A Monument to One Dead Pharaoh

Adjusting to the "Culture of Plenty"

What if we could generate a new mythology? What if we could find new stories, new role models, to help us reimagine what the film “industry” can become over the next decade?

I, for one, am not interested in the mythology generated by a culture of scarcity—which is why I have a fundamental problem when independent film is treated like a springboard to help artists vault the studio walls. I don’t think independent films are calling cards. The major studios each make about a dozen widely-released films a year, and spend a total of $3-4 billion producing and marketing them. Independent filmmakers in the U.S. alone also spend roughly $4 billion on production. But we make more than 15,000 films. And that’s what makes us the 8th studio: the most prolific, influential one of all—if only we could collectively recontextualize what we do, and the impact we’re already making.

To borrow from Anastasia Sevilla, my endgame is not to build the pyramids. I’m not interested in enslaving 10,000 people to erect a tomb for one dead pharaoh.

I would rather use our collective effort to construct, first, a village out of the materials immediately available to us—wherein we occupy the space we need, rather than as much space as we can lay claim to.

“My endgame is not to build the pyramids. I’m not interested in enslaving 10,000 people to erect a tomb for one dead pharaoh.”

We don’t live in a society anymore where the reach of a single studio film, or even a TV show, is enough to start a ubiquitous conversation—let alone affect measurable change. In fact, the development cycles of tentpole blockbusters are so slow that it’s very difficult for studio fare to stay even remotely responsive to a world that moves at the pace of social media and instantaneous interconnectedness. (Which is why Hollywood is still making drivel for 18-24-year-old white boys, when they aren’t even the primary theatre-going demographic anymore.)

A single studio film will never reach 100 million people. But 10,000 artists can reach 10,000 viewers each—if they carefully cultivate their audiences. If those 10,000 artists work to gain not individual, but collective independence, that’s a movement. And if we make that our goal—to get thousands of filmmakers reaching thousands of people, rather than elevating a few dozen who might reach millions if their ideas survive the studio gauntlet with anything close to integrity—we’re already winning.

We founded the Seed&Spark crowdfunding and distribution platform to incept a direct—or more specifically, disintermediated—connection between artist and audience. In order to be independent, in order to make art on your terms, you must work to eliminate the arbiters (agencies, studios, institutional financiers) who, for defensible business reasons, seek to homogenize and sanitize your ideas. Because, in the end, the only audience worth listening to is the audience that pays to see your films! The entities that invest in your “product” with the aim of making a return see movies only as commodity, or a vector for other commodities (i.e. an advertising platform).

You can’t blame anyone for being pragmatic about how they spend their hard-earned money. But cinema can’t prosper if there’s no room for failure, if every film must turn a profit. And that’s why crowdfunding is so liberating. Though a campaign is, in essence, a month-long sales pitch, the appeal is to the heart, the soul, the intellect, the conscience—not the wallet. A future audience-member supports a crowdfunding campaign for myriad reasons: because she has a personal connection to the material or the filmmaker; because she respects the project’s politics or ethics; or because she thinks the resulting movie will be entertaining. But she doesn’t support in the hopes of making money.

When we set out to publish BRIGHT IDEAS almost two years ago, we knew that its purpose wasn’t to champion established, mid-career filmmakers—no matter how brilliant their work. The goal was to draw attention to cinema that adhered to our values of ingenuity, diversity, boldness, and frugality. In keeping with those priorities, we’ve only had one white person on the cover of our magazine, and we’ve never covered a film that cost more than $1 million to produce. In fact, many of the filmmakers we’ve profiled—Josephine Decker, Nathan Silver, Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia—have made magical features for under $50,000.

“If we make that our goal—to get thousands of filmmakers reaching thousands of people, rather than elevating a few dozen who might reach millions if their ideas survive the studio gauntlet with anything close to integrity—we’re already winning.”

But we’re even prouder that, in this fourth issue of the magazine, we’ve begun to cover films crowdfunded on Seed&Spark. Natalie Johns, the director of I Am Thalente (photo on pg. 19)—which won the audience award for best documentary at last June’s Los Angeles Film Festival—ran a post-production campaign with us back in 2013. And Moe Verneau (pg. 74), the creator of the monstrously popular original series Money & Violence, with his team at Cloud9 had just successfully crowdfunded their second season as we went to press on this issue.

The old hierarchical Hollywood narrative celebrated the lucky few golden boys and starlets plucked from obscurity by executives stationed behind imperious mahogany desks. But that’s over. The new mythos tells of a young woman from Baltimore who crowdfunds a short film about a girl exploring her complex sexuality, tears across the festival circuit amassing an audience, and from that direct connection with her fans, builds a right-sized career making bold features. (Yes, Angel Kristi Williams, we’re talking about you and “Charlotte.”)

The power is actually ours, y’all. We’ve wrested it from the gatekeepers. So, let’s take this shit seriously, yeah?