Outside column: Independent producers fight the conglomerates

Posted: Friday, July 17, 2009

Maybe you have seen my movies - "The Toxic Avenger" or "Poultrygeist" or the more mainstream "Final Countdown." But in addition to my 40 years of experience producing movies, I have made a career speaking out on behalf of the little guy - or, in the case of independent film and TV producers, the belittled guy.

We continue to find ourselves at the mercy of a handful of vertically integrated network-studio conglomerates, powerful giants that exercise control over the entertainment and media businesses.

When then-candidate Obama weighed in last year on the ubiquitous power of these media conglomerates to decide what we see and hear, he vowed to fight for more diverse voices. We hope President Obama will follow through on his promise, especially with a new FCC chairman to be in place soon. I hope that he also sees how the last eight years of deregulatory indulgence is now costing this country dearly.

While the big media cartel may regard us dismissively, the fact is that independents have produced the largest number of motion picture industry jobs, films and, over the past quarter century, Oscar-winning movies, including "Slumdog Millionaire," "Lord of the Rings," "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby." We've also hatched the film careers of Kevin Costner, Trey Parker, Robert DeNiro, Marisa Tomei, Madonna, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and scores of other stars.

Averaging the latest figures available from 2004-07, independents made 446, or 78 percent, of the 568 titles turned out in each of those four years. That led to the creation of more than 198,000 full-time motion picture jobs annually, accounting for 55 percent of all of those available in the industry (including 107,000-plus in the production and service sectors).

Overall, independents were responsible for generating in excess of $14 billion per year in wages, which contributed nearly $2.7 billion to U.S. and state tax coffers.

Before the government repealed the Financial Interest & Syndication Rules in 1993, which had reasonably limited the amount of content broadcast networks could own, many independents might have been able to financially survive these tough economic times - preserving all of the jobs and tax revenues they have created.

Back then, we independents could generate substantial license fees selling series and TV movies to ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Sadly, however, we've seen programming from independent sources plummet from 50 percent of the networks' prime-time schedules in 1989 to 18 percent in 2006, while network-owned content soared from 15 to more than 75 percent.

OK, you say, there are still a zillion cable channels. Actually, only 29 are legitimate buyers of scripted fiction, almost all of which are owned by five owners of vertically integrated media conglomerates. They rarely acquire outside productions anymore, especially children's and family films.

Put Showtime and HBO in the same category, too, since they are part of the Big Media cartel. A decade ago, they would buy independents' feature films for half of what it cost to make them. Today, we are lucky to receive 5 percent of our movie or TV program budgets. Furthermore, they reserve the big money for payment to major studios that are often under their same corporate roof. It's a club and we have been economically blacklisted.

Well, then, thank God for the Internet, the last bastion of freedom for the poor, huddled masses yearning to be seen and heard. At least until the Big Five started taking over.

As we move into this age of digital distribution, I'm having a deja vu moment, witnessing these monstrous, vertically integrated conglomerates turn their attention from dominating traditional media to becoming the gatekeepers of a centralized Internet.

For instance, Hulu, the most popular entertainment destination on the Web, recently added Disney to its elite ownership ranks, along with News Corp. and NBC Universal. This conglomeration of conglomerates, with their homogenized views of the world, holds frightening implications for anyone valuing free speech, expression and diversity in art.

With the walls closing in, I hope I'm speaking up and out loudly enough for President Obama to hear me. Lift us out of this toxic waste! Require that at least 25 percent of network schedules come from independent sources. Examine future media mergers based on their impact on program diversity. Continue to appoint agency heads who share your strong commitment to open, non-discriminatory access to the internet.

And put an end to this progressive loss of consumer choice and jobs as the corporate elites attempt to capture every new delivery platform and make zombies of us all. It's the right thing to do for our industry and for the public.

• Lloyd Kaufman is chairman of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, co-founder/president of Troma Entertainment and creator of "The Toxic Avenger."



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