Money Talks And Art Matters


By Graham Taylor

Graham Taylor, one of the top dealmakers in packaging and brokering distribution deals for independent films, gave a lively keynote speech at the Los Angeles Film Festival. 

Taylor gave Martin Scorsese a run for his money in terms of the music cues he employed in his speech to make his points about the improving indie film marketplace:

[Music cue: We Will Rock You by Queen]

Never in the history of the movie business has there been a better time for the Independents to be entrepreneurial. The balance of power between Studios, Indies and Consumers is changing. Whether you are a filmmaker, producer, financier, distributer, or executive, now is the time to embrace the change. We are after all in the middle of a revolution, and nobody puts baby in the corner.

I asked my friend Bill Pullman to say a few words on the state of the independent film business over the past few years.

[roll clip of Bill Pullmans infamous speech in "Independence Day"]

[Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft [filmmakers] from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial (festival) battle in this history of mankind [the movies]. Mankind [The movies] -- that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps its fate that today is the 4th of July [LAFF], and you will once again be fighting for our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution [Harvey] -- but from annihilation. We're fighting for our right to live, to exist. And should we win the day, the 4th of July [LAFF] will no longer be known as an American holiday [film festival], but as the day when the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive!" Today, we celebrate our Independence Day [Film]!]

Good Morning. Thanks to Rebecca Yeldham and LAFF for asking me to speak today and kickoff a series of discussions over the weekend. When I asked Rebecca had she in fact meant to ask Graham King to speak instead, her response (buried with a disarming Aussie accent) was "well love, he is smarter and more successful, but he wasn't available." LAFF titled this morning's discussion "Money Talks and Art Matters." The convergence of film, art and commerce. This is a subject I am pretty well versed on. After all, my dad was a PhD economist and my mother an artist. Both Berkeley grads and present during the era of the sit-down protest, our home in Portland, Oregon was littered with Econ theory books, paintings in progress, and Birkenstocks.

From a young age I was forced to read my dad's anti-trust testimony on the Utility Industry (you know, the sexy stuff), and at the same time was winning the Oregon State Fair's mother/son weaving competition. Yes, I had a mean cross-over stitch. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree: like an even blend of both parents, as a former producer and now as an agent, I am still right in the middle of the relationship between the artist and the money. A couples therapist, if you will. I build companies, enable artists and activate content. For me it's simple: I love movies and I and love the movie business.

Like all of us, I have unwittingly found myself front and center in the time of a revolution, when the only way to act is entrepreneurially. In order to operate effectively I have had to relearn lessons from the past. After all, in the movie business history has a funny way of repeating itself. Over the last 100 years, our business has had a few constants. Hollywood has produced and distributed content globally with more than 90% of it controlled by a handful of studios. In the 20th century, the greatest American export has been entertainment. The studios have operated sophisticated machinery that ships content globally, reaching anyone, anywhere.

At odds over economic realities, the relationship between the indies and the studios has always been a precarious one. This strained relationship has resembled an ad for the Olive Garden. The studio says "Hey, we treat you like family," but instead they have consumed artists and money like the unlimited bread bowls put forth. In the same way that no self-respecting Italian from the old country would dine there, we as Independents have been forced to seek other options to carbo-load.

In 1919, when Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks created United Artists, it was an entrepreneurial reaction to the studio system. Artists and money banding together to create something different, introducing the idea of the "Independent." At the time Metro Pictures head Richard Rowland said "the inmates are taking over the asylum," in reference to the four actors starting UA and going up against the studios. People thought they were bonkers, but their passion and entrepreneurial spirit to create content and get it directly to consumers was an inspired mission. Sadly those principles at UA eventually disbanded 20 years later and the Golden Age of Hollywood settled in, effectively creating a caste system. Minus a few anomalies, it would again take the artists to rise up in the late 60s and early 70s, when a crop of groundbreaking films and entrepreneurs would take shape and give rise to Independents. A number of independent companies would fly high and fan out throughout the 70s and 80s and for the first time, the studios truly sourced outside financing, often from other countries.

