Has great TV stolen the independent film?

By Marc Ruxin, Guest Contributor , written on October 2, 2015

From The Art Desk

I went to the movies for the first time in three months a month. This was perhaps my longest theater absence in over 30 years. I saw “The Gift.” It was creepy and solidly entertaining, even if not iconic or groundbreaking, and deserved my full uninterrupted attention.

The air-conditioned theater felt nice, but I could count the number of attendees on two hands. This made me feel oddly sad. There were endless trailers, ads and lastly a long PSA discouraging the use of cell phones throughout the movie. For me this piece was critical, not just to establish the “rules” for noisy neighbors (had there been any), but also for me as I have become increasingly and easily distracted by my own precious cellphone while watching films at home in front of a big screen on a comfortable couch.

Over the past ten years film box office revenue numbers have stayed at superficially consistent, as more expensive 3D films and increasing ticket costs have offset a decline in overall ticket sales and the closing of hundreds of smaller "art film" theaters. According to the Hollywood Reporter, tickets sales in 2014 dropped to a low not seen since 1995. This is a massively troubling statistic, but not at all surprising and I suppose not without a small silver lining: it’s called TV. And currently episodic television is often better and more accessible than today’s movies. 

Before The Sopranos, “original television” was largely financed by advertising. It was also largely devoid of natural and colorful language, nudity, and violence. As such network and cable television has always been so abstracted from reality, so antiseptic that it is often hard to genuinely lose yourself in it. HBO had been producing shows outside of this constraint for a decade prior to this landmark series, but it was The Sopranos, and the growth of paid premium TV, that monumentally changed the game in terms of television story telling. It also created a broader more serious audience and opportunities for actors, writers and directors. This new canvas afforded consumers the chance to pay for ad free television and free themselves from the PG oriented restrictions of network and cable television.

HBO continued its success with shows like “Six Feet Under,” “OZ,” “Deadwood,” ‘Big Love” and more recently “Game of Thrones," “True Detective” and many others. Rising from the ashes of late night soft core adult movies and b-grade theatrical films, Showtime stole a page from the HBO playbook and started producing a slate of similarly compelling and edgy long form storytelling, shows like “Dexter,” “Shameless,” “Californication,” “Weeds” and more recent hits like “Homeland,” “The Affair,” and “Ray Donovan” which cemented Showtime as a legitimate ‘television’ contender.

But the levee broke again once ample bandwidth, cheap and easy hardware devices to use it (Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast), combined with the rise of Netflix to create a binge enabled environment where for less than the cost of one movie ticket (an $8 Netflix subscription) you could watch an entire series in a weekend — on demand. Netflix, although already gaining momentum by providing a much larger cloud movie archive than HBO or Showtime ever could, really began to hit its stride by making available ad free television. AMC’s phoenix like reinvention and in particular its “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” shows on Netflix drove mass consumers to the platform almost overnight. There was also “Friday Night Lights” and “Arrested Development” and other cult classics who were reborn overnight. But again there was plenty of room for them to run. It was “House of Cards” and later “Orange is the New Black” that established and validated the what Netflix could become. TV was now driving Netflix' growth, and now it was financing and creating its own content, rather than just leaning on a massive but not very well filtered film catalog. 

Having already launched its own streaming service as part of a broader vision to sell “Prime” subscriptions and ultimately sell “products,” Amazon entered the game slowly by, providing a catalog of films similar to Netflix, but eventually began financing its own original programming. That dam burst too with the success of the quirky and wonderful “Transparent.” Just a few weeks ago, Amazon further expressed its commitment by exclusively licensing this summer’s most ballyhooed show, “Mr. Robot” from the unlikely USA Networks.

Game on. TV has gotten very good, and there are now more networks and platforms committed to this art form. So good in fact that it is eating the thoughtful highbrow films that had thrived just a few decades before beginning with the revolution launched at Sundance with “sex, lies and videotape,” the ascendance of Miramax and October Films.

Not so long ago there were people who either loved movies or loved and watched television. Until recently I was squarely in the camp of the former. I’m a life long independent film zealot. I rarely watched TV shows (except for Taxi, thirtysomething, and The Wonder Years) until The Sopranos. Friday or Saturday night was always a movie night, in a pre-internet world in the theater or on DVD, and in modern internet world on demand. This was largely because film content was so definitively better than TV. The storytelling, the complexity of plot and characters, and the often non-linear approach just made most television seem overly formulaic and predictable. 

