Epstein on Indie

Now that Miramax has joined the long list of indie film companies that have closed their doors, entertainment journalist Edward Jay Epstein is now weighing in on the fate of independent movies and wondering whether indies can “survive” (thanks to Film Dr’s Twitter feed for the tip).  Epstein points to the financial success of tentpole movies such as Avatar and the decline of pre-sale agreements to foreign buyers and cable channels as a sign that indie films may be endangered.

Epstein is an attentive observer of the film industry, so his arguments are worth considering.  His previous book, The Big Picture, was incredibly helpful for me when I was working on Reinventing Cinema; however, in some cases, I’d argue that predicted economic consequences are not always straight-forward.  Back in 2005, when Epstein was promoting The Big Picture during the 2005 box office “slump,” he expressed concern that the narrowing of the “window” between theatrical and DVD releases from six months could lead to a decline in box office that would produce a “death spiral.”  when, in fact, DVD sales have begun to level off while box office (if not attendance itself) remains relatively steady.

Indie filmmakers are clearly confronting some challenges, including many mentioned by Epstein (and others, including an intensely competitive marketplace , but rather than dismiss experiments by Sony, Focus, and Lionsgate, I think it’s worth considering how these approaches may offer new alternatives for indie filmmakers.  Sony’s plan to focus on indie films with budgets of less than $2 million may allow filmmakers quite a bit of room for creativity.  Lionsgate’s decision to focus on genres such as horror is consistent with a long history of low-budget filmmaking (note the horror boom in the 1980s when VHS was introduced).  Epstein also fails to mention Paramount’s new low-budget division, another potential landing place for indie directors.

Still, I’ll be curious to check out Epstein’s latest book, The Hollywood Economist, which promises to explain how studios make their money.


  1. aljean Said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

    We made THE OWLS for $22K, and don’t need theatrical, and only minimal sales or
    fetival bookings to break even (all we are hoping for, we were a collective who worked for
    free to make quality queer cinema). We premier at Berlin in a week.

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    Epstein’s definition of “indie” is pretty narrow. He’s really talking about the bigger-budgeted Indiewood films, some of which may not be fully sustainable. I think you’re right that modest budgets with compelling stories can easily break even (or better).

    Congrats on the Berlin premiere. Good luck with the film.

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