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Ted Hope Talks Streaming Regulation,  Film as Culture

Invited by the new ECAM Forum co-production market in Madrid to inspire up-and-coming filmmakers and creators, veteran U.S. indie producer and former Amazon Studios film executive Ted Hope is delivering a masterclass, The Transformative Moment is Now. Double Down on the Glorious Disaster That Makes Us Human.

Hope has an impressive track record of more than 70 films under his belt, including Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm”, “The Wedding Banquet,” made under the landmark Good Machine brand in the 1990s. He is still producing independently with passion after having launched Amazon’s foray into feature film production, and his blog “Hope for  Film” is an inspiring read for indie filmmaking.  

We spoke to Hope ahead of his Madrid masterclass.

Less than a year ago in Locarno, you spoke about apocalyptic times in indie filmmaking. “The indie film sector is fucked,” you claimed. What is your frame of mind today? At ECAM Forum Madrid, your talk is about ‘The Transformative Moment is Now’. You sound less alarmist today…

Last summer, there was an accumulation of evidence that made things look apocalyptic: the U.S. dual writers/actors’ strike, the challenge of recovering from the pandemic, anti -competitive practices of global streaming platforms. You could add greed of CEOs and how alliances with Wall Street were affecting culture. It was a kind of perfect storm.

I’ve always felt that with the U..S indie sector, we had multiple options-from producing films to getting them out to the audience, and there used to be what I often refer to as “the 200 doors to knock on.” The challenge was having the stamina to keep trying, as eventually those doors would invite you in, if you could stay fresh. Now, we are down to six doors. This is a real challenge.

I think that if you capture what seemingly is negative, you start to see how to advance forward. As a community, we needed this year to take stock on things. Now, we can start to define where we want to go, and where is the best path. This is why we are in a transformative moment. The tools are all there. We don’t have the capital we had like 10 years ago, with the boom of streaming, funded by cheap money. But what we do have is the awareness, know-how and will to do something different. This is why I am optimistic.

I’ve always had a deep love of cinema because it is such a special medium, and we’re so lucky to have it. This alone pushes me forward.

You’ve mentioned concentration of power and reduced options to get movies financed and distributed for indie filmmakers. But foreign language films – and series – do get a chance with platforms to reach out to millions of people across the globe, and that helps local talent and different voices gain visibility beyond national borders as well…

There is indeed a new shift from the U.S./Hollywood dominance of culture, to multiple global perspectives, which is a direct result of the streaming technology. This is fantastic. But more is needed in our streaming era to make it really work.

I entered the streaming world with tremendous optimism about what the platforms would do. I didn’t see that when this is mixed with unregulated capitalism, the stock market, it can actually crush a wide offering of voices.

What is needed to allow culture and different voices to flourish is regulation, and it doesn’t take that much regulation to allow business and culture to cohabit. One of the best examples is the U.K. system, which requires broadcasters to have 25% of programming coming from third party suppliers. This has allowed the U.K. to have a much greater market share, because indies can make stuff cheaper, in a more profitable way, and frankly better. Everybody should have an equal access to culture and expression.

If you look at South Korea, I would say that their protectionist film policies have probably benefitted their industry, and have helped their culture to develop and have a global value. So individually, nations are looking into how to protect their culture while embracing global platforms, as this allows national content to reach out internationally like never before. There are still core stories that people tell the world over, but you need unique points of view from top talent.

When you joined Amazon Studios in 2015, is this what you tried to introduce? Diversity and prestige filmmaking?

Yes. We referred to being in the Iris of the flower and we wanted to grow the petals. We had a centre aspiration point: Critically acclaimed, prestige cinema. From that iris we wanted to develop the petals around it. We would start for instance in one genre that had the foot in prestige, and expand outwards. However, we never went much out of the iris. We did a few steps on the outing of the petal, but Amazon changed the administration, and didn’t necessarily embrace this concept. Maybe they weren’t wrong from a business perspective, but it’s another matter from a culture perspective.

With global platforms, it’s key to recognise that they aren’t aligned with authored cinema, films focusing on art, aesthetics, controversial topics, or truth to power in non-fiction investigation and journalism. They are there to give you a quick adrenaline.

It’s about algorithm, not making people discover something new…

There is a great smart book by Shoshana Zuboff called “The Age of Capitalism.” What it captures is that perfect storm in the post 9/11 world, which led to a surrender of privacy and a shift of what we thought was right: the internet, fake news, streaming and social media. Almost like a controlled mechanism to make us be more satisfied with what we get, than working harder to learn how to get what we want.

I think globally speaking, not only do we have to chip away from the anti-competitive strength of the global platforms, but we have to reckon with what I call the artists’ bill of rights. We shouldn’t have the right to sell ourselves into endangered perpetual servitude. It should be society’s role to prevent the desperate from selling themselves. An artist shouldn’t be able to surrender the results and a share of the results of their labour.

