You all know me – I’m always looking for the silver lining. Wait, that’s a lie. Anyone who knows me is all too aware that my default is to look at every stray piece of silver and assume I’m about to get rained on. Still, it has been a long, long few years, so your friendly/depressive neighborhood film columnist is actively hunting for some scraps of silver amid the once-more gathering COVID clouds.

Now, playing that game is undeniably an exercise in grimness, I know. It’s sort of like looking around at a post-apocalyptic world and musing, “Well, at least I’ll pick up some useful survival skills.” True, but it’d be more fun if learning how to build a hut were just a hobby, rather than a matter of life or death. But we’re talking about movies here, and, while a career in filmmaking might be a matter of figurative life or death for Maine’s movie makers, it’s almost literally murder to try to break out in mainstream success. 

So where can low- or no-budget indie filmmakers look, amid the unprecedented chaos and deprivation of a worldwide, industry-shaking pandemic, for that silver lining? Approaching two impossible years under self-sentenced house arrest, here are some benefits I see for indie filmmakers going forward. Naturally, each benefit comes with a cost, which I’ll also lay out, since we can’t have nice things.

Streaming is now the default movie option. Last week’s underwhelming box office for James Gunn’s comic book extravaganza “The Suicide Squad” (yes, $26 million is a crushing disappointment for such things) shows that the pandemic stranglehold on traditional moviegoing hasn’t come close to letting up. Yes, theaters are open (the ones that didn’t close permanently after going dark for a year), and some have even resumed in-person attendance (and occasionally writing about it). But if the superhero-hungry public couldn’t be lured off its sofas by the thought of Gunn – who helmed “Guardians of the Galaxy” – working his gleefully disreputable action-comedy magic on a gang of colorful DC antiheroes, then there’s something fundamentally still transformed about how people watch their movies. 

With ordinarily huge theatrical attractions (like Marvel’s competing super-saga,“Black Widow”) doing more business through at-home sales and rentals than at still sparsely populated movie theaters, it’s clear that the old model whereby a massive, tentpole, studio-saving hit rules the multiplexes might be gone for a long time/forever. While life may get back to what passes for normal again, people have had a taste of first-run, release-day major movies right at home, and they like it. 

It may have only accelerated an inevitable push for comfort and convenience, but home viewing is now the norm, and, us being us, convenience, once catered to, isn’t easily discarded. Hell, I’ve written numerous columns chronicling my quest for involuntarily locked-down home entertainment, a restless search for elusive “content” that currently sees myself and my lovely wife plowing through the 1970s British murder anthology series “Thriller” on the streaming service Tubi. Neither of those entities were known to me before the pandemic, but that’s what the insularity of a jittery, movie theater-deprived quarantine does to you. 

So what does this do for indie filmmakers, exactly? After all, nobody scraping together a budget through crowdsourcing and their meager life savings is making a Marvel movie in their hometown. Well – and here comes some unaccustomed optimism – the hobbling of the movie industry leaves the gate open for both creators and consumers to take a moment to look around. The gears of the industry have slowed, but our need for the movies has not. In fact, it’s accelerated, as home viewing has become a lifeline in some very trying times. 

That’s lousy for local movie venues (although places like PMA Films are, with all appropriate caution, reopening for live screenings again). As I wrote (what seems like a hundred years ago) when unthinkably swearing off going to the movies, the perniciousness of this still-deadly pandemic is that it ensures somebody’s going to suffer. But it also opens those gates.

Movies aren’t a meritocracy. Like other systems, it’s rife with prejudices, preconceptions and the ever-unequal distribution of capital, all of which function to perpetuate the movie industry in the image of those holding the keys. Theatrical releases are a rare prize, handed down by those who relish the gatekeepers’ power to determine what’s worthy. But the old system is battered and broken, perhaps irretrievably so. And where the old system falls apart, the smart, resourceful and scrappy see opportunity. 

Streaming is cheaper, more available, and unprecedentedly more democratic than theatrical release. That brings its own obstacles, since, with the gates down, your little film is merely one option for viewers to choose to watch in an unruly, often bewildering wilderness of content. You can throw your film up for free on YouTube any time, but it’s going to get lost, and even employing the services of an aggregator to sell your film to the myriad streaming sites scrambling to fill subscribers’ needs only means the field is marginally less clamorous for watchers’ attention. 

But that’s where the ingenuity of the indie filmmaker comes in. Anybody who’s seen the Maine film scene grow in the past decade knows that people making movies here already know all about about fighting uphill battles. The marketplace has adapted to provide tools for the tiniest-budgeted filmmakers to get their movies at least into the running, and a public now accustomed to digging past the flashy crust down into the fascinatingly varied and fruitful depths of that week’s preferred streaming service is more likely than ever to give some unknown film or filmmaker a chance.

Is it easy? Hell no – nothing about making movies on a shoestring ever is. But with the marketplace for movies changing so abruptly and so jarringly in the past year-plus, that ground is a whole lot more receptive. Any money-based industry will never be truly a meritocracy, but if there’s one set of skills that indie filmmakers have, it’s the combination of hustle, ingenuity and self-promotion they’ve learned the hard way. The gates simply aren’t as strong as they once were, the gatekeepers not quite as powerful. Opportunities are just a remote control click away. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: