Nov 19, 2009

Best Films Not Playing at a Theater Near You: at least they're at MoMA :)

It's been quiet over here lately. My apologies. Regardless of how cheaply one lives, the recession is taking it toll. I've been fortunate enough this fall to land a teaching position at the New York Film Academy and recently took over, along with my colleague Damon Smith, Filmmaker's Director Interviews column. Between these responsibilities and a number of film projects (one of which you can donate to at the links to the right), I've been a bit preoccupied. However, as we move toward the end of the decade and toward the end of this momentous year in specialty cinema, expect to hear more from us at CEC.

Tonight the Museum of Modern Art will commence its yearly collaboration with Filmmaker Magazine and the IFP. Through Sunday, the venerable midtown museum will screen the Gotham Award nominees for the Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You. Each year the editors of Filmmaker select the five finalists for the best American independent film currently without theatrical distribution in place. Our exhaustive process starts with a pool of sixty or so films that we cull from our own favorites at film festivals during the previous year and the recommendations of festival programmers. This is narrowed to a shortlist of about fifteen films, which is later narrowed to the five nominees that will screen starting this evening.

Reflecting on the process that led to the nominations of Everything Strange and New, Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, October Country, You Won't Miss Me and Zero Bridge, I was astounded by, in this terrible economy, just how healthy and diverse American independent film appears to be. A small, high risk section of the entertainment industry that unlike its European peers has no public subsidization and is bound to the edifice of private equity (i.e. scamming rich people into believing a dream), our portion of the film industry has oversupplied for several years now, while demand for specialty film has remained flat or declined depending on whom you ask. The economic troubles of the past two years have led to the closing of most of the mini-majors, but those troubles have been equally if not more damaging to young, independent producers who are trying to get out into the marketplace for the first or second time. Sure the slate financing, hedge fund money has gone away, but so too has the "dumb money" (the dentist who wants to go to Park City, the real estate executive who liked the last Hollywood movie your indie level star had a small part in) that fuels the work of so many non trust fund wielding newcomers.

A good indicator of how the economy has affected indie film production should be the number of submissions Sundance receives in 2010. Will it drop significantly? If it does, is it actually good for the industry as a whole? If it doesn't, what does that mean? In a world where about ten or so of the films that get submitted to the festival make back their negative costs, does it prove once and for all that most indie film financiers see these investments as having a much more intangible value than dollars?

The films we have to choose from when selecting the prize get better every year. I doubt many of the finalists for the prize a couple years ago would have been in the conversation had they been made this year. Several incredibly strong films missed the cut. Most of these films, weather they were among our nominees or not, are being made with the barest of bones. Most of the docs we've selected the past few years are about subject matter that is readily available to the filmmaker (the filmmaker's family is the principle subject of both last year's nominee Meadowlark and this year's nominee October Country), while the narratives (especially Frownland, our 2007 winner, and this year's nominees Guy and Madeleine and You Won't Miss Me) tend to be straight from the gut, truly DIY productions. Yet, while we had a much better crop of films to choose from than we did in my first two years on the panel that selects the nominees, its interesting to note that not a single film we've selected in the past couple of years, included the ones that have screened at top shelf market festivals like Sundance and Toronto, has returned it's investors' principle contribution to my knowledge. In a for profit arts environment, this is surely an unsustainable course.