In 1990, some pre-pubescent Mutant Turtles well versed in martial arts would kick the box office's ass to 100 million. This showed the world the economic power of the independent film and institutionalized our peeps. The studios in turn responded, opening "indie divisions" and giving Independents a real seat at the table for the first time.

[Music cue: California Love by Tupac]

As the indies were gaining steam in 1993, I was finishing college in Virginia with a degree in East Asian Studies. I'd lined up half a dozen job offers - to be an analyst at an investment bank in NY, be a trader on the floor of the Merc in Chicago, to run a corporate housing business in Raleigh. But my mother's artist-voice was ringing louder than Dad's practical one. After all, art makes us feel something and can activate us to do some crazy shit. As luck would have it, I failed astronomy in my senior spring and I found myself stuck doing summer school on campus, alone, for six weeks. Who fails Astronomy? Maybe 'cause I kept calling it Astrology. Anyway, it was the first time as a young adult I had time to think and inflect without a bombardment of white noise (an issue I still combat today).

Anyhow that summer a friend of mine recommended "Reservoir Dogs," so I got my hands on it and felt for the first time not only had I experienced the power of movies like I had since childhood but the courage to act on it. I remember getting to the end of that film and thinking, whatever this is, this thing that I'm feeling right now, I need to feel this professionally. I have to be part of it and I need to feel this all the time. I had enough self awareness to know that I wasn't an artist, but not enough knowledge to know what anyone actually did in the movie business.

My best friend growing up, Chris Briggs, was finishing up Wesleyan and he too felt uninspired by a more traditional job search. So we decided let's either go LA and get into show business or go be rappers in Asia. We tossed a coin and the City of Angels prevailed. Chris would go on to produce the "Hostel" franchise, and the Monday after the first one opened and was a bone fide hit I asked him how it felt and his response was "we should have been rappers." Anyway, when we moved to LA we didn't know a soul, except I had this one connection from an ex-girlfriend's mom's friend, who was the then-president of MGM. I called him in August the day we arrived, and finally pinned him down after rescheduling a dozen times five months later. At this point I was catering and had about $200 bucks to my name. I was nervous, but excited as he was my meal ticket. I changed outfits five times and asked Chris "does my butt look big?"

At dinner I asked him for his advice and guidance and a snapshot of the movie business. His advice to me, over our 90 minute dinner at Hamburger Hamlet in Brentwood, was Get Out. Get out of the business. I said, how can I get out of something I'm not even part of yet? He said the business is only going to get worse and you will never be happy. Wow. This was 1993. Fantastic advice for a young person entering the business. So he gets an "F" for motivational speaking but I got an "A" for serving as his therapist during dinner, and I learned my first important lesson in Hollywood: the most dangerous thing in this business is apathy and cynicism.

Apathy and Cynicism are not the parents of great art, great movies or great entrepreneurs. The day our passion and enthusiasm subsides will be the day of our undoing. We need to stay plugged in and turned on. I have realized the need to be involved with great movies is one part of it, but the even greater need is to be surrounded by inspiring entrepreneurs. We are alone unless we build a professional family of friends, colleagues, consiglieries and partners in crime. They say it takes a village but I would also add we need Venice and the Valley.

[Music cue: Without Me by Eminem]

There are three things that can survive a Nuclear Winter: cockroaches, twinkies, and Harvey Weinstein. Long the poster child for the turbulent indie biz, he and his brother Bob sold their company to Disney in 1993 and by the mid 90s the indie power base -- while gaining power -- was concurrently being swallowed up by studios. Eventually Harvey broke free. Love him or hate him, he is like PT Barnum and for the last few decades has travelled the globe peddling art with unbridled passion. I asked Harvey a few days ago about our Revolution and his words are being echoed by others: The movie business is changing at the fastest pace it has ever changed - digital filmmaking is becoming easier and cheaper, technology is becoming more advanced, and the methods of distribution are evolving by the day. Yet some things will never change - good stories, unique voices, and brave visions will always rise to the top.

