Why Is Indie Film Dying While Indie Music Thrives?

[Editor’s note: This post was originally published February 8, 2010.] You know a situation is dire when Gawker puts away the snark and gets serious. And that’s just what they did Friday, in a guest post by film industry expert Edward Jay Epstein in which the author asks the question, “Can Indie Movies Survive?” His thorough, well-considered response, which cites everything from the huge profits major studios need to project to purchase a movie to the rapidly disappearing world of independent distribution, pretty much amounts to “no.”

Reading Epstein’s piece, it occurred to us that while indie film may be in the midst of a crisis, indie music has never been stronger or more vibrant. The number of new and exciting bands out there seems to increase exponentially every few years, bigger groups like Animal Collective and Vampire Weekend are all over the Billboard charts and vinyl sales are growing every year. So what gives? Why is indie film dying while indie music thrives? We’ve listed our best guesses after the jump.

1. Overhead
This one is pretty obvious. All but the tiniest of films take a significant amount of cash to make. So when studios aren’t buying small movies, what kind of investor is going to be foolish enough to lay out a million or two on your unmarketable product? Unless you’re independently wealthy or are game for going to bed with rich, lonely, old ladies, Producers-style, then you may never even get your project off the ground. By contrast, all an unknown band needs to do to record an album is write a few songs and buy (or, you know, pirate) some professional-quality software.

2. Distribution
Epstein paints an especially bleak picture of the distribution options for the independent films that do manage to get made. One major studio, he recounts, wouldn’t buy a $20 million film with a projected box office of $100 million; it just couldn’t devote its resources to any project that wouldn’t earn at least $150 million. And smaller studios — the ones that still exist, that is — aren’t picking up the slack: “Sony Pictures Classics does not buy any film that costs over $2 million, Focus Features is putting its resources mainly in co-production deals in Asia, and Lionsgate is investing in horror sequels like Saw VII.” Ouch.

But in music, indie labels seem to be faring better than majors. Hardcore music fanatics are more likely to purchase the albums they like (often on vinyl), and smaller distributors have been quicker to catch onto an increasingly digital paradigm. Plus, indie fans have an allegiance to the labels they love, from powerhouses like Matador and Sub Pop to tiny operations like Siltbreeze. Unlike their film counterparts, independent record companies are still seen as gatekeepers to and curators of excellent music.

3. Other income
What can you do to make money from a film? In most cases, only a few things: You can screen it in theaters, license it for TV viewing and sell it on DVD/Blu-ray. If you’ve got a major kids’ movies or action blockbuster, you can do marketing tie-ins or sell branded toys, clothing, etc. But when was the last time you saw someone wearing a Wendy and Lucy T-shirt?

Musicians have a lot more options, even now that so many fans have stopped paying for the music they listen to. These days — despite short-sighted accusations of “selling out” and “cashing in” — bands are licensing their relatively obscure music for use in commercials, film soundtracks (irony noted) and on TV. Hell, O.C. and Gossip Girl creator Josh Schwartz has probably broken more indie musicians to the mainstream in the past 10 years than your average major-label A&R dude. Outside of licensing, bands can also make a fairly tidy income on concert ticket and merch sales.

4. Community
This is a simple one: Music fandom is generally a very social activity. Friends dance at shows together and trade tips on (and share the music of) artists they like. While much has been made of the internet’s power to attract fans around the world, local scenes — especially in smaller cities — remain vital. More established bands help promote their newer, more obscure brethren, kids move into warehouses that they quickly convert into DIY show spaces and great performers (many of whom haven’t even recorded an album yet) become well known and loved in their home city, generating momentum that will eventually help them garner the attention of a label.

Film just doesn’t have nearly as many outlets. Yes, there are small groups of experimental and underground filmmakers working together around the country, watching and critiquing each other’s work, volunteering to hold a light on the set of their friends’ project. But this community is much smaller and attracts few fans who aren’t filmmakers themselves. Film just isn’t social the way music is; sure, you go to a movie with friends — and then you sit there, silent, in the dark.

5. Coolness
This point is something of a corollary to the one above. Independent music has a built-in fanbase: young, urban, largely white, middle-class kids — otherwise known as hipsters. That isn’t their only audience, but it’s a major one, and it’s also a group with a lot of cultural capital. They are the trendsetters, the early adopters and (perhaps most importantly) the unencumbered young professionals who spend a ton of money on their own entertainment. For better or for worse, they’re who marketers spend untold amounts of cash trying to win over, and their allure is such that a new shipment of post-college 20-somethings arrives every year in cities around the country to get some freelance graphic design gigs and drink cheap beer at loft parties. Indie music is at the center of this social life.

Contrast that to your stereotypical film geek: unwashed, anti-social, constantly spouting quotes from cult movies you’ve never heard of at inopportune times. (Perhaps the best examples can be found in the documentary Cinemania.) Of course, most indie film fans (ourselves included) aren’t eccentric loners: They’re everyone from the same hipsters who make the underground music world go ’round to, well, our 55-year-old dentist dad who single-handedly keeps Netflix in business. But the fact remains that indie music is an essential element of a certain, increasingly popular, lifestyle, while its film counterpart just isn’t.