Reclaiming independence: the new realities of small-scale cinema

A director and a camera man on a film set.

Award-winning film-makers and Ludlow House members, Cory Thompson and John Budion, discuss making movies before and after COVID-19, and how radical ways of thinking might just save the independent film industry

By Britt Julious   Above image: Spike Lee on set (Getty)    Thursday 20 August, 2020    Short read

When the world stopped in March due to the pandemic, so too did the film industry. This, of course, comes as no surprise. Film sets are not known as bastions of cleanliness, with large groups of staff – from producers and actors, to caterers and technical crew – closely interacting for a few weeks or months. But unlike other artistic mediums which can easily translate to the digital world, with film-making, the show can’t simply go on. At least not without new protocols in place. 

And it is those new protocols that may very well threaten the viability of the independent film world, say Cory Thompson and John Budion, creators of the award-winning movie Rockaway. ‘I always like to stay optimistic. I think things will return to a certain state of normalcy,’ Thompson begins. ‘But I also think that this pandemic has sort of caused people to really examine the flaws and the deficiencies in the ways that they are producing content.’ 

In particular, small unique films like Rockaway may not survive in a post-pandemic world. The film, based on Budion’s childhood growing up in Long Island, is a coming-of-age story in the vein of Stand By Me and The Sandlot Kids. As a visual effects artist, Budion has worked on numerous movies, including The Grand Budapest Hotel, Beasts Of No Nation, Midsommar, and Marriage Story

But Rockaway was the first script he wrote himself and the project was a labour of love. In 2016, after spending more than a year writing it, casting and fundraising through friends began for the film. Thompson served as a first-time producer. Twenty-five days of principal photography took place in the summer of 2016, and by the end of 2017 the film entered the festival circuit, earning numerous awards and praise from outlets like The New Yorker. In 2019, it finally found distribution through Gravitas Ventures. 

For an outsider, the long slog of independent film-making may seem arduous, but Budion and Thompson’s experience is nothing new. And the rewards of their efforts make it all worth it. ‘For us, it was a lot of learning,’ says Thompson. ‘When you develop something like that, go through the nitty-gritty of the process and see the final product that people really enjoy, that’s probably the greatest satisfaction. Especially when it comes to independent film and how hard it is to get something together.’

Creating their next project, titled Latchkey Kids, may be even more challenging for the two. The story follows a 10-year-old boy who’s suspected of having a curse because his babysitters keep dying. Budion and Thompson hope to film the movie next summer, but increasingly long lockdowns and rapidly rising new cases of COVID-19 continue to threaten workable reopenings across the US. While major studios are able to transfer their productions to overseas, independent film-makers, who have much less financial capital and smaller insurance policies, do not have the same luxury. 

And then there are the tax credits. Rockaway’s completion was due in no small part to the New York Film Production Tax Credit, which provided a 30% tax credit on qualified costs incurred in the state for eligible film productions. 

But in 2020, the state has, unfortunately, changed the terms of the credit. In order to qualify, projects largely shooting in the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau or Suffolk counties are required to have a minimum spend of $1m. This new change would have made a project like Rockaway, filmed in the Queens borough of New York City and with a budget below $1m, ineligible. The state has also reduced the tax credit amount to 25%, a not-so-insignificant amount for a small film operating outside of a major studio. 
A group of boys crossing the street with their bicycles.
A boy looking at a man in shadow on a film set.
Two boys looking through a wire fence.
Stills from Rockaway

'Hopefully, this leads to something really positive at the end of the day and creates really fantastic art for people to consume’

‘That money, for a lot of people, helps with financing. It helps you finish your film. It helps you reach the end and get your movie out there,’ says Budion.

New safety protocols, such as regular testing, use of PPE and 14-day quarantines also add new financial costs to a film production. And even if a film-maker can find the funding and make the actual film, will people want to go and see it? Movie theatres around the world are closed or, if they are open, are only showing older films guaranteed to bring in some type of profit. Until a vaccine is widely available, there will always be a segment of the population righteously fearful of spending time in crowded and enclosed movie theatres. It’s a concern that Thompson has contemplated greatly during lockdown. 

‘I think, to be honest, that’s going to be the new reality. It’s going to be really tough to get something on a big screen that isn’t a major project,’ Thompson says. Budion agrees. ‘The theatrical model will be more of a special one-nighter or a film festival theatrical release [followed by] streaming,’ he says. ‘For big blockbusters, the risk is mitigated. They can do their huge, 4,000 screen releases because they know it’s a formula that’s worked for years. But the independent films – the dramas – they’re probably going to roll back their theatrical releases because a lot of theatres aren’t going to survive this.’ 

For any film lover, this is not a good sign. What stories are left behind when the only sure thing is a safe bet? Prior to the pandemic, small, independent films struggled for footing in a film industry increasingly reliant on old IP, superheroes and video games. Mid-tier films that were once the norm in the 1990s had all but disappeared unless they were Oscar contenders. A global pandemic-caused economic depression, affecting everything from food supply to housing to healthcare, will surely make things worse.

And yet Thompson and Budion are not without hope. We are living in unprecedented times which require new, progressive, radical ways of thinking. For independent film to survive, those film-makers must push themselves even further outside the box than they may have before COVID-19. 

‘I think that this has given people time to reflect and be creative,’ says Thompson. ‘Hopefully, that just leads to something really positive at the end of the day and creates really fantastic art for people to consume.’ 

Rockaway can be found on streaming platforms including Amazon Prime and iTunes now
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