05/19/2010 06:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Make It Tasty

Film-makers talk a lot about film-makers and distributors. There's a lot of the former and not half enough of the latter. But what about the third leg of the stool, the independent film audience? Who are they? What do they want? Where the hell did they go? And how do we get them to come back?

When I was coming up, in the mid-eighties, working for Ed Pressman, independent films were hard to make, but at least the infrastructure was there.

Fueled by the roll-out of the video-cassette, a healthy eco-system developed of audience, distributor and film-maker, with a business model that relied on well-capitalized foreign sales companies, healthy home entertainment divisions, specialty theatrical distributors and a banking system that translated contracts into cash for production. Over twenty-five years, that's all eroded.

Easy access to capital led to a glut of product. The immutable truth of Gresham's Law prevailed. Bad movies drove out good. Distributors and financiers vanished. The audience, overwhelmed by mediocre pictures, lost its taste for the new. (Sound familiar?)

Much has changed since then, a time before fax machines. Who can even play a VHS cassette anymore? One of the changes, regrettably, is that the audience for independent films has declined.

It's still there. The Coens can reliably earn out for the financiers of their movies and they can keep making more movies. There are other film-makers, many of them, who have their fans and can stay in business, but the zeitgeist has changed. DVD sales have dropped across the board, but nowhere so sharply as in the independent sector. Independent exhibitors, those brave few, know their audience is graying, balding, dying off.

And twenty-year-olds don't care so much, not the way they used to, when a new Abel Ferrara movie was an event, or the movies from Good Machine, or Pressman, or Propaganda or Killer were anticipated.

Why don't they care? Why don't movies matter so much? Is it because of the many alternatives? Is it because the younger audience is used to getting things free, or on a screen in front of them? Yes, sure, probably, all of that.

But I think it's mostly that the companies that make movies, and have controlled distribution for those twenty-five years, have forgotten about the audience, and maybe, just maybe, the film-makers have too.

I hope it's good.

Towards the end of my run with Ed Pressman's company, we made a film with a first-time director (then and now an experienced and successful writer). Late in the post process, before picture lock, I booked a recruit audience screening for him.

A paid recruit screening is one of the great favors a producer can do a director, a chance before the picture's done to show it to people who don't care about his feelings or his intentions.

I told him you're going to learn something from the research cards, and you're going to learn something from the focus group, but you'll learn the most if you just sit in the audience and tune in to their feelings as the picture unreels. But he was too nervous, said he'd disrupt a great swathe of the audience by his legs bouncing, and he sat in the back. I understood. It's nerve-wracking to leave the editing room where it's quiet and dark and nobody judges you.

"Excuse me, ma'am, is that seat taken?" I sat down next to a heavy-set woman who had the aisle. She and I chatted pointlessly for a while but the conversation dwindled away as it should, and we waited for the movie to start. Just before the lights went down, amid the muttering of the rest of the audience and into the stillness between us, she heaved a heavy sigh and said, to herself (but I was next to her and heard her clearly), "I hope it's good."

Yes, we feel all that, as the lights get ready to go down, although it's harder to notice now through the din of the ad-laden pre-show. What does it mean, that we hope it's good?

That it feed us somehow, that it repay us our money -- and money's tight these days - that it be worth our time -- who spends two hours doing anything today that we don't have to? -- and most importantly, that it respect our willingness to be naked before the screen, to open up our psyche and let a story be told to us.

Scratch an itch I didn't know I had, heal a wound I can't name, take me out of my travails with laughter or shock, show me how to triumph -- or even simply to survive -- when my problems are so large. Give me something that sustains me. Feed me. I hope it's good.

Film-makers who don't understand this are lost. If you think it's all about your vision, forget it. It's not. Yes, you have to have a vision and, yes, you have to sustain it through terrible times, when well-meaning people give you bad advice, when the money's not there unless you cast someone obviously wrong for the part, when all the world is arrayed against you and you're losing the light.

But that's just the responsibility that goes with the job. We put up with the travail for a reason. You're in it, I'm in it, for the astonishing thrill of making something remarkable, something unique, something personal and hand-made by a temporary community of artists and artisans.

Don't forget to pay attention to our partner, the people who pay to see the movies. What's in it for them?

A memorable dream

Two years ago in the middle of the night I woke up heart hammering. I'd been having an argument in a dream. Actually, I'd been screaming. Screaming at a director, I don't know who. We were standing alone in the front row of an empty movie theater. "You think," I ranted, gesturing up at the blank white screen, "you think that what's up there is the movie, and you think that it's your movie, you made it, it's yours. But you're fucking wrong [I told you I was screaming, right?]. That's not the movie. The movie... the movie... the movie is what happens in the air between up there and down here. That's the movie, you moron." And then I woke up.

Maybe I'd eaten too much supper, like the fellow in Winsor McKay's Dreams of A Rarebit Fiend. Or maybe I was sick of narcissist auteurs. 2008 was a bad year for that.

Kubrick's advice

In the mid-eighties Stanley Kubrick went to Michael Herr, one of the great writers of the Viet Nam War (Dispatches, check it out) who also wrote the Martin Sheen monologue in Apocalypse Now. Kubrick said "I want to do a Viet Nam movie and I want you to write it." And Herr said, "I don't know how to write a screenplay and I'm not about to learn how to write a screenplay writing for the best film-maker in the world."

But Kubrick said, "It's not that hard.

