I ran into somebody yesterday who'd read my post, "The Middle-Man IS the problem", and dismissed it by saying that there will always be middle-men, so what's the point of dreaming otherwise?
I think they missed my point.
Yes, there will always be middle-men, especially if they add a useful service that other people want to pay for. No, you do not always need them. What I wanted to question in my article, however, was the function of the middle-men. What, exactly, is their purpose?
When you are seeking out finance for an independent movie, most of the middle-men you meet are not there to help you. Instead, they present an obstacle that you must either scale over or circumnavigate to get to your goal. If they don't like or don't understand what you are pitching to them, they don't try to like or understand it. If they cannot see a way to market your ideas, they don't try to think of a way to do so. And if they like what you've got but disagree on price or methodology, they don't work with you to find a way to go forwards. Often, they will ask you to do their job for them and then pay them (usually by giving your equity to them) for the privilege.
I find this very strange.
The problem is that the middle-men do not see themselves as facilitators.
Imagine for a moment a virtuous agent - I know, it sounds like an oxymoron - but there are a few of them out there. If they care about their client's development, then they will seek out opportunities for them that will gradually expand and stretch his or her capabilities. They won't rush them into jobs that offer a lot of money but that are likely to result in failure. They won't burn bridges when they negotiate terms for new opportunities. They nurture their talent and bring it along. They are thinking about the long-term relationship and not the quick buck.
Now, then, imagine the middle-man as a virtuous agent who comes across talent. They might not fully understand their talent's vision but they cannot deny the passion and commitment. So, they find a way to work together, knowing that - in the long-term - this is likely to be a really good relationship from both an artistic and financial point of view. There will be ups and downs, but they will stick with them through thick and thin. This is someone who does not want to say 'no' - because they know that what goes around, comes around. Talent is talent and they want to work to keep it in their orbit.
The Awkward Idea
Let's consider a fictional example of how this might work. Imagine that you're Mark Heyman and you're pitching "Black Swan" to the middle-man. I don't know how the real story went, so let's ignore any facts for the moment. Suppose you are Heyman and you're pitching this weird picture before any talent is attached - no Aronofsky and no Portman. You tell them that it's a modern-day fairy-tale in which the protagonist is under so much pressure to become the Black Swan for her ballet debut that she actually descends into madness and becomes the swan for real. The middle-man thinks this is really freakish and isn't sure what to make of it. They admire the concept but have no idea how to market a film like this. They can see that you are a talented guy but your CV is short. What should they do?
The traditional middle-man will pass. Why? Because it's too weird, too hard and they don't really understand it anyway, so they presume that the audience won't either.
But the facilitator says something different. They want to work with talent and they can see that you can really write well. They want to find a way to make this work and to support you. They want you to keep bringing projects to them in future. They decide to take it upon themselves to find the talent to attach to this project to make it a success. They decide to make it for a price that they can afford. They do whatever they have to do, so that they won't say 'no' to you.
This is what I want to see: middle-men who facilitate. Not ones who run interference.
Investing in the future
I ran into a friend this morning on my way to work. He is a corporate finance guy. He was telling me that they have the same problem in his industry. He spends a lot of time trying to talk established players into investing in start-ups. He tells me that it's hard-going because the established players don't want to take the risk. Instead, they say they'll wait until the fledging start-up proves itself, becomes a success and THEN they'll buy it. But he tells them that without their support early on, the fledging company will DIE. And, then, there won't be a great business for them to buy in future.
Does this sound familiar? It should. How many times have you seen Studios employ a similar strategy when it comes to independent films? They see no need to get involved in production financing when they can wait and buy good films at festivals. To them, this is minimising their risk. They get to go to a beauty pageant and buy a finished product. But think of all the great films that AREN'T made because of this kooky approach. Think about all the great pictures that fell apart because they couldn't pull the financing together in time, because the talent was in demand and couldn't stick around.
I'd like to see the middle-men invest in talent. That's what I believe that they are there for. And, if not, they should just get out of the way and give us direct access to the marketplace (like the cinemas, for example).
I see an interesting shift on the horizon, however. As time goes by, filmmakers are getting more and more interesting marketplaces from which to raise finance (Double Fine Adventure) and to distribute their product (iTunes). And some of these marketplaces even do a little marketing for them (Amazon and iTunes, for example, with their taste-matching algorithms and reviews). It's suggests that the traditional middle-men are going to become less and less relevant, unless they become facilitators.