NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Ted Hope has spent the past quarter-century making the indie-film scene at the Sundance Film Festival. "But this year, I couldn't see making the trip," he said.
Over the past month or so, the long-time independent film producer -- now CEO of Fandor, the San Francisco-based online indie-film Web streaming and curation service -- has been breaking down for me the new realities of American independent film. Investors should realize that Hope is no celluloid wannabe. He started in the film biz all the way back in the early '90s, collaborating with major directors such as Ang Lee, Hal Hartley and Todd Solondz. By my count, two dozen of his projects have been Sundance entries, including American Splendor and The Brothers McMullen. And Hope knows how to make money working without the net of a big film studio. In 2001, for example, In the Bedroom, for which he was an executive producer, grossed north of $43 million worldwide on just a $1.7 million production budget, according the-numbers.com.
But in these collapsing Info Age days, even a world-class dream salesman such as Hope has had to admit that American independent films don't have much to hope for. Hope says the revolution in low-cost filmmaking technologies, mixed with essentially limitless Web access to storytelling in the form of movies, TVs and video games, essentially drowns most small film projects in a sea of stories. "There were 50,000 feature films made [globally] last year. A lot of them are really pretty good," he said. "It's great those stories are getting told, but it makes a sort of 'crisis of choice' for consumers.
"And makes it all but impossible for the existing film infrastructure to pick a winner."
Getting wrecked in The Canyons
Even the briefest wander through the indie-film multiplex shows how sadly right Hope is. Never mind that the $38 million made by 12 Years a Slave or the $17.5 million earned by Enough Said, among the top-grossing independent films for 2013, were not even in the ballpark of the $231 million indie hit Juno made in 2007, or the $378 million earned by Slumdog Millionaire back in 2009. To see just how mean the indie filmmaking streets are, consider the sad fate of The Canyons, last year's Paul Schrader/Bret Easton Ellis film featuring the freshly detoxed Lindsay Lohan.
Nobody close to this project returned my emails, but really, what else would anybody have said? It's all public record: Here was a property, it seemed, that did everything right by today's Digital Age rules of filmic engagement. First off, The Canyons was a hip, socially funded hit. It raised a cool $159,000 on Kickstarter back in 2012 and it generated what had to be millions in of pre-release media exposure on its brooding, bedroom focused plot and so-called micro-budget strategy.
"There will be no studio looking over their shoulders offering idiot notes," wrote The New York Times' Stephen Rodrick. And while the film opened to almost universally bad reviews, it is far from the worst movie ever made. Go look and you'll see that Lohan actually gives the performance of her life, about her life. And considering how cheap this picture was to make -- and the amount of odd, lurid sex in the thing -- you'd figure there had to be profit somewhere.