Why Don’t People Watch More Independent Films? (Part 2)
In my last post I talked about how most people don’t go to independent films. I defended audiences for that fact because, well, independent films are a risk. And, unsurprisingly, not everyone is willing to take that risk on the one movie they’re going to see this month. It's like going out to eat: if you're only going out to eat once a month you're going to darn well make sure you enjoy it.
But now, we go on to the second reason many people avoid watching independent films. And that’s an actual problem with independent films themselves.
Independent films are too self-centered.
You have probably met a self-centered person in your life. They're that person who only likes to talk about themselves, whether it's their achievements, their virtues, their opinions, or--most often--their pain and suffering. They only seem to want you there to affirm their views, praise their accomplishments, or comfort them in their pain. This person is extremely frustrating and boring to be around, even if you really love them. And if they don't stop, and if you're healthy, you probably aren't friends with them for very long.
A lot of independent films I watch come across like a self-centered friend: someone who wants to spend the whole movie just talking about themselves and their suffering. The protagonist often comes across as stand-ins for the filmmaker (Private Life, Moonlight, Begin Again, Sing Street, Knight of Cups, Mid90s Manhattan, Lady Bird), to share their rough childhood (Kids, Mid90s, Moonlight, Lady Bird, Sing Street), their struggles as an outcast (A Fantastic Woman, Carol, Moonlight, Disobedience, Tangerine, Inside Lewyn Davis), their unrelenting sadness and personal existential crisis (Something Anything, Puzzle, A Fantastic Woman, First Reformed, Manchester By the Sea,), or their philosophical musings (Ex Machina, Annihilation, A Ghost Story, Primer, Knight of Cups,). The films are so laser-focused on the protagonist’s pain you can't see beauty, joy, or humor in the world the filmmaker has created (Manchester By the Sea, First Reformed, A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience, Tangerine). They are so laser-focused on expressing themselves through the protagonist that all secondary characters become two-dimensional plot devices to justify the protagonist’s feelings of persecution (First Reformed, Something Anything, Puzzle, A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience).
These films give the impression that the filmmaker really doesn't care about the audience. They don’t care if the audience can like or relate to the characters (Private Life, Being John Malkovich, In the Company of Men, Tangerine), if the payoff is satisfying (A Ghost Story, Manchester By the Sea, Lobster, Ex Machina) or sometimes even if the audience can understand what is going on (Primer, Upstream Color, Under the Skin, A Ghost Story, Knight of Cups). I have a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. If I have to look up the wikipedia article to understand what’s going on in your story and I’m still confused, maybe your intended audience is a tad too narrow.
Hollywood films, on the other hand, love the audience and make movies for us. They tell us epic stories about fantasy worlds in space (Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek) worlds with magic (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter) protagonists we aspire to be and want and want to hang with—princesses (Frozen, Moana), heroes (The Dark Knight, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, American Sniper) and young lovers (Titanic, High School Musical, You Got Mail, Crazy Rich Asians). You walk away from a Hollywood film feeling happy, empowered, loved and ready to love. Even when the movie is bad, or not terribly challenging, it is telling stories you enjoy and—often—make you want to be a better person. And for those who are not as burdened as I am with ages of film education to pick apart a movie’s craft, there's very little reason not to enjoy these stories. Moreover because they care about the audience--even if it's just for their money--it makes them responsive to audience desires. Like when people complained that Princess Tianna's skin color seemed “lightened” to make her less black in the new Disney film Ralph Breaks the Internet and so Disney brought in consultants to help them reanimate it.
Fantasy author and Christian apologist CS Lewis spoke in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, about the difference between being selfish and being self-centered. It's a distinction I think broadly applies to the vices and virtues of Hollywood vs independent film.
"It is no doubt for my own good that I have been so generally prevented from leading [a settled, calm epicurean life], for it is a life almost entirely selfish. Selfish, not self-centered: for in such a life my mind would be directed toward a thousand things, not one of which is myself. The distinction is not unimportant. One of the happiest men and most pleasing companions I have ever known was intensely selfish. On the other hand I have known people capable of real sacrifice whose lives were nevertheless a misery to themselves and to others, because self-concern and self-pity filled all their thoughts. Either condition will destroy the soul in the end. But till the end, give me the man who takes the best of everything (even at my expense) and then talks of other things, rather than the man who serves me and talks of himself, and whose very kindness are a continual reproach, a continual demand for pity, gratitude, and admiration.”
Hollywood filmmakers, at their very worst, are selfish. When they are bad, they have nothing to say and are only making these films to get my money. Watching Hollywood films, I may feel bored or unchallenged, but I never feel unloved. But I have felt unloved watching independent films. Many, many times. Hollywood is the selfish man but independent films are too often the self-centered one.
To paraphrase CS Lewis, both kinds of film would destroy cinema in the end. But until then, for most people, Hollywood is better company.
Pointing this out is a good way to make indie filmmakers and critics's heads explode. So I should be clear what I am not saying: I am not saying every movie has to appeal to a mass audience. I am not saying that the judge of how good a movie is is how popular it is. I am not saying that there's no one who can relate to or enjoy the independent movies I listed. I am saying that if the only things you like to talk about are things most people don't relate to or enjoy talking about, most people aren't going to enjoy talking to you. If you don't put the work into learning how to describe your dream in a way that captures your listener's attention, you don't have anyone but yourself to blame if people stop listening. I am saying that if you make movies that only a small number of people will enjoy or understand, you should not be surprised when only a small number of people watch your movie. And that is not a moral failing in the audience. I'll go even further: if the reason they don't like your movie is because you love yourself more than you love others, then it's a moral failing on the part of you.
Independent films are a risk simply by being independent, and when enough indie films are specifically made to not appeal to most people, that makes the risk bigger. This means you can think independent films are better than Hollywood films--and many are--but you can't look down on average audiences for not watching them.
Of course, the good news is it’s not an either-or situation. Last time I suggested that we could make great indie films less risky by pointing out the good ones to our friends; this time I'm suggesting we can make indie films less risky by making less self-centered films. You are not independent films or Hollywood films; you are you. You can make movies that say something important to you and in a way that shows love for those who watch it. Both Hollywood and Independent Films have done this for years. Lots of independent films both express themselves and love the audience. Movies like Napoleon Dynamite, Rushmore, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Juno, The Blair Witch Project, Night of the Living Dead, Clerks, The Big Sick, Seven, Saw, Lost in Translation, and many more. And these movies often go on to become classics. And there are plenty of Hollywood films that have something to say. The Dark Knight, Inception, Godfather, Crazy Rich Asians, Wal-E, Up, Fight Club, Schindler’s List, Gladiator, Fight Club, and many more. If you gain a reputation for making films like these, then people will go to see your movies for you regardless of whether you're making a Hollywood film or Independent film.
We are put on this world to love and to be loved, whether that's as individuals or through our art. Realizing that our audience is not stupid for disliking the movies we like or make helps us to love them better. It frees us from the toxic pride and resentment of assuming that people don’t like our work because they’re aesthetic Neanderthals. It frees us to correct our mistakes and make better movies. It frees us to tell stories about what’s beautiful in the world around us rather than just how we feel about ourselves.
And those are the kind of movies I think we all want to see.