Hyper-Professionalization and Atrophy in Indie Film

Yesterday in IndieWire, and not long ago here, I spoke briefly to the idea of what questions we should be asking about film festivals and how they might best help filmmakers. Before speaking further to some of these solutions, I want to explore another problem that keeps rattling around in my brain and that I think is interconnected. My worry about the current state of film fests is inter-related with what I think is a bigger problem. Indie and Arthouse film have become hyper-professionalized, and like so many art forms, this often leads to stagnation, atrophy even, and misaligned artistic practice, with art being subservient to satisfying the needs of the bureaucratic and commercial status-quos. 

Film festivals, which almost universally in the United States started small and volunteer- run, have bureaucratized to the point where they’ve converged into a monotonous mass – same sponsors, identical films, universal philosophy and a consistent appeal to regional bonhomie at the expense of true artistic integrity, chance of experimentation, real community building or, god-forbid, actual character. Yes, each has its local quirks and some program a parade or some other side-show to keep the indie spirit, and most are fun to drink and carouse at, but it remains possible to travel from show to show, wondering which city you’re in, how their programming is different and why you’re being driven around in this Chevy Suburban, sponsor of the Environmental Film strand? The zenith of this trend is now evidenced by not one, but two separate bodies trying to organize, professionalize (we do live in redundancy land here) and create an overarching trade organization, proof positive of the ossification of the field.

The funding, and thus creation, of film has reached this same professional saturation point. Many docs are now funded through sophisticated investment pools, where consensus on return on dual investment (social and dollar value created) determines what gets funded. All other funders being professionalized, and thus inter-related by issues of class, belonging and power, this leads to the same types of films being funded and created, and a herd mentality of support beneficial to the recipients but detrimental to the chaos, experimentation and serendipity needed for the field to avoid stagnation. What you see at Sundance, on PBS, VOD or in theaters is being increasingly dictated by the predilections and predispositions of these interconnected funders, and ultimately pre-determined for the viewer based on criteria other than the artistic judgment of the audience, those proletariat to be engaged, activated and urged towards changing the world.

Foundations, ever ready to professionalize their subjects and always already at the top of this hierarchy, lead the field from trend to trend, today’s transmedia funding being yesterday’s youth media – the holy grail preached and reached for by all, until the money shifts course again.  Foundation funding for artistic filmmaking devoid of social issues, while never abundant, has been reduced to just two, perhaps three, funders. The gates to their ivory towers, ever-guarded, are now encircled by more middle-men known as re-grant organizations, who take their cut to pay for the professionalized overhead needed to ensure quality control. The recipients of their largesse are increasingly homogenized as well, support from investors and philanthropy intertwined throughout the supply chain, ensuring a uniform product.

Skip on over to the narrative funding world, and find that you can now track and follow the latest projects via online investment communities (such as Slated, of which I am a member), pre-vetted, controlled and ever-professionalized. Even that democratized arena of fundraising known as crowd-funding is undergoing concurrent movements towards both governmental oversight to allow further professionalization (the JOBS Act) as well as a general movement where one is not a success unless they’ve beaten a Kickstarter record, identified their core fans before shooting and have generally conformed to the new orthodoxy of how to fund and create a film. With Veronica Mars now being Kickstarted, for a major studio, we can expect even more calls for professionalization of the process.

None of this would be a problem; in fact I can argue how great it is in this same breath, except for what’s occurring isn’t good for the long-term health of the field. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. None of the persons working in this arena have anything but the highest ideals and standards. As Ray McKinnon says in the Academy winning short film, The Accountant, “If a man builds a machine and that machine conspires with a machine built by another man, are those men conspiring?” The drive towards hyper-professionalization is pushed by people trying to grow up and build a better system. The dream probably remains the same for each of them; it’s a dream I’ve dreamt before myself – to build an infrastructure that can support great art and bring it to audiences, to have a greater impact and live a comfortable life in support of the arts. These are all laudable goals to be sure. 

Unfortunately, we have ample evidence that infrastructure supports infrastructure, and that stability squeezes out anything that may buck the status quo. MoMA is a sanitized realm for a reason. Wynton Marsalis preaches a certain gospel of Jazz at Lincoln Center (dismissive of experimentation and driven by a grand narrative) to the exclusion of other possibilities. The machine breeds more machines, produces machine-made art, devoid of imperfection and chance. A certain level of professionalism must be achieved to even communicate with the machine. Classical music and Opera are the extremes of this drive, but their model is the only end-point to this path. All of these places exhibit great art, but none drive culture and push society as they have and should. I’m not arguing they aren’t good and valuable, mind you, but that we don’t want independent/artistic film to become just this.

If we want independent/artistic film to remain vibrant and an active provocateur of culture, as opposed to becoming a well-made museum piece, we need to resist the urge towards hyper-professionalism. We need to replace it with innovation and imperfection. 

How do we do this? That’s a question I hope to begin to address in my next post.

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