Make-Believe Economics Bolster Hollywood’s ‘Sorority Racism’

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on March 2, 2016.

Chris Rock got it right when he called out Hollywood on Sunday night’s Oscarcast: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist. But it isn’t the racist you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like — ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is.”

Rock got it right because #OscarsSoWhite is merely the latest newsworthy example of #HollywoodSoWhite.

In my experience, racism in Hollywood is rarely overt. However, the lack of overt racism, like so much in the entertainment business, is an illusion. I have never had financiers or producers tell me they only want to cast white actors. Instead, they couch their racism in economic terms, explaining that the movie business is, first and foremost, a business.

“They don’t like black actors in Asia,” financiers and sales agents have told me behind closed doors. “Or in Europe. Or in Latin America. You just can’t sell them.” Their subtext is: Hey, I’m not racist, and we don’t have a race problem here in the US – but other countries do. We’re making movies for the world market, and we have to give the customers what they want.

Bill Maher, on his HBO show Real Time, said it in public:

Most movies are made now with an eye to the foreign market, and Asians really are racist…. I’m just honest. They don’t want to see black people generally in their movies. The Hollywood executives are, like, ‘We’re not racist; we just have to pretend to be racists because we’re capitalists. We want to sell our movies in China (and) they don’t like Kevin Hart.’

I have written and spoken at length how money and aesthetics are not measures of each other. A good movie can make much or little money; a financially successful film can be excellent or execrable. But what happens in Hollywood is that taste and money conflate: here, taste means you make things that make money, and you do not transgress the perceived wisdom of what makes money. Hollywood’s version of taste is supported by the economic argument that actors of color don’t sell tickets overseas.

Cultural critic Susan Sontag said, “Rules of taste enforce structures of power.” She was writing about womanhood and aging in the early 1970s; the dictum applies equally to race and Hollywood today.

One wonderful thing about the movie business is that so much information is publicly available. We can check out race-based assumptions, and see if the economic arguments are accurate or wrong.

The website aggregates box office information about movies and actors. You can type an actor’s name in the Search box and discover the actor’s box office track record, split between domestic and international. The movie business today draws about 70% of its revenue from international markets, but because each actor’s box office history dates back to career beginnings, few actors actually get 70% of their box office performance from overseas markets.

We might take Tom Cruise as a benchmark – he’s worldwide star. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation got 72% of its box office from international.

On a career basis, 56% of Tom Cruise’s box office is international. Therefore, we might deduce that if an actor falls at or near the Cruise Benchmark, they are economically viable internationally, regardless of the color of their skin.

Here’s what the data says:

  • Will Smith: 58% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Samuel L. Jackson: 55% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Dwayne Johnson: 67% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Penelope Cruz: 67% of her lifetime box office is international
  • Sofia Vergara: 53% of her lifetime box office is international
  • Javier Bardem: 68% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Gael Garcia Bernal: 64% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Michael Pena: 57% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Michelle Rodriguez: 69% of her lifetime box office is international
  • Morgan Freeman: 51% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Chewetel Ejiofor: 64% of his lifetime box office is international
  • Idris Elba: 61% of his lifetime box office is international

Clearly, there are a lot of diverse actors who meet or exceed the Cruise Benchmark, and some that fall just below. According to the data, the perceived wisdom is incorrect. Still, I don’t want to misrepresent. This kind of data does not share a full picture; some of these actors gain box office bumps because they are members of ensemble casts or had supporting roles. Just because an actor has a lifetime box office performance percentage at or above the Cruise Benchmark does not mean they are a bigger star than Tom Cruise.

Casting is not a formula because art is not a formula. There are few if any actors who literally “open” a movie, whom audiences will see no matter what. The right casting is always the alchemical triangle of the right actor, the right role and the right audience. Put Gerald Butler in an action film, and he usually works gangbusters; put him in a romantic comedy, and audiences are mainly lukewarm. Audiences seem to pigeonhole actors as much as executives do, and maybe that’s why executives do it. But I believe, and the data suggests, that an actor’s race is not the governing economic factor. Still, many in Hollywood quietly assume that race is an economic factor and have not questioned this assumption.

