January 7, 2009

Spouting Off on Distribution

Spout: Promote Your Film I regularly joke that you have to be some sort of masochist to want to be a filmmaker, and in a corroding economic climate like ours, anyone with a finished feature they're trying to peddle in the marketplace may as well kneel down and lash themselves with their own work print. With so many mini-majors folding, little money for advances to go around, more movies and less outlets to screen them, the odds are certainly stacked against the indie auteurs. And yet, as someone who has viewed the current commercial landscape through the eyes of both a filmmaker and distributor, I remain inspired that the creativity being put into alternative models and workarounds (at least until the real digital revolution hits us: a fast, cheap, accessible, HD quality one-stop shop for downloadable content in our living rooms, which is getting pretty damn close) may usher in Obama-style hope that we can hang on to. Until then, the other half of my lizard brain is skeptical that there are too many alternatives, making it difficult for viewers/filmmakers who can't keep up with what's available and valuable at any given time.

In a press release unveiled today, film news and discussion site Spout.com announced a partnership with MeDeploy.com to "offer independent filmmakers the opportunity to both connect with an audience and... allow that audience to purchase and download the filmmaker's movie directly" from the website. Spout has re-launched its Promote Your Film page so that budding Soderberghs and Cassaveteses (I really want to put one more "es" at the end of that) post their films in the Spout database, and there you have it: one more outlet in a confusing sea of many. Is it just finding the audience that's the problem, or is there still an invisible Rosetta stone out there that can bridge filmmaking debt to success and even profitability?

Iron Man vs. The Pleasure of Being RobbedSpout COO Bill Holsinger-Robinson himself says an important line in the release: "The Internet increasingly allows for a flat distribution playing field and for like-minded people to connect around mutual interests in communities of their own design." His angle is that the partnership will take advantage of both of these, and I suppose it could in theory, but I read "flat distribution playing field" as a half-empty glass, not as a pessimist but as a realist. I believe it's far harder to stand apart with hierarchies squashed and everyone standing on the same starting line, and so the question is really whether the availability of distribution outlets is the problem, so much as money (how to make it) and marketing (how to be unique enough to make said money). Not that commercialism should be the ultimate end goal for any passionate cinema scientist, but we all need to eat, right? I'd love film financiers to weigh in on this, because personally, I see parallels in the film industry to the wiping-out of the middle class, in which what might be left standing in this recession is a spectrum of extremes: Iron Man vs. DIY shoestring-budgeters, with very little in between.

The Conversation: Am I wrong?

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Posted by ahillis at January 7, 2009 8:53 AM


I'll weigh in on the side of history. I'd say our closest model to the latest crisis in American filmmaking would be the 1950's. Television loomed as the little box that could kill the film industry. Why go out when you have hours of free programming available in your living room? And, for a time, Americans did just that. The box office faltered a bit and tried to recover with dynamic new visual strategies, Cinemascope and 3D! But then a strange thing happened, the low-budget arena of the B-movies came in with an appeal to the younger crowds. Appeal to teenagers? you say, the studio head might have scoffed, "but we make family pictures, high entertainment everyone will enjoy!" But they couldn't ignore Blackboard Jungle and the crossover success of Bill Haley and the Comet's 'Rock Around the Clock'. So the B's started making youth oriented films, dressed up schlock with pimple-less teenagers dealing with life, society, and juvenile delinquency. Some of the films were condemned (if you were in the Catholic Legion of Decency then all were condemned) as being trash cinema. And then the Sixties happened. The ground for youth oriented films was proven and the first generation of film school auteurs were out and about and got on the second golden age of Hollywood. So I would say that what we have to look forward to, if history can be trusted, is a radical reinvention of what is focused on in modern cinema. A consideration of the state of affairs of the modern era that will once again make films important, not just as selling tools for plasma screen TV's but as an art form. It won't look like the sixties and seventies, won't feel like them or perhaps even collapse as it seemed to with Jaws and Star Wars. A new chapter in the consciousness level of film. I'll say its very exciting.

Posted by: John Keefer at January 7, 2009 9:57 AM

Very thoughtful comment, thanks John. I think the only glaring variable that separates the two eras is technology. There are so many more alternatives to film even, and the glut of media can be overwhelming to slog through in finding the gems. I'm with you, that the cream will rise, but it's almost like if a new wave of filmed art and entertainment happens, will anyone notice?

