“I’ve seen independent film die and be reborn at least three or four times. When it does, it reminds me how terrified we are of change – how terrified the film business is of change.”
Legendary indie film producer Christine Vachon’s “State of Cinema Address” at the San Francisco International Film Festival was more like a sober declaration of how to survive the independent film world. With sincere, no-nonsense pragmatism, Vachon told an audience of aspiring filmmakers, seasoned industry members and cinephiles that the “the state of cinema is not necessarily taking place in a cinema.” The words hit a nerve in the audience. Streaming VOD’s impact on the film industry is not news, but it’s still shocking to hear it spoken aloud with such finitude. During her twenty-minute speech and the long Q&A that followed, she repeatedly asserted that everything is changing… and that is good.
Sitting in a crowded movie theater of fervent movie fans is the last place you’d expect to discuss television, social media and the internet. Vachon did just that, with a resolve verging on glee. To back up her argument, she invoked the era when she started making films twenty years ago, when Jim Jarmusch, Bette Gordon, the Coen Brothers and Spike Lee made films without regard to how things had been done. “And one of the things that’s very exciting to me right now is: I feel like that’s what filmmakers are doing again. But they’re doing it not necessarily in a theater near you. A lot of it is happening on YouTube, a lot of it is happening in platforms I couldn’t imagine back then…”
Watch Bette Gordon’s Variety on Fandor:
It was interesting to watch Vachon respond to the audience as it grappled with her account of the new reality for indie films. One audience member asked her for suggestions on how to save the repertory houses. Her response to him amounted to: “That’s not a conversation I want to have.” She didn’t say it in so many words, but we could read between the lines: enjoy them while they last, they’ll be the first to go.
Later someone asked how film students could monetize their short films. She suggested a more useful question: “How do I, as an independent filmmaker, monetize my films, period?” Her answer was that times are changing such that filmmakers have more resources available to them. “I do think that what’s going to happen… is filmmakers are going to realize they don’t have to go through portals like IFC or Magnolia… There are going to be portals that filmmakers can go through themselves and really hold on to the majority of the rights for their movies.”
An audience question about women in cinema launched another line of discussion, where Vachon celebrated television for allowing more creative opportunities for women than film does. “TV is a lot less risk-averse in so many ways, and for content that is driven by… particularly women in their 30s and 40s… I have a hard time as a film producer figuring out how to get those movies made theatrically… In television, not only is it not as difficult to make, but they’re embraced. And why is that bad?”
This is the bullishness that has led her to produce 60 films and pave the way for many groundbreaking independent filmmakers. The feat, which she herself termed “unreal,” takes a lot of gumption. In order to forge ahead and make films like Kids, Happiness and Boys Don’t Cry, she has pushed past certain roadblocks and gone around others. Why waste time criticizing the industry when there’s so much work to be done?
There was one prominent director at the session who disagreed with Vachon’s assessment. Miranda July, who had ducked in while her new film The Future played in another theater, challenged her: “As a 37-year-old filmmaker whose movie is playing right now up the street…I get it about being nimble and going where it’s actually possible to go, but when you say ‘What’s bad about that?’ I do think that there are some things that are bad about that.”
It was probably the only time during the night that Vachon seemed less assured. “Why not just focus on what is possible?” she responded. “I don’t think it’s a bad time at all. I think it’s kind of amazing. Look at cable television right now. It’s pretty much all female stories… that’s pretty amazing.” One of those shows happens to be Mildred Pierce, HBO’s critically acclaimed mother-daughter miniseries that Vachon produced.
Vachon’s response brought to mind another film at the festival about feminism and modern media. Miss Representation, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a broad-strokes documentary whose principal message is that women have not made as much progress as we’d like to believe. Despite outliers like Nurse Jackie and the short-lived Geena Davis show Commander in Chief, the majority of women on television are sexy young manifestations of male fantasies, the film says. It’s not much different in film, where women are more likely to represent “fighting fuck toys” than dynamic, independent leaders.
Newsom, July and Vachon are all in agreement about the undeniable value of making films that are true to female perspectives. The only question was how useful it is to focus on the remaining instances of patriarchy. The fact that the dialogue was present at all, and in the illustrious State of Cinema Address no less, is perhaps the most tangible sign of progress. The different viewpoints of women across the festival suggest that feminism, like indie film, also tends to die and be reborn.
Jane P. Riccobono is a film writer and essayist in San Francisco. She has written for the San Francisco Film Society and other publications.