Here in Madrid, you will speak to young filmmakers notably about the creative process and striving to elevate films. Could you explain your vision?

To this day I love to make beautiful films and to keep doing it. But what I have learnt is that a lotcomes down to sustainability.How do you have an endurance to keep going, and to feel good about what you’re doing? Not everybody gets the break they deserve. A lot depends on having the support around you, and luck at the box office. I personally owe a lot of my creative energy to films from filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Susan Seidelman, the Coen Brothers. They lit my fire.

When I look at film support organisations and film schools, I feel that they have failed in emphasizing the need of sustainability, endurance in filmmaking and getting things done. I did find tricks that have helped me along the way though. 

What tricks?
To simplify it down, it’s about building the upside-down pyramid and try to capture the components of each thing along the way. How we look at the world, our country, our region, our industry, our community, our relationships, ourselves and what are those aspects that define the moment. Then ultimately try to find value and prioritise things. From there, try to build a pattern recognition for what you prefer and what you want to avoid.

At ECAM Forum, a lot of emerging Spanish filmmakers tell very specific stories rooted in a culture, a region, but their humanity makes them relevant internationally. Is this the way to go?

Mybig break came with Ang Lee and his second film, “The Wedding Banquet,” which turned into a huge hit. It won a Golden Bear in Berlin; it was sold in every territory and had a huge return on investment – like 43 times – and it did the same six years later. It basically delivered 100 times its cost. And a lot of that success was based on specificity. 

I do believe that difference in filmmaking needs to be celebrated. It helps us see why we aren’t alike and in doing so, it exposes how much we actually are alike. The more local, as long as the story is rooted in emotional truth and specificity of those distinctions, the more it becomes universal. 

I generally prefer international movies, festival films, that make it to distribution through filters, curation. But I also see many people falling into patterns, status quo in style and subject that then diminish the appreciate of distinction. I think we undervalue cultural relevancy in cinema. 

I encourage people to focus on their specificity, but find a way to link it with what is happening elsewhere. How does a Basque region film compare with a film from Taiwan, or Ukraine or Jerusalem? How are these all different, where are there moments of similarity and where are there moments of differences? It’s fascinating. 

What is a viable business model today where cinema could flourish?

We are still in a crisis, because we don’t build in questions of innovation, experimentation and sustainability in our business model. These should be prioritised if we want film culture to be preserved.

In a way, everything that the streamers have become was predictable. But because we don’t do enough of global problem solving, we are blind-sighted by those that have greater reserves, like the Hollywood studios and global platforms. Luckily for us, they continue to make dumb ass mistakes. But we do need to have a better strategy on what the options are. A non-dependent indie ecosystem, as much as it needs to prioritise the artist, also needs to prioritise experimentation, innovation, sustainability being part of the funding. This would allow us to find new methods that we can all learn from in advance.

We’ve always been prone to favour the idea of a unified business that can work for everybody. The truth is that it will never be the case. All art requires a specific design, a tailor-made strategy.

There are numerous operational improvements that can be built in a sustainable way that start to offer an alternative to the current funding. We got into an ‘either or’, which is a binary way of thinking, detrimental to most creative projects. If globally we start to recognise that there are micro-operations, available to every movie, we will start to build the mechanism that allows us to use them, so that it becomes almost like a third-party supply service.

It’s about looking at alternative business models. My son is in fashion, he said early on that one of the failures of our business is that we search for things only after the film is done. The industry needs to bring new people in, to help us understand the relationship of what is ultimately, an emotional relationship of the consumer with a product.

Wouldn’t you say that sharpening the marketing tools in advance, understanding the audience, the fan base on social media, is also key? You can also learn by looking at successful examples in the industry, such as A24 which seems to seize the zeitgeist and have become a major force in the indie sector. They’ve just had their best opening ever with “Civil War” which passed $25 million in its North American debut…

What A24 does better than anyone is that they recognise that cinema is a shared experience that goes well beyond the transactional moment of just the film. When they built their brand, they marketed it well. My nephews. for instance, aren’t filmmakers, but because of the success of the A24 college teams, where they are on campus and help people to track what they are doing, to this day, they can name the A24 advance slate. They follow them like a sports team!

A24 understood well the importance of branding. They marketed their attitude, and helped people develop anticipation for what came next. Slowly they opened up their funnel to expand their film offer. Now they have starrier movies, with widely embraced themes, but can they keep their integrity as they try to expand to a big studio level? We’ll see.

So you are hopeful about the future of cinema – on the big screen and elsewhere?

My 100% preferred experience is to be alone in the dark with perfect strangers to watch a movie. I love that. It is meaningful to me. But it’s essential not to be reductive, limit our senses. We have to be inclusive to different ways of doing things and experiencing things.

Have you watched any Spanish film or series recently?

I don’t watch a lot of series. There are so many films I want to see first. I have seen 125 films so far this year. One of those was the small Spanish film “Calledita” by Miguel Faus, which was great.

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