When Alejandro G. Iñárritu accepted his second Best Director Academy Award on Sunday, he said: “What a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and this tribal thinking and make sure for once and forever that the color of skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair.”

The make-believe economics of acceptable casting choices is another version of tribal thinking. The real problem that the global entertainment business must confront is the structures of power, the ways in which power enacts creative “taste” that’s justified with an economic rationale – economics that are wrong. Seen in this light, the whole illusion tumbles down.

Top image: Chris Rock hosts the 2016 Academy Awards. Photo courtesy AMPAS.

8 Lessons from Neil deGrasse Tyson for Creative Results

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize Neil deGrasse Tyson’s unique talents. His baritone voice is virtually the sound of modern physics, so accustomed we’ve grown to his narration in scientific documentaries. A natural teacher, his ideas instill in us curiosity and a desire to learn. I can’t help but wonder, how does he do it? Not to mention, Tyson laps us all in productivity, seeming to get more done than most other humans. In an effort to capture what makes him such a star in his field, I’ve identified eight behaviors Tyson uses that drive creative results.

  1. Obsess. Does your creative practice inspire you with passion, does it wind through your thoughts like an obsession? Tyson studied astrophysics with such fervor that he was noted for giving talks about the topic by age 15. If you devour the wisdom of the best and brightest in your field, then evangelize, you’re obsessing like a rocket scientist.
  2. Renew. Do you have a counter balance to your work, something that helps you renew daily? In addition to scientific studies, Tyson participated in crew, wrestling and dance during college. There are many ways to say it, all of them true–you have to renew what you use. When you have found a way to recycle your own energy, you follow in Tyson’s steps.
  3. Be tenacious. Are you driven to persevere, even in the face of failure? Tyson’s attempt at a PhD from University of Texas at Austin was denied, but he continued his quest and earned his credentials. If you are serious about your goals, make achieving them only a matter of time.
  4. Give back. Do you consider becoming a mentor to others part of your creative path? Tyson credits Hayden Planetarium as a hub for his early education, and assumes responsibility later in his career for continuing that tradition. People who take an interest in bringing up the next generation in their field have a bit of Tyson’s scholarly ethic.
  5. Fascinate. Can you translate your work into concepts that are accessible and interesting to laypeople? Tyson has consistently brought the public sticky ideas about physics. He coined “Manhattanhenge,” a name for the phenomenon two days per year during which you can see the sunset on some streets in NYC. When you coin terms for ideas people want to understand and share, you’re downright Tysonian.
  6. Be true. “[Tyson’s] a creative guy and sort of a lone wolf. He has gotten where he is basically because he’s followed his own voice, not anyone else’s,” says Columbia professor Joseph Patterson. Develop your voice, and carve out your own space.
  7. Give face. Are you willing to be the poster boy for your field? Tyson has appeared as on-camera host in several scientific shows and series, and made several appearances in pop culture films and shows. Perhaps most notably, he championed then hosted the series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Leaders in their field take opportunities to speak up and represent their specialty, as Tyson does.
  8. Ship. Do you get things done, and then find more things to do? Tyson has authored 12 books, in addition to his 13 research publications. That’s not even counting chapters and prefaces he’s written for other books. He credits using “interstitial time” as one of his secrets to productivity. If you like to bring work into world, then get up the next day and do it all over again, you’re creating like Neil deGrasse Tyson.


Alison Beard. “Life’s Work: An Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson” Harvard Business Review


Hayden Planetarium

Karen Heller. “Star talker: Neil deGrasse Tyson on fame, education and tweets”

Spark Innovation the Renaissance Florence Way

When considering how innovation stacks up, it can be difficult to gauge who has the most lasting impact in real time. When we go back in time, it’s easier to read innovation more clearly, without the distraction of brands and details about technologies. Suddenly, the question becomes “did the work stick”? And the stickier the work was, the more effective the innovation.

