Is the entire indie film world going to hell? That's been the question vibrating through our community for the past several weeks, particularly after a Toronto International Film Festival that was light on sales and a summary paper issued by Anne Thompson, in which she labeled this year's TIFF an "indie bloodbath":
If nobody knew anything before, they know even less now. The one sure thing is that moviemakers will now PAY to get their films released. The few remaining distributors can sit back and wait for movies to drop in their laps, often with P & A funds attached. All hopes of a hot sale at a festivals were dashed this year."
And if you think filmmakers going to festivals have it bad, what about the festivals themselves? This year has seen an unprecedented upheaval, as five of the top 10 festivals for documentaries saw a change in leadership (Sundance, Silverdocs, Los Angeles, Tribeca and Full Frame) and a number of film festivals found themselves making news - Toronto over its choice of Tel Aviv for its City to City Spotlight, Los Angeles in its battle with the BANANAS!* filmmakers and lawyers from Dole, SF Jewish Film over its screening of RACHEL, Tokyo due to its rejection-then-capitulation/acceptance of THE COVE, not to mention the coup at the Denver Film Society. And what does it say about the New York Film Festival if most of NYC's indie film cognoscenti took the first flights out of town to be in Austin for Fantastic Fest, just as NYFF was opening?
Now we learn that CineVegas, one of the best regional festivals in the US, will not be back for its 2010 edition (although they state publicly that they will try to return sometime after that) and yesterday the news that filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland as he was en route to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Zurich Film Festival.
Add to all this what any filmmaker on the festival circuit (including this one) can tell you with certainty - for many festivals, the days of largesse have passed. No travel, no accommodations, no screening fees. Oh yeah, and if you want more than a couple tickets to your film, you're going to have to pay for them.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Now we don't know the exact reasons behind CineVegas' hiatus (and we sincerely hope that's what it is), but I'm preferring to view the news as something kind of noble. It seems that the organizers looked at the economic reality and, for whatever reason, decided that they couldn't put on a festival that would live up to previous editions. Maybe they lost their venue or their host hotel. Whatever the reason, they pulled the plug on 2010 now, nine months out. And one thing they didn't do is to ask filmmakers to help them shoulder the burden.
When BritDoc sadly announced that it wouldn't be back for a fourth edition in 2009, it was an early sign that even a very successful fest - CineVegas is one of those too - may not be able to attract the sponsorship or underwriting necessary to keep things alive. This year, BritDoc will fold some of its programs into the Sheffield Doc/Fest in November. CineVegas has announced that they will keep individual programs (including one-off screenings and special events) going until a decision can be made for 2011 and beyond.
Neither of these shutterings are news for celebration, but - in this writer's opinion - it's a better deal for filmmakers (if not for audiences). Isn't it high time for other festivals existing on the financial margins to consider taking a little break of their own?
For some doc filmgoers this weekend, the bad economy wasn't just cause for worry about their local festival, it was also the subject of the movie they most wanted to see this weekend. So, after a strong, if not stratospheric, debut on Wednesday, Michael Moore's latest, CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY raided the indie film box office this weekend, taking in a huge, year-to-date record $60K per screen average (on four screens).
That total compares quite favorably (if not moreso) to SICKO's opening one-screen salvo of $68K. But the proof of CAPITALISM's long-term health/impact will come Friday when the film opens in 1000 theaters.
In addition to CAPITALISM, it was a terrific weekend for two other documentaries. Davis Guggenheim's IT MIGHT GET LOUD passed the $1M mark (total cume is now estimated at $1,133,000), becoming the ninth nonfiction of 2009 to reach that mark and the third film from Sony Pictures Classics.
Meanwhile, RJ Cutler's THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE is now at $2.5 million, passing WALTZ WITH BASHIR for fourth biggest nonfiction of the year (behind Disney's dynamic duo of EARTH and JONAS BROTHERS 3D, and Magnolia's FOOD, INC.). It will likely slip back to five after CAPITALISM opens next weekend.
But perhaps one of the most talked about docs this weekend is Marina Zenovich's ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED. The double Emmy winner (and Cinema Eye nominee) was mentioned in nearly every news article about the filmmaker's arrest Sunday on 30+ year old rape charges. Should Polanski be extradited to the US, expect to hear even more about Zenovich's excellent film, which will soon be seen in Moscow at the American Embassy-sponsored AmFest - one of four American documentaries to screen this year, along with RACING DREAMS, OCTOBER COUNTRY and TROUBLE THE WATER.
And if that isn't the best programming of four films to show the breadth of style AND content in recent American documentary, I don't know what is (kudos to programmer and filmmaker Robin Hessman).
Required Reading: Crisis, what crisis? More on the current state of indie film: Eugene Hernandez summarizes Friday's indieWIRE/MoMA Indie Film Summit in New York, as does co-moderator Anne Thompson, Filmmaker Magazine's Scott Macaulay and indie vet/Emerging Pictures' Ira Deutchman. Thom Powers summarizes this - and earlier contributions from Liesl Copland and Peter Broderick - with a focus on what this means for documentary filmmakers.
Stuff we missed this week: rounding up its TIFF coverage, indieWIRE surveyed critics and bloggers for their favorite titles at this year's festival. On the doc side, Erik Gandini's much talked-about VIDEOCRACY came in on top with 24 points. The rest of the top 5: Chris Smith's COLLAPSE (17), Don Argott's THE ART OF THE STEAL (16), Leanne Pooley's Audience Award winner THE TOPP TWINS and Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker's latest, HOW TO FOLD A FLAG.
This week - the fall festival frenzy continues with the kick offs of two important stops on the documentary circuit: Camden International Film Festival, an up-and-coming doc-only fest in Maine that adds a day-long forum this year, and Woodstock Film Festival, which will lure many from the NYC indie film community upstate next weekend (particularly for its awards ceremony Saturday night). We'll be attending both festivals with our latest film, CONVENTION, and will be back with reports during the week/weekend.
Also this week - the theatrical release of Kristopher Belman's MORE THAN A GAME, which you may hear summarized as "the LeBron James documentary" but which is actually a strong, surprisingly effective portrait of a high school basketball team that transcends the typical underdog sports team film. Of particular note, the original score by producer Harvey Mason Jr. is excellent. The film opened this year's Silverdocs and was one of that festival's most talked about films. Should it be going head to head with Michael Moore? Can these two very different documentaries share the same theatrical head space?
And finally... If you've been following Ondi Timoner's Twitter feed (the woman is a tweeting machine), you may have heard of her latest innovative endeavors on behalf of her doc WE LIVE IN PUBLIC. In the last few days, Ondi has screened her film online for critics and bloggers (getting a first-ever special dispensation from the Motion Picture Academy so as not to upset her own Oscar eligibility apple cart), hosted live streaming of the Los Angeles opening night Q&A and premiere party and did a lengthy conversation with the IDA's Eddie Schmidt at one of the organization's Doc U events (Tamara Krinsky has an extended recap). No matter what your thoughts on PUBLIC (I happen to think that it says lots about what it means to be in the nonfiction filmmaking business), one has to admire Timoner's innovative thinking toward the promotion of her film.
Since the magic 8 ball seems to be indicating we may all soon be in the same boat - promoting, distributing, shepherding our films into the theatrical market (if that's what we want), we should be watching folks like Timoner (and others like Gary Hustwit and Sascha Gervasi) very closely.