When you talk about independent creators, success has always been a matter of scale. An unsigned musician who puts his own records out doesn’t look at Beyonce and see his competition. An author who self-publishes an eBook doesn’t expect to oust James Patterson from the bestseller’s list.
That was the case, anyway, before “Thrift Shop” became the first song from a self-released album (and only the second indie song in history) to top the Billboard singles chart, and the self-published Fifty Shades Of Grey sold 70 million copies. But while we’ve seen that sort of success break barriers in music and publishing, we’ve yet to see it happen in film: many independent filmmakers still look to a traditional studio distribution model to get their movies in front of audiences. And the Kickstarter-assisted projects that look most like potential hits will also ultimately be studio releases.
But it won’t be that way forever. Sooner or later someone is going to release a film that’s distributed without the help of a traditional “gatekeeper” and that competes on the same level of major Hollywood successes—if not The Avengers, then certainly Ted or Magic Mike. Our money’s on sooner, and here are some things you should know about that movie.
Before Fifty Shades Of Grey, the publishing industry wasn’t buzzing that the future was in erotic Twilight fan-fiction. Before “Thrift Shop,” novelty songs from white rappers weren’t ascending to unprecedented success. Even independent films that were bought by major studios during the '90s boom were unpredictable. A movie like The Blair Witch Project broke new ground in terms of what could constitute a successful release.
Jonny Mars, an independent filmmaker whose first film, football documentary America’s Parking Lot, was recently picked up for distribution on ESPN, points to Blair Witch as the exact sort of movie that could succeed without a gatekeeper now. “What they did is still trying to be done,” Mars says. “Their hype machine was mystery. And this is real. Enough people believed in it that it went nuts.” That sort of hype spreads even better in a viral media age than it did in the '90s.
Movies obviously succeed in part on their home viewership audiences, but to be the sort of cultural phenomenon that we’re talking about, it’ll have to have a theatrical release, too. And the avenues for getting into theaters now are wider than they’ve been in the past.
Look at Tugg, a crowdsourcing platform that allows users to request that their local theaters show movies that they’d otherwise hesitate to risk screen time on. (The company works with over 85% of the theaters in the country, according to CEO Nicolas Gonda.) Users request a screening, and when enough people sign up, the theater books the film. This is good for one-offs, but Gonda says that it also gives theaters and filmmakers the opportunity to respond to audience interest. “It allows them to be exploratory and reactive, which is not usually the way that a distribution strategy can be on a granular, city-by-city level,” Gonda explains. “A lot of times, we’ll have theaters coming to us wanting to book that film for an entire week or more.” It’s not hard to imagine a mass Internet campaign that brought a movie to theaters around the country all at once—and then kept them there.
Brian Robbins—who’s produced and/or directed over a dozen movies including Coach Carter, Wild Hogs and Varsity Blues—started his own company, AwesomenessTV, in 2012, to focus on creating the sort of ground-up, word-of-mouth phenomenon that Hollywood rarely has time for these days. “The big studios have really ignored that part of the business now,” Robbins says. “Everything’s a tentpole. They make very few movies that are intended to be singles and doubles.” He points to his own Varsity Blues as an example of a hit movie that would struggle to be made today—and explains that movies that might have once required a massive marketing campaign can hit virally.
“Studios don’t make movies like American Pie anymore,” Robbins says. “But that trailer is what blew that movie up—the pie and the kid. Now imagine if you took that same marketing campaign and just did it online.”
It’s not exactly a well-kept secret of most creative industries that artists rarely make the bulk of the money from the final product. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of TLC explained in painstaking detail on a Behind The Music episode what happened to the 56 cent royalty (split three ways, minus taxes, label, and management fees) that her band received per album sold. Macklemore, meanwhile, is making a lot more than 56 cents per copy by releasing everything himself.
That’s something that an independent filmmaker who takes his or her own work to market is going to profit from, too. Gonda recognizes the potential for someone to cash in by controlling their own assets. “Artists have been selling their product at a wholesale rate and then somebody else, piecing together services, sells it at retail prices. So the artists are really being shortchanged on the value of their film,” he says. “But now we’re seeing more and more artists are being very entrepreneurial and realizing that they can get those services à la carte and not have to order the whole buffet. And as a result of that, they can own their rights and sell at a retail rate.”
Fifty Shades Of Grey needed one person in a room with a Word document to happen; “Thrift Shop” took two guys and some recording equipment; even an ultra-low-budget film requires tens of thousands of dollars and a sizable crew. “I don’t think we can do what Macklemore or 50 Shades Of Grey did yet,” Mars says. “There are a lot more parties involved.”
Gonda recognizes those realities, but sees the ground shifting quickly. “If there’s a ticking clock, and a big bank loan, and a lot of financial backers were used to produce that film, then the objective is to get the largest sum of money as quickly as possible. Usually, that comes through a traditional distribution deal,” he says. “But what we’re seeing more and more is that filmmakers are turning to Kickstarter or other crowdsourcing platforms, where they’re not buried in a hole of debt.”
Additionally, the cost of making films continues to drop. Movies like American Pie and Varsity Blues—or The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity—aren’t expensive to make, and they’re getting cheaper every day. That’s what Robbins sees as the game changer. “People are going to make good, quality stuff at a much lower price. And now the distribution is available. That’s where the disruption begins.”
Eric Kuhn, the head of social media at United Talent Agency, thinks the conditions for a hit are already in place. “Social media provides the reach, broadband streaming provides the distribution, and the public has shown the willingness to consume premium content in new ways,” he says. “The system is ready for it. It’s just needs the confluence of the right film and the right moment.”
Robbins cautions that, while all of that makes it sound simple, it’s not going to be easy to have an unexpected hit. But it’s not easy for studios to do that now either. “It won’t be any easier than opening a movie with 50 million dollars. It’s all hard,” he says. “But it’s going to happen. And it’s going to happen more than once. Everyone’s going to try to repeat it. There’s going to be a ton of bloodshed and failure. And then other people will figure out how to make a business out of it.”
[Base Image: Flickr user Plano Light]