The Disappearing Middle of Independent Film: A Cautionary Tale

Photo by Karen Zhao on Unsplash

Oklahoma is a strange place for a film festival. There’s twenty-seven of them there at the time of this writing. Turns out there are no criteria that have to be met beyond “wanting to start a film festival”. And so people just… start film festivals. Kind of bizarre, really.

I was staying in McAlester, an interstate rest stop of a town an hour and a half south of Tulsa and a twelve hour drive from Chicago. The inside of my room looked like the inside of any other budget chain hotel room. From the window I could see the road and a Taco Bell. The festival where my senior capstone film was going to play was a five minute drive down the highway. It was billed as an “international film festival”. My film, Octoberland, was an eighty-five minute no-budget horror anthology film in the vein of Creepshow or Trick ‘r’ Treat. No-budget, here, does not mean “$750,000 and starring Ethan Hawke,” but rather, “like $45 for pasta and pizza to feed my friends who helped me make it”. And it shows. It’s not a great film by any measure, and if the dozens of people who have left comments on Youtube are to be believed, it’s not even a good film. They’re probably right. I was twenty- two and still in film school at a small liberal arts college in Ohio with no money and a DSLR. I’m still sort of proud of it though. It’s kind of an achievement to make a coherent feature length film under those circumstances, no matter how corny or poorly acted.

A few years of distance have given me some perspective on it that I didn’t have when I made the trip to Oklahoma. At that time, I’d barely been out of school for half a year and had just sunk the better part of eight months into the film. I recognized its flaws, but I also liked it, and wanted to see how far it could go. I was reluctant to immediately upload it to Youtube, which felt like a frivolous end to something I’d poured so much time and sweat and passion into. So I spent more than the “budget” of the production on submission fees to various film festivals across the country, mostly small or genre ones where I thought it had a shot.

Almost none of them are free. Most cost somewhere in the ballpark of $30–50 to submit. And there are a lot of them. Filmfreeway, the most prominent submission site, brags of having over 6,000 festivals on their platform. Of those, there’s probably a handful that the average filmgoer has heard of, and maybe a couple dozen more that carry any weight within the industry. That leaves upwards of 5,500 festivals. What’s a person to make of these, whatever this third category is?

Octoberland was accepted at a horror film convention/festival in Virginia and the aforementioned “international” festival in McAlester, which I pegged as the one to attend. I took the Friday of the festival weekend off at my new job, rented a car, and headed to Oklahoma, my head buzzing with visions of post-screening Q&As spent espousing my thoughts on the horror genre, talking about my writing process, about what inspires me, about what lenses we used. Other people had seen my film and liked it enough to play it at their festivals. I had the outside validation that I didn’t realize I’d been craving and it was a real high.

I woke up earlier than I needed to on the morning that my film was playing in order to give myself enough time to figure out what to wear so that I would look nice without looking like I was overdoing it. I might’ve rehearsed how I would hold the microphone in the mirror, I can’t say for sure, I’ve blacked a lot of it out in my memory.

The address for the festival was a large nondescript stone building sandwiched between two car dealerships. The sidewalks around the place were virtually empty. Mine was the only car parked on the adjacent street. I walked up the steps to the front double doors, which were locked. I tried knocking, but it was dark inside and it appeared to be empty. I tried a door on the side of the building with the same result. A bit of panic began to set in. I sent a harried email and Twitter DM to the festival, the only ways I had of contacting them.

After about twenty minutes someone came to the door to retrieve me and led me down a flight of stairs into a darkened basement that would not look out of place as the setting for an AA meeting, from the white drywall and coffee maker to the dozen or so folding metal chairs and the handful of people seated in them. The only thing that marked it as a film festival was the projector/laptop cart in the middle of the room and the small screen on the far wall. I sat somewhere in the back and watched the end of whatever was playing, which I later learned was a film that the festival director had made with his daughter and her friends.

When it ended, all but two of the half dozen or so people in the audience stood up and left. Everyone leaving had been in the movie. We watched another film, and then it was time for mine to play. One of the two people left in the room greeted me and introduced himself as the festival director and told me how much he liked Octoberland. The other person sticking around was his wife. After a slight hesitation, he awkwardly apologized for the low turnout and offered to play my movie anyways, because he was still hopeful more people would show up. Still trying to process where I was, I said sure, and spent the next ninety minutes watching my movie that I’d seen upwards of fifty times with someone who had also already seen my movie and feeling my face grow hotter and hotter with embarrassment. It is maybe the most painful and surreal shared exercise in delusion and denial that I have ever been a part of. When it ended I fully expected the guy to try and show me a string of really funny Youtube videos his friend had sent him. That was the vibe. Not South by Southwest or Cannes, just hanging out at a friend’s place watching goof off movies we’d made over the weekend. Instead he offered me a spot on a panel that was happening the next day, which I declined. I hung around for about an hour after it was over and chatted, but nobody else seemed to be coming, no more films screening, and nothing else happening, so eventually I headed back to my hotel room.

