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Trading with the Tribes PDF Print E-mail
Written by Written by Mike Watt   
Apr 11, 2005 at 02:00 AM
I recently realized that, in one form or another, I’ve been “in” the “industry” for about ten years. By the “industry”, I’m referring to the independent film business in general and the indie horror community in specific. And by “in”, I mean that I’ve written about it for both ‘zines and professional publications, I’ve written for it with my own productions and work-for-hire screenplays, and I have personal friendships with both fringe filmmakers and folks that have more or less defined the industry as it currently stands. I have been considered both a major and minor player, occasionally by the same people during the course of the same conversation. I have seen come-backs, fade-aways and also-rans. I’ve seen dreams come true, but less often than I’ve witnessed dreams shattered. I’ve seen some great movies made by mediocre filmmakers and vice versa. I’ve seen some brilliance and a whole lot of crap. In short, the indie industry parallels Big Hollywood in just about every conceivable way, but on a lower budget.

We have our heavy hitters—folks like Tempe’s J.R. Bookwalter and Sub Rosa’s own Ron Bonk who have held their own against “higher-but-still-middling” players like Full Moon’s Charles Band and Cinema Home Video and managed to come out ahead. Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman considers himself one of us—the indie industrialist—and it’s probably true, given that Troma, at 35-years-old, is the oldest independent studio in existence. Corman has faded away, David F. Friedman doesn’t produce much any more. E.I. still produces a lot of its own stuff in-house and does quite well with it.

But the above folks primarily exist as companies these days—virtually inextricable from their corporate identities. This leaves a great deal of contractors to work on their movies strictly independently, forced to scrounge for distribution once the movie is completed. When I first entered into the “industry”, there were a lot of video people shooting on smaller formats or even BETA SP. MiniDV wasn’t quite as widespread or affordable. There were a number of Super-8 people as well, even a few 16mm guys among those with steady “real” jobs. When MiniDV hit the ground running, the “industry” was suddenly a lot more crowded, but that was okay; there was plenty of talent to be had once you sifted away the crap. Same as it ever was. You heard the same arguments from the VHS guys a decade before.

The nice thing about all this was that, with the internet, everyone was accessible to one another. We could keep abreast of each others’ projects, lend a hand when possible, either physically, or through much-needed moral support. Message boards popped up all over the place, starting with B-Movie.com and spreading out from there. And the one thing you heard over and over again on those boards was the cry for a coalition.

The gist of this battle cry: “We should all band together, form a company, make a couple of outstanding movies and take over Hollywood!”

And everyone would rattle their shields and cheer and meetings would be called, both physically and online, and after a while the various egos would rear their ugly heads and thus unionization of the indies was cancelled for another year.

It didn’t take too long before the battle cry was uttered again, and it wasn’t too long after that before cynicism crept forth. “We’ve tried this before,” said the nay-sayers. “It didn’t work then, it won’t work now. We’re all too different.” The latter, at least, is how it should be. The battle cry was always a valid cause, a noble cause. An impossible dream.

Indie filmmakers are generally passionate, over-educated, slightly-to-severely dysfunctional, and deeply in love with movies, both as entertainment and art form. Weekend warrior filmmakers aside, you don’t get seriously into this “industry” without having an aching soul for the movies that have come before you. It what fuels the burning desire to make them. It’s this love that keeps you soldiering on trying to keep control of the dragon you created with words and sweat and lighting and moving, living people. There’s an aphrodisiac quality to the art form, the adrenaline rush of harnessing the dancing shadows captured via photochemical or electrical process.

And you have to be a bit egomaniacal about the whole thing. You have to know, unwaveringly, that you are creating something beautiful, something that will leave a footprint in the sand that will tell the world you were here. You have to know that you are telling a story that was burning to be told, even if, ultimately, it wasn’t.

Now stick these egomaniacs with their iron-clad beliefs with other such egomaniacs with different, but no-less iron-clad, beliefs, and you’re just seeding the inevitable shit-storm. Friendships have been ruined over “creative differences” at both end of the entertainment spectrum. Salt is generally sown through the earth where these friendships once stood.

