Austin's Indie Scene Can Be a 'Mixed Bag' for Filmmakers

Sep 25, 2015

People have talked for years about the death of the independent film industry. Seasoned filmmakers continue to leverage credit cards, family and friends to realize their creative visions. It’s a tough climate to find financing.

Over the next week, the nation’s largest genre film festival is celebrating horror, sci-fi, fantasy and oddball films here in Austin. Many of the films at Fantastic Fest are independently made, and many were made against the odds.

But, while there are challenges for many indie filmmakers – new opportunities have also emerged.

“I think that the independent film industry is alive and well,” says Tim League, the CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse and co-founder of Fantastic Fest.

“I’m thinking in terms of independent films as filmmakers that are working under $500,000, and if you can make a film that begins with the audience in mind and it is solid, if it’s in my space, the genre space, and you spend less than $500,000, I think you have a really good shot at making your money back and finding investment for that type of film.

Through Fantastic Fest, League has built a community around independent films that otherwise might not have much of an audience. And, much of the industry is doing well.

But League says locally, the Austin indie film scene is a mixed bag.

“The local scene is both thriving and struggling. There have been a lot of fun people moving to town and being able to forge a career here, but I think in the indie space it’s a little hand-to-mouth still. We still as a state have pretty abysmal incentive packages, and we’re not competitive, yet it’s a very friendly community towards filmmakers,” League says. “But it’s not really enough to say that it’s a thriving industry. It’s a lot of scrappy individuals.”

He says relatively small state tax incentives for film production contribute to the financial struggles.

But for some indies, the internet has opened up a new frontier to find funding.

Take the production company Rooster Teeth. The Austin-based makers of the longest-running web series, Red vs. Blue. They shattered online fundraising records when their indiegogo campaign raised nearly $2.5 million for their first feature — a sci-fi action comedy called Lazer Team.

“We were really fortunate in that we kind of didn’t have to go that traditional financier route with this. Our financiers were our fans,” says Rooster Teeth co-founder and Lazer Team director Matt Hullum. “I think having opportunities like crowdfunding now have made something like this viable where it really wasn’t in the past.”

Lazer Team had its world premiere last night at Fantastic Fest. Hullum says engaging their community was the most valuable lesson.

“Transparency and open communication with your audience is always the best policy. It really is a bi-directional kind of relationship now, and in the past it’s been much more one-sided. The culture of the internet has changed that.”

And League says those opportunities will continue to grow.

“Crowdfunding now is poised to get really interesting because they’ve just made it legal in the United States for equity-based crowdfunding, so instead of supporting a movie like Lazer Team, and getting a t-shirt for it or an early copy of the movie, you can be a financial partner in the movie,” he says. “So I think that’s going to be a game changer for how the independent film space continues to find opportunities for funding.”

But despite success stories like Rooster Teeth, the local indie film scene is still struggling, and huge risks remain.

Austin-based filmmaker Karen Skloss learned that the hard way this past summer while shooting her first feature called The Honor Farm.

“A week before we were shooting, when we were already crewed up, we had plane tickets for our actors, we had most of the locations locked…one of our investors just completely went silent, like didn’t return our emails anymore,” Skloss says. “And so we were literally a day away from telling the whole crew, and cast, for that matter, ‘we’re really sorry, but we can’t shoot actually.’”

While an investor came through with a last-minute loan, Skloss ended up putting some of the production budget on her credit cards.

“My only advice for other independent filmmakers trying to get stuff made is just to know that there is going to be more defeat than success, and that is ultimately the only way you can last in this business, is to be able to fall down and stand back up again and again — and again and again.”

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