The feature film world has bifurcated into low and high budget films. Like most other industries, the middle is being squeezed out. Studios are producing fewer feature films (around 300 per year). This creates fewer writing opportunities for both established and newer writers. The case is exacerbated for emerging writers trying to break in.
Independent film is one of the few remaining avenues to break into the movie industry. So what is indie film exaclty? There are a few definitions, but mainly they relate to distribution, budget and content.
Studio films will always have at least some distribution in place in order for them to go into production. If they invest $50-150 million on for an average production, with an additional $50 million plus in P & A, studios need to hedge their bets and assure returns.
Indie films tend to be made with a patchwork of financing, This ranges from film investors, private equity and soft money in the form of tax rebates and grants. Their first route of exhibition is the festival circuit, four-walled screenings (producers rent a theatre) or various online platforms. Distribution often comes later if at all.
Assuming indie films get international distribution, they may collect up to 10-20% of their revenues from international markets as a rough ballpark. Conversely, studio films rely on foreign markets for up to 70% of their revenues.
I’ve mentioned typical studio budgets, which are many times of magnitude larger than indie budgets. Micro-budget features have typical budgets of under $500k, although there is no hard and fast rule. By some standards this may be as high as $1 million. Budgets of $1-5 million are classed as low budget and anything in the $5-10 million range is referred to as being made “for a price”.
The content of studio films is also more generic and caters to a broad based audience. Audiences are crudely divided into four quadrants; men, women, boys and girls. Studio films tend to cluster at the cross over point, hence the term four quadrant film. Anything edgy, offensive or niche will not make the cut. This is where indie films come in. Thematically and content wise, they can really test the extremities of art. They represent a distinct artistic vision.
In terms of genre, studio films are mainly action (because they sell best in foreign markets), thriller, horror and comedy. Comedy tends to contain topical humour and foreign countries often produce their own local product. This is a key reason studio budgets for comedies lie broadly in the lower $20-50 million range.
Around 80% of indie films are dramas, around 10% comedies and the remainder horror, thriller and documentaries.
Studio films are also bigger in concept; hence the term high concept. They are therefore easier to pitch and sell. Indie films tend to be low concept films which are “execution dependent.” They can be more personal, nuanced with a distinct tone.
Indies also afford film makers greater creative freedom. The dramas can be darker and more heart-wrenching, the comedies quirkier and more outrageous and the horrors more shocking. You’re also unlikely to get dozens of script notes or creative interference from indie producers. So it’s not all bad news.
Since indie films play to more select audiences, it’s more important to know your audience. You’d better have a compelling reason to want to make this film and be prepared for the hard slog. Have something unique to contribute to the film community.
Since indie films tend to be more artistically than commercially focussed, write your own truth. Make a film from your specific, philosophical, idiosyncratic and unique point of view.
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