Archive for the ‘CinemaTech’ Category

The Conversation is ongoing

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Had fun moderating and ‘advising’ at The Conversation on Saturday. Lots of thoughts always arise when you get many interesting and innovative thinkers together, but I think one thing has been on my mind and only became more intensely so after a day of discussing various kinds of viability for media creation.

There are some basic realities in an economic context that are altering the fundamental possibilities for filmmakers now. When I was focused on the distribution end, I saw this as largely troubling. I do think there will be things I currently love that may not survive the kind of changes we are seeing now. But there are also potential upsides that can be embraced.

Hollywood-style cinema seems to be moving more and more into over-the-top, event-based cinema that can’t be replicated in a home environment. The movies that tend to do well at the box office are the ones with astronomical budgets. The box office prices are going up to reflect that. If a big 3-D movie is $19.50 now, then exhibitors may be reluctant to play small movies that have smaller audiences at a reduced admission.

On the other hand, independent filmmakers can increasingly make high-quality films for very low amounts of money. They may not be able to access the old distribution channels, and they also may choose whether a traditional distribution model makes sense, compared to the various alternatives that are emerging. Since very few films ever make back their budget through domestic distribution and the majority of films made don’t even have the option of accessing traditional distribution, it’s no surprise that new ways of reaching an audience and potentially getting revenue are emerging.

What I’m waiting to see, and to figure out myself as a filmmaker, is what elements of financing or reaching an audience from the “old ways” can work with a model in which the work I make is not only a product I then license to other people in hopes of some return for the work I’ve done. Instead I’d like it to be viable in a financial way (and also good, by the standards I have) and also a part of some larger body of communication that remix and reproductive culture demands. I think we may not be there yet but the tools are developing.

See you at DIY Days!

Sundance New Frontier's Ian Calderon on Indie Digital

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Interviewed by CinemaTech‘s Scott Kirsner:

New Directions for Independent Cinema: Ian Calderon from Scott Kirsner on Vimeo.

RiP, Snag, Friends, and Followers: Quick Hits

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Some recent news of note:

RiP: A Remix Manifesto premiered at SXSW and has been ‘picked up’ in the US by B-Side, whose DIY model will presumably avert some of the bigger copyright issues that might be a problem for regular distributors.

Snag! Films has made a deal with Hulu to place films on that site. This begs the question for filmmakers of whether, when they license their film to one online market, they are permitting that company to resell their film elsewhere (presumably cutting into whatever revenue there might be). It’s probably a good idea in general to look at contracts closely to see if this is the case- and to be clear about who you want to sell to and who you want as a representative.

Cinematech
guru Scott Kirsner’s new book “Fans, Friends, & Followers” streets today- and is available both in physical and virtual versions. I hope to have more to say once I’ve had a chance to read it, but as Scott asks for examples of business models that work in the online realm, I’ll just say that in terms of the selling of art and fundamental things that make it successful no matter what realm we’re in, I think that having people at the core who are both true fans of the work AND good businesspeople/entrepreneurs is the most important aspect. The how seems like it will follow naturally after that.

What's Next? Panel at Sundance on new distribution today

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

The lovely and talented Scott Kirsner hosts a panel today at noon at Sundance described as “In today’s brutal marketplace, filmmakers and distributors are forced to think outside the box. From DIY theatrical to multiplatform releases and viral marketing, there are as many new strategies today as there are successful films. Join us as we showcase films capitalizing on the newest opportunities, as well as the distribution companies articulating the clearest visions.”No surprise that panelists include Matt Dentler from Cinetic, as well as Lance Hammer, Connie White, Christian Gaines, MJ Peckos, Cora Olson and Steven Raphael. Expect to see a post-game on this one at Cinematech.

