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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thinking about pigeons and cardinals, at Sundance

I arrived in Park City yesterday afternoon, and I've been trying to pack in as many conversations and meals with people as possible, since my stay at Sundance this year is much too short.

The theme that keeps coming up (and maybe it's always me bringing it up) is an idea that I think of as "pigeons versus cardinals."

Have you ever looked at a pigeon and thought, "What a remarkable bird that is?" Probably not. Pigeons blend in. You often encounter them in flocks: dozens of pigeons, all moving the same, all looking alike, all pecking at cigarette butts on the sidewalk.

Cardinals stand out. It's hard to imagine the environment that they're designed to blend into, and you usually see them alone. It's hard not to notice a cardinal sitting in a tree branch.

For film- and video-makers releasing projects in 2008, the good news is that the distribution channels you need now exist. Without much work, you can find sites that will host your video for free, sell downloads, replicate DVDs, or insert advertising into a stream. With a little work, you might be able to get your work sold on iTunes, or delivered digitally onto TVs and mobile phones.

But that means that everyone else can use those distribution channels, too. Which creates far too many options, too many choices, for the viewer looking to be entertained or enlightened. We're in the midst of a "big bang" of video content. In the same way that desktop publishing made it easy for anyone to put out a 'zine or newsletter, and the Web turned everyone into a blogger, and MP3s made it easy for musicians to widely distribute their work, we're witnessing a real explosion of visual expression: one-off political videos, comic episodics, and full-length features -- we even see some mega-epics, I'm sure.

In 2008, standing out is now the challenge: getting people to first notice that your work exists, watch it, and then tell others about it. (Don't expect the number of choices your audience has to diminish any time soon.)

(In Park City, you pass bulletin boards where flyers promoting movies are stapled one over the other. There might be ten layers of flyers, and someone is inevitably stapling up another one as you stand there. That seems like pigeon thinking to me.)

There isn't going to be a formula that works for everyone. Creating a Facebook group might work amazingly for one project. Giving away the entire movie for free, in ten-minute snippets, on YouTube and other video sites (but selling the full work on DVD) might work for another.

One key is going to be focusing on communities of interest that might care about and support your project -- they undoubtedly exist online. Work with enough of these communities, and you'll have a core audience. (The major studios don't think so much about these niche audiences; instead, they try for big, broad demographic groups, like men under 25.)

I think we're going to see a lot of successful solutions this year to the problem of standing out and building audiences in a very noisy media environment. (If you've seen an example, or been working on one, post a comment or drop me an e-mail.) I also suspect that everyone who succeeds is going to do it by figuring out how to be a cardinal, not a pigeon.

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  • i absolutely agree. after recently seeing a vid of tarantino talking about his early days, i was thinking about when 'reservoir dogs' came out and it occurred to me that the media environment was a lot less crowded then.

    yes, the democratization of tools has given access to many of us who may not have been able to produce something before - but that also means there's more competition than ever, even if most of it is just noise.

    By Blogger deepstructure, at 7:51 PM  

  • Similar thoughts on a post here which might be interesting to read:

    By Blogger The Unknown Filmmaker, at 10:31 PM  

  • Funny timing in bringing up this topic 'cause just last week I was talking w/a friend about this, and yesterday I cut an interview w/George Romero from Sundance where he commented on this as well.

    It seems like everything is in place except for one key piece of the puzzle which has yet to be found.

    By Blogger AndrewK, at 2:21 AM  

  • i agree andrew. i just posted on that very thing: what's missing is a systematic solution for noise-filtering. i don't believe the solution will come from individuals. it will be a feature response to a community need. rather than a filmmaker finding niche communities on their own, a system of some kind will arise to facilitate these types of pairings.

    By Blogger deepstructure, at 4:05 AM  

  • You couldn't be more right. This is something I've been trying to work up the last year or so. I'm not saying that you can't just release something and that it could work out great. It's just that having an audience honestly interested in your work before you release it gives you a wee bit of advantage.

    By Blogger hedetoft, at 4:34 AM  

  • Nothing has changed. The internet is not going to be a magical solution to independent filmmaker's problems.

    Whether you see an independent film in an arthouse theater or the internet is irrelevant. You are seeing it because it has already been screened for you.

    A film festival committee has chosen it out of thousands of submissions.

    A producer's rep has decided to spend his/her time championing it. Out of thousands of submissions.

    A distributor is spending their time, money and effort distributing it. Out of thousands of submissions.

    Who is going to go through the thousands of submissions on the internet? The average film viewer? I think not.

    There is not enough time in people's lives to do that. Assuming you would want to continue after viewing the first two hundred bad films.

    Your film needs positive reviews, positive screenings, word of mouth, good press, someone to champion it. Whether it is viewed in theaters or the internet is irrelevant, there needs to be a system in place to sort through the bad and uncover the good. Whether a film festival committee in real life or a committee of people on the internet, either way it needs to happen. Average people do not want to be that filter.

    Nothing has changed.

    By Blogger Jim, at 12:09 PM  

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