Rising From The Ashes: The Dawn of the Blockbuster Independent

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From AIG bonuses to Bernie “Made off with all your damn money” to Hollywood A-listers and big budget motion picture extravaganzas.  I’ve noticed lately, as I’m certain many of you in the independent market have grasped, that there is a drought occuring on the shores of California, the studios market for action packed blockbusters slowing eroding away under the harsh arid winds of so many investors cracking open dry, empty wallets.  Now of course there is the obvious blockbuster that will make the cut, Terminator: Salvation, Public Enemies, and god help me, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.  However, who won’t take a chance on Chritian Bale, Johnny Depp or the latest mindless foray into the perpelxities of explosions that have become Michael Bay’s projects.  Hell, I’d jump in, if my wallet weren’t so damn barren and cracked with the lack of liquidity.

As evidenced, there are only six huge films coming down the pipe.  I’m not talking movies that boast major A-list talent, but movies that boast A or B-list talent and have enormous budgets to match, where 40% of the budget does not go to meet payroll expectations.  I mentioned three of them above, the others are also quite obvious, with J.J. Abrams running off the success of Cloverfield and helming the new Star Trek picture (Trekkies=Money), the new technological masterpiece Avatar, led by aspiring Astronaut and Oceanographer James Cameron, and of course X-Men Origins: Wolverine starring, Oscars presenter and Sexiest Man Alive, Hugh Jackman.

I’ll take one in six odds any day when it comes to stakes like these.  Too bad my wallet disagrees with this rationale.

However, looking back at 2008, a good year for some, worse for others, there were far more major films hitting, with extravagant budgets helmed by people with more money and worse hair-dos than The Donald.  After poring over every one of them, some marketing on the talent, some on the Bay-splosions, and some on the sheer techno-geek factor, I then watched the Oscars (hoping for a catfight between Angelina and Jennifer) but what I saw was a little-known, barely marketed film shot in India with minimal budget and starring a massive cast of no-one winning Best Picture and not just that but this gem of director Danny Boyle, the mastermind behind the haunting Trainspotting, the terrifying 28 Days Later, and the cinematicly gorgeous Sunshine, won 8 Oscars.  Nominated for 10.  Has the independent film arrived?  I think it has.

As the economy dips even farther than we would have ever expected.  As a crash seems imminent and Wall Street traders begin sucking the marrow from their own bones trying to survive there are two inscrutible facts:  1) When the Economy goes sour, money dries up and 2) When the Economy goes sour, people go to the movies.  Herein lies our magical formula which has created a systematic plunge in the vitality of major motion pictures and left that gorgeous plane of operation known as the market completely open to Independent Film directors, producers, and financiers.  All that seems be needed is a little ingenuity, a good marketing plan to the right people, and a solid, interesting story.  Yet, I did not see Slumdog until after it won the accolades it did.  Hell, to be honest, and I’m sure many of you are in the same boat, I did not even know the film existed until that little gold statue seemed to be swinging off of every part of that flick.

With people trying to squeeze blood out of pennies, cut back on everything but minimal life support systems, and fry Spam on hotplates in the dark of their foreclosing homes, they still want to be entertained, but who the hell seeks entertainment from a mindless bomb-fest when the dollars that are spent are so precious these days?  More work goes into the backgrounds of films, the director, the cast, the entire project to determine if the film is at all, worth the money being paid to see it, because I think we can all agree, the box office admission is not our friend these days if it ever was.  So what catches the eye? What drives someone to go to the movie theatre when money is the question?  Perhaps a little known flick like Slumdog Millionaire with no names you recognize, a film about kids in a country you will probably never visit, helmed by a director who is known for his success and proclivity in the independent markets.  Yes, this is an interesting movie and worth my $47.50 to take family or friends to see.  We’ll catch Ice Age III at the Red Box.

Predictability is a killer it seems and one thing that the independent film has always thrived at is being akin to a feral animal.  Unpredictable, sometimes extremely dangerous, but on the upside, usually very entertaining to watch and, I speak from personal experience, an unfettered blast to make.  One can argue that fresh ideas are few and far between and the majority that hit the circuit are generally ones pulled from someone’s ass, in other words, total crap.  But, the ideas are in someone’s eyes, new and fresh, or at least have an entertaining quality that will give them some pull.  Anyone remember a little summer horror flick released back in 1999, a three camera picture with a cast of no one and a crew no heavier than my girlfriend’s Escort, that is to this day regarded as one of the most successful films in modern cinema history, ranking up in percentage return with Titanic and Spider-Man 2?  The Blair Witch Project captured the imagination and fear of millions, saw a return of over $10,000 dollars per dollar spent by the producers, and is to this day one of the highest grossing independent projects in history, all shot in a mere eight days in the woods.  How’s that for dollar cost averaging?  The market created by the dollar scare is now ripe with concern for how much the Hugh Jackmans, Nicole Kidmans and Christian Bales are getting paid.  It is terrified of the probability of extreme failure if a budget begins peaking at just ten million.  If that film fails to produce, we could be looking at even more studio execs hitting the unemployment line and even more A-listers accepting smaller roles in smaller films for smaller paychecks.

Now is the day for the independent film to strike.  That anvil won’t get any hotter guys.

Remembering the keys to production is easy.  Finding the money has always been hard so make sure all your bases are covered first.  These successful indie guys are making it happen because they are covered for every possibility.  Transportation?  My brother is partners in a car rental lot.  Food? My best friend from high-school is taking culinary arts classes.  Legal?  My second cousin twice-removed on his mother’s side is a paralegal.  Promotion? Every city has telephone poles.  However it is done these professionals have an answer and a plan before they ever walk into a pitch meeting.  They want nothing to hold up any moment that they might wax didactically on their vision and the depth of the story and how much the universe needs this picture made.  And that is easy to make happen when you’re budget comes in at a whining $22,000 instead of a screaming $150 Mil.

I for one cannot wait to see what comes down the pipe.  Sometimes it is gold, sometimes trash, sometimes both.  No one can say there has never been an indie film they did not like.  The most encompassing effect has always been the visual lack of money, something this economy is in dire lack of.  Gems in the list include Alpha Dog, Road to Ruin, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, El Mariachi and Birth of a Nation.  What lacks in money is made up for in raw talent, pure honest emotions, and unfettered absolute dedication to the craft.  When the money is never a question, all that remains is the heart.  For better or worse, we may yet again see the indie film slip back into the murky shadows from whence it crept, ever crouching in the London Fog waiting to strike, but for now let it continue its foray into the hearts of the masses, let it reign supreme on the top of the hill.  The view, I hear, is excellent.