On Wednesday, another panel in the What Next? series will cover “As traditional film distribution wanes, is broadband ready to pick up the slack? We are finally seeing the major Hollywood players put their cards on the table, and filmmakers are weighing their options. Will broadband revitalize the entertainment industry, or is the industry facing a collapse? This panel assembles studio execs, major independents, and trend spotters to discuss digital distribution. As traditional film distribution wanes, is broadband ready to pick up the slack? We are finally seeing the major Hollywood players put their cards on the table, and filmmakers are weighing their options. Will broadband revitalize the entertainment industry, or is the industry facing a collapse? This panel assembles studio execs, major independents, and trend spotters to discuss digital distribution.”

Oddly, though New Frontier panels are open to the public and free, the logical conclusion of streaming hasn’t really hit yet. What’s next?

ITVS Digital Initiative- New Tech for Reaching Audiences

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

I’m a little slow on the uptake here, but man-on-the-beat Scott Kirsner of Cinematech has a great resource on the ITVS site where he interviewed a number of documentary filmmakers about their experiences using new technology to reach an audience.  Scott told me:

Among the folks I spoke to were Tiffany Shlain (“The Tribe”), Katy Chevigny (“Election Day”), Hunter Weeks (“10 MPH” and “10 Yards”), Byron Hurt (“Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes”), and Curt Ellis (“King Corn”). Not everyone is a filmmaker who is funded or supported by ITVS… our sole criterion was to find folks who were experimenting.

He also came up with a list of 15 recommendations, many of which we’ve agreed on in the past.  The one cautionary addition I would make is to his suggestion to “Make sure DVDs are available when audiences are most interested in the film: during the theatrical run, during festival screenings and at the time of the first TV broadcast.” This is fine if you have no plans to work with a distributor and you’re not planning to work with quite a number of theatrical venues and TV Broadcasters- but you should be aware that at this point in time, distributing DVDs or placing the fim online will definitely endanger your deals with many if not most major players.

Distribution, Downloads, Democracy and Doubt

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

I was at a NYWIFT event the other night talking with some filmmakers about the necessity of distribution today- as in, is it time to toss the whole concept out with VHS and Pluto being a planet. It seems to me that distribution is responsible for my knowing about most of the cool films that I do- that without it people in the US might have remained blissfully unaware of the French New Wave, of Takeshi Kitano, or Down By Law.  Now perhaps the magical internet has made everything different, but I wonder if some of the basic functions of distribution are still necessary- and not possible to satisfy simply by having some open downloading pool.

Brian Shirey, Head of DVD Production at Kino International says,

I may be old-fashioned, but I think distribution’s primary purpose is to wade through the mountain of films screened at festivals every year to find the few that are truly good enough to be seen on a wider scale. This should be done to the mutual financial benefit of all, although that should not be the central goal…  If a filmmaker rejects distribution on the grounds that the technology allows him or her to just do it themselves — through digital streaming, or other online applications — then there is no mediation in the process and the market will potentially suffer a glut of home-made, low-quality, self-satisfying films.

For me, the point of distribution has nothing to do with technology, which is really just a means to the end.  It’s about finding the quality and getting it out there, and hoping, but not guaranteeing, that audiences will come.  Filmmakers should have to earn that opportunity.

What IS the point of distribution and is it still relevant today? Some basic ideas:

  • + to make money by selling films
  • + to select the films people will want to see– for arthouse cinema, usually the best, best reviewed and highest festival-honoured
  • + marketing films once they are made and have received accolades- there is a tiny percentage of people who might just go see any well-reviewed movie.  But most people need to know more, need to see a trailer, some image, etc.

One might think that without distribution fest honors and reviewing would be enough to tell people about good films.  So far that hasn’t been the case.  There has also been a lot of buzz lately about how professional reviewing is going by the wayside. There are many more festivals than ever- maybe even too many. Top festivals currently rely on distributors for revenue and the markets are what attract top films.  Would top festivals even be “top” if it weren’t for the markets? Festivals are expensive for filmmakers, though at present a lot of that expense is industry-directed.

