Indie films live on despite the erosion of Hollywood blockbuster sales through 2018. While indie music hasn't really made a big splash yet this century - other than there's a lot of obscure indie music available online - the independent film industry has carved a clear foundation for survival in the age of cyberspace. Then again, it all depends on how you define the word "independent."
The Independent Film & Television Alliance publishes a weekly "Top 20 Independent Films - U.S. Box Office" list on its site. For the weekend of February 16-18, 2018, the top film on the list is Early Man, which is distributed by Lionsgate. The film appeared in nearly 2,500 theaters and generated revenue of $3.2 million for the week. Other distributors on the list included Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures Classics, along with Pure Flix Entertainment, STX Entertainment, Neon, Entertainment Studios, A24, Pantelion, Roadside Attractions and Well Go USA.
At the bottom of the top 20 was A Fantastic Woman, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, which pulled in just over $94,000, showing in 29 theaters. Warner and Sony accounted for 6 films on the list, perhaps to stretch the list to avoid giving lesser promoted films and studios the attention. Even so, these numbers give us a framework for understanding indie film economics.
Many indie filmmakers pursue their dreams and invest in expensive equipment, only to find out it's nowhere near enough the investment they need to compete with blockbuster films. Then again, the media is notorious for creating grand illusions that the first weekend ticket sales determine the success or failure of a film, which isn't true. It's actually possible for a major film like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) to generate nearly $1 billion in revenue and still report a loss of $167 million.
Essentially, the big difference between big biz films with budgets of over $100 million and anything with a much smaller budget is that bigger companies get to play with other people's money more. Upfront cash comes in the form of loans and venture capital to pay for talent, labor, gear and licensing. A film with a budget of $20 million is considered small. It's normal for big budget films to have a promotion and advertising budget that exceeds the production budget. Typically a major film opens on about 4,000 screens, whereas indie films usually only get shown on hundreds of screens or less.
The real test of a film's financial success is in the DVD and online markets, since more people are likely to purchase a movie to view at home than go to a movie theater. Indie filmmakers can potentially bypass the theater phase completely. But they can go much further in proving the value of a film isn't about the number of dollars pumped into it. Expensive special effects are a given with Hollywood films, but there's no rule that the art of filmmaking depends on fancy technology.
Some of the most informative films online are video documentaries that are built on information rather than effects. In other words, the content over style ethic is well-suited for indie minimalism. This view is consistent with a small budget and presenting an alternative to Hollywood's overblown formulas. For the community that appreciates depth in exploring human issues and conditions, fancy props and production aren't that necessary.
There's also no rule that the person on camera has to be some slick personality. Many people have been conditioned to believe that only celebrities on mainstream media are talented enough to host movies, shows and promos. While it's true that not everyone can hold people's attention in a film or video, it doesn't take acting lessons to make good documentaries. Nor does it really take acting lessons to make fun small-time dramatic films. Sometimes all it takes is a series of compelling interviews to make a great timeless film.
There's a bright future for indie filmmakers on many levels. The power of motion pictures has never been completely realized because the top leaders of the industry make it a big money game. Once you free your mind from the illusion that filmmaking requires big money, you can focus more on efficient ways to save money, partly by stepping up creativity.
It's even possible to market an indie film on a slim budget by creating a trailer and making film critics and journalists aware of it. The film can be marketed through YouTube or Vimeo using password protection. We haven't heard too many examples yet of indie filmmakers making a fortune from this model, but the potential exists for indie films to thrive on a community level.