State of the Union

Dan Steinman, Eric d’Arbeloff, Robert Kenner, Josh Braun, Nancy Utley, Ricky Strauss, and John Sloss. Photo by Fred Hayes.

Nate von Zumwalt

The third annual Creative Producing Summit kicked off last night at the Sundance Resort with a panel of independent producers and directors mulling the state of the independent film industry. Festival Director John Cooper prefaced the discussion with a few sales numbers from the boom that was the 2011 Festival (a record 78 film sales), and moderator Dan Steinman of CAA sarcastically noted that this panel would—with ease—capture the “unified” mood of independent film in the allotted hour.

With film sales spiking at many of the premier Festivals internationally, Steinman opened the discussion with the most pertinent question—is independent film back in business? Eric d’Arbeloff (Roadside Attractions) led the hesitantly optimistic responses, suggesting that the industry saw encouraging signs this year: “Maybe we’re back in business, but I’m not sure I see the sea changing.”

The lone director on the panel, Robert Kenner (Food Inc.) confessed that “documentary being back in business is an oxymoron; you just try to stay alive.” Other panelists echoed d’Arbeloff’s sentiments, ranging from Josh Braun’s (Submarine Entertainment) likening the 2011 Festival to a “dam bursting,” to Nancy Utley (Fox Searchlight) revealing an optimistic outlook toward indie film’s future, and Ricky Strauss matter-of-factly stating that “business is obviously doing better, but that’s because the movies are good.”

And then entered the contrarian of the night: John Sloss (Cinetic Media). Taking Cooper’s suggestion to avoid any inclination to brazenly promote Sundance, Sloss firmly chimed in saying “this was not a good year at Sundance, and it’s interesting to have people speak as a truism that it was.” His reasoning was rooted in what he considered to be the lack of a “home run” film at the 2011 Festival.

While films like The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone found enormous post-Festival success in 2010, Sloss did not forecast the same achievements for this year’s crop of films. And when asked to speak to the status of indie film on a macro level, Sloss kept to the popular notion that indie film success is cyclical: “I think it’s a much more complicated analysis than to just extoll this moment.”

The conversation shifted as Steinman posed the ever so common question with the most elusive of answers: What is an independent film? Is it tied to content, budget, business models, or perhaps all of these elements? d’Arbeloff cited the various business models that a distribution company may have, and explained that these models will dictate whether a film is the right fit for the distributor.

Generally, those that fit the bill–and are acquired by a distributor specializing in independent film–will garner the “indie film” label. But categorizing independent film is a convoluted and inexact process. d’Arbeloff refers to the successful run by Paranormal Activity, which was eventually considered a studio horror release, but only after implementing an independent style business model featuring midnight screenings and a web-focused campaign.

While it is by no means widely considered an independent film, its “studio” label may have been controlled by its success at the box office. Utley expressed a similar attitude with regards to distributors seeking films that fit their specific business model: “It feels kind of comfortable now that everybody has their niche. We (distributors) don’t really kill each other for films that much. You can watch a movie and tell where it’s going, and it finds a natural home.”

Strauss then theorized that many studio films could have an independent version, and ran off a series of questions for all in the indie film industry to consider: “Is an independent film an independent film because of its size? Is Tree of Life an indie film because it’s tough? It has a gigantic filmmaker, a gigantic star, but it’s a very thoughtful movie. But it’s not a movie for everybody—does that mean it’s independent?”

Steinman opened the floor to questions and the panel responded to an audience inquiry about the state of the independent film business a few years down the road. “I think it’s unknown because it’s driven by content,” said Utley. Sloss stayed consistent in his cynicism, remarking “I do think there is going to be fallout because of this wide release genre mania that’s going on right now. There are just too many people competing.”

Our panel chose their words carefully when assessing the state of the industry, but a palpable optimism couldn’t be ignored. Definite answers were few and far between, and there is an inherent subjectivity involved in responding to these questions. One thing, however, is certain: independent film, whatever it is, will continue to thrive.

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