Some have posited that festivals could be a distribution strategy unto themselves (though I believe that is called semi-theatrical, and there are many distributors and some filmmakers who have done alright on that circuit). Scott Kirsner suuggested at CinemaTech that a possible avenue of revenue for filmmakers could be digital sales or DVD sales during their festival runs.  Though eventually this may yield cash for films that don’t have a more traditional path to sales, I see a couple of hurdles at the moment- one being the impact on TV sales, the more obvious being the unlikelihood of a filmmaker with a feature in one of the major festivals having anywhere the kind of time and resources it would take to make DVDs or proper downloads happen.

Scott also wrote a great piece on getting films onto iTunes, and in the comments I noticed the idea emerging that online markets should be democratic- a kind of anti-distribution model in which anyone can put things up and somehow consumers will sort it out– and yet people will get paid for content.  (There was also an interesting follow-up article on distributing short films at the blog Deep Structure.)

Right now to administrate and deliver content has costs.  Content providers are there to earn money.  A free-for-all system is not the most effective way to earn money.  EVEN if the issue of legal and digitizing standards and bandwidth were all irrelevant.

Customers will use the system that is most to their taste and meets their technical demands most effectively.  The customer demand for a site with every thing that is out there, especially films without marketing and festival exposure, is small.  And I would think the only way to monetize such a site would be ad revenue, because consumers are unlikely to buy these films online without any marketing- it is sort of the digital equivalent of the guy who tries to sell you a DVR of his awesome movie on the subway.

Distributors are not as important in the online sphere IF a filmmaker is proactive and has marketing savvy (and has budgeted for marketing).  A filmmaker today can go through Amazon’s CreateSpace program to place their film on Amazon (and even sell to Amazon VOD), they can do their own limited theatrical and semi-theatrical runs, they can create a website, Facebook, myspace, and hook up with communities who would be into the film and other filmmakers, they can work with a number of online markets to get the film out there streaming/download-to-rent or –own.

That said, to take a film to the ‘next level’ or for filmmakers who don’t want a full-time unpaid job after they are done making the movie, distributors are still important.  Distributors find the most commercial and most quality films and then have a team of people to take them to established theatres, big retail, and even online markets like iTunes that don’t deal with filmmakers one –on-one.  Customers and buyers know the distributors, know they can be trusted to deliver quality product with certain standards.

Neal Block, Director of Theatrical Distribution at Magnolia Pictures says,

Sure, online distribution would absolutely “democratize” the process of getting movies in front of viewers, but the most important thing moving forward with that would be to make sure there are qualified people making the acquisition choices. It’s a lot like film and music bloggers – everyone thinks they can write fantastic criticism, but they can’t. There’s a reason people are hired as critics, and why people trust those critics’ opinions. Strict quality control is the only way that online distribution is going to be a long-term success.

The catch is the cut that the distributor takes- which will be in addition to all the other little cuts along the way from theatres, wholesalers, and even iTunes.  Talk to some filmmakers who have made films similar to yours and get a sense of the numbers you should be looking at and what will make sense for your project.

The concern I think a lot of people at smaller companies see now is what will happen to the indie companies during this transition.  Of the arthouse and indie distributors, a lot of the ones you’d actually want to trust your film to are small- but smaller companies are less likely to have Electronic Distribution (ED) rights for their catalogue films (and less able to acquire them), less likely to be in Blu-Ray, less likely to be capitalized in a way to survive the transition into digital if it means a few years when revenues are scanty.  As Jonathan Howell, Director of Theatrical Booking at New Yorker Films put it:

Everyone’s wondering what the distribution model of the future (which is pretty much next week, if not last week) will look like. The traditional model, which has been relatively stable for the past hundred years (with television and then home video both making rather significant waves), is in the process of being broken, but it’s not yet clear precisely what will replace it. We all know it’s going to go digital, and film will be relegated to the position of the much-loved/much-maligned LP record–probably not abolished, but pushed into a niche. We all suspect it’ll be largely a question of transmitting this digital data into people’s homes, probably at least as much as transmitting it into cinemas, but that shift hasn’t yet taken place. So we’re all left in the position of a person knows they’re going to be moving homes for a long, long time before it actually happens–even though we’re not sure yet precisely where we’re going to move to. But, in short, we all realize that the lease is up, so to speak–it’s just that no one wants to take that step until there’s a consensus about “where we’re going to live” once we move. There’s the anxiety of having to choose between VHS and Beta, or Blu-ray and that other technology that I’ve already forgotten the name of because it lost just a few months ago. We’re behind the 8-ball.

