The Future Of Film: There Will Be Another Indie Golden Age

Independent producers are growing from micro-budgets to something a lot bigger.

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Last summer Empire found itself on two movie sets in New York. The first was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where people were curious as to our next destination. As it happened, the second was Deliver Us From Evil, which we explained was a Scott Derrickson horror thriller. To a person, the response was: "Oh, is that a Jason Blum thing?" Our reply – that it was actually a studio movie being made under the wing of super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer – met with surprise. Studios, you see, don't often make middle-size movies anymore. That ground is increasingly being ceded to independent financiers.

As far as horror goes, that little anecdote is indicative of the current state of play. Producer Blum, thanks initially to the success of the micro-budget Paranormal Activity and an extremely canny business model, has become a one-man industry in inexpensive films that earn huge multiples of their budget in box-office receipts: the Paranormal Activities; the Insidiouses (Insidii?); The Purges; The Sinisters; the list goes on. Even veteran director Barry Levinson made a found-footage Blumhouse horror in 2012's The Bay. Horrors like Deliver Us From Evil, made by a studio with an estimated budget of $30m and at least a couple of 'name' actors, rarely happen anymore.

"I THINK THAT THE MIDDLE MOVIES ARE REALLY GONNA GET CRUSHED" BOURNE LEGACY DIRECTOR TONY GILROYBut beyond horror – which, after all, has rarely been a big-budget genre – things are going the same way. The 'mid-budget' movie – a tag usually applied to anything in the $20m to $60m bracket – is being squeezed out of the studio equation, as they chase the next tentpole. The casualties are the sort of daring, one-off dramas that once dominated screens – think Kramer Vs Kramer, Inside Man or LA Confidential – as well as the simply bloated efforts that never really needed a big spend to begin with (we're looking at you, How Do You Know).

"I think that the middle movies are really gonna get crushed," reckoned Bourne Legacy director Tony Gilroy on the Empire podcast last year. He was echoing a sentiment that's been ringing loudly around Hollywood for years, first reaching screaming pitch with 2009's bonfire of the under-performing, star-driven dramas (think State Of Play, Duplicity and The Soloist). As star salaries were fingered as one culprit for the string of flops, raising budgets that might otherwise have been $20m to three or four times as much, Hollywood faced a Catch-22. In order to sell complex or clever adult stories, they needed recognisable faces; but those faces cost too much for those films to make a return. The studio response was, largely, to throw in the towel on the whole mid-range of films. On the rare occasions they do still make them – think Nicholas Sparks adaptations or young adult films – they're generally A-list free, cheap to make and come with a built-in audience.

As the sort of thoughtful screenwriter/director who in more auspicious times would be churning out studio movies in this mid-budget range, Gilroy is well-placed to survey the landscape. "Every single person I know that wants to do something really interesting is going, 'Why am I banging my head against the four, five studios in town?'" he laments. For his latest project Gilroy has produced Jake Gyllenhaal media satire Nightcrawler (pictured top) for his brother, Dan. At $9m, it's one of the low-risk films Hollywood continues to relish. "That kinda movie will continue to exist because there's money around for that," he says. But frugally-budgeted films demand sacrifices. "We're basically crushing a crew and paying everybody nothing."

The Purge

Ethan Hawke in 2013's The Purge, a low-budget horror film that earned huge multiples of its budget in box-office receipts.

Gary Oldman told us earlier this year, "I have a script that I've been out with for a year and a half; I'm still trying to raise money for it. It's very difficult. It's bigger than Nil By Mouth, it's 19th century. I have Ralph Fiennes attached for the lead. But there seems to be a magic number in the indie world, and in that in-between world – because this is not a big commercial film in a RoboCop sense. The indie world is between about $4m and about $20m, and I can't make it for $20m. I need more than that, and I can't get above that. I'd love to do it this year, but it's tough."

And there is an attractive alternative to the headbanging required to get a movie made. Gilroy peers like David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh have joined the flight to what Gilroy calls television's "Prague Spring", because when it comes to prestige drama, television has flowed into the gap that Hollywood left behind. Big names after great, dramatic stories are increasingly turning to longer-form TV, in the certainty of high production values and serious intent despite the smaller screen. Amy Brenneman, one of the stars of The Leftovers, says, "I feel like there is this economic moment where you can either do blockbusters or tiny films, but all those dramatic ideas in those middle-range movies get filtered to cable. Kramer Vs. Kramer would be on cable now. Thank god cable is coming up so all those stories have a place to go."

"I HAVE A SCRIPT THAT I'VE BEEN OUT WITH FOR A YEAR AND A HALF; I'M STILL TRYING TO RAISE MONEY FOR IT. THE INDIE WORLD IS BETWEEN ABOUT $4M AND ABOUT $20M, AND I CAN'T MAKE IT FOR $20M. I NEED MORE THAN THAT, AND I CAN'T GET ABOVE THAT. IT'S TOUGH." GARY OLDMANSteven Soderbergh, meanwhile, argues that it's the marketing costs that hurt the mid-budget. "Until somebody figures out how to get a movie out there, in terms of marketing, for less than $30m, we're stuck in this place of having to submit to the middle," he told us last year. "I feel there are a lot of approaches that haven't really been tried. There seems to be a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. I told that story about how someone who suggested doing something different and spending half the money and they weren't even allowed to do that. Until someone makes an effort to quantify what your dollars are getting you when you spend them... One of the arguments I made to Warner Bros. during Magic Mike was, "Look at all the fucking internet buzz about this movie that we're getting from the gay community and from women. Doesn't that mean we can pull back on the spend?" The economics were that they paid $7.5m for the movie, which is cheap, so why don't we do an experiment? And they said, "We really don't want to do that. We want to go with a full-on spend." Look, the movie performed and was very profitable for them, but the tracking was 100 per cent wrong, so I'm wondering, if we'd spent less money would we have got anything like that number? Remember: for every dollar you spend, you've got to get two and a half to three back. If I ran a studio I would hire [American statistician] Nate Silver, open the books, walk him through how we're doing things and see if he could help quantify what these dollars are getting us. On a $30m spend what is the last eight million getting us? It's this weird thing: they're okay failing with the way they do it all the time but for some reason they're really scared to fail trying something new."

