Why Don't People Watch More Independent Films? (Part 1)
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
Independent filmmakers themselves may be the biggest obstacle toward people watching independent films
Ask pretty much any obsessive film lover and they will tell you the same thing: independent films are the better than Hollywood films. I know this because they have told me this during the myriad of conversations we’ve had together as shameless film nerds. Culture critics and filmmakers alike lament how big budget blockbusters have taken over Hollywood and how, as Jodie Foster said, "It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world". For indie filmmakers and cinephiles, Indie films are the purest form of cinema because they are free from the pressure to have mass appeal and so secure a studio’s bottom line. The artists are therefore free to be true to their own voice, to experiment, to be authentic, and to focus on the craft of filmmaking. Filmmakers and cinephiles spend a great deal of time talking about the virtues of independent film, and dissing movies that are put out by studios.
And yet, it's pretty obvious that most audiences disagree. Audiences see Hollywood films a lot more than independent films and the numbers aren't even close. Any list of the highest grossing films of the year will be dominated by studio-after-studio film with usually nary an indie film to be found. This year (2018), the highest grossing indie film so far is I Can Only Imagine at #25 (a family-friendly Christian film), and the next one is the Amy Schumer Rom Com I Feel Pretty way down at #45 and the legendary Spike Lee’s buddy-cop race action-comedy BlackkKlansman at #46. In fact, a recent study showed that millennials under 25 are far less likely to see an independent or arthouse cinema film than even their older counterparts.
So why don’t audiences see more independent films? Indie filmmakers and critics often explain this by focusing on audiences tastes. Audiences look for entertainment and haven’t developed their eye for filmmaking the way critics and filmmakers have (which is why most critics believe it is their job to "educate the public on what a good movie is"). If only schools taught appreciation of cinema as an art the way we teach English literature, then audiences would understand how much better Manchester By the Sea was than Captain America: Civil War.
However, I think it’s unfair to blame all of independent film’s woes on audiences undeveloped taste (or the pernicious influence of Hollywood). Certainly general audiences haven’t invested the same time in learning to refine their taste in film as film critics and filmmakers. And they’re not always right about the best films. (Two of my favorite films of the past decade, Eye in the Sky and The Florida Project, were only modest successes, while Avatar is still the highest grossing film of all time.) But we are kidding ourselves if we pretend that independent films never shoot ourselves in the foot or we have no way to improve. We wind up looking like the eponymous real-life bad filmmaker Ed Wood in his movie Ed Wood, when he insisted he was a really an amazing filmmaker and nobody understood him.
As a lover of indie film, I can personally think of two very good reasons that audiences shy away from independent films: 1) risk, and 2) indie filmmaker self-centeredness.
First, we have to admit that seeing an independent film is an inherently risky enterprise. An independent film is any movie not made by a Hollywood studio. So basically, an indie film can be anything. There's no brand audiences know, like Disney, it often has no familiar stars or directors, no gigantic marketing campaign to make sure that people remember the movie is coming out, and often the film isn’t in a familiar genre. And finally, since the filmmakers are free from the studio system, they're far more likely to do weird experimental things and have a weird and/or depressing ending. All this makes it extremely difficult for moviegoers to guess whether they will enjoy themselves watch the movie. Film aficionados mitigate this risk by reading a lot of reviews beforehand, watching a lot of trailers, becoming familiar with different writers and directors and ultimately by simply watching so many movies that on average the benefits outweigh the risks. The average person doesn't have that kind of time. They're busy working, building bridges, managing finances, spending time with their families, playing games, hiking, feeding the homeless, and lots of important things that we really want people to invest time in that have nothing to do with movies. They typically see one movie a month, and when they do see it, they sure as heck want to be sure they enjoy their time. And who can blame them?
This is backed up by that this same study I referenced earlier shows that genre is really the best predictor of whether audiences will see a movie. People will go see an animated film or a horror film or a romantic comedy regardless of whether it was made by a Hollywood studio or independently (hence why The Witch shot to the top of the box office when it debuted in 2016). That makes a lot of sense. People know what they are getting from those movies. They know that a horror film will scare them, they know an animated film will have good lessons and laughs, and they know a rom com couple will get together in the end. So the odds that their expectations won't be met when they see the movie are drastically reduced.
This is nobody’s fault. This is just the nature of indie filmmaking. We want most people to be focusing on stuff other than movies, like philosophy, law, politics, activism, their communities and their families. It’s our job, as the people who are watching all of these smaller films like it’s a second job, to find the great films among them and spread the positive word of mouth to our friends.
But there’s another good reason audiences shy away from independent films. And this one has to do with a big problem in indie film culture.
Independent films are too self-centered.
But we’ll talk about that next time.