For that reason, I was intrigued by Eric Weiner’s Harvard Business Review piece “Renaissance Florence Was a Better Model for Innovation than Silicon Valley Is.” Talk about a compelling title–everyone wants to be the Silicon Valley of their industry, and yet Weiner has pointed out what is lacking in that fabled land of innovation.

Weiner presents several principles of an innovative climate, two of which I’d like to share. Taking a look at the novice-master relationship, he suggests that people today move out of the apprentice stage quicker than necessary. In contrast, Florentine Leonardo da Vinci remained an apprentice for 10 years before beginning his remarkably innovative career.

“… Why did Leonardo stay an apprentice for so long? He could easily have found work elsewhere, but he clearly valued the experience he acquired in the dusty, chaotic workshop. Too often, modern-day mentoring programs, public or private, are lip service. They must instead, as during Leonardo’s time, entail meaningful, long-term relationships between mentors and their mentees.”

Mentorship has a huge impact on growth, and we ought to do a better job feeding those relationships. At the same time, Weiner feels that a candidate with great potential but relatively little experience might just be the best choice to deliver results–even if he has not achieved in the same arena previously.

“When Pope Julius II was deciding who should paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was far from the obvious choice. Thanks to the Medici patronage, he had become well-known as a sculptor in Rome as well as Florence, but his painting experience was limited to small pieces — and little in the way of frescoes. Still, the pope clearly believed that, when it came to this ‘impossible’ task, talent and potential mattered more than experience, and he was right. …”

In this way, we err on the conservative side when we insist the best for the job has already done the job. The Renaissance atmosphere allowed for granting a relatively inexperienced painter the opportunity to create a magnum opus work–isn’t that an environment we should remake? Frequently I discuss the importance of mentorship in the arts, because I feel that mentorship is vital for mentees in gaining experience, as well as for mentors who have a need to give back. I think we as a culture would spark innovation by recreating some of these Renaissance conditions for artists today.

A Plastic Ocean: First Look

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on February 3, 2016

“What are you working on?” people always ask me. For the past three years, I have been telling my friends about A Plastic Ocean. Today we’re sharing our trailer for the first time.

How did this project start? You may have heard media stories about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You may even think you have seen pictures of it. Jo Ruxton, an adventuresome soul who has produced for BBC, heard the stories too and started thinking about making a documentary. She joined a scientific expedition to the center of the Pacific for a month of research. Jo discovered there is no floating plastic island… instead, there a truth far more insidious. The doc she wanted to produce became her mission.

That was seven years ago. Documentaries take time! Jo and her colleague Sonjia Norman embarked on a fundraising drive. It was another two years before they had raised enough for the first filming trip to seek the elusive Pygmy Blue Whales in Sri Lanka.

Production continued in stages of fundraising and filming, resulting in trips to twenty locations around the world, all the time accruing more and more information as research was building within the scientific community. Journalist Craig Leeson became an on-camera explorer and the film’s director, and world record-holder free diving champion Tanya Streeter joined the team. I came on board as a producer as well. In A Plastic Ocean, Craig and Tanya investigate how plastics enter the environment and affect wildlife and human health. They join expeditions by world-leading scientists, diving to the bottom of the ocean, visiting first-world countries as well as the remotest island communities blighted by excesses of waste. Most importantly, they share solutions that are real and practical. The film will make you aware, present optimistic choices and, we hope, incite social and political action.

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We have locked picture and will have the film completed in a matter of weeks. At that point we will start to reach out to possible distributors to complete this journey with us. If you’d like to get updates along the way, please sign up here.

Every year humans produce more than 300 million tons of plastic, half of it designed for single use, and more than 8 million tons of it ends up in our oceans. Because the Earth is a closed system, we can’t throw things away: there is no “away.” Plastic does not biodegrade, and almost all the plastic ever manufactured still exists here, somewhere, in some form.

Perhaps the most poignant of all sequences, certainly in Jo’s eyes, was the situation in Tuvalu, a tiny island nation few people have visited. Once part of Kiribati and now independent, the islands that make up Tuvalu lie along the rim of an extinct volcano in the southern Pacific Ocean. Surely they should be everyone’s idea of a tropical paradise, with palm-fringed, white-sand beaches. Yet, as A Plastic Ocean reveals, they resemble an unregulated landfill of plastic waste. There is no space to bury it, more and more is building up daily and the only solution is to pile it up – or worse, burn it, forcing toxic fumes to permeate the air. In many ways, Tuvalu is a microcosm of our entire planet.