The best anyone can hope for in terms of a coalition is what exists now: exchanging service for service amongst the various indie companies—trading between the tribes.

Like the Indians before the White Man’s intrusion (to get Thanksgiving-y on everyone), members of individual tribes would trade goods for the goods of another tribe, traveling up and down river to make these trades. The tribes were seldom joined, though marriages existed, as what generally happened would be the groom would be initiated into the bride’s tribe, or vice versa. But whole tribes stayed separate from others. And that’s just what is happening now.

To give an example (and, what the hell, right?): to produce “Severe Injuries”, my tribe, Happy Cloud Pictures, traded goods and services to the Sub Rosa tribe in securing distribution. To produce the film, we also sought assistance from the tribe known as Hero Headquarters (“Project: Valkyrie”), which was just up river from us. We also received valuable help from the Twisted Insomniac tribe (Robyn Griggs and Keith Kline), the VampiBunny Tribe (Lilith Stabs), and the On Mark Productions tribe (Ryli Morgan and Mark Baranowski). All of these tribes served the production by appearing in the film, helping behind the scenes, schlepping cables, appearing when needed, etc. But at the end of the production, by necessity, each tribe went back to walking their own separate path—a path that is sometimes parallel to ours, and sometimes perpendicular. But at no point did the tribes merge. We like to claim that each one is now part of the “Happy Cloud Pictures” family, but we’re talking spiritually, not physically.

And that’s the way of the world. The colors of the wind, to continue beating to death this metaphor.

But that’s not the reason that a coalition is and will always be an impossible dream. It’s not because b-movie filmmakers are too different, or too stubborn, or too short, or too whatever, though that does play a large part in the unsolvable equation. The biggest problem, the one that will forever keep indie filmmakers indie, is that Hollywood hasn’t the faintest idea who any of us are. And there’s very little chance that they ever will, even if one or two of us should break out into the higher levels of the food chain.

See, a coalition will never exist because, by definition, a coalition is a banding-together of various groups to overcome a common obstacle, in this case, Hollywood. But Hollywood doesn’t see us—any of us—as an obstacle of equal weight. It doesn’t see us at all. The way the studios have absorbed the video chains and movie theaters across the country, they’ve all but eliminated any outside competition. The microbudget indie filmmaker simply doesn’t exist.

There is lip service paid to indies every day. Once a year, for example, Hollywood piles into their limos to pay a visit to Park City, Utah, to honor the indie spirit. Or, more accurately, to honor “Little Hollywood”. There are little tributes like this all over the world—Sitges, Cannes, Fantasia, Telluride. But even these are out of reach for most of us. Even with a completed film in hand, so few of us will break through the iron barrier into the coveted/despised halls of Blockbuster. And if we do, it will be through our own efforts, and through the strength of our individual production. There will be little—if any—opportunity to take a neighboring tribe with us through the tiny chink in the wall leading to the “next level”.

A coalition will not exist because, right now, it cannot exist. We are railing against an enemy too large to see us. So we will continue to trade with the neighboring tribes and try to seize ground on our own level. As individual tribes, we will find our path through Sub Rosa, and Tempe, and Troma, and E.I., Media Blasters, etc. And we will move steadily onward—those of us who survive—and will always be grateful for the help we’ve received along the way. And we will vow that we will assist the neighboring tribes—and at this level, we can.

But even standing on each others shoulders, there is little hope that we can reach the giants’ ears. And, maybe, that’s how it should be too. At least for right now. Because the one nice thing about being a small tribe is that there is always hope among the people. Hope and desire tend to yield great things, if history has proven us anything. And, really, it only takes one to break through the walls of the giants, and lead a new path for the other tribes. But that one—that legendary “chosen” of all prophecies—has to have the strength to do it, and the support of the other tribes to find the way. And a coalition might not be the answer to this problem after all.

So to the tribes: don’t stop trading with each other. Don’t stop trying to unite, even though it may seem impossible. And if someone seems to be getting closer to the wall, don’t turn your back on him or her. Maybe they’ll get through and remember all those who came before them. In the meantime, let your own personal stories be heard, and eventually, they’ll find their way to those who want to listen.
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