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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Interview with Gregg Spiridellis of JibJab

The guys at JibJab have been experimenting longer than anyone else with new business models for Web content. Andy Plesser of the excellent site Beet.TV has a video interview with JibJab co-founder Gregg Spiridellis, where he talks about letting users integrate them into JibJab's content, charging for e-cards, and sponsored content.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Sony Envisions a Whiz-Bangy Digital Download Future

Here's an idea: what if new consumer electronics could connect to an online marketplace where you could purchase content?

That's Sony's new strategy, announced this week. (WSJ coverage / NY Times coverage)

It's a radical idea, connecting these newfangled "devices" to storehouses of digital content. Like, what if you had an online destination called iTunes, and a device called an iPhone, and they'd work together?

Oh, wait, Apple has been pursuing that vision since January 2001.

Seven-and-a-half years seems like a pretty slow pace for a game of catch-up....

(Here are some notes from Stringer's recent appearance at the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital conference.)

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

'Distribution Now' panel from Silverdocs

Dave Nuttycombe was at the Silverdocs panel titled 'Distribution Now: Strategic Thinking for the Feature Doc,' and he posts these notes.

The consensus was that theatrical releasing is "screwed up," but that other opportunities are emerging. A snippet:

    ...[T]he new distribution strategy is “all about what you can do that’s analog.” That is, bringing people together and offering them something that they can’t get from the Internet.” Loyal audiences love community. To that end, [Jim] Browne [of Argot Pictures] mentioned the film 'Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037.' The piano company agreed to support the film by putting the namesake product on “tour,” trucking it to screenings and hiring Steinway artists to play it at shows.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

New blog on the block: Infinicine

At Silverdocs, I had a quick chat with Laure Parsons, who heads up home media sales and marketing at Zeitgeist Films in New York. She told me about a new blog she's publishing called Infinicine, which covers a lot of the issues that CinemaTech readers care about. Worth checking out.

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Mark Gill on the Future of Indie Film

Anne Thompson of Variety posts the text of a keynote address that Mark Gill of the Film Department (and formerly of Warner Independent and Miramax) gave over the weekend at the LA Film Festival. It's worth a read.

I disagree with Gill when he says that studios need to focus on making fewer movies... but he's right that lower prices for digitally-delivered movies will help goose consumption. In his talk, he touches on the way that prices for DVDs dropped relative to VHS tapes, and that the same will likely happen again for movies in digital form:

    When the movie business went from tape to digital, we dropped the wholesale price per unit from $65 to $10. And everyone said: “Oh my god, they’re killing the business. Our profit margins are ruined.” Well, the margin was smaller, but sales exploded. The studios made tens of billions of dollars on the difference. And consumers mostly like what they’re getting. So much so that movies are the second-highest rated consumer value for the money. Behind only chicken. Not so for albums, which are so far down the list you can’t find them.

    The next big change will be when we start shooting movies to mobile devices in a big way. The wholesale price will drop again—probably to $3 per unit. But we’ll sell so many more of them that revenue will explode all over again. This has very favorable implications for getting past piracy problems that helped kill the music business: the charge for downloading a film will land on your phone bill. And the moviemakers can hold the phone companies accountable (whereas now internet providers duck and hide when we try to pursue them for what amounts to transfer of stolen goods).

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Data Point: iTunes Selling or Renting 50,000 Movies a Day

Apple's iTunes Store could sell and rent more than 18 million movies this year, according to this piece from Variety.

From the piece:

    "In the first week, they had 20 times the volume of the next biggest customer, and it didn't go down after that," said an exec overseeing digital at a rival major.

Who's number two? That's hard to say, since no one else releases data. Whoever it is, it's clearly a distant number two -- but I'd guess Unbox, or perhaps CinemaNow.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two Sentence Reviews of the Movies I Saw at Silverdocs

Taking part in Silverdocs for the first time was a lot of fun. It's very well-curated and well-run, and totally lacking the pretensions and silliness of some other festivals.

As is the tradition here, I’m serving up two-sentence reviews of the movies I saw at the festival. No duds among them.

    ‘Kicking It’ is the most involving and inspiring sports documentary I’ve seen since ‘Hoop Dreams,’ bringing viewers to the annual Homeless Football World Cup tournament. But the on-camera presence of Colin Farrell at the beginning and end felt unnecessary, giving those parts of the film the preachy tone of an ABC After School Special.

