We were driving down the street the other night and I saw poster for some online music company with Aimee Mann’s face on it. The text said “Writing Music From The Heart. Even When It’s Broken.” It was cute, but I liked it, and one thought lead to another, as thoughts tend to do, and I started to think about how nice it would be to make films the way folk singers make songs.
The holy grail of independent filmmaking was, and generally still is, an acquisition deal, a theatrical release, and a subsequent industry-financed career. In some cases, that initial independence was a means to an inverse end; more commonly, though, that same end was (and is) a mean unto itself, a manner of making a living off one’s chosen art form in the most practical way possible. This category would include most of the current indie wunderkinds (the two Andersons, Aronofsky, etc). The practicality of their circumstance, of course, is mitigated by the relative infrequency of such success stories; but nonetheless, those stories are the ideal for many aspiring (and, indeed, practicing) independent filmmakers.
Let’s consider, however, the sum of the following:
- The very rarity of those cases.
- The fact that, when they do occur, the balance of capitalism and artistic freedom renders the studio system a very wealthy middleman.
- The possibility that the studio system is indeed crumbling  under the weight of its own hegemonic inflexibility and hubristic marginalization of product – its “death spiral,” as Edward Jay Epstein put it. 
That last factor may be a bit hyperbolic; Hollywood, being the capital driven machine it is, will more than likely maintain its hold on the entertainment industry; even as it evolves, its goals will remain the same.  Still, between digital pipelines, day-and-date DVD and theatrical releasing, etc, it is hard to deny that a paradigm shift is at hand; and it might be a good time for independent filmmakers to consider whether or not that lofty ideal of yore need endure. In other words, should filmmakers be afraid of self-distribution?
At this point, it’s perfectly natural to say yes; hey, the idea scares me, too.  Furthermore, it implies an automatic financial cap, since private equity will only very rarely carry a budget past the one million dollar range, at the very best (at least for an unknown artist); if you’re a filmmaker who can’t imagine making a film for less than five million, then you better go back to vying for the attention of the studios. For those who are comfortable (or excited by) working with relatively minimal means, on the other hand, encouragement can be found in two recent hybrid examples. Andrew Bujalski successfully self-distributed his film Funny Ha Ha  on 35mm this past summer, before releasing it on DVD through Wellspring. Likewise, Greg Pak released Robot Stories around the country over the course of two years; the film is now on DVD from Kino.
It seems increasingly clear to me that, misgivings be damned, it isn’t necessary at all to preclude the financial impossibility of extensive self-distribution, nor to limit such distribution to the internet and/or DVD. For a scale model, one simply needs to look at the record industry. The internet is, of course, shaking things up a great deal; but beyond that, artists have been realizing they don’t necessarily need major label deals to make a living off their music. In his article ‘The New US Indie Film Frontier: DIY Distribution,’ filmmaker Sujewa Ekanayake writes that “in the indie rock world, disciplined and committed bands make a living through touring and performing their work and through selling their songs on CDs and other formats.” Citing self-sustaining artists like Fugazi as examples, Ekanayake goes on to surmise that the same model is most likely applicable to an independent filmmaker. 
What makes his perspective unique – and especially appealing to a romantic big screen aficionado like myself – is that it is based around the old fashioned ideal of theatrical exhibition, followed by (or perhaps concurrent with) DVD distribution. This is roughly the equivalent, in the recording industry, of having an album on store shelves and performances in live venues (whereas VOD might be considered tantamount to mP3 downloads from an artist’s site – an equally viable means of distribution, by all means, but it’s important to remember that distribution shouldn’t begin and/or end with the internet). 
There is one factor that is of utmost importance to any unknown artist in any medium: building an audience. It is here that the internet is invaluable. For filmmakers, who don’t have the luxury of being able to go out and play a show the way musicians can, creating an online presence can be very important. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, the directors of Four Eyed Monsters, are perhaps the most important current examples of this; their film doesn’t have distribution, but through word-of-mouth from festival screenings and their video podcasts, they’ve built up a substantial online presence. When their film is eventually released, it will have a built-in-audience. When they make their next film, that audience will be even larger. They could very well receive offers from studios, and at that point, they’ll have a choice to make. They’ll be in a position similar to that of established artists who realize they don’t necessarily need corporate support to be successful.
An example of this in music, to an extent, would be Aimee Mann, who now releases all of her music through her United Musicians label. Likewise, filmmaker Hal Hartley now produces all his films independently and releases them through his own company, Possible Films. Both Mann and Hartley had bad experiences with their respective backers; later, when they made the jump to their own independent imprints, they took their audiences with them. 
The demographic to which these artists are appealing is a very small but extremely viable one. It is the same one that Mark Cuban is counting on to make his very artistically minded low-budget HDNet productions (such as Soderbergh’s Bubble) profitable ventures. This audience already knows Soderbergh’s name; he doesn’t need a blog to convince them to see his film. This same audience could very likely be driving home from the theater listening to new albums by Aimee Mann and Fugazi; it is an audience that, by and large, is interested in and even anxious to support intelligent art that challenges the status quo. Filmmakers like Buice and Crumley – and Ekanayake, and Joe Swanberg, and Caveh Zahedi, and countless others – are slowly but surely making them just as familiar (on a more limited basis) with their own work. They – we- need to let that already relatively fringe contingent know that there’s quite a bit of light even further underground.
Musicians still have it easier; a songwriter can sit down and compose a new piece, which shortly thereafter will be ready to be recorded, performed, exhibited. That is an oversimplification of the process, perhaps, but the comparitive difference is nonetheless a steep one: a filmmaker has to go through the exhaustive process of making a film to arrive at the same point. But let’s shove that disparity aside, for the fact of the matter is that thousands of filmmakers are reaching that point each year, and out of those thousands, I’m willing to bet that hundreds of great films are not reaching the audiences that deserve to see them.
At this point, as I suggested earlier, it is unfair to expect these independent filmmakers to jump at the possibility of self-distribution. Releasing a film , especially a theatrically, is more work than making one in the first place, and not all filmmakers have the business savvy necessary for such an endeavor. Nor should one expect filmmakers to forego a chance, should they have it, to make a film within the studio system. What I would like to see, however, are more filmmakers working from the ground up to establish their names and a fanbase – be it through the internet, film festivals, or even acquisition and distribution – and then, inversely to the growth of that platform, taking steps towards separating themselves from any larger entities. Towards establishing complete creative autonomy. That will be the new holy grail. The classic Hollywood deal, then, would be a means to that end; a means which will eventually render itself entirely unnecessary.