It’s a good time to be careful- and if there is one certainty in the film world of today, it’s that filmmakers need to be educated. Go to panels, do internet research, and above all, talk to other filmmakers and to people in the industry. Since no one really knows what is next, try to do short deals!

UPDATE: TuneCore can now put indie films up on iTunes for a fee. It looks like a good deal for indie filmmakers- we’ll see if it’s a good deal for iTunes… (Though apparently “The movies placed in the iTunes store are editorially approved by the iTunes staff.”)

iTunes and Indie Films – Meet the Middleman

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

In a nifty bit of synergy, Scott Kirsner over at CinemaTech has taken on the question “How to get your indie film on iTunes?” (a somewhat similar query to the very first post in the Infinicine discussion forum). Getting your film on iTunes does seem like a bit of an apex at this stage in the digital distribution evolution, not only because iTunes sales are so commanding relative to other download services so far but also because they charge a relatively high price and share it with the rightsholder. (As with any customer, terms will vary).

The challenge, as Scott pointed out, is that iTunes, much like oldmedia sellers Barnes & Noble or Borders, does not buy directly from individual filmmakers. This means that there are a number of ‘aggregators’ vying to become the wholesalers of the digital realm, and one must deal with them in order to place films on iTunes.

In contrast, Amazon, which has made its name on having just about everything available to customers looking for obscure items, has had a system in place long before streaming to work with independent vendors. As long as filmmakers adhere to terms of service, they can put their product on Amazon, albeit on the terms established for this type of product.

There are different ways to look at this situation as an independent filmmaker. First of all you need to evaluate whether iTunes would be a significant market for your film. Some might think that ANY market with the higher sales of iTunes would be a great place to put ANY film. But realistically, placing your film on ITunes will mean working with an aggregator, who in some cases will want to represent all digital rights and take as much as 50% of your net revenues. You might also think of doing a service deal with a distributor, who could deal with an aggregator on your behalf- increasing your layers of percentage-takers, but perhaps getting a better deal or being able to leverage some kind of promotion on the iTunes site.

As for iTunes, it is somewhat mysterious why they are being so cautious. They wouldn’t seem to lack for bandwidth or the technical know-how to implement such a system. On the other hand, the money to be made from indies is low, the risks are far more than with music- as Scott puts it:

By open, what I’d like to see is an aggregator accepting any finished film where the filmmaker can guarantee that there are no rights issues that will result in lawsuits… or at the very least any finished film that has played at least one festival.

In my experience, the former is a much smaller field than the latter, and a Venn diagram of the two would narrow things down significantly. Trying to sort out legals is something that probably does require more than just a ‘guarantee’- especially when you are in a much more highly trafficked space like iTunes.

That said, it would be great if iTunes would make the system more transparent and open so that filmmakers aren’t at the mercy of “aggregators” to offer them whatever marked-up deal they desire. And it would be great if iTunes made more of an effort to promote indie product on the site and build the market a bit, since it seems like their demographic is ideal for new indies.

Having The Conversation in October

Friday, July 25th, 2008

I’m super jealous of anyone who will get to attend The Conversation, not to be confused with a Francis Ford Coppola film, though it’s in San Francisco) a very cool conference on the ways new technologies are allowing filmmakers and others to connect to audiences- in other words, subject matter near and dear to the heart of this site. Hosted by Scott Kirsner from CinemaTech as well as Ken Goldberg (Berkeley Center for New Media), Tiffany Shlain (The Webby Awards), and Lance Weiler (you know, Lance Weiler)- it should be a fabulous time and a very fertile field of new distribution ideas.

Perhaps we can think about an East Coast 2.0?