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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

New ideas in indie distribution


Thomas Trenker asked me to moderate last night's meeting of the Institute for International Film Financing, a group whose goal is to connect filmmakers with financing - and also to educate them about the business of making and distributing movies. My notes are impressionistic, rather than comprehensive. The speakers were:

    - Tom Schulz, an entrepreneur and angel investor from Silicon Valley
    - Undergroundfilm.org co-founder and chairman Alexander Cohen
    - Joel Bacher, co-founder of Microcinema International
    - Patrick O'Heffernan, a media strategist and author

The event felt especially energetic, since there were so many new ideas about distributing movies and connecting with audiences - and lots of folks eager to hear those ideas. (One person I chatted with during a break was Hassan Zee, the director of "Night of Henna," which he described as the first Pakistani-American film.)

- Tom Schulz showed off some nifty technology from a California company called MoDV, which is compressing movies onto little SD cards (in encrypted form, of course) so they can be played on PDAs and cell phones; Tom showed a version of "Monsters, Inc." playing on his Treo 650. Of course, some in the audience were skeptical that anyone would ever want to watch a full-length film on such a small screen. Of course, they're wrong.

- Joel said of Mark Cuban and his day-and-date releasing strategy, which'd get rid of traditional film release windows, "I think anyone who thinks they can buy a new paradigm is barking up the wrong tree."

- Joel's company sells experimental films and compilations of shorts to various retail outlets (museum gift shops, Netflix) on behalf on filmmakers. He said that when filmmakers sell DVDs to him, Microcinema gets a 60 percent discount off the list price. That's because retailers get 50 or 55 percent off list, and Microcinema needs at least a slim profit margin. "Margins for us suck," he said. "DVD distribution is a volume game." He said that Netflix will buy a copy of just about any title - they want to make sure their library is comprehensive - and that the minimum number of copies they stock is about 30. (Netflix gets about 40 percent off list when they buy from Microcinema, according to Joel.)

- Alex Cohen was showing off his video iPod; he'd loaded an episode of "Jesus Christ Supercop" onto it, in Apple's H.264 format. Cohen said Undergroundfilm.org currently showcases more than 1200 titles, and is getting 100 new submissions a month. The company offers free storage at DV quality, forever. (Though not for video blogs and other ephemeral stuff.) He said the films on the site get about 150,000 views a month - and that number is doubling every month. Some of the films are available on Akimbo (a new, TiVo-like set-top box that connects TVs to the Net), and others are being shown in 2500 movie theaters over the Screenvision digital projection network. Though filmmakers don't get any money from Undergroundfilm.org at present, Cohen said that one short film shown on Screenvision, "Tales of Mere Existence: Procrastination," landed the filmmaker, Lev Yilmaz, a deal with Comedy Central.

- Alex and I talked a bit about Apple's iTunes Music Store. He said he'd approached Apple about helping aggregate indie shorts, and delivering them to Apple, so that the filmmakers could sell them through the music store (today, anyone who isn't a major media conglomerate has to give video content away for free). He gave me the impression that helping indie filmmakers sell their work on iTunes is at the bottom of Apple's `to do' list right now, which is a shame.

- Patrick O'Heffernan gave a great talk about using house parties to build audiences for a movie (and sell lots of DVDs). He cited Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, which distributed "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" recently. By organizing screenings in churches, homes, union halls, and schools, O'Heffernan said filmmakers can "avoid risk-averse gatekeepers," "get immediate distribution," retain rights to the film, and make sure that the profits go directly to the people who made the movie. O'Heffernan said that The Ruckus Society in Oakland is training social activists to organize house party screenings for movies. O'Heffernan also mentioned a new company, HouseParty.com that' s a more commercially oriented firm that helps organize house parties.

All in all, a swell event. Don't miss the next one, if you're in the SF Bay Area.

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