I’m in Washington this week to attend Behind the Red Carpet, an event hosted by Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., co-chairwoman of the Creative Rights Caucus. The event aims to bring the story — and the people — behind our film and television productions to lawmakers on the Hill. As we tell our personal stories in Washington, D.C., we also hope to share some of the greatest concerns facing our industry today.
I started my career as an independent film producer. I know that it takes years to develop a movie, months to film it, and another many months to finish it. I know that films shoot out of sequence and that behind a mere three minutes of screen time can be a grueling 16-hour day — for literally hundreds of people.
Our challenge: The craft of filmed entertainment looks simple and easy to do. This presents misconceptions about the value of our work to audiences. Every day, consumers make economic choices about paying for movie tickets, subscribing to cable television, using over-the-top streaming services — or choosing not to pay at all and patronizing pirate sites. These decisions greatly impact our ability to receive the fair and appropriate reward for the time, money, and work that our cast, crews, filmmakers, and financiers have invested into our productions.
From 1996 to 2007, my producing partner, John Hart, and I ran Hart Sharp Entertainment, one of several prolific New York City-based independent film production companies at the time. Our budgets often times averaged between one and two million dollars each, yet our films received outsized recognition for their artistry and achievement. And we made a living producing independent films such as “Boys Don’t Cry,” “You Can Count on Me,” “Lift,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Proof,” “A Home at the End of the World,” “The Night Listener,” “Evening” and “Revolutionary Road,” among others. Our films earned Academy and Golden Globe awards and nominations, widespread commercial distribution, and often recouped their investment.
However, this thriving industry experienced a major disruption in 2008 with a marked decrease in box office for specialty films. The decline was brought on by many factors: the recession, new distribution technology, a shift away from DVDs to digital, and a global film industry downturn. At the same time, the indie film industry was competing with a growth in pirate sites that made illegal copies of our films available for free, sometimes the same day they opened in theaters.
While it is not entirely clear exactly how much online piracy has contributed to the decline of the independent film industry, piracy’s impact has certainly been felt around the world which makes a big impact on our ability to finance indie films through international pre-sales.
Netflix and other legal streaming services have created exciting new business models for our industry. They bring seamless, high-quality access to many of our films and the works of new filmmakers to homes and devices — and serve the independent film audience by creating recommendation engines. However, recent reports show that even though a Netflix subscription costs as little as $8 a month, many of their top shows are among the most widely pirated.
Hopefully the work of organizations like CreativeFuture that advocate for artists’ rights can promote a new culture of respect for copyright, encourage audiences to choose responsible forms of consumption, and discourage advertisers from supporting pirate sites.
Recently, I launched a new film and TV production company, Story Mining & Supply, with my partner Jim Kohlberg. Our company is taking steps to better integrate the publishing, motion picture, and television industries through strategic partnerships. We develop feature films and television shows, including our latest collaboration, “Outlander,” which is executive produced by Ron Moore, with Sony and Starz, and is successfully connecting with audiences on both cable and online.
After nearly 20 years in the content creation industry, I believe that we will always find ways to tell the stories that are important to us and to audiences eager for quality engaging commercial entertainment.
My hope is that our industry can work together — and find support in Washington — to ensure that however people choose to watch creative content, the real people behind that creation can continue to be compensated. That’s essential for our industry, in particular independent film, to continue to be a career path for young and creatively minded people. This is my story.
Jeffrey Sharp is an independent film and television producer living in New York and Los Angeles.