Joe Swanberg doesn’t envy today’s emerging filmmakers. They’ve got a tough road ahead of them — far tougher, he says, than just a decade ago, when he was making a name for himself on the indie film scene.
“They're already entering a tough market, no matter what they want to do,” Swanberg, 36, says over the phone from his home in Chicago. One of the guiding lights of the character-driven, relationship-obsessed mumblecore film movement and a longtime favorite of the Maryland Film Festival, Swanberg will be in Baltimore this weekend for the latest installment in the MFF’s “Behind the Screens” series. He’ll be leading a discussion titled “How Streaming Services are Changing Filmmaking.”
The short answer, Swanberg says, is dramatically — and not always in good ways, or ways where the end result is fully understood. With the second season of his relationship series, “Easy,” set to be released on Netflix next month, he enjoys having a new platform on which to display his artistic vision, one that will help him continue to make a living as an indie filmmaker.
“I got the TV space without basically changing anything about the way that I have been making films,” he says. “I was able to pitch Netflix not only the creative idea of a show, but the way I wanted to make it.”
But for Swanberg, the success of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon is coming at a cost. The theatrical circuit for indie films he knew just 10 years ago, he says, is rapidly fading. Where emerging filmmakers could make a movie on a lean budget, impress the critics and studio executives and land a distribution deal, those opportunities have become scarce. Which accounts, he says, for so many emerging filmmakers’ abandoning theatrical release.
“I talk to a lot of people in the field, and the thing they say over and over is that the kids who are in film school just want to make TV shows, nobody’s going to film school to make movies. Which is a little depressing.”
Making a movie, Swanberg acknowledges, is easier than ever; anyone with a smartphone and the necessary software can create a film, and there’s an abundance of good, creative work out there. But distributors are becoming pickier, and movie audiences are becoming complacent, not as eager to try out the new and innovative — at least not in movie theaters.
“Audiences have become spoiled,” he says.
One end result is that, while it’s easier to make a movie than ever, it’s harder to get attention for it. Coming out of the box strong has become vital, he says.
“You have to have a project that not only has appeal, maybe through some recognizable actors and things like that, but that’s a really good movie,” Swanberg says. “You’re aiming at a much smaller target.”
Swanberg may sound pessimistic, but he insists he’s not — at least not entirely. There’s plenty of good work available on TV, even in theaters. And artists will continue to create, he says, with minimal regard for commercial success.
“People who love it and are doing it for the right reasons do tend to stick around and eventually find that audience,” he says, “whether it takes one year or two years.”
(By way of encouragement, Swanberg notes that his first film to really register with audiences outside the film festival circuit was 2013’s “Drinking Buddies,” starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston. And that was his 15th feature.)
As for moviegoing, Swanberg admits he has “no idea” where the industry is heading. But he suspects that theaters like the Parkway, with its eclectic mix of films and moviegoing experiences, may be on to something.
“There is still a strong desire for that communal experience, of going to the theater and seeing a movie,” he says. “Theaters like the Parkway are going to be on the cutting edge of that new model, of combining the new releases with a little bit more attention to detail … of bringing in guests where possible and creating events around the experience.
“That’s the smartest way to go about it, until the dust settles.”