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Friday, September 05, 2008

Is There a Future For Indie Film? Filmmakers and Festivals Will Decide...

Can we all concur that the business model for making and distributing independent films is in flux?

(Mark Gill certainly thinks so … and this article from the Wall Street Journal adds more detail to the picture.)

I’d like to humbly suggest that film festivals need to play a different, more muscular role in helping filmmakers earn money from their creative endeavors.

The model today, for filmmakers lucky enough to win a slot at high-profile festivals like Toronto, where acquisitions execs are prowling, is to hustle and hope for a distribution deal –- before, during, or after their festival run.

And yet we know that the majority of films – even those that win entrance to Toronto, Tribeca, or Sundance -- don’t ever get that deal.

So months later, the filmmaker is stuck trying to figure out a self-distribution strategy, or working with shady sales agents who may sell the broadcast rights to Bolivia for a few grand. (I know you’ll never believe this, but sometimes the filmmaker never actually gets that money.)

For most movies, playing at a festival (or two or three) is the most attention their film will ever get from the media, movie lovers, agents, and yes, potential distributors.

I acknowledge that some filmmakers will choose to continue playing “festival roulette”: spin the wheel and hope for a deal.

But I think smart filmmakers ought to consider using the highest-profile festival they can get into as the platform for launching their movie. During the festival, or on the day it ends, they should make their movie available through their own Web site, perhaps using DVD-on-demand services like NeoFlix, Film Baby, or CreateSpace/Amazon. Same thing for making downloads available: get that movie onto Amazon Unbox, B-Side, or iArthouse.

And I think festivals ought to do more to create opportunities for their filmmakers: a deal with iTunes, for instance, which puts movies into that popular marketplace (iTunes is notoriously difficult for individual filmmakers to work with), or a broadcast deal with a cable channel or pay-per-view service to put the movies on TV, plastered with festival branding, which would serve as a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for movies that might not have stars or high production values.

From a filmmaker's perspective, it’d be good to have a movie available during the festival. If I read a glowing review of something playing at Toronto this weekend, I’m going to want to download it or buy the DVD right then –- and I may not feel the same way a week later, after the festival ends (I may not remember the movie at all by that point.)

From a festival perspective, I understand the fear that allowing movies to be sold online during the run of the festival might diminish that “I saw it first” feeling that festival audiences enjoy. They might prefer for distribution to begin only at the end of the festival. But if the DVD or download featured the festival logo as part of the opening credits, that could also serve as additional marketing for the fest.

So...wouldn’t distributing a movie during, or just after, it plays a festival totally torpedo any chance for distribution?

For some old-school distributors, yes. But the more forward-thinking distributors might look at strong sales of downloads or DVDs in the weeks following a festival as an indication of viewers’ interest in the movie. They might appreciate a filmmaker who has been collecting e-mails and ZIP codes of everyone who has purchased her film, since that data can be used to pick the perfect cities for a theatrical run, and to promote that run.

And distributors, if they want to work with a filmmaker, can always ask that she pull down the DVD or downloadable version of her film. (It’s important to ask DVD or download services whether you can do this; some require that you give them the movie for a specified period of time.)

I spoke earlier this week to a Sundance spokesperson, who said that nothing prohibits a filmmaker from selling his movie online during the festival, “although we wouldn’t recommend it.” She said no filmmaker had yet tried it, to her knowledge.

Toronto’s rules say that films can’t be available on the Internet prior to the last day of the festival. (It’s hard to tell if that refers just to downloads, or to DVDs sold through a Web site like Amazon, too. Even if that’s the case, the rules would seem to allow you to sell DVDs during the festival through Wal-Mart or Best Buy or another retail outlet, if you could cut that kind of deal.)

“We know certain festivals where it’s clear they discourage distribution during the festival, but I think that even those festivals aren’t going to discourage it for long,” says David Straus, CEO of Withoutabox, which helps festivals run their submission processes, and is increasingly getting into the distribution business. “I think festivals see that it’s important that filmmakers really have the ability to start monetizing their film at the festival, and they can be the catalyst to help them do that,” Straus adds.

I think it’d be great to see more filmmakers and festivals experimenting with these kinds of new strategies. (I wrote a bit about how the relationship between festivals and their filmmakers ought to evolve back in December, during the International Film Festival Summit.)

Of course, I could be totally wrong, and this could be a dead end. Some people believe that films that don’t get picked up for distribution at festivals are completely worthless, and that nobody wants to see them. (I don’t.) Some people believe that things never change, and that distributors will forever give the cold shoulder to filmmakers that pursue the kind of self-distribution strategy I’m proposing, to make the most of their festival buzz. Some people may feel that it isn’t part of a film festival’s mission to help filmmakers make a living.

And some people –- the real pessimists –- may believe that there will never be a new business model for independent film.

I’m curious what you think.

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