I think the competition is just going to be more fierce, which means a lot of people are going to go broke (or won't risk as much on a film financially, hence my Iron Man vs. DIY line), which means it is a difficult time to make it as a filmmaker. Much like criticism, I think many of the careerists will have to become hobbyists because there won't be as much money to go around. Film itself will survive, I wholeheartedly believe that, but distribution won't be past this current state of flux anytime soon. Stupid interwebs.

Posted by: Aaron Hillis at January 7, 2009 10:06 AM

One similarity both the Iron Man level filmmakers & DIY filmmakers share is that both goups control distribution of their movies or they make sure the films get distributed. On the Iron Man level by spending a lot of money & on the DIY level by doing a lot of work/self-distribution.

So, the vanishing middle ground filmmakers - let's say an indie being made for $2 million - may want to use 1 million of the budget to ensure distribution & the other 1 million for production. Or make it a 3 million $ pic w/ 2 for production & 1 for distribution.

The key factor that makes a difference is having a method or methods to distribute & MARKET/ADVERTISE your film (aside from the film being a well made & interesting one - at least interesting to some people/target audience - well made is a matter of taste).

The collapse of indiewood is a good thing in the sense that infrastructure & work required to sustain an actual independent film scene/industry are being required to be created - as off to getting a distributor to pick up & sell your movie & give you a check like in the early 90's. Now filmmakers need to worry about a marketing plan & distribution plan that they can put into effect - which is a good thing since a film, from a financial perspective - is a small business (or a large business) - it is the creation of a product - and the creators should definitely worry a lot about how to sell it (advertising & method of delivery to customers) as creators of all other products in other fields do (and if the creators do not want to do that work, they can collaborate with or hire people who are happy to do the marketing & distribution work).

I think this current forced re-organization of the indie film world (or having to adapt to H-wood & I-wood distro $s & opps being pulled back) will result in a much healthier (creatively & financially) independent (actually independent, as off to Hollywood dependent for distribution) independent film world.

But then again I am always an optimist :)

In the old days we had like 5 indie filmmakers (Jarmusch, Spike Lee, etc.) getting work done & out w/ help of large companies or Hollywood. Now we have hundreds of filmmakers (thanks to DV, HD & DVDs) doing the same - not on the same scale $s & publicity wise - but the important thing is more people can make movies - filmmaking has been democratized - which was probably always one of the goals of the independent filmmaking movement. Relatively poor & unconnected (to Hollywood) people can now make movies. Awesome.

- Sujewa

Posted by: Sujewa Ekanayake at January 7, 2009 10:55 AM

Great post, and I share your skepticism. It seems that every other week I receive a press release about yet another website offering downloadable content for sale/rent.

Regarding the quote from Holsinger-Robinson -- while I think it's great that like-minded people connect, that's not exactly a problem that needs solving. Whether a small indie is on DVD or online, people who are interested are going to find it one way or another. The challenge is how to generate interest in these films outside of the core audience.

As you pointed out, availability is only one of the problems, and an easy one at that. Getting people to buy/watch it is another.

[Full disclosure: Aaron and I run Benten Films together, and we too are faced with the problem of how to reach out to wider audiences with our titles, most of which are American indies. We're all for online streaming/distribution, but we haven't found a solution yet that solves that problem.]

Posted by: Andrew Grant at January 7, 2009 12:02 PM

It used to be that I could tell some friends about a band, a song, or a film they should check out and they'd track it down and I'd hear back from them in a day or two. Now, not so much.

I remember reading about a film, like "Meshes of the Afternoon" and I'd go, "I have got to see it!" but this was before VHS, DVD, the Internet, but I'd make an effort to see it in say a museum.

Maybe having easy access to everything deadens us in a way to seek more. Some effort should be required, maybe.

Okay, there are a lot of films out there and still more being made. But there's a lot of different types of food. There's McDonald's, Wendy's and then there's The Ivy, Kitchen 24, Fred 62, or Coral Cafe and other small Mom and Pops Diners who have figured out how to survive offering their slice of the pie.

When everyone can make a film like everyone can bake a cake, or even a peanutbutter sandwhich... then what?

I'd like to go on and make some brilliant point that everyone would love, but all this typing about food has made me hungry. Sorry, I hope I haven't wasted your time.

Posted by: Jerry Lentz at January 7, 2009 11:02 PM

Is it rude to have a one-night stand with someone and not become facebook friends with them? Wherever you fall on what is proper in that instance it is something you now have to consider. So the first step is in affecting the decorum. We have to apply what was once considered polite, a phone call at least, to the access the new technology affords us.

