The Godfather is regarded as the greatest film of all time, or at least it is according to a 2014 list by the Hollywood Reporter, but could a film like that be made today and be as successful as it was in 1972? In their heyday prior to the turn of the century, independent films such as The Godfather, Pulp Fiction and The Blair Witch Project ruled supreme across the globe, grossing $259 million, $213 million and $250 million worldwide respectively (not adjusted for inflation). However, since the beginning of the 00s, we’ve seen production of indie films dry up and drop by over 50%. How and why has this happened?
Films are made in the three-step process of production, distribution (making the film available for the audience) and exhibition (the retail branch of the industry in which the film is screened). The relatively rigid process can be altered or hampered by either changes in technology or by a sudden financial crash. Both of these instances have occurred in the last 15 years, with the financial crisis of 2008 (and now 2020), and the introduction of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Both of these have greatly impacted the production of independent films.
As a result of the 2008 financial crisis, major studios, such as Warner Brothers, closed their specialty divisions to limit costs (for example Warner Independent Picture Unit, Miramax and Picturehouse), which were the principle source of financing for independent film makers. With no financial backing there was a severe drop in independent film production. In the UK from 2007 to 2018, spending on Indie films fell by 50%, and from 2018 to 2019, spending fell by another £175 million (45%). In the last year we’ve also seen UK independent films with a budget of over £500,000 drop from 94 to 49 (a 52% drop). With money now harder to raise, independent producers are struggling to attract big name actors and so have been forced into a downward spiral where a film is lower budget. This makes it harder to advertise due to the lack of finances, as it is seen as a smaller project, leading to the film struggling to break even.
To fill this void, we’ve seen the rise of the studio film, better known as the blockbuster. These survived and prospered following the crash as they are made and backed by the industry powerhouses such as Disney or Universal and so are somewhat immune to a crash. In 2019, a record 9 films grossed over $1,000,000,000 and since the crash, 43 of the 50 highest grossing films of all time have been made, and are all studio films. This rise is not all that surprising; studio films gross more and as a whole are more consistent at the box office than independent films. This is because the blockbuster’s target market are 15-24 year-olds, who account for 27% of cinema attendance and spending.
Currently, we are at a crossroads for the independent film. Again, they are struggling to survive, but this time it’s due to a global pandemic. All studios are having to pay-off producers, networks and production venues for delays stretching back to the suspension of filming on the 20th of March at the latest, with a two-month delay shrinking a film’s budget by upwards of 20%. Studios hope to minimise losses through insurance pay-outs which, with thousands of claims pouring in, are unlikely to be payed due to the unique circumstances. This puts independent films at risk of cancellation, as they don’t have the financial capability for a legal battle with insurers, unlike the major studios. Similarly, when filming does commence, insurance is needed in case of an internal Covid-19 outbreak. Due to its likelihood, insurers are reluctant to guarantee pay-outs, a move which will lead to the cancellation of more films with a weaker financial backing, most likely independents.
So, to answer the question, could The Godfather be made today and be as successful as it was in 1972? Well, yes, it has already happened. Martin Scorsese’s drama The Irishman was released last year and was a hit, nominated 10 times at the academy awards. The film is a Netflix original and was bankrolled by the company after numerous studios turned it down due to its rumoured $175 million budget. Scorsese said he turned to Netflix out of “desperation” as the trade-off for creative freedom with the film was the limited time in the theatres it would have before being uploaded to Netflix. The film was in cinemas for three weeks, making it eligible for the Oscars, and grossed $7 million in that time, a figure that is dwarfed by hundreds of studio films last year.
So, while it may be cliché, there is light at the end of the tunnel for independent films. In coming years more indie films will be bought, financed and streamed by streaming services and, if this is profitable for the streamers, we may even see a resurgence in the independent film.