Recently, much has been written in blogs and in the Native American press about the overwhelming lack of a “Native American” presence on the big screen.
With the world-wide success of the top-grossing, Oscar-winning film, “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie shot in India, with a cast mostly unknown in the Western hemisphere, people are asking:
”Why not American Indians?”
I can tell you why through my own personal real-life experience trying to produce a “Native American” themed feature film for the big screen.
I am “non-aboriginal” independent filmmaker with twenty years experience teaching, writing, producing, and directing film. I’ve seen my films in theaters and festivals and I’ve won awards.
Five years ago, long before I had ever even heard of “Slumdog Millionaire,” I decided to put my energy into producing a feature film that revolved around a fictional Native American family.
Because we have all seen Indians get shot from horses. We’ve all seen the historical reenactments. We’ve all seen the “savages” and “sidekicks.”
What about the Native Americans who served in the armed forces and fought for what they knew was right, even though they were treated as less-than-equal by the country they fought for, yet they continue to wear their uniforms with pride to this very day?
What about the Native Americans who “walk both paths”? Who hold their culture close to their hearts while finding success in a very “white” world?
How about an entertaining story that could “cross-over” and appeal to a wider audience, yet honor the culture portrayed in the movie…and perhaps tear down a few stereotypes along the way?
That’s the story I wanted to tell: A coming-of-age story about the power to overcome.
Going to work
I researched stories and read articles. I worked with a Native American writer who is also a Harvard graduate in Native American history. I brought in Native consultants, and added Native American associate producers.
I put a casting policy in place where only Natives Americans would be cast in Native American roles. What a concept!
But that decision meant I couldn’t attach any “A” list actors--Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, or any one of the many faces you usually see on movie posters or DVD covers--because there were no lead parts for any “A-list” actors in our “American Indian” film.
The standard film financing model that banks upon “star power” may not apply to our film, but many, many, films have been made outside the Hollywood “star” system.
The script soon attracted the attention of a well established executive producer, a man who has delivered more than $50,000,000 in profits for independent film investors while working with some of the biggest “names” in the business.
He has access to foreign and domestic film distributors, which means the potential for theatrical, cable and DVD sales. With him came the relationships that he had built for over twenty years at the largest film and television markets in the world: Cannes, London, Berlin, and L.A.! He brought a well-proven knowledge of the independent film business.
We attached a leading production designer who had worked on high-profile “blockbuster” films like “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” We were able to bring on an Emmy-award-winning group of visual effects artists who had also worked on some of the highest grossing films and television shows ever produced.
We now had an experienced team with the ability to put something beautiful on the screen along with a plan to finding the film distribution.
The pieces were falling into place, but we needed funding.
Even though record-breaking revenues were being seen at the box office, the flow of money needed to finance films slowed to a trickle when the recession started and the business of trying to fund any independent film soon got even more difficult…but that also creates opportunities.
Finding opportunity in the face of adversity! That is what our film is about!
It all comes down to supply and demand: The fewer films being produced means less competition for sales in the marketplace…but you have to have your film completed or at least “in the can.”
Looking for money
We tried to attract private investors with the financial incentives guaranteed by the government for film production.
In the United States, any film project that falls within our budget range gets a full 100% tax “write-off” on all production and marketing costs. Any profits that are realized after the film is released are taxed at a reduced rate as well.
Many states and provinces offer guaranteed cash rebates, some up to 55%, when a production is completed within their borders. This translates into more “movie” on the screen for a lot less investment, and money back in the investor’s pocket when the film is completed.
That has not proved to be enough.
There are literally thousands of unproduced scripts that follow the Hollywood formula. That’s why there are so many sequels, or remakes, and adaptations of comic books, bestselling novels, or “rehashes” of other films…most with no parts for Native American performers in a leading role.
It all comes down to this:
Those who finance films get to choose what…and who…the movie-going audience sees on the big screen.
What about the tribes? What about all that “casino money” we hear so much about?
The tribes I have met with have done some outstanding things with the profits from their casinos, but for the most part, “casino money” can only be used for government and other nonprofit projects. Feature film production doesn’t fall into either of those categories.
It’s a Catch-22:
Even though many tribes are diversifying and embracing new enterprises, the business of filmmaking is one that very few tribes have experience in, but the only way to create a greater, more positive, “Native American” presence in films is for the tribal community to help finance film productions and get involved in the independent film community.
Only then will Native Americans be better represented in films. Period.
Until then, we’ll get to see a few “Hollywood” Indians on the big screen and independent filmmakers will be forced to produce films that are easier to find funding for.
I hear Johnny Depp has been cast as Tonto in the remake of the Lone Ranger.
Keep the faith, and I hope someday I’ll see you in the movies.
A few points:
As you may recall, Jet and I have debated some of these issues before. For more on the subject, see Tribes Should Make Movies and No Bottom Line for Native Movies?