We are all extremely proud of this film, and I think it will astound you – just as it did our adventurers, who captured never-before-seen images of marine life, plastic pollution, its ultimate consequences for human health, and viable, practical solutions that are already working and just need to be put into global action.

Please share this trailer with your friends and all who will be interested.

Twitter: @awaveofchange
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Tanya Streeter, Craig Leeson, Jo Ruxton

From left: Free diver Tanya Streeter, producer Jo Ruxton, explorer/director Craig Leeson (photo: David Jones)

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Top image from the film’s key art. Courtesy Plastic Oceans Ltd.

Innovation Grows When Creatives Are Constrained

Over Indulgence May Not Be the Path to the Best Work

In an attempt to attract talent and drive innovation, today’s leaders often give seemingly endless perks to creatives. But as Eric Weiner argues in his Los Angeles Times OpEd “All those office perks? They’re ruining creativity” the investment might not be getting the desired results. So what is the best way to encourage creative, innovative work?

Weiner describes the benefits landscape: “We are living in the Decade of Perks. Companies are falling over one another offering workers such goodies as squash courts, hoverboards, lap pools, nap zones, pet care and more. What began as a Silicon Valley fad has spread to corporate America writ large. […] Urban planners, meanwhile, are doing much the same, only on a larger scale, desperately trying to lure the so-called ‘creative class’ with hip restaurants, theater districts and other cultural bonbons.”

Is the net impact of all these comforts in today’s creative offices worth it? In Weiner’s view, the outcomes aren’t necessarily commensurate with the investment. Overall, he estimates, today’s creatives fall short in comparison to creative masters in the past, many of whom had significant struggles and discomforts.

“Although well-intentioned CEOs assume the best way to foster creativity is to remove all obstacles, considerable evidence suggests the opposite is true. In one classic study, Ronald Finke, a professor of psychology at Texas A & M University, asked participants to create an art project. Some people were given a wide range of materials, others little. Finke and his colleagues found that the most creative work was done by those with the fewest choices — that is, with the most constraints.”

An excellent example of a group that inspired themselves and others to great lengths by invoking constraints: the Dogme 95 filmmakers. The group wrote a manifesto with rules that simplified filmmaking and were, cofounders Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg said, a response to high-cost budgets in filmmaking. In this case, dozens of films, many critically acclaimed, have been made using Dogme 95 principles. As in Weiner’s examples, it seems our creativity can diminish in the midst of excess. Perhaps more creatives might consider similar ways to pare down options in creative endeavors. While it may be arbitrary, the results can be transformational–as our creativity and problem-solving skills kick into high gear. By setting basic guidelines to constrain our tendency to overindulge, we can encourage creators to bring their best work.

Sundance 2016: New Trends Emerge

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on January 27, 2016.

The early deals have not been paltry and neither has the snow. Tempting, blanketed and idle, ski runs seemed to peer down upon Park City as Sundance buyers have been waist-deep in high-dollar negotiations. The 2016 Sundance Film Festival will be known as a historic turning point in the economics of the business, because this was the moment when digital companies showed their strength by making huge, swift purchases.

The largest deal in Sundance history, however, was made by Fox Searchlight, a traditional theatrical distributor. Its negotiations revealed the divide between traditional theatrical distributors and data-driven streaming companies like Netflix and Amazon.

Of course, there was the usual Sundancery. Uber, despite its giant tent and heated waiting area, vexed local authorties with the launch of UberCopter: apparently those helicopter rides and landing pads had not been properly permitted. There were over-full parties with one thousand of your closest personal friends, gifting suites and swag bars. Every brand had its day. You could even visit the Vaseline Lounge; I will allow you to supply the punch line.

Before the festival began, Netflix and Amazon made preemptive purchases; among them, Netflix acquired Rob Burnett’s Fundamentals of Caring for $7 million. Once Sundance officially began last Thursday, the first deals were from the streaming giants.