Harvey was one of the many 90s market makers that Independents looked to for hope. When I began my producing career in the mid 90s, these market makers were inspiring with their ability to galvanize people, fight for auteur voices and activate great films. So when Harvey won Best Picture in 1996 with "The English Patient," I figured if that bastard can do it, so could I. Inspired by great art and a quote from the greatest living actor of our time, Steven Seagal, in Hard to Kill: "Then wasn't the time, now's the time. We'll get him, every last one of them. You know why? Superior mind and superior attitude."

After running a film location and producing shorts, I left my job and as irony would have it began my "official" producing career on April 1, 1996. April Fools day. My mission: raise one million dollars for an indie film with an unknown writer, director, and star. His name was Scott Wiper and he was as fearless and determined as I was. We were like the Ringling Brothers with no idea where to pitch the tent. For months we lived on credit cards and tried to raise money, never thinking things could take longer than expected and I eventually might not be able to pay rent. At a certain point (and deeply in the red), a few hundred thousand short of our goal, friends and family stopped returning our calls of solicitation. So I asked one of the investors if we could use part of the money and shoot the opening ten minutes. I was convinced if people could see what we could do, everything else would fall into place. This investor was actually another filmmaker and he was a talent in his own right. He said yes and activated the project, an artist supporting another artist.

But months later, with the ten minutes shot, we were at a loss as to what to do. Our investor said: "You guys have passion, now figure out how to get people to see this ten minutes and rally them." So we asked for money to go to Sundance. No one invited us to Sundance, and we had no where to stay, so we rented an RV, a TV, and VCR, and started Van Dance. A mobile movie theatre and cocktail lounge. We would show the opening ten minutes and serve gin and tonics to anyone brave enough to step into our creepy RV. I walked the streets of Park City and said "Dude, I hear there's a rad opening to a movie these awesome guys are showing and serving cocktails. " I rallied 300 people to watch and eventually got the film made.

At the time I thought the lesson I learned was you have to be entrepreneurial to get things done, but I later realized the lesson extended way beyond this. I really learned that you have to listen to the consumers to know how to interact with them. These people didn't just come sit in our RV, drink G&Ts, and watch some footage; they talked about our film with us and they influenced the end-product. They suggested ideas on how to finance it, make it, and distribute it. They spoke not as film people, but as consumers. That feedback was valuable, and we listened to them.

From the late 90s to the early 2000s I produced movies, worked for other producers and developed an understanding for the international marketplace. The indie finance model has been built on pre-selling foreign. Interestingly the studios began laying off risk internationally and today Jim Gianopolus, who is Chairman of Fox, came up in the business with long standing foreign distributer relationships he leveraged to transform Fox. In the last ten years the Global dollars for Hollywood have shifted. Simply a decade ago the US box office represented 2/3 of the world's gross. It is now less than a 1/3. The numbers have inversed themselves. Why? Consumers around the world began waking up to the power they hold.

So what is under foot for the Independents? If the 70s were activated by the artist, the 80s saw the rise of the foreign and shared risk globally. The 90s saw the advance of the internet, and for the last decade we built a direct relationship with the consumer via social media and retailers. What this means is the consumers are now getting content in the following way.

[Music cue: Any Way You Want It by Journey]

Maybe Steve Perry was a prophet. For decades we all consumed content passively. Now not only do we interact with content, we demand that it be curated.

This is a consumer-driven revolution, and we are the stewards of enabling this change. Fueled by the internet and direct to consumer distribution, the consumer revolution has been brewing for years. Even though we work in the movie business we are first and foremost are consumers of art and movies. I want to come home to my Tivo'ed episode of "Mad Men." I want to text and influence my favorite contestant on "American Idol." I want to go to the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin and have a filmmaker and super fans curate the theatre experience. I want to go online and play "Call of Duty" with a 13 year-old kid in South Korea (who, PS, will kick my ass any day of the week).

