How Jurassic World Is Good For Independent Filmmaking

The hunt for blockbusters will disrupt the movie industry

I read an article today by Mark Harris on Grantland titled Park Effects: The Dark Impact of the $500 Million ‘Jurassic World’ Weekend. Here’s a synopsis of Harris’ argument:

  1. Movie studios want blockbuster films that not only yield sequels, but offer whole worlds/universes that can be monetized.
  2. Films that don’t fit this mold (e.g. indie, artistic, etc.) will get squeezed out, as they contribute less and less to the bottom line.

The demise of boutique films

Examples of blockbuster films turning into entire businesses are Fast & Furious, the Marvel films, and Transformers. You have the movies themselves. But you also have toys, apparel, and theme parks.

Films without the potential to yield whole businesses become more difficult to justify. The leverage doesn’t exist. The return on the effort put into making these “other” films stops with the films themselves. In the blockbuster case, making the film is just the beginning, the first step of opening a world of financial opportunity.

Harris’ argument is that with major studio neglect, these non-blockbuster films will die. Not only will we, as a community, lose art. But the talent that writes, directs, and stars in blockbusters loses its non-blockbuster training wheels.

These “other” films are where most folks earn their chops. Without the minor leagues, the big leagues aren’t the beloved finished product they are today. As Harris explains,

For those of us who like the idea of talented indie directors incrementally altering the definition of the mainstream by bringing their perspective, skill, and sensibility to it, this has been a good model — and it’s one that is imperiled by a movie universe in which studios are increasingly defined by their ability to maximize three or four major properties per year with almost everything else being a nonfactor.

Why I’m not concerned

I understand Harris’ concern. But I don’t share it. Movie studios are big businesses. Big businesses need larger and larger growth opportunities to satisfy owners and investors. The “three or four major properties per year” are these very opportunities.

But the smaller opportunities, independent films in this case, don’t vanish just because larger businesses are no longer interested. Assuming the market can support these films, some person, people, or business fills this void. Maybe it’s not a major movie studio. But if the demand exists, and the financial results justify the effort, these films will survive.

What we’re talking about isn’t so much the demise of independent film-making. We’re talking about a change in business model. Larger studios may no longer make these films. Their bottom line won’t justify the distraction from the blockbusters. But a new, different studio model emerges.

The major studios graduate beyond being just a studio. They become enterprises with a reach into adjacent markets, e.g. toys, apparel, theme parks. Smaller studio-like businesses emerge, but focus on independent films. The industry is disrupted.

What happens next

On the major studio side, the trend is clear. More resources will be dedicated to the hunt for, or construction of, blockbuster film franchises. Studios will grow from being film-centric to having operations across multiple markets and industries.

On the independent film side, new businesses emerge, likely with new distribution models. Major studios go to theater chains, because that model works, and it’s what they’ve always done. New, smaller studio-like businesses can distribute in new ways, via theater chains, community venues, festivals, Netflix, et cetera.

Think of what Tesla has done with electric cars. Any major auto company could have dedicated the same resources as Tesla. But they didn’t. Because they weren’t focused on electric cars. The electric car market was too small. Sales projections couldn’t justify the distraction from the best-selling four door sedan or SUV categories. And Tesla took advantage, with the right resources and the right focus.

The demand for smaller, independent, artistic films isn’t evaporating. It’s just becoming a more robust niche, a niche that will be better served with more focus outside of major movie studios. If anything, the pivot of major studios further toward the blockbuster will help the independent film. It will free this film to find the Tesla it needs and deserves.

Thanks for reading. I know you’re busy. I hope you had as much fun reading this as I had writing it.

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