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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

From Sundance: Panel on 'The Thousand Channel Universe'

Just got in to Park City this morning.. beautiful day here. Ducked in a little late to a panel discussion at the Film Center on “Faces in the Crowd: Finding Your Audience in the Thousand Channel Universe.” The moderator is John Anderson, a journalist… unfortunately, the Sundance program doesn’t include a list of the panelists.

(As best I could identify, they were Josh Gabel of Viva Tu Cine, Jeff Lipsky, Scilla Andrien of Indieflix, John Anderson, Laura Kim of Warner Independent Pictures, Carlos Guttierrez, and Jason Klein of Special Ops Media.)

Jeff Lipsky points out that self-distribution adds a few layers of complexity: you have to spend time not just making the film, but marketing and distributing it, and making sure you collect “every last dime.”

He says that eliminating release windows might “help mitigate the outrageously obscene cost of marketing a film.” The panel didn’t think the studios’ fears around simultaneous distribution were warranted. Someone observed that it might be possible to release a “bare bones” DVD initially, followed six months later by a DVD with all the extras.

Josh Gabel of Viva Tu Cine says his company “brings Latino films to theaters in Latino communities -- mostly multiplexes. Theatrical really is the ultimate – it really is important – but it’s dominated by giant studios and giant releases. If you want to book your film in a Regal Theater in West Covina, CA, you’re going to have to deal with an old-school booker who’s not going to be that nice to you, maybe. [Film is still] a real `good old boys’ business that’s not allowing access for these independent products.”

Jason Klein, whose firm uses new media to help promote movies, laughs when he says that filmmakers all now ask him for a “vlogging strategy.” [That’d be video blogging.]

He says his task is to identify the audiences that a new film will resonate with. He looks for bloggers who are influential, and can get other blogs to pick up on a new movie, versus those who aren’t.

His company marketed `Serenity’ last year, in part by creating a “point system.” Watch the trailer, get friends to sign up for the mailing list, and you acquired points that could be converted into various freebies. Klein says he started the community about a year and a half before the film came out, and it wound up with more than 70,000 members.

Klein says that rather than buying ads, if you can get heavily-trafficked Web sites to offer the first few minutes of a film as a streaming video, that’d be smart.

Scilla Andrien of Indieflix says, “Just shoot your movie – it has to be a good story, and well told,” but don’t shoot it specifically for cell phones, or iPods, or whatever.

Andrien says her site, which sells DVDs of independent films that haven’t gotten any other sort of distribution, has only been open since October. “Every filmmaker has actually made money – there are probably a dozen filmmakers that have probably sold over 400 units,” she says.

Someone from the audience asks about figuring out who the audience is for his film. Laura Kim from Warner Independent suggests putting together a grass-roots focus group around a kitchen table. Jeff Lipsky suggests plucking people out of the line at the movie theater, and showing them the film in an editing suite. “You get much more of a democratic response (as opposed to screening for film schools) when you go up to paying customers,” Lipsky says.

Someone else from the audience asks about digital distribution. What happens to access when the cost of a film print goes away? Jeff Lipsky says the cost of traditional distribution isn’t going to change much – the major cost is advertising and publicity – we have to do something to mitigate those costs. I don’t think digital projection is going to be a significant cost factor.

Klein says that MySpace can be really successful as a marketing tool -- if it’s the actual filmmakers who do it, not their publicists. He says the director of “Saw” is a friend – he has a MySpace page, with about 5000 friends – spends hours communicating with people. A great forum, and cheap, Klein says.