With 900 million global social media users and five billion mobile phone users, we the consumers can get closer to content easier than ever. Richard Rotherberg, the head of the International Advertising Bureau, said last year that "Facebook's audience is bigger than any TV network," and I think he's right. There is an iPad sold every 3 seconds. Roughly 39 mobile phones are sold per second. 35 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

The on-demand revolution is fueled by our growing ability to access content. Soon we'll be able to get content: anytime, anywhere via any consumption device! The studios have polarized to a tentpole strategy and increasingly look to off-balance sheet financing. The new studios of today -- Netflix, YouTube, Google, AT&T-- are taking away market share. These new studios, along with the retailers: Walmart, Target, Tesco, and even a Seattle based coffee company are financing and distributing content themselves rather than just receiving it from the studios.

Big Picture: the cable, internet and phone companies are battling to control a single source delivery system to our houses for the internet, phone, and TV. Content is their bait. We make content and consumers have choices. What I'm trying to say is, the consumer is speaking. Loudly. Art does matter to them, and their money talks. It's about empowering the artists to reach for alternative platforms that will make people pay attention. It's about engaging your consumer in a meaningful way. This stuff should matter to everyone in this room.

I entered the agency business seven years ago because of my desire to be part of a larger platform to access artists, financing, internet, telecoms, cable companies, and retailers. I thought it would bring me closer to the audience to construct financing and distribution with an eye toward the future. Going in I thought it was an indie vs. studio conversation. What I have learned is that it's actually a consumer conversation. We all have to access consumers by whatever means necessary and get them to engage.

Wikipedia says "independent film" may also be used interchangeably with the term "art film." Yet it goes on to say that in order to be considered independent, less than half of a film's financing should come from a major studio. So the money trail defines us. So Avatar, partially financed by Fox, a private fund named Dune, and a bunch of rich Brits seeking tax relief via Ingenious, is in fact an Indie film. It was self-generated and executed with an auteur's vision after all. So how do we define ourselves going forward as Indies? There are 1000s of permutations of how movies are financed, distributed and consumed and who own them.

I think going forward a more appropriate term is "entrepreneurial film."

So knowing all this, where do we go from here? We're all part of a precious ecosystem here, and we need every single facet of it to work. We need Fox. We need Harvey. We need Netflix. We need Artists. And I always need Starbucks...and cigarettes....and vodka...

So here is a brief to-do list for us to improve our ecosystem:
- We have to encourage young people.
- We can't be an agist business where we cast off older filmmakers.
- It's important to have a strong point of view.
- It's easy to be the person who points out how nothing will ever work. It's much harder to take a leap of faith and challenge yourself when things do blow up. We never got anywhere in life by playing it safe.
- You should take the time to tweet and blog. And for those of you who comment on Deadline, if you have something positive to say, something that offers real reflection and insight, even critical thought then we should throw you a float parade. But for all of those people who are just spreading hate, you should enjoy a large glass of go fuck yourself.
- It doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor.
- Don't stand for apathy and cynicism in either the creative or business communities as it is ultimately cancerous to the evolution of art.

In closing: I'm not an optimist because I'm a lunatic. It's a learned optimism, one that's founded upon years of experience, tenacity, and perseverance in this business. We have to be educated on the issues and challenges that face us. I have not gone into the economic issues today as they are well-documented and we are bombarded with them every day. BORING!

What's not boring is making shit happen. We are the inmates taking over the asylum. We Build, Enable and Activate content, financing and distribution. We are in a revolution and now is our time. We finally have a bigger seat at the table.

Like Costner said in the Untouchables, "Let's take the fight to them, gentlemen."

[End music cue: "Revolution" by The Beatles]

Posted by Mike Fleming on