"Just pretend that you're going to a movie. Walk up to the box office. Buy a ticket. Take the ticket and go inside. There'll be a kid there who'll rip it in half. Take the stub and walk through the lobby. Go into the theater. Walk down the aisle to about six rows in front of the screen. Take a seat in the middle of the row. Sit down. Wait. After a while, the lights will go down and the curtain will go up and the movie will start.

"Just write down what you see."

It's not that hard, Kubrick said. Just write looking up at the screen not down at your desk. Just write with the images filling your vision. Just write as part of the audience.

But writing for the audience, writing as part of the audience, making the movie that happens between the screen and the audience, all that takes respect for the audience, for their emotions, for their needs, for their dreams and hopes and fears.

Did you see the Hughes tribute on the Oscar telecast? Hughes's movies were studio movies. They made millions for the studios. And John Hughes respected his audience. Look at how their teenage emotions, fragile, skittish, powerful, are portrayed, with love and humor and a sharp eye.

But studios don't make those movies any more. Why not? I think it's because, with rare exceptions, studios don't respect audiences any more - don't respect them except as consumers. It's what can we sell them?, not what can we feed them.

Spectacle and branded entertainment experiences must seem to studio heads a safer bet than movies. And maybe short term it is. But they've raised a generation that doesn't really care about movies anymore. Why should they? They haven't really seen any. If you're a young man, you might have liked Sherlock Holmes. But it didn't feed you. The last movie that really spoke to young men might have been Fight Club and how long ago was that? Last century, 1999. (Maybe Superbad, because Apatow wrote that one especially empathetically but I've heard its demo skewed older.)

So this moment is an opportunity perhaps. Yes, the distribution apparatus has collapsed. The tsunami of hedge-fund capital swept in -- lots of movies got made because well-heeled neophytes thought having lots of money made them producers -- and post-Lehman, like all tsunamis, it swept out, leaving behind tangled wreckage and broken lives.

But some brave souls are picking up the pieces, hammering together some shelter out of tin and plastic sheeting and old pipes. We don't know what the business model really is; we'll know it when we see it in the rear view mirror. Oh, we'll say, so that's how it works, so that's how movies get monetized. So that's what audiences want to pay for and how they want to pay for it.

Right now here's our chance: the mega-suppliers have forgotten they're in the movie business -- or maybe they've just decided to abandon it for the branded entertainment experience business.

And we don't have to.

Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan? (I know the accent's wrong but HP can't handle the right one)

Here's what we do have to do. We have to know who needs what we make. The days of a generalized appetite are likely past. The great magazines of my childhood are gone: The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look.

In their place a multiplicity of niches... Bass-fishing, trout-fishing, salt-water-flat fishing, each with its own devotees, each with its own audience and its own media that satisfies with fact and fantasy.

When Beverly Hills was awash with money in 2006 I was talking to a successful independent producer friend who'd amassed a stash of cash, hedge fund money looking for a non-correlated asset paired with a compliant bank selling leverage. [No disrespect to my friend, none; I couldn't have raised that money.] About a picture he was intending I asked, "Who's the audience?" With the calm that comes from a full wallet, he said "If it's a good movie, people will come to it." Except that he's since entirely lost his equity, tapped out. And he made some good movies.

Really, it's only sensible. If your job is gratifying the unspoken needs of a group of people, shouldn't you have some idea who those people are?

Sure, there are national wounds. Dad comes in, sits on the bed. "Stevie, your mother and I love you very much. But we're going to destroy your world because, frankly, our needs are more important than yours." That's a wound country-wide and multi-generational. Lots of people need to see a world come back together when it looks like it's impossible.

But if you're not making pictures that are going to have tens of millions of dollars available to reach across the nation and the generations, and you're not spending scores of millions on spectacle, you better be looking to give intense gratification to a smaller and identifiable group.

Who are you making the picture for? How can you find them? Through what channels can you reach them? What bonds them together? How can they discover you?

Don't ask these questions before the first draft is written. Let that unconscious discovery process happen unimpeded by externalities. But you better have some good answers before you start raising money.

It's not about pandering. It's about feeding.

Lessons from Momofuku

David Chang, the chef-owner of Momofuku Ko and a couple of other astonishing restaurants was talking last month to Evan Kleiman on her wonderful KCRW radio show, "Good Food."

It's a wonderful interview with many lessons for film-makers. David Chang was highly trained but had his own vision. He opened a noodle bar in the East Village where the focus was on the food made cheaply and bravely. The success that came from gratifying customers allowed him to open two more restaurants, each specific to his ambition to create something he thought of as honest.

Evan was trying to get David to define his style: so it's French technique and an Asian palate?, but he demurred. It's American food, he said. It's always French technique but it's not about authenticity. Craft matters, but not obedience to authority. And then he said these wise words:

"Screw authenticity. Let's make something tasty. Let's try to make something when if you eat it, you slap yourself on the forehead and say 'Wow, that's really great.' And when you leave, that's what you're talking about."

Notice he's talking simultaneously about himself and the people who eat his food. He's the cook and he's the eater. He's the director and he's the audience.

As a recipe for success in our beleaguered business, as we try to forge a new way forward, that's as good as it gets:

Make Something Tasty.

Make it for us who sit in the dark and dream. Feed us.

[This was originally written for Ted Hope's Truly Free Film, which anyone interested in making or seeing independent movies should read.)