    It’s tough to imagine a better travel companion than Werner Herzog for an end-of-history visit to Antarctica, where he meets the motley crew of scientists and technicians who populate the continent. But I found myself wishing that Herzog had spent the entire winter there, rather than flitting from outpost to outpost during the sunny summertime, so that he’d have had a better shot at capturing the place’s desolation and brutal weather – and ideally, more drama - in 'Encounters at the End of the World.'

    Lightning and Thunder, a husband-and-wife musical act who mainly cover Neil Diamond and Patsy Cline, are true entertainers – always striving for the bigger gig, the more adulatory audience. 'Song Sung Blue' takes you into their applause-hungry (and threadbare) home, but ultimately, I wanted to know a little more about what was going on with Michael Sardina, the elusive Lightning, especially as he seems to edge into some sort of alcohol- or drug-induced stupor in his later years.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Coming Soon: SnagFilms, a New Approach to Generating Revenue for Indie Filmmakers

[ This was an early news post from June about SnagFilms...updated news about the launch is here. ]

SnagFilms, a new service that aims to help generate new online revenues for filmmakers, had intended to launch this week at Silverdocs, but the launch has now been delayed until mid-July. I'd hope to talk to some of the SnagFilms team while I was here in Silver Spring, but that didn't happen (the one SnagFilms person I started to chat up at a cocktail party Friday evening literally scampered away when I started asking questions about it.)

I'm eager to find out more about it, but here's what I've been hearing about Snag through the grapevine, from filmmakers, producers, and other industry types.

- Snag's founders are Ted Leonsis, vice chairman emeritus of AOL and producer of the recent doc 'Kicking It,' and media exec Rick Allen. Stephanie Sharis, formerly head of AOL True Stories, is also involved.

- It'll be linked/partnered with the AOL True Stories site, which these days seems to mostly promote docs with which Leonsis has been involved ('Nanking' and 'Kicking It' are prominently featured.)

- Snag isn't going to try to create a destination site for film fans, but is building a video "widget" that can be placed on other sites: a filmmaker's site, a blog run by an advocacy group, a Facebook profile, anywhere. The widget will deliver streaming film clips, trailers, shorts, and in some cases entire features, peppered with advertisements.

- I'm told that Snag will split revenue from these ads with the filmmaker or distributor, 50/50. Snag (or one of its partners) will sell the ads. Video ads can run anywhere from $20 to $50 per thousand impressions. Basically, that means that if your short film is shown 1000 times via the Snag widget, even at the high end of that range, you'd earn $25.

- Snag may also try to "upsell" DVDs to viewers, offering a link to the place where a viewer can purchase the disc. Snag will take about eight percent of that transaction, I'm told. (Update: 8.5 percent) Snag may also partner with digital download sites, too. Eager to hear more about that -- especially if Snag does a deal with iTunes, the main online marketplace for video content today.

- Snag isn't going to require that filmmakers give them exclusive rights for digital distribution/video-on-demand. But one issue that could prevent some more established filmmakers from working with them is that often broadcast/cable/home video deals require that filmmakers grant them exclusive rights to VOD.

- I'm not yet aware of any filmmakers who intend to work with Snag, but if you are, perhaps you'll post a comment. Also not sure if Snag is purely focused on documentaries, or will work with narrative features too.

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Russ Wintner on Cinemas of the Future

Here at Silverdocs, I had a chat yesterday with distribution consultant Peter Broderick about why the theatrical experience has been so slow to evolve... why more theaters don't let their communities choose the movies that play there, create more comfortable environments, offer better food, etc.

Back at the hotel, Russell Wintner e-mailed me to point me to an article he has written on just that topic -- mapping out the future of the theater. The piece is worth a read, as Wintner is one of the pioneers who kick-started the digital cinema revolution (and he grew up in a family that owned movie theaters.)

A snippet:

    Other technology under development will make the movie going experience even more immersive and dynamic. Two approaching technologies appear to come right from the pages of "Stranger than Science." Designs for laser light projectors were presented at the annual electronics conference NAB this past April. Laser-driven projectors offer more light, a wider range of color, and a switching capability that will allow for even better fidelity on the screen with frame rates higher than both traditional and home theaters. Quite possibly, laser projection will allow for 3D without glasses because the easily focused and directed light beams can be alternatively aimed at different parts of a screen designed to reflect into either the right or left eye but not both. Active display technologies, which enable images to emanate from a cloth-like material hung on walls or from ceilings, are a new technology that will remove the need for a projection booth. They should do for theater architects what digital has done for media. Buildings will be able to take on all sorts of shapes and configurations to better accommodate content and audiences. Theaters in the round, concert theaters with a mosh pit, and gaming salons where players share a common third-person point of view battling each other, or even better, a shared first-person point of view fighting aliens controlled by a computer, will all be possible.

