The first part of a two-part essay from USC film student Paul Snow. Enjoy. – JO

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Cars toysHollywood isn’t in the movie business anymore

Much has been written over the last year about the questionable stability of the blockbuster, but the fact is that even if event movies run losses on a regular basis the studios will continue to make them because they aren’t just movie studios, but divisions of massive media conglomerates. Regardless of how successful Captain America is as a film, it establishes revenue streams in video games, comics, toys, and other branding deals that will more than pay for the production cost. The Walt Disney Company has famously made more money from Cars merchandise than on all of Pixar’s films combined. After such a success, films like Cars 2 and Planes seem to exist for no other reason than to perpetuate the toy line. The blockbuster is necessary, but rarely an end in itself.

Even when Hollywood tries to sell a movie by itself the old-fashioned way, a close look reveals that it is really only selling tickets. After you buy your ticket at the box office, Hollywood’s responsibility to you ends. Studio marketing clearly demonstrates this.

Marketing and audience satisfaction

Because Hollywood sells tickets and merchandise rather than movies, its marketing focuses on putting butts in seats, rather than planting the seeds for good word-of-mouth by preparing the audience to be satisfied by the film itself. As a result, the trailers today are filled with money shots – to the point where the recent trailer for Ender’s Game shows the climax of the movie (which anyone who knows about the story beforehand will be able to identify).

Instead of having the marketing team work creatively to show the unique merits of each picture, movies today are made to conform to the marketing and to play well in one of the two templates for a studio trailer: exciting or lighthearted. When a film defies easy categorization, the marketing group tends to misrepresent it in some inappropriate genre, setting the public up for disappointment and confusion when they go to see it. Blade Runner, Fight Club, and Where the Wild Things Are – sold as a shoot-em-up, a wrestling movie, and a family-friendly kid’s movie, respectively – were all famous financial disappointments for this key reason.

I see indie filmmakers falling into traps too. The biggest pitfall today in independent cinema is belief in the fantasy that the festival circuit and crowdfunding are reliable paths to success and financial rewards. In reality, these are only different forms of marketing for the film. Still, filmmakers get enchanted about stories of a time gone by when big producers scanned the festivals all day for new talent. Today, most of them prefer to keep a tab open on Twitter or YouTube – if they want to seek out anyone at all. Only 1% of movies submitted to Sundance are accepted, and 4% or 5% of those (about 5 feature films films out of 120 on average in the last 3 years) receive any kind of theatrical distribution deal. To most filmmakers, festivals are at best a publicity opportunity.

Similarly, thousands of filmmakers run crowdfunding campaigns with the hope of six-figure paydays like the biggest success stories publicized online. Most of the crowdfunding “experts” will tell you, however, to prepare to work full-time for at least a month on a campaign and to set a modest goal. (SideKick reports that the average successful campaign for “Narrative Film” on Kickstarter collects less than $40K.) Understand that a significant portion of that goal will be spent just on the rewards given to donors rather than the film itself. At best, crowdfunding can provide long-term audience engagement and perhaps a set of small additional funding for a major independent project.

If studio filmmakers only care about getting the audience into the theater and independents are willing to place the labor of several years of their lives completely on chance and festival tastes, then these methods are fine. There will always be a balance between art and commerce, but nobody needs to shoot themselves in the foot. So where do we go from here?

My thoughts on distribution with continue in Part 2.