The Sky is Falling, Take Shelter

By Rebecca Green

Producers are busy people. They service multiple projects at various stages of the process and tend to the many needs of their filmmakers. Their inbox is always full, incoming texts never stop, and the to-do list is never ending. But lately I’ve noticed an increased level of busyness. A feeling that I can only describe as a state of franticness and panic. That the stakes are do or die at all times.  

Perhaps the stakes are that high?

Here are a handful of quotes from the last few months that describe the current state of the industry… 

  • Getting these movies made in this current f…g climate is so damn hard. The buyers are paying less, everyone else wants more and interest rates keep going up. It always was a miracle to get anything off the ground. Now it also requires a giant leap of faith. I’ve made hundreds of movies in my career and this is the worst time I’ve seen. I refuse to make garbage for money. So the rock gets bigger and the hill gets steeper and I just have to believe somehow I will get to the top.Cassian Elwes (producer), Twitter 10/09/22
  • I know I work in an industry that’s always worshiped celebrities, but lately, the star-worshiping has gotten ridic. You cannot get jack done around here unless you are a star! Damn did I miscalculate when I ditched acting 25 years ago.” Mynette Louie (producer), Twitter 10/06/22
  • We’ve taken things to market that feel extremely undervalued. What happens more these days is that we take something out and we’re a little shocked that the market is like ‘Okay, we like it. But we like it for about two-thirds of what you actually need to get it made.’” Christine Vachon (producer), Deadline Hollywood 09/20/22
  • It’s a difficult time for the traditional U.S. independent film scene. Historically that scene has been driven by equity or by territorial sales layered on top of equity. The idea of being an equity investor in an environment where the theatrical release and the rights that follow on from theatrical release is so uncertain is a hard thing.John Sloss (Cinetic Media), Variety 09/21/22
  • The challenges that we’re facing now with streaming is that it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to find places to deploy my capital. I’m trying to put together many different types of films right now and I’m trying different ways of doing it, but the streamers are not necessarily that interested. They’re either interested in paying for it and owning it or if you’re lucky enough you can get a cost-plus deal but it’s getting more and more difficult.Frank Smith (president and CEO of Walden Media), Deadline Hollywood 09/27/22
  • “I hope that in the future, documentarians, and I include myself in this, will continue to resist the straitjacket of formulas and find ways to do interesting work. In other words, my concern for the future is freedom of expression. And the only way to push back on that is to be prepared to do it for less money.Alex Gibney (director/producer), The Hollywood Reporter 09/16/22
  • The trend we are seeing is good and bad for the documentary landscape. If you are a documentary filmmaker who has a film that gets commissioned by a streamer, then you’re cheering, and you’re happy. If you happen to be a filmmaker who took a different path and financed a film (independently), and it premiered at a festival, it’s a bit tricky.Josh Braun (Submarine Entertainment), Variety 09/15/22
  • The numbers show that the model is challenged in three critical areas: budgets are not growing at a market rate, revenues are showing signs of stagnation and costs are escalating. Left unchecked, these threats are likely to draw away investment and the ability for producers to sustain their creative risk-taking, which would ultimately lead to a future where the full breadth and success — and the very independence — of independent film will not endure.Ben Roberts (BFI chief executive), Economic Review of U.K. Independent Film 07/18/22

In October 2020, I wrote in my Smoke and Mirrors piece that, “The dust has not even begun to settle and there is a lot of disruption yet to come. We have a long road ahead and each of us are going to have to decide if we’re in it for the long haul or not.” 

Now two years later, the dust from the pandemic is finally settling in the form of consolidation, layoffs, and closures. Here’s a quick glance at the major happenings of 2022 so far… 

JANUARY

MARCH

APRIL

  • Discovery finalized its acquisition of WarnerMedia from AT&T to become Warner Bros. Discovery. The new mega company now controls HBO, HBO Max, CNN, Warner Bros., DC Films, New Line Cinema, TBS, TNT, TruTV, Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, Turner Sports, Rooster Teeth, part of the CW Network (along with Paramount), Discovery Plus, Discovery Channel, HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Investigation Discovery, Travel Channel, Turbo/Velocity, Animal Planet, Science Channel and OWN. 
  • The Sundance Institute phased out the Interdisciplinary Program, which supported artists working across mediums with fellowships, residencies and labs, just after its inaugural year and folded the long running Film Music Program, which nurtured emerging composers.  

MAY

JUNE

AUGUST

  • Neon, the independent distributor best known for its breakout release of PARASITE, the first foreign-language title to win Best Picture at the Oscars, is looking to be sold.

SEPTEMBER

OCTOBER

  • Warner Bros. also attempted to shutter its 40 year old Warner Bros Television Workshop, only to then reverse their decision after pushback from the DGA. The Workshop will be transferred to the corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion division after the conclusion of the current writers’ workshop, which ends in March 2023. 
  • Netflix, which built its brand on cord-cutters who hated commercials, is now adding an ad-supported tier to its pricing. Subscribers should expect to see an average of four to five minutes of commercials for every hour of streaming. 

