Wednesday, February 05, 2020

The odds of indie success

I just started reading a memoir by Allen Baron, director of the 1961 independent cult classic Blast of Silence. It's a gritty, low-budget, independent film, shot in New York, about a hitman who comes from Ohio to carry out the killing of a mob boss. Baron wrote, directed, and starred in it. It was his first movie, following some work he did on a film made in Cuba in the late '50s.

Blast of Silence turned out to be Baron's ticket to Hollywood success. He got his big break when the film was acquired by Universal Studios for distribution, launching him in to a directing career in Hollywood, where he worked mostly on TV shows, directing dozens of episodes from the '60s to the '80s.

I've been interested in Baron's story ever since seeing Blast of Silence, a movie that I love and that has fueled my own desire to keep making low-budget, DIY movies. I was excited to see that he'd published a memoir detailing his life and career. I just started reading it but am already learning a lot about independent filmmaking in the 1950s.

Baron wrote an interesting article for Filmmaker Magazine a few years ago, around the time his memoir was published, detailing the differences between making an independent feature film in 1959 vs. today:

Aside from all of the technical issues that would be much cheaper and simpler to handle today, he also discusses the difference in the odds of finding success with your film once it is completed:

"Attempting to make an independent film today as opposed to 1959 would present a far different set of problems. For one thing, in 1959 I doubt if more than a half-dozen independent movies were attempted to be made. Today, because of the use of a digital camera, literally thousands of independent movies are being made. While I’m sure that among the many thousands there are probably some very excellent movies, the crowded field makes it very difficult for distributors to make a selection. Today, anybody can go into a store, purchase a digital video camera and start shooting a movie. This was absolutely impossible in 1959 because of the use of film and expensive equipment that was necessary to shoot a movie. An additional point that emphasizes the difference between then and now is the fact that in 1959 I doubt if there were more than half a dozen film festivals in the world. Today there are literally hundreds." (Allen Baron, "Blast of Silence: Independent Filmmaking, Then and Now", Filmmaker Magazine).

This is the dilemma of reaching for success in indie film today. Yes, it's much easier than ever to actually get a film made. People are making movies on their smartphones. I shot a short documentary on my Android phone that has played on the big screen and looked great up there.

But what do you do when there are so many films being made out there, all competing for attention at the countless film festivals around the world? (And I think Mr. Baron is being conservative when he says there are "hundreds" of festivals out there. Judging by what I see on websites like Film Freeway, that number now has to be in the thousands, at least).

I find myself taking the attitude that just putting your film out on YouTube, Vimeo, etc. and doing whatever you can to get it in front of people is perhaps the most productive strategy we can take today, depending on what your goals are. I've been thinking about this with Unknown Number, because my ultimate hope for it is that it will serve as a calling card short. Would I love for the right person in Hollywood to see it? You bet! But I'm happy to have anyone watch it and enjoy it. And as far as I can tell, that can only really happen if I just put it out there to be seen.

This gets back to the point I made in a previous post, that it seems like if you really want to have film festival success above all else, you have to really want to have film festival success above all else. You have to do whatever it takes to get your film in shape that it will get on the radar of festival screening committees, panels, judges, etc. With the thousands of submissions that these festivals likely receive, it's a long shot just to get in. Personally, my take on it is that since it's such a long shot anyway, you might as well make the film you want to make and stick true to your vision for it, rather than trying to shape it into something else just because it might, supposedly, increase its chances of getting into a festival.

As Allen Baron points out, back in 1959, the odds were a lot better that your film -- if you overcame all of the obstacles and challenges in getting it made, that is -- would rise to the surface and get on the radar of film festivals and distributors. Since that seems not to be the case anymore today, you might as well focus on making the film you want to make, any way that you can.

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