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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The New Filmmaker/Festival Partnership

Just got through moderating a really interesting panel on how film festivals can get more involved in distribution...interesting in that it exposed some truths and opportunities that I think are important for filmmakers and festivals.

Here at the International Film Festival Summit, the oft-repeated wisdom is that acquisitions executives only attend a few select festivals (Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, etc.) And the majority of films that play at second- and third-tier festivals will never get theatrical or home video distribution deals.

So what of the worthy movies that play at these festivals, but don't get picked up?

Some entrepreneurial filmmakers will self-distribute, pressing their own DVDs, or working with services like Amazon's CreateSpace to make DVDs or digital downloads available. (Here's a starting point for filmmakers that choose to go that route.) They'll book their own limited theatrical engagements. Two people I spoke to here (Gary Meyer and Adrian Belic) used the same word in describing this process: in, "you've got to get out there and hustle the movie."

But a lot of filmmakers won't. They'll leave the last movie behind, and start working on another (and some will get frustrated and become accountants.)

That's where I think there's an opportunity for festivals to create relationships with companies like CreateSpace, B Side Entertainment, or IndiePix, helping create a clear path for films that don't get picked up. That relieves the filmmaker of having to evaluate all of these new distribution avenues on their own. (To be clear, I'm not in favor of forcing any filmmakers into a one-size-fits-all deal. This needs to be voluntary.) And for the festival's audience, it does them the service of making it obvious where to find movies that played at the festival in prior years.

In my perfect world, every festival Web site would maintain a permanent page for every film that had played the festival in previous years, along with information and a link about where the film is available. Some will be picked up by big distributors, and be available for purchase at Amazon or rental at Netflix. (And incidentally, referring new people to Amazon and Netflix can be a nice little source of income for festivals, thanks to those companies' referral programs, which pay a small fee whenever anyone makes a purchase or signs up for a subscription.) Some films may be available for download at iTunes. And others will be available through other outlets, where the festival has made a deal with a firm like IndiePix. (IndiePix, in such deals, splits the revenue evenly among the festival, the filmmaker, and itself.)

Am I being too unrealistic to imagine a world where every movie good enough to play a festival is available in some form, after the festival has ended?

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  • I agree. It is so frustrating to see so many films at festivals, knowing full well that many will never appear again. [at least for now, at the moment many film companies are still afraid of the net and want to see how the market will shape itself before they make their moves]
    As the proliferation of online video continues to build, working with festivals to distribute content will make much more sense. The festivals will act as a quasi brand that will allow the films to be found more easily, attract advertising revenue, and most importantly find an audience. For festivals, they will be able to generate more revenue; which will allow them to rent more theaters, invite more filmmakers to attend as guests, and in general take on more initiatives to teach children how to use visual media as a tool of empowerment etc.
    Rest assured, many festivals are getting into this space. Cinequest, Raindance, and others are already rocking the boat.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 9:39 PM  

  • I'm glad to see the dialogue between filmmakers and festivals about partnering to foster distribution. Another possible innovation, recently suggested by Roger Ebert (see his answer to question number 5 at would be for festivals to share their screening revenue with the filmmakers participating in the festival. It would be interesting to learn how festival directors would react to that.

    By Blogger Jane, at 11:30 PM  

  • I think that filmmakers should have 2 goals at any online oroffline film festival.

    #1. Get your film picked up.

    #2. If it doesn't get picked up, get as much exposure for your work and yourself as possible.

    I can name countless friends and acquaintances here in Hollywood who got paying gigs writing and directing because of something someone saw online or at a festival.

    The film that DOESN'T get picked up in many ways can be used as an ad for the filmmaker and their capabilities.

    For the most part, selling on iTunes and Amazon won't get much $$ for the filmmaker. I know countless filmmakers who have sold through these methods. From the numbers that I've seen and been told, filmmakers have averaged around $50 a year for digital sales. Thus number can be a little higher or a little lower, as this is only based off of my direct circle, but I CAN tell you that SELLING your work on iTunes and Amazon will, most likely, NOT get you the exposure that you want for your work.

    The solution in 2007 for films of this type (ones that do not get picked up) is: GET AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE TO SEE YOUR WORK for FREE, by ANY means necessary. ;)

    By Blogger Bill Elberg, at 11:32 PM  

  • This is a multi-pronged issue because of the varying levels of financing most films require to make - even the super cheap ones still cost something. A lot of filmmakers still have the mistaken impression that just because they've gotten into a festival that they're somehow sitting on a pot of gold with their film. They'll pass on many opportunities to make a "little" money because it just might mess up their "big deal" should they be offered distribution.

    Now when you're talking about a film with a budget higher than even $100,000 - the filmmakers often have obligations that prevent them from trying alternatives to the idea of traditional distribution. Quite frankly, it's not all that surprising. In the rush to talk about distribution alternatives many people seem to be forgetting that this is a business. There has to be a some form of hope to get to break-even with anything the filmmaker may try. Anything else could be career suicide.

    It's been mentioned recently that the idea of the "long tail" doesn't work nearly as well for the individual contributors (ie. content creators) to the "long tail" as it does for the aggregators (ie. Amazon). If it turns out that there is no money to be made from being in the "tail", who wants to be a part of that?

    Scott, your "perfect world" idea is great. I wish that festivals did have some way to track the history of films that have shown there. It seems to me that the information would have to be maintained by the filmmakers themselves because most festivals barely have the staff to make it through their own runs. or seem like the obvious places where this could be done easily - today.

    Digital downloads to my knowledge - in and of themselves (where there isn't a sponsorship or other form of compensation) have been a complete financial bust for anyone who has tried them - including networks/studios. It's ironic that a good portion of the current WGA strike is motivated by the idea of a day when digital downloads will be a significant revenue stream. When will that be?


    By Blogger Steve, at 4:22 PM  

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