The thing Wintner doesn't address -- but which is key -- is why most theater owners have been so passive about evolving their business and experimenting. Attend a ShoWest conference, and you will find that exhibitors are about the most unimaginative, status-quo-oriented businesspeople in America, simply waiting for the studios to give them hit movies that will draw big crowds.

Even Mark Cuban, who owns Landmark Theatres, has been *talking* a good game about radical theatrical innovations over the last three years but not really doing much.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

When You Need Traditional Media, and When You Need Bloggers

I'm in Silver Spring, MD today for Silverdocs.

This morning, I was on a panel with Karina Longworth, AJ Schnack, Anthony Kaufman, and Sandy Mandelberger, moderated by former Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson. We were talking about the differences between reviews and film coverage in traditional media versus the blog world.

I proposed one theory: that traditional media (radio, TV, print) and the blogosphere serve two very different purposes for filmmakers.

Traditional media coverage takes a lot of energy to get. Often you have to hire a PR firm, or hope your distributor employs a sharp PR person. But getting reviewed or written about in a magazine, or having Richard Roeper say nice things about your work on 'At the Movies,' is really important if your film is playing in theaters. Traditional media coverage is still very important if you're trying to put butts in seats -- or get people to watch your film when it is broadcast on TV.

On the flip side, blogosphere coverage is *much* more powerful if you're trying to sell DVDs or downloads of your film. The reason is that blogs will usually link directly to your film's site (or sometimes, directly to Amazon or iTunes or somewhere else where it's available for sale -- so that they can pocket the referral fee that comes from sending a paying customer their way). That link is a direct "synaptic connection" between someone interested in your film and the place where they can purchase or immediately watch your film. Traditional media just can't do that. Even if "Fresh Air" decides to devote a half-hour to interviewing you, listeners still have to remember the title of your movie, and seek it out in theaters or on DVD.

And blogosphere coverage is something you can get without an expensive PR firm (in fact, it may be better off *not* to have an expensive PR firm.) You can approach bloggers directly, offering them an interview, some exclusive clips from the film, a "guest blog post," a podcast interview with your star.... anything that will help them cover your film. The producers of "King Corn" did a really good job of cultivating coverage in the blogosphere (and I've written a case study about how they did it, which may one day show up online.) Just Google "King Corn reviews", and you'll see how much "ink" they got from bloggers.

In short, traditional media can still put ticket-buyers in seats and get people to tune in to TV broadcasts (or at least TiVo them.) But bloggers are great -- and perhaps even more powerful than traditional media -- when it comes to selling DVDs and downloads.

Your thoughts?

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

YouTube Creates Selective 'Screening Room' for Shorts and Features

This week, YouTube launched The Screening Room, an area of the site that will showcase eight new short films every month, and the occasional full-length feature. In the first crop are films written by Miranda July, directed by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, and starring Kevin Pollak.

From the press release:

    People will be able to communicate directly with filmmakers to share thoughts, exchange opinions with fans, and provide honest feedback using YouTube's features to comment, rate, and share films. The YouTube Screening Room will also include a "Buy Now" button, allowing filmmakers to link to websites selling DVDs and digital downloads of their films, as well as a High Quality player, which offers users the best viewing experience possible.

YouTube is sharing ad revenue with filmmakers based on how many people watch their work, explains Sara Pollack, who manages the company's filmmaker relationships. The site also offers links to a filmmaker's site, where he can sell DVDs, iTunes downloads, or other merchandise.

The film featured today, Rob Pearlstine's 'Our Time is Up,' has a bright green "Buy Now" button that links to the filmmaker's site. From there, though, you have to click to the film's separate site, then click "See It." Then, you have the option to either buy it as part of a DVD compilation of Oscar-nominated shorts from Amazon or get it from iTunes, where it is a 99 cent rental or $1.99 download. It's a little circuitous: Rob, you should have "Buy Now" be a direct link to a page that explains the purchase options.

And you should also post in the YouTube comments area, so YouTube users feel you are a real, accessible human being -- not some remote big-shot director!