But those aren't the only obstacles for mid-range movies. Mid-range films are also competing in a changed movie market. Where 20 years ago "summer" meant a mere handful of blockbusters hitting in May and June, now the paradigm is a new one practically every Friday from the beginning of April to late August, with a second wave from early November until Christmas. With the budget for a superhero film or an Apes, Godzilla or Transformers sequel hovering around the $200m mark, studios are letting the minnows – even the tuna – go in favour of chasing the whales. After all, if you're spending $30m marketing your $30m dollar movie and if cinema chains take about half your ticket price, you need to make $120m at the box-office to turn a profit in cinemas – and that means you need a few weeks where you won't be squished by a giant lizard. Easier to just recruit the giant lizard yourself and dream bigger.

Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh shooting Magic Mike.

But despite Gilroy's protestations, mid-budget studio films do still exist, albeit in smaller numbers. So who is making them? The answer is a shift in the filmmaking structure that's likely to stretch into the future. Independent production companies are financing $20m to $60m pictures and then either selling them to a studio for distribution or hammering out an indie distribution deal alone. As Oldman notes, "Everybody's shooting in these places where they get tax rebates, and really they want to go into profit before the film is made." Thanks to those tax-breaks and sales to international markets where affordable stars still guarantee a certain box-office return, that is an achievable goal.

"It's now a case of, 'If you build it, they will come'," director David Twohy explained to Empire on the set of the $40m Riddick. "We got our own financing and then the studio was like, 'Okay, but can we release it now please?' They didn't want to finance it initially, because they were scared that we spent too much money last time, and we didn't want to slash our budget and do a PG-13. We [found] outside money, sold it internationally first, and then the studios came to play." Universal stepped up, for an eventual worldwide gross of $90m: modest, but not bad once you factor in home entertainment, streaming and so on.

Some production houses have become mini-studios in their own right: see Annapurna for an example that's chasing awards glory, or Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, whose factory line of mid-cost, high-concept actioners has churned out Takens and Transporters, and occasionally given us a Lucy. Often the process is a long one of international pre-sales and financial wheeler dealing, but they do get films made.

"ONE OF THE ARGUMENTS I MADE TO WARNER BROS. DURING MAGIC MIKE WAS, 'LOOK AT ALL THE FUCKING INTERNET BUZZ ABOUT THIS MOVIE THAT WE'RE GETTING, DOESN'T THAT MEAN WE CAN PULL BACK ON THE SPEND?' AND THEY SAID, 'WE REALLY DON'T WANT TO DO THAT. WE WANT TO GO WITH A FULL-ON SPEND.'" STEVEN SODERBERGH"Each project is now its own single-purpose company," explains Legendary Pictures' Jon Jashni. It's no coincidence that we hear much more about the American Film Market (AFM), the European Film Marker (EFM) and the deals cut on the festival circuit than in years gone by. Deals are being made, and just not in the traditional way that we used to understand. With so much activity now happening outside Hollywood, and so little actually being shot there, it's getting to the point where we might question what 'Hollywood' actually even means anymore.

While this trend appeared initially to be one of decline, in fact the studio's reluctance has been seized as an opportunity by other filmmakers. "Making these kinds of [mid-budget] films is not currently part of the big studios' business plan," UTA Independent Film Group's Rena Ronson told Variety. "It's opened up the market for indies [and] created an enormous opportunity for the sector." Randall Emmett of production company Emmett/Furla (End Of Watch, Broken City) agrees that he and his colleagues are actually "seeing more fresh equity coming into the marketplace when the economy isn't doing that well". Ben Weiss of financing group Paradigm even bemoans that he currently has "more financiers than projects" and desperately needs more scripts (or "packages").

The future then, especially when you factor in multiple platforms like VOD and home media and the continuing room for great long-form drama on TV, might yet prove pleasingly diverse, with indies stepping up to resettle ground that was once studio heartland. Commercial considerations will obviously be a factor – nobody's going to put money into a movie they think won't sell, nor pay stars like Julia Roberts without compelling evidence that they need a huge name – but the indies have developed ways to finance these films and make them profitable that seem to elude the big studios. And while screenwriters like Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas are unlikely to land the seven-figure sums they earned in the '90s, there's evidence that the spec script is making a comeback too, following years of neglect in favour of recognisable properties. So we're talking about original mid-budget films as well, and not just adaptations of books or sequels to existing films.

"If you have a great script", says producer Graham King, who made the mid-budget Affleck winners Argo and The Town, "you'll get your film made". Let's hope that that always remains the case.


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