I’m sure a lot of people who start and run these festivals don’t have malicious intentions; don’t do it as a means of fleecing young or naïve filmmakers out of not insignificant amounts of cash. The people in Oklahoma seemed completely earnest. But the fact remains that there is a cottage industry of meaningless, no-name festivals out there making money charging submission fees and then showing a few films to empty rooms, or rooms full of the filmmaker’s family, or the festival director’s friends, or… You get the point. Regardless of people’s intentions or personalities, it’s an inherently predatory practice based in the exploitation of desperate people, cashing in on their dreams by offering a completely hollow way to stave off those intrusive thoughts that that movie you worked so hard on and are so proud of doesn’t amount to much of anything. It makes sense to pay a fee to have people at Slamdance watch your film, but what on earth warrants a $30 charge to have just some guy watch a film and decide if he wants to show it to his friends or not?

I take responsibility for wasting my own time, I should’ve known better, but it’s not hard for festivals like this to misrepresent themselves online as legitimate, bustling events. Just use the right language, throw up a few well cropped pictures and a person could easily be fooled. I was, and I was thoroughly humbled, and not in the weird way that professional athletes who’ve just won the Super Bowl claim to be humbled, but like “spend $20 at Taco Bell and go back to my hotel room to sit in the dark and reconsider a great many things about my life” kind of humbled.

If you have the expendable income and you desperately want to put laurels on your movie’s poster, this third category of film festival offers an opportunity for that, though you might as well just make up your own festival and use that for all the meaning that these things carry. Make yours sound as prestigious as you want, throw an “international” or two in the name, go crazy. Nobody is actually checking or regulating these things. If the film festival you’re entering won’t be judged or attended by real industry professionals, if it won’t put your film up in front of people who have the ability to buy or sell it, or tell their industry friends about it, or give you a job, then the festival you’re entering is little more than a masturbatory session of make believe at best, or a low level scam. I knew a guy in film school who spent hundreds of dollars submitting his Freshman Film Production 100 level project to Slamdance and South By Southwest and Toronto and the Cleveland Film Festival. I’d recommend not doing that either. I’ve spent dozens of hours screening films for a festival that falls firmly in the second category — not big, but very much still relevant — and the films I’ve seen run the gamut from things that look like they belong in theaters to things that look like it was the person’s first time picking up a camera. It hurts me a little bit every time I watch something that should be harmlessly sitting in some dusty back corner of Youtube with four views, and I know that instead they paid something like $50 to have me watch and reject it. I have a lot of videos on Youtube with less than ten views and it cost me nothing.

So where does this leave us in the world of independent films? Sundance, Cannes, Toronto — the familiar names are all still viable places for small indie films to get shown and noticed, but how are we defining those two words, small and indie? In the last decade plus, as “indie” has morphed from a designation of a film’s budget and lack of any studio backing into a genre designation, “small” more and more has begun to mean that a film had a budget of a few million dollars and stars Daniel Radcliffe or Kristen Stewart. At the start of the indie boom in the nineties, Sundance famously launched the careers of young unknown filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez on the backs of films made for a few thousand dollars each. In recent years, the festival circuit has largely become something of a pit stop where established Hollywood Stars show their passion projects to generate some buzz before the theatrical release. Would El Mariachi get into Sundance today? Would it garner as much attention? I don’t know.

That’s not to say that truly independent films have been pushed out entirely — Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance with his first film, Fruitvale Station, in 2013. But most films that end up here have the budget of a small Hollywood production anyways, whether or not they’re conceived with studio backing, so once again we are left asking: where does this leave us? What is to be done for those Hollywood outsiders who are more than weekend enthusiasts but still unable to find the millionaire investors required to make a film of the caliber required by the top tier of festivals?

Netflix and Hulu are certainly options for the outsider filmmaker looking to “break in” or reach an audience, as it were, but the same gatekeepers exist here, namely lack of money and lack of marketable name talent.