Technophiles are another problem, but one that might be blown out of proportion. With us cinephiles we hear a director we like has a new film coming out and we get all a fluster with excitement. We check the local art houses for showtimes and we make the trek. Likewise with a technophile, the difference being the mechanism takes precedent over the content, assuming the technophile is otherwise indifferent to the film he's torrenting or the albums he's downloading to his ipod, the music doesn't matter, its the number of gigabytes. While this is a scary proposition for the artist we must remember that content without context is meaningless. As artists we do control the means of production, at least as far as there is no production without content. The pen is in our hands, the camera waits for us to frame it properly. We can guide the context and so it is our responsibility to open up this content. If you read the tea leaves of the films, the big- to relatively smaller- budgeted films (horror remakes), we seem to be stuck resurrecting the ghosts of the last 20 or so years of genre entertainments. The mechanism is waiting for the content properly put into context to catch up to its unceasing progress. Instead of us playing the speculation game like the doomsday economic prophets, lets put our concentration back to what we are responsible for, artfully bringing this ever-broadening world of technology into the proper light and delivering it to the greedy public in bite-sized chunks. What I predict this will yield, in terms of the problems with marrying new forms of distribution to content, is something revolutionary: the merging of the demands of the mainstream, the box-office, and art. We will shoot ourselves up with content until we've become bloated and lazy. Art will be the much needed boost of protein to the system and it will be accessible in a variety of forms and will be necessary for the cinephile, the technophile, and everyone in between.
The technologies take their power from the apparent need for them that they market. But its like so much junk food without the nutrients artists can provide. If the cream rises
to the top it will be in this light with this focus, if we are writers and directors we must bring to them the new art, the new focus, our world, with new radical ideologies behind them as have not yet been experienced. They have become media savy, they know most all of our tricks, the curtain has been lifted and so we must go deeper, we must create the need and we will flourish in a new way, part of this new wave will be finally reaching beyond the screen and delivering an all encompassing new experience that people must see, in theaters but also at home, on their ipods, wherever they want. A new model. A new world. I will commit myself to this. We just need to get the word out, get them in their hearts and heads, make it mean as much to them as it does to us. We will find a way, art always does. The idea has already been planted and it will grow. And it will be unlike anything before but it will be what we have already loved about cinema, the next step, all is evolution.

Posted by: John Keefer at January 8, 2009 8:04 AM

It used to be that you'd go to the video store and the guy behind the counter was your best way to find out about some great film. He'd tell you that you had to see this film or that film. Or... you'd go to your local movie theatre and they'd play the films you had to see. Funny thing is that both of these options still exist. These guys are like radio DJ's who direct you to the best stuff out there. So just posting your film on the web somewhere and hoping to be discovered is just not that likely. The biggest problem with the latest hype surrounding the web is that filmmakers will be discovered. That is just a myth. Not one filmmaker whose work is worth looking at was discovered this way, and I doubt that will ever happen. You still need these DJ's. You still need curators because these people for one reason or another know something about cinema. Its just that simple. For that reason I'll keep going to my local movie theatre and my local video store, and I'll keep on asking those people who work there what great work they've seen.

Posted by: aptitle at January 9, 2009 1:46 PM

There are a few important points that seem to be missing. I think anyone who believes that online film distribution will kill the film industry is sadly mistaken. However, I also think that anyone who believes that the online film distribution will level the playing field is also sadly mistaken. Independent filmmakers--I'm talking folks with very low budgets, no stars and no distribution--have to become marketers or hire marketers to take advantage of the any online distribution channel. That means they must establish relationships with there core audiences. For most filmmakers this means "getting real" about who your core audience is. In the same way that Joe Blow Filmmaker should not make a trailer like, say, Dreamworks does. Indie Filmmakers cannot go about finding and reaching their audiences like Dreamworks does. Think about it: a trailer with the Dreamworks logo can be short, mysterious and virtually give you not information. But...it's DREAMWORKS! Joe Blow tries the same thing --but he has no credibility with his audience. They need proof he can deliver. But I digress. Successful indie films are niche films. Filmmakers must identify their true audiences, not just the audience they "think" their film should reach. Once they've identified them, they can market on their audiences terms, in their audiences language. Otherwise, we filmmakers are just another Joe Blow with a film he's peddling on the web.

Posted by: Angelo Bell at February 2, 2009 5:24 PM
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