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Swimming Upstream

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For many in the film biz, the balance between commerce and art is a difficult one to find.  Too many film producers are interested in generating a product that sells specifically because it fits into the packaging of previous financial successes.  Mimicking hot profit generators that came before is considered safe... while supporting film artists who are actually trying to make interesting, unique movies is, sadly, considered a significantly greater financial risk.  To a degree, one must acknowledge that these producers are exercising sound logic.  People with money take calculated risks, and put their dollars into the safer bets... because the goal is to grow that money.  It's investment, not philanthropy.

Filmmakers who are determined to make art-for-the-sake-of-art, refusing to deviate from their non-mainstream artistic passions, receive very little financial support... which means their underfunded films suffer eroded production value and feeble distribution... which sends the signal to investors that creativity-driven films are never worth supporting. 

My personal stance on this subject is planted in the middle ground.  I've always been fascinated by the quest for balance between commerce and art.  I believe in creativity-driven films pushing through budgetary roadblocks (stretching those dollars is part of being creative).  I also believe in production companies that fund creativity-driven films (that exhibit a minimum level of marketability), understanding that if the film finds its audience and becomes a hit - because it's actually a good movie, made by a director whose artistic endeavors were supported by his or her producers - the profits to be collected will be much more substantial.  Letting a filmmaker with talent make the movie he or she wants to make should be viewed as protecting your investment, not reckless behavior.  Sure, if the movie is different and "weird" it may turn off some members of the audience... but making that "safe-bet" film - the limp, paint-by-numbers, yawn-fest - is sure to turn off many more.

One recent example of a great film that struck an impressive balance between commerce and art is the recently-released indie Upstream Color (2013), directed by Shane Carruth, who previously turned heads with his ultra-cheap, critically-acclaimed, and financially successful time-travel thriller, Primer (2004).

Primer, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, was completed on a budget of only $7,000.  It grossed over $420,000 in its limited theatrical run alone.  Carruth expanded on the lessons learned making his low-cost, (comparatively) high-return, creativity-driven debut film.  Upstream Color, his second film, again utilized friends and family behind the scenes, was shot with a skeleton crew (many wearing multiple hats), and placed Carruth in several job positions (director, writer, producer, actor, director of photography, camera operator, sound designer, music score composer, and editor).  What he and his team achieved was an intelligent, riveting, beautiful, and haunting masterpiece that resonates long after the (refreshingly short) end credits.

Keeping his costs low not only permitted Carruth to pursue his artistic goals, unencumbered by producers' and investors' demands and second-guessing, it gave him the freedom to shoot Upstream Color in 40 days, and focus on making his movie, the way he intended, instead of rushing to beat a cruel clock.  Today, most independent films made for many times Upstream Color's budget, are forced to wrap in a rapid 25 days - prioritizing the finish line over the creative process (often to the detriment of the film).

Like Primer, Carruth's Upstream Color is very non-mainstream.  It is an experimental art film as much as it is a science fiction film, and it requires viewers to use their brains if they are to mine all the film has to offer (something generally frowned upon by production companies and distributors).  To balance this, and his budgetary limitations, Carruth wisely cast a marketable name as his lead, Amy Seimetz (AMC's The Killing, HBO's Family Tree), who brought mainstream familiarity to the movie, while also delivering a fantastic performance.  The low budget and non-mainstream vision were also countered by the fact that Carruth is an exceptional filmmaker, able to alchemize his limited resources into a cheap DIY film that does not look like a cheap DIY film.

Carruth pulled the right networking strings to have Upstream Color premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was one of the most praised films of the fest.  Self-distributed by Carruth (without an MPAA rating), the film is already a financial success and has received widespread critical acclaim.

One casualty of Shane Carruth's lack of access to major funding is his output.  Nine years passed between his first and second film.  Additional damage inflicted might be the toll his film took on him.  I'm sure Upstream Color left Carruth exhausted and with a bit of his sanity chipped away.

I don't think Upstream Color represents a new fool-proof model for financially successful creativity-driven independent film production.  However, filmmakers, producers, production companies, and film investors need to take a good look at what Shane Carruth has accomplished.  His balance of commerce and art is unique and inspiring.  Lurking within his methods are the clues to making higher profits and better films.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze

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