Prior to a screening on Saturday night, I asked an agent what she expected to get for the film she was repping. “If Netflix or Amazon want it, a lot,” she said. “If they don’t, it’s a whole different deal.”

There was a bit of head-scratching over Amazon’s $10 million purchase of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Although well reviewed and highly praised (Justin Chang (Variety) called it a “bold merging of ensemble drama and character study, all in service of a story about how a person — and crucially, the surrounding community — choose to deal or not deal with the consequences of a fatal mistake”), it is a tragic and niche story.


Netflix reportedly offered $20 million for The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s historical drama about the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831. But the filmmaker and his reps turned down the Netflix offer, and struck a deal for $17.5 million with Searchlight, a Sundance record. As has been widely reported (see this play-by-play in The Wrap), the choice came down to a matter of theatrical distribution over dollars.

While Netflix had promised a theatrical release, the filmmakers did not believe Netflix would provide the right kind of distribution for this film’s audiences. There was reason to be skeptical. Streaming and cable companies service the small screen with preferential vigor. For example, Beasts of No Nation, another Netflix film, barely got any marketing push for its theatrical run. (Beasts of No Nation played in 31 theatres for two weeks and grossed $90,777.) Similarly, Discovery Channel barely promoted the theatrical exhibition of Racing Extinction. They did achieve their biggest viewership ever when they aired the doc worldwide on December 2, and that was their objective, but this example points to the differing priorities of small-screen vs large-screen companies.

Will streaming companies continue to pay such large sums? Are they approaching movies because they care about cinema, or because they are using films as content-bait to gather more data on their customers? Their eager appetites could be temporary; in two or three years, after they experience first-hand the economics of the movie business, will they suffer losses on their investments and cut way back? Stay tuned; we’ll be watching closely.

Tarmac with patches

Like this tarmac in Park City, the independent film business expands and contracts with heat and cold. It falls apart only to be put back together.

Piracy Debate

Last week we published our Sundance 2016 Infographic, which included never-before revealed data on pirated downloads of independent films.

We got a lot of comments. Indiewire picked up the piece, and Facebook discussion was lively. Some people contended that pirates actually drive legitimate ticket sales and disputed my estimate of how much piracy costs filmmakers.

On Monday, I attended an Artists Services presentation by Professor Michael D. Smith, who studies information technology and marketing. Smith, who takes the position that he has no position on the issues because he only cares about the data, revealed evidence that fully supports what we put in the infographic. His research will be published this summer as a book entitled Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment (MIT Press).

Are pirates taste-makers who drive ticket sales? No, says Smith. He and his colleagues studied 533 movies over two time periods, 2006-2008 and 2011-2013. The films included major studio and independent releases. Their conclusions? “If piracy could be eliminated from the theatrical window then box office revenues would increase by (on average) 15%…. All of the movies in our counterfactual analysis would experience increased box-office revenue if piracy were eliminated altogether.” (Ma, Montgomery, and Smith 2015)

In my article last week, I made the assumption that 5% of the people who pirate content would purchase it if there were no illegal alternative. I chose the 5% number because I wanted to be conservative, not alarmist. When I asked Smith about this assumption, he said I was probably low – the real number, he said, could be closer to 15%. If Smith is correct, the films I cited lost three times more revenue than was depicted in the infographic.

I checked with Excipio, the company that analyzed the BitTorrent results used in our infographic, to see if any of the films acquired at Sundance so far were getting illegal downloads. Sign of relief: they are not – so far.

The Free Range Reaction

Every movement begets its opposite; the Tea Party arose as a reaction to Obama’s election. While streaming giants make muscular plays, the free range distribution movement is becoming more effective and sophisticated among a growing cadre of indie filmmakers. As James Kaelan said last week, “You don’t need to wait to get picked anymore.” (Kaelan performed the hat-trick of having films in both Slamdance and Sundance this year.) In an example of the increasingly vibrant DIY movement, Quiver, a digital distribution service that charges a flat fee, not a percentage, now pays filmmakers more than $1 million a month.

