“21 Grams” Film Essay
“21 Grams” is an independent film that is known to be shot almost in its full by the simplest hand held cameras. The film was released in 2003 and is considered a true independent film since its budget was really low, and it had to be financed partially from the personal funds of its producers. Within the scope of this report, we will define and elaborate on independent film, as well as describe different aspects of financing and distribution of “21 Grams”.
Independent film, alternative film, has to be understood, as Chuck Kleinhans reminds us, as a relational term. (Bordwell, David, 2006) Certain films are made independent of, or provide an alternative to, what might be called the dominant Hollywood cinema. Independence is also a relative term. Independence is never complete so long as a feature is screened in commercial theatres or on pay or network television, so long as it is made available on video and laserdisk and DVD, so long as it has an MPAA (or BBFC) rating classification.
The push of “independents” around the edges of the distribution-exhibition process has come because too many movies are being made for too few theaters. There were 2,500 applications for films to be shown during the ten days of 2001 festival, which ran from January 15 to 25. (Bordwell, David, 2006) Even the relatively few films that do get into theaters will, most of them, fare poorly. At a panel discussion Ella Taylor, of LA Weekly, said that hers is one of the few journals to review all films–and she is finding that harder and harder to do. (Bordwell, David, 2006) And without reviews how can a film get an audience? One hope for independents is the multiplex nest of theaters in a single building. But the major films muscle into several of these theaters at once, pushing out the little-heralded or the films that lack mass appeal.
‘Indie’ films, historically, have been defined by the two principal and intersecting characteristics of the movies as a medium. (Newman, Michael, 2005) Such a definition regards specific matters of content (plot, style, a ‘productive’ relationship with the PCA, MPPDA, MPAA, CARA) and by cash, as it is made evident on screen, as it regards the way a film is platformed or presented to the public. Autuerism and independence in the new Hollywood intersect in various and interesting ways. Is it, dare we surmise, in the consistent commercial failure of their cinema that the term independent is implied? Seven films in fifteen years, only two of which have made money, only one of which has made real money.
21 Grams is a truly independent film, which is especially evident when its financing and distribution are examined closely. Vertical disintegration and the perceived adverse effects of large US studio dominance of distribution have greatly complicated the process of financing independent films. In addition, the growing importance of television-based financing has had mixed effects.
Some see television as film’s ‘treacherous ally’ which has promoted cultural diversity at the expense of smaller budgets and a focus on appealing to niche audiences, thereby reducing ‘the commercial and creative ambitions of European cinema’. (Bordwell, David, 2006) The cumulative effect of these influences upon the situation facing US independent film producers at the start of the 2000s was described as follows: “Since big companies stopped producing films directly, no company in the US has operated on a sufficiently large scale to finance the production of features without outside money. As a result, the role of producers is rather different from that of their counterparts in Europe.” (Bordwell, David, 2006)
One response that “21 grams” producers had to this problem has been a certain degree of innovation in terms of contractual cooperation between producers and providers of finance. Relationships have developed between independent production company and distributors which have been variously referred to as first-look deals and output deals. Profit-sharing contract has a long history in the media industries, and this new arrangements borrow to a certain extent from relations between independent producers and distributors in European context, while also introducing some distinctive and novel elements, was really helpful to “21 grams” producers. The film was financed by a combination of outside money (provided by the third party investors) and resources generated by the producers themselves.
A film producer signed up with a distributor on an exclusive basis for a particular period (three years). The distributor provided financial support for overheads and development for “21 grams”, in return for being given the exclusive right to be the first to distribute the product in the US market. In a discounting distribution advance agreement that was signed by the parties, the bank aimed to protect itself by contracting to receive from the producer a certain percentage of the advances paid over by the distributor. In addition, the bank could seek a completion guarantee, which would ensure that any cost overruns on the completion of film are met; specialized organizations exist to offer this service.
Alternatively, insurance arrangements could have been made by the producers for covering the risk that future revenues will not materialize (insured gap financing). In general, bank lending is conditional upon the producer giving up in advance future rights to the exploitation of the film. Whether producers are able to retain intellectual property rights, and whether they are able to command a particular percentage of the receipts as their fee, depends almost entirely upon their established track record and reputation.
In the case of “21 grams”, the principal disadvantage for the producer was that ‘even with the deal, you are still on the hook’ — the distributor still had the right not to take the product. (Bordwell, David, 2006) Equally, the element of exclusivity could tie the producer into a deal which may become unattractive if the management of the distributor changes or their policy alters in mid contract. Thus while “21 grams” producers were actively seeking out opportunities for first-look deals and similar contractual arrangements, these contracts did not completely avoid the problems of risk management which small-scale producers face. Contractual arrangements of this type offer a particular kind of solution to the problem of risk.
In cases like “21 grams” film, the stress on production in the film structure is misplaced; policy should have been focused instead on the linkages between production and distribution. To some extent this objection would be met by implementation of a proposal put forward in a bigger picture for financial support for the distribution of the film. At one level, policy could be viewed as attempting to create vertically-integrated structures in imitation of the US majors, an approach which has repeatedly failed to produce the desired results in the different independent context.
The pressure began long before “21 grams” was put up for distribution. Those who needed initial backing were often told they must “cast up” (get a star or two) in order to pry loose the necessary money. “21 grams” is one of those cases when “low-budget” is not quite right anymore–nor, certainly, is “amateur.” But the least likely terms are “radical,” “underground,” “guerrilla,” and “avant-garde.” In fact, few of the American recent independent entries are political or ideological in any conventional sense–though one wouldn’t know that from the jurors’ awards.
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