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stan Winston on Art & Innovation

Special effects innovator Stan Winston died on Sunday, at 62. He'd won four Academy Awards for his work in movies such as 'Aliens' and 'Jurassic Park.' Here's the LA Times obituary.

I interviewed Winston in 2005. He told me that he was "a storyteller and an artist first."

"For me, the way that I've been able to have had the chance to be innovative technically is to think innovative thoughts artistically. The art has to come in front of the technology."

Making a movie, Winston told me, "is the most collaborative art form of all time. Every artist is not only an artist, but a tool for another artist, and at the top of that food chain is the director."

We talked a lot about his collaborations with James Cameron and Steven Spielberg ... and how they often volleyed back and forth on the best way to achieve an effect -- stop-motion, CGI, animatronics, etc.

"Every brilliant director I've worked with has been my partner in creating new technology," Winston said. When Spielberg asked him if he could build a 25-foot dinosaur for 'Jurassic Park' - a T. rex that could act - Winston said, "I don't have a clue. But we'll figure it out, because that's what we do."

Winston was clearly someone who had great fun doing breakthrough work.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

New Online Series for Sony Pictures TV

Sony Pictures Television is launching a new series on the Web, 'Angel of Death,' with the hope that it'll do well later as a DVD. Budget is $1 million, and it'll be shown in eight-minute chunks online, according to the Wall Street Journal.

From Sarah McBride's piece:

    In addition to generating some ad revenue on the Web, Sony hopes that launching the show online will translate into strong sales for the DVD, much as a good start in theaters builds DVD sales for feature movies.

    "We're not expecting to make all our money back in that initial [online] window," says Sean Carey, senior executive vice president, Sony Pictures Television.

Key for these bigger-budget Web series will be getting them distributed on lots of sites, and sparking some geniune Internet buzz around them. (I feel like the only things I heard about 'quarterlife' and 'Prom Queen' was from mainstream media articles about them.)

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Does this news matter? Roku sells out of its new Netflix set-top box

When Amazon sold out of Kindle e-book readers after just a few days, I was skeptical: they'd never announced how many were available in that first production run. Was it 100? 1000? A million?

Now, we've got the same situation with Roku's new $99 set-top box that delivers "Watch It Now" streaming movies from Netflix: they're sold out, according to the San Jose Mercury News, but no one will say just how many were available.

So does it matter that Roku is "sold out" of its set-top box? Or is this just a PR gambit to make the device seem "hot"?

(Or maybe it's a manufacturing snafu: Roku says it'll take six to eight weeks to clear up the backlog, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal.)

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Reframe: Making rare films available online

re:frame launches today - an effort to digitize important and rare movies and make them available as DVDs or digital downloads. It's an initiative of the Tribeca Film Institute, and the partner for delivering the downloads and DVDs is

The NY Times writes:

    The approximately 500 works initially available range from the works of the filmmaker Sally Potter, beginning with her 1979 short “Thriller,” to collections of little-known documentaries from various archives. Some of those will be available to purchase only on DVD, because rights are controlled by commercial distributors. But the service aims to provide about 10,000 works over the next year or so and expects to make as many as possible accessible on the Web.

IndieWire explains:

    [Tribeca Film Institute director] Brian Newman emphasized that Reframe is meant to be highly curated so that it can offer, "quality content." While that's a "slippery term," he reiterated that Reframe is not for user-submitted "YouTube films."

    As for the ambitious goal of hitting 10,000 titles in its first year, Brian Newman is optimistic. "It's a goal, not set in stone, but I think it's feasible."

And the Hollywood Reporter explains some of the details of the deal for filmmakers/rights-holders:

    The nonprofit TFI and copyright holders will split the profit on digital download rentals and purchases (distributed in Windows Media Player format) evenly. DVD sales will operate under a tiered system, with 40% of $50 and under titles, 85% of $51-$200 titles and 90% of more than $200 titles going to rights holders. More expensive titles will be aimed at the educational market looking for classroom materials, though rentals in the $4 range, lasting anywhere from 36 hours-30 days, are accessible to all visitors. Buyers must have an Amazon account to make purchases.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Indie Documentarians Take Control of Their Own Destiny

BusinessWeek Online has a nifty piece about documentary filmmakers taking control of their own distribution. The lead example is a film called 'What's Your Point, Honey?', which I hadn't heard of...but apparently has been doing well in New York.