In comparison to the record-setting deals I discussed at the beginning of this article, other film deals at Sundance and Slamdance will indeed be paltry. While pretty much every movie at these festivals will get some form of distribution offer, most will be for little or no upfront cash. Even with Amazon’s and Netflix’s big checkbooks, economics for indie filmmakers have not gotten easier.

We’ll continue to look at these developing trends in the months ahead.

Vaseline Lounge

Yes, Virginia, there really is a Vaseline Lounge at Sundance.

Top image from Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Not now, ok? Procrastination Increases Creativity

Do you procrastinate, or are you more likely to complete an assignment early? While it’s clear that procrastination cuts into productivity, in Adam Grant’s Op-Ed “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate” for The New York Times, Grant wonders whether pre-crastinators are more or less creative than procrastinators.

One of Grant’s students devised an experiment to determine whether procrastinators do, in fact, perform with a higher degree of creativity.

Grant describes the experiment: “I wasn’t convinced. So Jihae [Shin], now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, designed some experiments. She asked people to come up with new business ideas. Some were randomly assigned to start right away. Others were given five minutes to first play Minesweeper or Solitaire. Everyone submitted their ideas, and independent raters rated how original they were. The procrastinators’ ideas were 28 percent more creative.”

I’m not sure how to quantitatively assess 28% more creativity, but we’ll go with the findings for argument’s sake. I’m impressed: not consciously thinking about a task has a positive impact on our creativity.

What were Grant’s takeaways? “Minesweeper is awesome, but it wasn’t the driver of the effect. When people played games before being told about the task, there was no increase in creativity. It was only when they first learned about the task and then put it off that they considered more novel ideas. It turned out that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking.”

For my own part, on straightforward tasks, I take a straight-forward approach. But when creative results are in demand, I take a more circuitous route, often letting time pass without action. In fact, I have learned to go easy on myself, and if words aren’t flowing, accept that and have a good time doing something else. The words will come later, in a flood, and that is just the way it will be.

Many other successful artists who are known procrastinators. Many even consider procrastination to be part of an artist’s temperament. As Grant quotes Aaron Sorkin, “You call it procrastination, I call it thinking.” What Grant shows is that we can achieve divergent and lateral thinking–the bedrock of creativity–by letting ourselves temporarily off the hook.

Photo above courtesy of Judit Klein.

Sundance Infographic 2016: Ample Distribution, Paltry Deals, and the Cost of Piracy

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on January 20, 2016.

For the myriad filmmakers descending on Park City this week we have good news and bad. The good news: If your film is in Sundance, it will get distribution. The bad news: Your financial return on distribution will probably be minimal and your film is likely to be pirated, further diminishing your income.

Those key findings come from our annual survey of the independent movie landscape, on view below in our Sundance Infographic. Each year, we crunch the numbers on the Sundance Film Festival and use it as a bellwether for indie filmmaking at large. When Sundance’s Transparency Project begins to share data (later this year, we hope), we will all have even more information for analysis.


Distribution Dynamics

The overall number of distribution deals at Sundance is staggering. Last year, 105 of the 125 films achieved distribution of one kind or another. That’s a twenty percent increase from the year before, and a stark contrast to 2010, when only twelve films got distributed. What changed? Massive penetration by streaming services like Netflix and iTunes and the increased appetite for cable players like CNN and Discovery to take on feature-length documentaries.

Filmmakers at the Slamdance Film Festival, which runs concurrently in Park City, will have the same experience – all will get some distribution opportunities and most will be financially minimal.

When I say minimal, I mean minimal. Based on my conversations with producers and sales agents, many offers from distribution companies have zero minimum guarantees and rely entirely on back-end participation. When a deal is made with a digital-only distribution company, filmmakers will be expected to show up with a marketing plan in hand and will be expected to help sell tickets or streams themselves.

