Making the Movie

19Feb/120

Hollywood 2.0: The Independent Filmmaker as Small Business Owner

The following is part of a series of posts re-imagining the entertainment industry for a digital age. If it ever becomes a book, the title will be Hollywood 2.0.

freshThe following essay will be political. Not in a partisan way, I hope. But in order to talk about how an independent filmmaker is a small-business owner, I'll have to touch on some of the electrified topics that Tea Partiers and Occupiers have erected on the political agenda. If you feel like your team is taking a beating, please just keep reading. Because I plan to pummel both sides.

Syllogism Number One: Big Government is Bad for Indies

If you think there is too much government interference in your daily life, then you must support campaign finance reform. I can demonstrate this conclusion quite simply. All corporate lobbies try to do two things:

  1. Remove regulations that cut into their profits.
  2. Add regulations that make it harder for upstarts to compete with them.

If they succeeded at #1 more often, then government would get smaller over the years. It hasn't, so obviously they are better at doing #2. A lot of lip service is paid by politicians to 'small businesses' as 'job-creating engines'. But actions speak louder than words:

  • Linking healthcare to employment - Makes it harder for small businesses by creating a burden of providing healthcare which involves lots of money and paperwork
  • SOPA/PIPA - Allows big Hollywood studios to label upstart distributors as "pirates" and shut them down without due process, passes off costs of fighting piracy to taxpayers
  • Patent system - Only companies with enough cash to buy "patent arsenals" or pay "protection money" can compete
  • Copyright legislation - Has locked down all culture which has been created since Mickey Mouse, restricting today's artists from building on the shoulders of previous artists or reviving 'orphan works'; international treaties like ACTA are negotiated in secret, contain language verbatim from industry lobbyist wishlists

Etc. I could go on, but I chose these examples because they are all government initiatives that harm independent filmmakers and help large corporate interests. (Healthcare costs become an issue if an indie producer wishes to employ a member of many unions and guilds in the industry; patent law makes it harder for new technologies to filter down to low-budget filmmakers.)

I don't imagine most people have a problem with companies growing large from success on a level playing field. I certainly don't. But once they are large, they shouldn't be allowed to change the game. Like many, I am wondering how we can assure the playing field is level. And the latest developments in campaign finance look to be pushing in the opposite direction.

If you have been paying attention to Stephen Colbert recently, you know about the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which allows unlimited spending by corporations -- a short-sighted ruling that he has satirized mercilessly. As a rule of thumb in U.S. law, corporations are treated like individual people. Citizen's United was meant to extend corporations the same 'free speech' protections as individuals through allowing unlimited campaign spending. We are now two levels removed from common sense. Ask any taxi driver, plumber or other average Joe: corporations are not people and spending money is not speech. Hence the comedic potential.

But we may have a hard time laughing if Citizens United means no politician can ever be elected who isn't in the pocket of a big-money corporate backer. Even if the worst does not come to pass, Citizens United has already dealt a large blow to the average American's faith in the system. And we need that system to level the playing field...

Syllogism Number Two: Big Government is Good for Indies

Economists on the left and right agree on one thing when it comes to government: government should be in charge of public goods. The rule of thumb is that a public good is: "something that we all need that will make our lives better, but the market will not provide."

For example, having a private fire department is all well and good. But if your neighbor's house catches on fire, then your house is at risk. The whole town is at risk. You don't want the fire department showing up and then waiting to confirm you are up to date on your fire subscription. It's better for everyone involved if the local government maintains a fire department that fights any and all fires.

The same concept is true for markets. The best markets are not ones with no government interference, but ones where government interferes only to create a level playing field. A level playing field is something that "free market theory" is based on. However, in the messy real world, theories that assume perfection -- communism, Platonism and Noam Chomsky's generative grammar come to mind -- are doomed to be defeated by theories that treat the world as it really is.

Unfortunately, the sword cuts both ways. Because of second-order effects which create winner-take-almost-all outcomes [PDF], markets quickly become tilted toward the big players. If government steps in to 'un-tilt' the market, chances are the regulators will be "captured" by the leading market participants. So neither the policies of the left nor the right will ever create a fair market. To paraphrase Chasing Amy: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, unicorns and free markets -- all of them are figments of the imagination.

This may all seem rather abstract, but here's how I see it applying to films... The major studios and their lobbying organization the MPAA do a very good job of protecting their own interests. Vice-president Joe Biden just negotiated a deal with China to allow more U.S. films. Guess which ones -- those which have a 3D or IMAX format. (They don't actually have to be shown in that format, though.) Who can afford to produce in those formats? Rarely indies.

Since the demand is higher for big Hollywood movies everywhere (not just in China), why should this matter? Because it is a clear case of tilting the market. Given the chance, Chinese audiences might like to watch an independent film from time to time. A market that is 90% Hollywood blockbusters and 10% independent films offers more choice than one that is purely Hollywood blockbusters, a better outcome for audiences. When the studios had quasi-independent arms, they had reason to keep the market open to less-than-mainstream films. Now they don't.

Somebody needs to step in and even out the market. Enter the Tech Companies. If government will only work on behalf of a corporate lobby, then it will take a larger lobby than Big Content to save the market. Google and its allies managed to stop SOPA/PIPA for now. Yet they have anti-consumer issues of their own, such as privacy. Apple's and Facebook's deals with the major studios shows that they accord indies a lower priority. What can filmmakers do?

Striking Back Against the Empire

Filmmaking can be a lonesome pursuit. But a key to good filmmaking is organizing a team of talented people to create something larger than any individual could make on his or her own. It's a small miracle that never ceases to fill me with wonder. We do this all the time to make our movies, so let's do it outside of filmmaking just this once.

The independent filmmaking community is, yes, independent and, yes, makes films. But it is also a community. A project like Lucas McNelly's A Year Without Rent reminds us of that. (McNelly has spent the last year traveling the globe volunteering on independent films.)

I think what gets lost a lot in talking about A Year Without Rent is how important the community has been in quite literally keeping this thing afloat. Ultimately, this is your project and a document of how you collectively operate. I'm just the guy going from place to place to see it first-hand.

In this election year, we need to drop our outmoded party affiliations at the door and form our own Filmmakers Party. Gather those voices into one that can compete with the Chris Dodds and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. We need to let them know we want to live in a world where any filmmaker with a great story can find funding, make the project to a level that is competitive and find meaningful distribution that gives the story a chance to find an audience. And we need to be smart about how seemingly tangential issues like health care bureaucracy and patent law end up making it harder for us to do this.

Like it or not, a film is its own form of small business. And filmmakers are deeply and profoundly affected by the lobbying of the major media companies. When they do anti-competitive things, we must stand up and shout them down. And since we are storytellers and media-savvy, we need to tell our side of the story in a smart way in the media.

Make your voice heard. Inside the theater and out.

Image credits: fresh by eren {sea+prairie} under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Colbert via MediaBistro. Chomsky a fair-use remix of Duncan Rawlinson's photo under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.



About J. Ott

John Ott is a writer, filmmaker and technology geek. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
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