robust video-on-demand profits only trickle down to most filmmakers. The glut of movies greatly reduces the value and market recognition of each of them individually, casting thousands of movies into a strange limbo.

Some will answer that the cinema has always been an unforgiving and exclusionary business in which most fail. Independent film especially has long been seen, save a few years in the early to late ‘90s, as a generally losing financial proposition. To say that over 90 percent of independent narrative features fail in some monetary or artistic sense is a generous estimate. Yet in the saloons of western Brooklyn where you can’t throw a stone without hitting a documentary filmmaker, at the regional festivals throughout the south and the sun belt where difficult little movies made for the price of a new sedan find appreciative audiences, filmmakers and the people exploited by them still pretend that they exist primarily in a business paradigm. Yet independent film, even in its halcyon days of the early ‘90s to the early aughts, has always been a lousy career.

Movies that in the not so distant past might have a small but reasonable chance to sell for millions would hardly command a minimum guarantee worth the price of that same mid-sized sedan these days, but even in the boom times things were hard if you didn’t have what a young producer friend of mine recently referred to as “a tap.” Perhaps this is why so many rich kids go into indie film. They’re never at risk of actually losing their class status while working for little or nothing building a reputation for themselves making low-budget pictures, and they can more easily raise the modest amounts of capital needed to do so.

The reality that so many lonesome souls, despite the lack of financial viability, continue to cast images and sounds out into the cultural ether, suggests that the motion picture format is still a place where the youth, good or not, rich or not, go to dream. But who’s watching these dreams? Not nearly enough of us it seems, to keep the dreamers from having to wake up and go to work. 

When Jason Walks

Through the shaky hand-held camcorder, it looks like a beautiful day on Maho Beach, located on the Dutch side of St. Maarten. Jets fly in low over the cerulean bay to clear the short runway. The lens points up to the sky; the sun bleaches the atmosphere, and a wave of gas shimmers off a wing as the plane descends over the beach.