Why are distribution deals so paltry? Two reasons. First, there is too much content in the marketplace. Last year, there were some 700 feature films released theatrically in the US, of which about 150 came from studios and their subsidiaries. Those studio films accounted for 92.1% of the total box office, leaving approximately 550 independent films to fight for less than eight percent of the box office. Then, there are hundreds or thousands of movies that get digital-only deals, via companies like Amazon or Gravitas. In addition, 2015’s audiences had the opportunity to watch 409 scripted television shows – not hours, but actual shows, each of which has four to 22 episodes. Meanwhile, the number of hours of content uploaded to YouTube each minute is approaching 500. This much content is enough to make one’s eyeballs explode, and yet, with all the tonnage, truly excellent work is still rare.

The second reason distribution deals are low is the continuing devaluation of creative content. Increasingly audiences want to pay little or nothing for content in a fixed form – movies, books, music – even as they will pay nearly $1,000 for a three-day pass to Coachella. This is a generational, cultural shift –  and that’s where piracy comes in.

Piracy Costs

We know that piracy is a big issue for studio films, and we wanted to learn how it affects independent movies. For this year’s Sundance analysis, we worked with Excipio – a company that collects forensic evidence against pirates and does analytics. Excipio analyzes data collected from BitTorrent networks and does not extrapolate or estimate.

The results should be troubling to all independent filmmakers. Excipio analyzed illegal downloads of fourteen films that screened at Sundance in 2014 and 2015. All had at least hundreds of thousands of pirate downloads; Whiplash was downloaded illegally more than 12 million times.

What does piracy cost? Some piracy proponents (yes, there actually are such people) say it costs nothing and that it even helps build awareness for films, but that argument is false on its face. There is already a surfeit of content and one more free movie does not make a ripple. Audiences must be targeted carefully with specific marketing campaigns to build awareness and want-to-see; pirated films subvert that process. Piracy directly affects the bottom line, because some percentage of people who download illegally would have paid for the film if there were no illegal no-cost alternative.

How can we estimate the cost? We decided to be conservative. We’re estimating that if the illegal option were not available, five percent of customers would have paid for downloads and that they would have paid only $3 per transaction, which is a low number for digital downloads. Using this formula, we found that the fourteen films we sampled lost between $57,000 and $1.83 million in revenue.

Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films and Sundance Selects, and a producer of Boyhood told me: “Obviously piracy hurts every film company and any owner of intellectual property, regardless of size and scope. It is painful to look at those numbers and try to rationalize why people do this, especially to indie films.” Boyhood has had 10,383,141 pirate downloads. By our estimates, that cost the film $1.56 million. Life and death money for an indie filmmaker.

$3 Billion Invested

Each year, we estimate the budget of all the films submitted to Sundance to get a ballpark on how much is being invested in independent movies. Based on my conversations with producers, distributors, financiers, and people familiar with the festival circuit, this year we are estimating an average budget of $1 million per dramatic feature and $400,000 per feature documentary. The aggregate total tops $3 billion.

Does investment in indie films pay off? Clearly not, in most cases. But it is difficult to calculate on a case-by-case basis. For example, our infographic shows the sales price and the US box office gross, but most often films are bought for many territories – not just for the US. With Netflix now available in 190 countries, they often buy the world. Further, digital revenues are not transparent and are closely guarded. Unlike theatrical box office figures, which are publicly available, the amount of total views and income from all aggregated digital sources is not possible to track. Even insiders who run streaming companies tell me there is no way to get a clear figure beyond what they see from their own services. That lack of transparency has to change for independent filmmakers to get a fair understanding of today’s distribution economics and be able to strike deals that are fair all around.

Given the state of things, film distribution is ripe for continuing disruption. Increasingly, independents are exploring alternatives and finding entrepreneurial ways to do it themselves. Filmmaker James Kaelan, whose virtual reality experience The Visitor is in Slamdance, and who produced Hard World for Small Things in Sundance’s New Frontier section, told me, “With the advent of crowdfunding, with the efflorescing of free range distribution platforms, you don’t need to wait to get picked anymore. You can make your film on your own terms, and exhibit it directly to your audience without signing away your most-cherished rights. That’s a monumental shift.”

That shift is a trend likely to be even more prominent when we survey the independent film landscape a year from now.


