A still from The Lunchbox (2013)
The theatrical experience is a fantastically irreplaceable thing. It’s intimate, yet communal. And the idea that the story that you’re telling can speak to people from different cultures and countries as potently as it does to you, and that their fresh interpretation could be a creative wellspring for you, has ceaseless potential. Entertainment in today’s age is consumed as a lifestyle, inhaled and lived completely rather than as a separate entity. So, in order to create a sustainable living as an independent filmmaker, how do you use the resources that you have?
When talking about indie films, let’s look at what defines that word. What makes a film independent these days? The once-simple definition has become blurry. Some assert that independent films are those produced outside of the studio system. But studios have adjusted their role and now take part in the financing/distribution/marketing of “indie” projects. Then you have the budget-related definition; the Independent Spirit Awards qualify indie films as those that have a budget cap of $20 million. For me, regardless of your budget and whether or not you want studio support down the road, the definition always begins with personal taste and individual aesthetic. As an indie filmmaker, you may be inclined to certain content over others. Using those qualities and crafting the film with certain additions in place from the beginning can be advantageous later on.
A galaxy far, far away: why foreign markets?
So you’ve made a film, or you have one in mind, and you’re now casting your eyes further afield; where do you begin and what should you keep in mind? The first thing to remember is the infamous quote from Academy-winning screenplay writer, William Goldman, who stated that when it comes to the film business, “Nobody Knows Anything,” especially when it comes to what audiences will be drawn to. However, what I would say that you can do is to be as sincere as possible with the material that you have. Audiences around the world are allergic to bullshit and appreciate a sincerely told story that is entertaining and true to its world. Start there.
Then, when assessing whether a film can travel and acquire distribution, be honest with yourself from the beginning. These times that we live in demand profligate self-promotion, so ask yourself: Does your story demand to be told? If not, wait. Wait until you think you have something that will be transformative. Because once you do, its hurdle jumping till the finish line. From the perspective of someone who’s had the good fortune of working on a canvas of films with a variety of talent, I know that when it comes to your own project, tunnel vision sets in and its hard to see the forest for the trees.
So, addressing the question of why foreign markets, the third thing I’d say is that answer lies within what you are seeking. Are you seeking a healthy ROI or to engage with global communities and build your audience? They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, if you’re willing to make certain changes to suit the various markets you will enter. But these markets have a lot more to offer. Why foreign, you ask? Relevance, Discoverability, and Sustainability.
Relevance & discoverability
Having lived and worked on 3 continents now, I find that collapsing borders and boundaries only enhances work, the sophistication of storytelling, and expands the range of collective audience experiences it taps into. For example, I’ve gotten positive feedback on a film I did on child labor which sold to rave reviews in a territory like Japan, something I would have never seen coming. Another film based on a Ruskin Bond novel, set in the Himalayas, was all the rage when it premiered at the Pusan International Film Festival. And another vernacular language film was the biggest opener of that genre in the UAE. Audience engagement and the opening markets that embrace your film can be unprecedented.
In terms of relevance, international territories are good areas to look for collaboration and content. However, if one is future proofing, consider this: developing and incubating projects takes time, and it can be 2 years before the project comes to fruition. Essentially, you’re predicting the demographic makeup and lifestyle tastes of your audience two years from now. And as America becomes more multicultural in its demographic, it makes sense to become more global in your outreach. If you are looking to reach out to a wider audience that then becomes the base for your next film, then increasing your content discoverability is key. Your name then becomes a recognizable selling point in those markets.
The other major reason to expand reach is related directly to your ROI. Let’s talk about market and metrics. The US is still the biggest market in the world when it comes to generating revenue. However US box office revenue has seen a decline: revenue in 2014 is down 5% from 2013, to $10 billion, while foreign sales has seen a comparative increase to $25 billion. According to the MPAA, in 2014, 72 cents from every dollar made by studios was made overseas. And revenue from foreign markets is long-tail, a necessary advantage to building sustainability.
Increasingly the changing dynamics are manifesting themselves in the industry film and media markets. For instance, at this year’s SXSW the Brazilian presence spiked (doubling from 28 companies in 2014). This underscores just how seriously Brazil takes making inroads into the American market. And that’s a two-way street. Companies that are expanding their multi-platform, original content, acquisition and global bases, such as Netflix and Amazon, are very aware of the sustainability given to films and talent from international markets. This was recently evidenced in the Netflix deal with Adam Sandler. One can extrapolate that the appeal of working with Sandler derived, in part, from the fact that Sandler's global appeal ensures that his films always do well in international markets (arguably better than they do in the domestic market). Netflix, as a website, functions the same abroad as it does domestically. The result is a company that places a significant importance on the appeal their films have to the international marketplace.
The major studios are doing the same— China, in particular, is currently seen by studios as a priority audience— but the simplicity of Netflix's platform means that the same film will be accessible to someone in China in the same way that it will be accessible to someone in the US. The result is a platform with a strong interest in content that will play well internationally. It'll be interesting to see if Netflix provides a global stage for popular foreign filmmakers to do some cross-cultural pollination of their own (as did, Bong Joon-Ho, the Korean helmer of The Host, who recently made Snowpiercer for The Weinstein Company).
Another more recent example is my talented filmmaker friend Ritesh Batra, whose debut feature, the Indian film The Lunchbox was the 4th highest domestic earner in 2014 for its US distributor Sony Picture Classics ($4.2 million). Batra is now helming the Booker-winner Julian Barnes’ adaptation of A Sense of an Ending for the BBC Films. Cross-collaboration across borders is a great way to expand your skills and potential.