The mid to late 2000’s gave us the much ballyhooed “democratization of filmmaking” with the rise of Youtube and relatively cheap digital camcorders and, later, cell phone cameras. This is how I started making movies as a kid — borrowing my parents’ video camera and running around with siblings and friends, goofing off, making short movies of varying degrees of seriousness and watchability. This is what I’ve always taken the “democratization of film” to mean. Kids, hobbyists…laypeople, so to speak, gaining the ability to make fun little videos for Youtube. But is anyone watching these? Not really. I don’t even watch the glossy, clickbait-y, focus group tested stuff that’s been vetted by Youtube Red. And how could we? There are endless hours, hours upon hours, of “content” out there, and 95% of it isn’t any good. So we still look to institutions like Netflix and TV networks and movie studios to act as quality control and provide reliably watchable stuff. But even in this realm, there may simply be more content being made than people can possibly consume. There are a thousand cable channels, each with its own variation of Ghost Hunters and a show where a guy travels all around the world baking cakes and spitting them at the locals. It all costs money to make, but who’s watching? Filmmaking’s been democratized, but can everyone make content worth consuming? The cameras are cheaper but the need for lights and good sound and an art department — all the other stuff you need to make something people will be willing to give their time to — still very much exists and is still unattainably expensive for the average aspiring filmmaker. The means of producing content, high quality or not, are accessible to everyone now, but we still only have twenty- four hours in a day to give over to watching all this shit. People intuitively know this and are generally going to choose to give their time to movies that they know are going to be good, or at the very least watchable. So is it really democracy if your vote doesn’t count? Don’t bother answering that.

The barriers to entry of the “content creation” world have ostensibly been removed and now we are all “content creators” all the time, waiting in line for the fifteen minutes which we are due, which everyone is due, performing endlessly to an empty auditorium in the hopes that someone will walk in and see us, and hopefully that person likes us and has a lot of friends they can tell about us, and maybe one of those friends is someone who can hire us to perform professionally, and then people will actually watch us because they want to and not because they feel obligated to, pay attention to us without having to be coerced into it, and we will feel like the system works. The #PlaneBae lady who had a viral Twitter thread where she stalked a couple people in front of her on a flight tried to parlay that into a career at Buzzfeed. It’s gross, but it’s hard to blame her for the Buzzfeed Hail Mary. That’s sort of what we are all trying to do, minus the creepy invasion of privacy — to capitalize on any hint of potential fame, any moment where our head pokes above the vast sea of other heads trying to do the same thing we are, of people shouting jokes into the void of Twitter for two likes or spending hours crafting a song only to beg one person on Reddit to listen to their Soundcloud, because fuck if it isn’t absolutely existentially demoralizing trying to make your voice heard for any audience when everyone else you know is too busy trying to make their voice heard to be an audience. There are people in the film and television industry who say the system does work, that people who are good enough will always rise to the top, but how can you know if people are falling through the cracks if they’re, you know… falling through the cracks? With so many people out there toiling away in obscurity writing and making movies, it seems inevitable that some talented people will inevitably not have their voices heard. Which sucks, but I guess that’s not any different than it’s always been.

It’s common wisdom that rejection is a huge part of breaking into any creative industry. And it’s true. There are lots of stories of famous artists working for years and getting rejected hundreds of times before getting noticed. The problem is that there’s a big difference between being rejected for things beyond your control — for not being the right fit for a part, for catching a script reader on a bad day, submitting your work at a bad time — and being rejected because you’re just not good enough. And when you’re so close to yourself and so invested in what you’re doing, it can be hard or impossible to tell the difference, to know whether you’re wasting your time or you need to keep pushing for that breakthrough that’s right around the corner.

I stopped at a combination gas station and Wendy’s during my twelve hour drive to Oklahoma and as I was walking back to my car a guy stopped me and handed me his mixtape. I took it and later in the car I made a Snapchat story of myself listening to it and then ejecting the CD and throwing it out the window onto the highway. In retrospect, I look pretty dumb in this story because however bad or derivative his mixtape was, this guy had 100% more new people listen to his music than I had new people see my movie, and he didn’t drive twelve hours one way through a million acres of cornfields to do it. I’m sure there’s a really incisive and revealing metaphor in here about the disposability of independent art and independent artists not supporting each other while simultaneously desperately wanting nothing more than for people to support them for five seconds… but good metaphors are for people who get paid to write. So instead, the conclusion that I’ll draw from that story is that whatever karmic debt I incurred by acting like an asshole on Snapchat was repaid when I pulled over at a gas station an hour later and the bottom of my Styrofoam cup gave out and Coke spilled out into the cupholder until it was overflowing.

What’s the point of all this? I’m not really sure anymore. The landscape of the independent film industry and the festival circuit is in a time of transition and change, but that’s nothing new, really. Keep creating art, if it makes you happy, if it fulfills you, if you can fight through the despair of creating into a vacuum. Just don’t drive twelve hours to watch your film play in a basement in Oklahoma.

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