John Tozzi writes:

    ...[L]ike musicians who shun record labels to sell their music themselves, anecdotal evidence suggests documentary filmmakers—already an entrepreneurial bunch—are foregoing the conventional path of shopping their films to a distributor. They're skipping such deals and using the Internet to get their stories in front of people who want to hear them.

    "Indie filmmakers are getting a little bit less afraid to say no to somebody with all that power, because other new channels are opening up," says Amy Sewell, co-director of What's Your Point, Honey? Sewell, who wrote the popular 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, has opted out of the festival circuit for her latest film. She and co-director Susan Toffler walked away from a "low six-figure" offer from a distributor so they could hold on to the rights, organize their own screenings, and sell DVDs directly through their Web site.

    Few people get rich making documentaries, and that's unlikely to change. But filmmakers who take control of their marketing and distribution can expand their audience and increase their chances of turning a profit, says Peter Broderick, a Sanata Monica (Calif.) consultant to independent filmmakers. "Filmmakers need to be as creative about their distribution as they are about their production," he says.

Article also includes some examples from 'King Corn' and 'Note by Note.'

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It's Hollingshead Day: Visit Your Local Drive-In

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of the very first drive-in cinema in Camden, NJ, created by Richard Hollingshead, Jr.

To mark the occasion, Wired has a photo gallery of drive-in images. NPR has a story about dead drive-ins coming back to life. The Niagara Gazette covers the Western New York Drive-In Movie Society, which aims to support the nine theaters that survive in that part of the world.

I'm planning to hit the Mendon Drive-In this weekend.

Here's the great site, which has a comprehensive database of open (and closed) drive-ins...

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Sony's Stringer Says High-Def Downloads Won't Gain Steam

The NY Times tech blog, Bits, has some excerpts from an interview with Sony CEO Howard Stringer that are worth a look.

One provocative snippet:

    Mr. Stringer was asked whether movie downloads would soon make Blu-ray discs obsolete. “I don’t think in this country it’s going to be competitive,” he said, noting that most broadband services are so slow in the United States that it can take 10 or 14 hours to download a high-definition movie. “Blu-ray is really gathering momentum.”

Stringer also muses about delivering digital versions of Sony movies to Sony televisions -- even before their DVD release. David Gallagher notes, "...[H]e indicated that the company was considering new ways to combine its hardware with its content to bolster its profit margins in markets that are becoming commoditized."

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Text Messaging the Movie Screen

Screenvision and Verizon Wireless are getting together later this month to test an audience survey technology together, in 10 US cities. The idea is to encourage movie-goers to text message votes about their favorite music to the screen, where they'll see the results tallied (amidst the rolling series of pre-show advertisements.)

News of the deal is here and here.

If you're at a theater that's showing pre-show ads, I suppose it can't hurt to have more to do than just sitting there passively...though I do worry that this will make it seem OK to be text-messaging *during* the movie.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Yet More on Internet Film Financing: IndieGoGo Video and MyMovieStudio

Last Friday at the Making Media Now conference in Boston, I ran into Slava Rubin of IndieGoGo, and we sat down for a quick chat about how things are going with the site, which aims to help filmmakers raise money for their projects. (I've previously compared several of the sites trying to do this.)

(Aside: In much of the video, my nose looks like it is auditioning for the part of "The Nose" in a remake of Woody Allen's 'Sleeper.')

Before we shot the video, I mentioned to Slava that earlier in the week, I'd received yet another e-mail from yet another new site trying to help raise money online for films. This one, My Movie Studio, is co-founded by Glasgow Phillips, who has written a few episodes of 'South Park.' Users can post their ideas for movies (not scripts), and then vote on which ones they'd like to see produced. Co-founder Michael Bertin explains:

    When we get a critical mass, we plan to form an investment vehicle and issue $100 shares for sale to members. We hope to raise $6 million (60,000 shares at $100 each) to finance the three most popular ideas as voted by the community—the three winning Movie Pitch authors will receive $25,000 and sole "Story By" credit on the movies based on their ideas.

Who's going to write the scripts? Bertin explains: "...[W]e're going to hire professional, credited film and TV writers to turn the ideas into scripts. We've got a really good network of writers so we're pretty confident in our abilities to get through any creative challenges from a scripting standpoint.

If the movies do well, investors will presumably be able to earn a positive return on their $100 shares. But dealing with securities regulations will be a challenge .... which is why IndieGoGo considers all the money its filmmakers raise to be "contributions" or "donations," rather than investments.

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