James Schamus, former head of Focus Features and co-founder of indie pioneer Good Machine, said the U.S. independent film business needs to get back to its international origins in order to see a full-scale resurgence.
During a solo appearance at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By New York conference, Schamus said when he started his career in the late-1980s, “The New York indie scene was a very international scene. You could get 7% of your budget from Spain, 8% to 10% of it from Japan.” Today, there are typically “huge gaps” where pre-sales used to me, he said, a breakup of the early formula that not only made economic sense but gave filmmakers and executives a more global perspective. “That breakup certainly has an impact on what kinds of movies we make and how we go about selling them.”
Using classroom-style Socratic technique, he asked if anyone in the audience knew the highest-grossing release in any single territory in movie history. A few people guessed Avatar. Correct answer: Wolf Warrior 2, which made $800 million in China alone. He also noted that most weeks the New York box office top 10 includes a film from Bollywood. “These are pockets of huge business but they’re not paying attention to each other,” he said, a Balkanization which robs the industry of capital, both actual and creative. “We are not interacting with these films. They’re there. They play on 42nd Street.”
Schamus, an accomplished film historian and author who teaches at Columbia, brought his academic A-game. He kicked off the hour with a 30-minute presentation puckishly titled “Can Cinema Be Saved? Probably Not, But Let’s Give It One Last Try.”
The talk would be difficult to do justice to here, as it depended on vintage press clippings and also on Schamus stepping into character as a 1916 film business executive. But it overflowed with amusing historical details and color from the early days of cinema. Strikingly mirroring today’s discussion about the film industry, he traced tensions between the dueling philosophies of longer feature films (think Birth of a Nation) that were booked with up-front advances and long guaranteed runs versus the 1- or 2-reelers swapped out daily that ensured a more steady revenue flow. “These anxieties are always with us,” Schamus said, noting parallels with the angst over streaming services and digital and episodic work versus cinematic releases experienced on big screens with audiences.
The latter half of the hour was open Q&A. Schamus threw in a few breezy mentions of having been “fired” from Focus (which he was) but showed no particular rancor. He appeared sanguine about his new producing (and occasionally directing) phase and even said the job of being a producer “feels the same to me” as it was 30 years ago. “I had been to the Oscars 25 years in a row,” he said. “I don’t care that much if I ever go back.”
Countering notions that cinema faces an uncertain future, Schamus said the key is to take a global view. Admissions growth in China has been “spectacular” in recent years, he said, with the average moviegoer’s age just 20 years old. “One thing you can’t say is that globally it’s not growing,” he said.