Sundance Infographic 2016

Sundance Infographic 2016

Sundance Infographic 2016 | Produced by Cultural Weekly and Entertainment Media Partners | Sponsored by Macmillan Learning

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Infographic sponsored by Macmillan Learning. Produced by Entertainment Media Partners for Cultural Weekly. Tod Hardin, special features editor; Ahmad Zaeem, designer.

Top image: Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang directed by Kevin Macdonald in World Documentary section at Sundance Film Festival. Photo courtesy Sundance Institute.

Writer’s Block? Switch It Up for Maximum Productivity

There’s a lot of advice available about productivity, but the idea of switching projects has been one of the most useful for me lately. This year, I find myself in the midst of a large writing project–my third book. Yet, here I am, writing a blog post on a different topic. It turns out, the best way to maintain productivity is to mix up projects, working first on one then another, to ward off the mental sluggishness that can come along with grueling “do it until it’s done” sessions.

As Theresa MacPhail writes in “Code-Switching to Improve Your Writing and Productivity” for the Chronicle blog Vitae, “Here’s the counterintuitive thing I discovered far too late into my own career: Spending all your time on one project— working on it day after grueling day without a break — can backfire. Massively. It can completely stall your writing. You’re much better off taking a break and coming back to it a couple of days later than slaving over it continuously for many unproductive weeks or months.”

MacPhail’s tips to get started with this method:

  • “Start Small” Start a journal not directly connected to your work topic. Write longhand, beginning with simple statements, and let yourself get into a state of flow. You may find yourself generating new ideas.
  • “Branch Out” Write brief op-ed pieces geared for the non-academic audience, which can result in progress in work-related writing.
  • “Really Go for It” Consider attempting a longer nonfiction piece that can help diversify your style and kindle joy in writing.
  • “Always Alternate” Once you have projects in these new arenas, continue shifting from one to another after each segment or time box is complete.

Trust me, these tips represent valuable, hard-won advice. As I reach milestones in my own work, I too am switching–between blog writing, speechwriting, and manuscript writing to maximize my productivity. This method really works, and I hope you’ll give it a chance and see your output and joy increase as mine has.

How Storytellers Value Form without Being Formulaic

Is structural theory a necessary evil in storytelling? In his article “All Stories Are the Same” for The Atlantic, John Yorke notes that a great number popular stories share a common structure or arc. Yorke teases examples of this very phenomenon from ancient and recent great works in many disciplines, asking how artists can play against archetype and win critic and audience alike.

Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro is a staunch advocate of freeing audiences from structure. As Yorke describes him and others whose are biased to resist structural norms:

“Del Toro echoes the thoughts of many writers and filmmakers; there’s an ingrained belief for many that the study of structure is, implicitly, a betrayal of their genius; it’s where mediocrities seek a substitute muse. Such study can only end in one way. David Hare puts it well: ‘The audience is bored. It can predict the exhausted UCLA film-school formulae—acts, arcs, and personal journeys—from the moment that they start cranking. It’s angry and insulted by being offered so much Jung-for-Beginners, courtesy of Joseph Campbell. All great work is now outside genre.’”

As an audience, we tire of the reuse of familiar structures to house the narrative, whatever the storytelling medium. We want to be surprised, even if we’re engaged in the retelling of old stories, as in the case of the incredible popularity of film sequels and sagas. Deviating from the audience’s expectations is the basis for virtuosity.

Yorke quotes describes the way artists can value formal conventions without being formulaic.

“… As the creator of The West Wing and The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin, puts it: ‘The real rules are the rules of drama, the rules that Aristotle talks about. The fake TV rules are the rules that dumb TV execs will tell you; “You can’t do this, you’ve got to do—you need three of these and five of those.” Those things are silly.’ Sorkin expresses what all great artists know—that they need to have an understanding of craft. Every form of artistic composition, like any language, has a grammar, and that grammar, that structure, is not just a construct—it’s the most beautiful and intricate expression of the workings of the human mind.”

It’s a timeless message for artists that arises often: it pays to learn the language of one’s chosen medium, inhale its essence from the masters, and emulate great minds that successfully deviate from form.