So it’s no wonder there is a franticness and panic amongst producers, it feels like the sky is falling. 

But if you’ve been around long enough, you know that this has been said before. In June 2008, in the middle of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, Mark Gill, the then CEO of The Film Department and former president of Solstice Studios, Millennium Films, Warner Independent Pictures, and Miramax Films (now a producer) declared “Yes, The Sky Really Is Falling” at the now shuttered L.A. Film Festival‘s Financing Conference. Gill’s keynote address ran through 13 reasons why everything in the film business was falling apart at the time. From company shutdowns and mergers, to the decline of the theatrical release, to the lack of international sales, and the rising cost of production (sounds familiar). Gill’s keynote is both a time capsule and a crystal ball, written when Netflix was not yet King. 

After lamenting about all the ways in which independent film was in big trouble, Gill says, “The marginally good news is it won’t hit the ground everywhere. The strongest of the strong will survive and in fact prosper. But it will feel like we just survived a medieval plague. The carnage and the stench will be overwhelming.” If he only knew what was coming… 

Gill’s advice to the audience was this… 

“If you want to survive in this brutal climate, you’re going to have to work a lot harder, be a lot smarter, know a lot more, move a lot faster, sell a lot better, pay attention to the data, be a little nicer (ok, a lot nicer), trust your gut, read everything and never, ever give up. If you’re looking for a cool lifestyle, you’re in the wrong business. If you want work-life balance, go get a government job.”

While Gill gets a lot right in his keynote, this is the part he gets wrong. 

What Gill doesn’t take into consideration or acknowledge is that the industry doesn’t care about you as much as you care about the industry. The “industry” is all about money. The sky will always be falling because gatekeepers, both in the studio and indie space, will always be chasing the dollar. The sky will always be falling because technology will always be changing, audiences’ appetite will evolve and regress, and despite all the algorithms that exist today that didn’t exist at the time of Gill’s keynote, no one can predict success.

While those in the C-suites scramble day after day to devise a plan to be the biggest and most profitable, we as filmmakers cannot behave that way. It’s up to us as artists to hold tight to creative integrity, to fight for original and diverse stories that aren’t driven by high valued IP, to reach audiences ignored by distributors, to hold organizations accountable, and to create a new sustainable path forward. This mission is much harder than keeping an eye on the bottom line. 

While I draw comparisons to Mark Gill’s 2008 keynote, don’t get me wrong, this year is unlike anything I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been working in this business. Yes, there is the money of it all, but the emotional and physical toll the pandemic has taken on all of us cannot be measured and has not yet been overcome. 

In the music world, artists are canceling tours due to the mental and financial struggles of being on the road. From big acts like Shawn Mendes, Demi Lovato, and Justin Bieber, to indie favorites such as Arlo Parks, Animal Collective, Okkervil River, Yard Act, Sam Fender, and Wet Leg. Musicians have hit a breaking point prompting Vulture to declare that The Live-Music Industry Is Broken

Among those artists canceling tours this month is Santigold who wrote a bold and vulnerable statement articulating the truth of what it is like for artists right now. She says, “I want you to understand that I am proud to be canceling this tour when it means that I am proclaiming that I, the person who writes the songs, is as important to me as the songs. I will not continue to sacrifice myself for an industry that has become unsustainable for, and uninterested in the welfare of the artists it is built upon.” 

(If you read only one more thing the rest of this year, read Santigold’s statement.) 

So in the spirit of Santigold, let me rewrite Mark Gill’s 2008 keynote advice to take into account the artists for whom the whole industry would not exist without. Artists who should be thriving, not just surviving…  

If you want to thrive in this brutal climate, you’re going to have to slow down and take time off and rest. You’re going to have to stop reading the trades and worrying about what everyone else is doing and when you’ll see your name in the next press release. You’re going to have to ignore the algorithm and stop chasing the zeitgeist and what you think will be a hit. 

If you want to thrive in this brutal climate, you can’t spend every waking moment working. You need to spend time with your loved ones and also spend time alone. You need to stop skipping your doctor appointments and take better care of your mind and body. You need to set boundaries so that your generous spirit is not depleted.  

If you want to thrive in this brutal climate, you need to immerse yourself in the things that bring you joy and surround yourself with what inspires you. You need to be in rooms with people who are creating and experimenting just for the sake of making something. If you can’t find those rooms, make one of your own. You need to get out from behind your inbox of endless emails, put your phone down, and just be in the world.  

We can’t preserve independent film if we are overextended. We can’t innovate if we are burned out. We can’t envision the future if we have lost hope.

So cancel the tour and take shelter.