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Independent films are a dying species, and so are the theaters that support them. This year’s film festivals have shifted from searching for new talent and low-budget films to building hype in an industry hit hard from the pandemic.
With festival directors choosing projects like Dune, an all-star cast full of big names, including Zendaya, Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, and Josh Brolin, let’s not forget a budget of 165 million dollars. The choice seems to pick marketing the festival over the purpose of these festivals. More importantly, what will happen to the already struggling independent theaters that rely on these festivals to choose selections to run in their theaters? It’s a trickle-down effect. This type of blockbuster film in festivals is not new, but it is widespread this festival season.
In a search for answers, I contacted an indie filmmaker to understand the thoughts and trajectory of independent filmmaking in 2021.
She’s been named “auteur,” “cinematic force,” “powerhouse,” and most recently “cinematic genius” from magazines to news outlets like CBS, NBC, and WB. That she is, Tiffany Rhodes, she is the modern-day Orson Welles. Rhodes writes, directs, shoots, and acts. Her feature film Match Struck does have a Citizen Kane trapped in a castle feel, Rhodes like Welles stars in her film. But while his mere age of 26 was astounding, it’s Rhodes’s refreshingly unique approach to film. There is nothing predictable in its nature. It’s unnerving if you like formulaic films but hypnotic, and she is hands down the best breakout performance of 2021.
I sat down with Rhodes to discuss independent filmmaking and the future of cinema. As noted by actor Ryan Kwanten from True Blood in a 2019 article by Film Daily magazine, he described her as “enigmatic.” I would agree. “We have abandoned cinema here in the US. The pandemic was not the cause; the symptoms have been there for a long time. As a society, you must foster art as much as you do science and math. It is through art we examine and explore our humanity and experience her in the Newtonian 3D world. But I believe in the people. We want to be moved, inspired, pushed past our limits. We are here to care for one another and learn,” says a somber Rhodes.
The Motion Picture Association (MPA) reported in 2020 an increase in new streaming video services, with Universal and Warner Bros. joining and competing with Netflix NFLX+0.8%, Hulu, and Amazon AMZN+1.3%. This trend was already beginning; the pandemic just increased its dominant takeover.
“I do watch streaming services. I’m not saying we should throw the baby out with the bathwater; merely, let’s not let cinema die. Can’t theaters and streaming survive together? That’s why I’m offering to let Match Struck screen at any independent theater. Additionally, that’s my call to action to filmmakers across the US, especially you famous and well-secured ones.” Rhodes smiles. “It’s time for a revolution for art, for cinema. Who in this industry has the gumption to stand with me and stop the incessant closures of cinema everywhere? How can we come together and fight for this art, this art that I know saved my life.”
I asked Rhodes how she was going to do this. “First, I am going to have private screenings at independent theaters with the use of sponsors and local supporters. Our first screening is October 2nd at Our Town Cinema in Davidson, North Carolina.” Rhodes comes off both confident and curious in communication. She seems fascinated by life and fully engaged in every moment. Yet she has a bubbling below the surface renegade feel that is a bit intimidating.
“What’s next. There’s a lot. Several projects, I’m ecstatic and grateful. One common thread among these stories is about people who care for one another. And about the people who turn their backs to the suffering of others. I know it seems everywhere the world is on fire, but it’s not. There is so much to see and understand. We can no longer be afraid of what we don’t know. We must stop assuming and being hateful. Bringing back cinema to a healthy, thriving place, I hope, allows people to disconnect from their devices and see this incredible beauty, life,” Rhodes said as she seemed to choke up with emotion.
“I won’t rest until I can help as many as possible wake up and truly see this world and its inhabitants. I have worn chains in my life so that I will know the chain’s weight and how to remove them from my people.” Rhodes may have a second calling as a spiritual guru. She told me that she started a local meditation group in her neighborhood. “It’s filled with souls that seek to heal themselves and the world.”
MPA reported that in 2020 only 338 movies had theatrical releases, which is a 66% decline since 2019. While Rhodes seems to believe cinema to be Lazurus of nature, the number is not hopeful. What will it take, even after the pandemic, to get people in theaters? Are there actual people in Hollywood who care about cinema? I think most of us would agree; we need a good combination of blockbuster hits like Bond and Marvel mixed in with some higher-budget indie films and sprinkles of genuinely independent cinema that defies the formula.
In Match Struck, Rhodes portrays a novelist with mental health issues; ironically, her next film is filmmaking. The parallels are uncanny between Rhodes and Welles. Could she be in Welles reincarnate? Instead, does this superpower filmmaker need a male counterpart to compare? I think not. I think we could all take some of her advice and disconnect from our phones, do some meditation, and goshdarnit watch a really good movie.