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The Death of Merely Good Films

November 30, 2009

“The loser in a world of almost limitless entertainment choice is not the hit, but the near-miss.”

As a maker of films that fall into ‘niche’ categories, I appreciate new technologies that enable us to reach smaller audiences in new and creative ways. When I began my career, the options were few and if you had a film that wasn’t a mainstream film, it was almost impossible to get it to audiences. You could show it on one of the Big Three television networks, in theaters, or…

…I guess there were VHS tape and home video stores. But the reality was that everything was pretty locked-up, especially for smaller filmmakers who had films that would appeal to a smaller segment of the audience. Even if you could identify them accurately, it was really difficult and/or expensive to reach them.

The development of broadband internet and social media and all of the other constantly changing technologies now make it possible for us to target and actually touch audiences with niche media. This is the promise of the new media world and we are all clinging hopefully to that promise!

Interestingly though, another side-effect of the new media world is what I would describe as a widening gap – kind of like what happens in developing economies. Instead of a great, flat, democratic media landscape where everything has equal footing and ability to impact audiences, we are seeing an interesting trend in the world of the ‘blockbuster.’ While there has been tremendous growth in the production and distribution of small films to small audiences, there seems to be a greater emphasis at the opposite end of the spectrum. What is being lost is in the middle – those films that aren’t quite blockbusters but are bigger than the niche film. Are the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer?

This interesting article (originally from The Economist) describes the phenomenon very well. “Independent filmmaker earning a living in world where blockbusters dominate”

How does this impact folks like us? It’s not really my dream to make ultra-low-budget films ($0-50,000) for the rest of my career. But I am called to stories that fit smaller niches. It would be nice to be able to gradually make larger films, fill the gap between the blockbuster $150 million films, or even the average $50 million studio feature. Isn’t there a huge market now for low-budget films that are of high quality, made for $3-5 million? I know people who are aiming there. This article suggests that they are in for a battle for an audience.

What do you think?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 30, 2009 1:34 pm

    It is wild to be experiencing the real-time shape-shifting of all forms of media into tangents that cannot be historically referenced for guidance on where we are all headed.

    Not only are we seeing media distribution “open up the boulevards to the masses” through web platforms (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.), but now the volume of content creation is exploding due to lower costs of entry on recording gear. Nearly any creative fool with a basic understanding of tried and true production processes can take their HD Cam/DSLR/laptop/editing software and now create lovely HD content rivaling “broadcast quality” standards of just five years ago. This still emerging environment has opened doors for many, but at the cost of dealing with audience fragmentation and an attention span that cannot be blamed on ADD alone. There are just too many choices! Social media tools can help spread the word of any project you are trying to drive eyeballs to, but in the end I think it comes back to impact and story.

    Since the first spoken word, mankind has had a ready ear for story. Whether it be for survival, passing on the wisdom of the elders, or purely to entertain, the ritual of sitting around the fire (TV?) still reigns supreme today.

    But must it be a blockbuster A-list actor/special effects flick that does fiscally well at the box office? Historically, that has been the case because of marketing power. Movie posters, trailers on VHS and prime-time, and limited competition helped to drive attendance. However, in the end it was the social network that brought them back and often they returned with friends. Has it really changed that much?

    The exciting part of all this is the newfound openness for the new set of producers. If they retain the craftsmanship of the masters (Capra, Ford, Hitchcock) in filmic style and utilize lighting mastery with artistic camera and sound while executing purposeful editing– you may have a chance. Couple that with genuine writing, solid acting, or impactful documentary subject matter–you may have your own Merely Good Film.

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