Producer calls indie world to task
Jim Stern touts careful budgeting, moreProducer Jim Stern issued a warning call to the indie business Saturday, saying that if it wanted to endure, it needed to stop working at cross purposes with itself and its financiers.
Speaking in the high-profile slot at the Los Angeles Film Festival where Mark Gill last year gave his now-famous 'The Sky is Falling' speech, Stern told the audience that the indie world needed to more deeply consider marketing and financing.
"It's been hip to disrespect the money," he said. And "most businesses have a complete plan from the start of a project, which includes the whole chain, from manufacturing through distribution. Ours typically does not."
Instead, he said filmmakers needed to develop marketing plans and work more closely with financiers. "We need to cut costs, mitigate risks, target our audience," he said.
The Endgame Entertainment principal, the producer behind such pics as "A Chorus Line" documentary "Every Little Step" and Mark Ruffalo con-man movie "The Brothers Bloom," spoke during the Finance Conference at the festival. The address has become a kind of barometer for the state of the indie business.
Last year, Gill gave a keynote in which he warned that financing models, distributors and other part of the indie world were on the brink of collapse. Less than a week later, Paramount Vantage was consolidated; a year later, the indie world finds itself in a far bleaker place.
Given the market travails, Stern faced a tough task with his address: He couldn't simply underscore the misery, but he also couldn't risk sounding overly optimistic about the indie world's future.
So he walked a fine line, acknowledging the brutal realities but offering several ways out.
"We're upside down on the mortgage and it's time to mail in the keys," he said, citing the stat that nearly 10,000 films were submitted to Sundance last year, but only three so far have been released theatrically.
In parts sounding like the second coming of Gill, Stern described a climate in which studio tentpoles are flourishing but the number of indies that have made even $1 million this year has dwindled from 16 at this point last year to six.
But he also prescribed several solutions. He highlighted what he called "smarter movies" -- those that were careful about budgets and conscious about audience.
Filmmakers who followed their own heart at the expense of the market, Stern said, were due for a rude awakening.
"I love Sundance," he said. "But it gave rise to a sense of entitlement to personal films," adding that filmmakers are at a point in the business cycle that "if you make a personal film, don't be surprised if it doesn't get an audience, or, even much worse, if it doesn't get sold."
Greater attention to marketing from the earliest stages of development has been a major theme in the indie world recently, though naysayers have noted that some of the best indie and specialty pics in the past year -- such movies as "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Wrestler" -- were driven by intensely personal visions that didn't explicitly consider marketing until after they were made.
As part of his solution, Stern singled out entities, including Hulu and iTunes, that were exploring and peddling on-demand and streaming video. "These are the once and future friends of independent film," he said.
Stern also suggested that producers stop worrying about casting pricey A-level talent, which he said in most cases ceased being a factor for international sales and domestic boxoffice. "I don't think stars drive people to the theaters in small movies," he said.
He warned against the temptation of concentrating on such areas as special effects and photography, that should be the province of tentpoles. "Movies can look terrible and get an audience, and movies can look terrific and not," Stern said.
But making successful indies also required a complex series of traits, he said. "You need to be as sly as a fox, as slippery as an eel, as thick-skinned as a hippo, and as rich as Sidney Kimmel." He added: "But if you don't meet those qualifications, don't worry. It works just as well to be crazy as a loon."