But today the business of true independent filmmaking is slowly withering on the vine. Art theaters are closing across the country almost as quickly as bookstores. Without those screens to display break out revolutions like “Reservoir Dogs,” “Momento,” “Napolean Dynomite,” and “Little Miss Sunshine” there won’t be a launching pad for small films to get to the 5000 or so screens that big budget films open to, praying for that massive opening weekend pop. Sure, well executed social media can drive buzz, but what difference does it make if there are no screens to drive to. Without much hope for smaller low budget films to realistically recoup production costs and some amount of marketing through modest ticket sales, the appetites to finance these films have diminished. 

This leaves most first time or even established filmmakers in a bind. The time, energy and money required to make an independent film is even more challenging than it was twenty years ago, because of the decreased likelihood of mass success. The most creative minds in the business see both commercial riches and access to a considerably larger audience more likely a result of creating serialized television. One recent example might be Jill Soloway. As a writer, producer and show runner for “Six Feet Under” and “The United States of Tara” she was part of this new television phenomenon. In 2013 she wrote and directed an her excellent debut film called “Afternoon Delight.” I quite liked this film about a bunch of yuppies stuck in mid-life malaise in LA. It had a great cast who delivered great performances, and a clever and topical script. The film failed to get traction when it opened and was quickly relegated to Netflix and cable where it was buried under the weight of their massive catalogs. Her next project was a similarly quirky, if not even quirkier, “television” show, available by streaming, called “Transparent.” The show was a massive hit and solidified for her a large audience, critical acclaim, and will provide her with consistent and satisfying work for many years. Perhaps after some time she will no doubt be able to make much bigger films that have a much better chance of breaking through, but until then she has the freedom, financing and audience stay focused. 

There is no doubt that this new TV opportunity is justifiably the best place for the best people to pursue the audience they aspire to reach — at scale. 

Of course there are a few other factors that have contributed to the rise of serialized highbrow television at the expense of “prestige films.” I would argue that our ever-eroding attention spans, due in no small part to the addictive nature of social media and ubiquity of our omnipresent mobile devices, have made the prospect of sitting quietly for 100 minutes without being able to play with our devices an almost impossible if not ominous proposition. This is clearly the case with younger audiences, but even the old movie going audiences need to consider the restraint required to stay focused in a theater. There is no pause button after all. But no pause means you are more likely to lose yourself in art.

We are on the verge of losing part of a not very old art form. What we lose in going to the movies is that shared experienced that you have when experiencing the same thing at the same time in a theater filled with strangers connected and moved similarly. Watching “Sling Blade” or “Pulp Fiction” on your couch alone is very different than watching in it in a full house. Having a legitimate and engaging reason to tune out the world happening in real time on your phone is actually a liberating and healthy thing for modern people who could benefit from being disconnected. 

In the end film’s loss is TV’s gain. This is good … and bad. Sure people will continue to go to the movies, but increasingly, successful films are almost exclusively sequels, comic book franchises and hugely expensive star driven tent poles created by a smaller handful of experienced and “bankable” directors. Indie films have always been a place for young, creative and scrappy new talents to hone their skills and get started in an incredibly tough business. Without that field of dreams, where do people start? YouTube? Perhaps, but the deck is stacked against them. We won’t find the next “Clerks” or “El Mariachi” or “Pi” on YouTube, which means we might not ever get the gift of the next Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez or Darren Aronofsky.

I must confess, I started loving TV over the past few years. It is so good now that I go to the movies less. Movie night is often binge TV night. I am part of the problem. But maybe it is not so much a problem, but more that I am nostalgic about something that is not retrievable. But then again maybe calling these shows is also a bit misleading, perhaps they are more like 8-10 hour movies available on home movie screens. Either way all of this is happening rather quickly. Like so many things that happen “because of internet,” the pace of change, the compression of margins, and the delivery of infinite convenience will leave some of the good things in life inadvertently forgotten. 

Last week I saw two advance screenings of two incredible independent films. The first, “99 Homes,” is a bleak but relentlessly compelling film about a community in Florida besieged by the fallout of the mortgage collapse. In it Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield deliver two of the best performances of the year, and provide a complex and morally ambiguous look at the modern American reality. As important a film as this is, I fear it will be criminally overlooked in theaters.

The second was the brilliant “Mississippi Grind” a character drama about two down and out gamblers who embark on a road trip for one last big game. This is the kind of quiet indie that would have been the kind of film movie zealots willed into success in past. Alas, this one will have an even harder time breaking through in 2015. Both films are beautifully crafted character dramas, but will likely have none of the marketing momentum to deliver the audience they deserve.  

But these two movies serve to validate whatever doubt existed about the infinite possibility and power of independent film. Go see both these films (in the theater) - for that matter go see any film. If you don’t they will quietly lose the battle with TV.

Mark Ruxin is former COO of Rdio


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