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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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  • I think the only real future is already here: straight to DVD. That's the way most people see these films anyway. It's getting the word to the audience that's the problem. The NYT and most other papers still treat straight to DVD like it was the '80s and full of karate movies. They need to wake up to the fact that some of the best films being made in the world today aren't making it into theaters and help legitimize the good films that come out on DVD by reviewing them.

    There's plenty of money to be made in straight to DVD, as long as your budget isn't huge.

    By Blogger GS, at 1:21 PM  

  • Your post is well timed... a company I work with is launching a website at the Toronto Film Festival that will hopefully assist filmmakers with exactly what you've outlined.

    Our site assists filmmakers with getting their films online either thru their own site or working with our sister site OVN.TV... and yes there is a fee, $500

    Everything you've outlined we've experimented with in the past with being our most successful (as well as and

    It's a delicate dance with film festivals, since filmmakers owe them for the awareness they attract, but considering 99% of all films in them don't find a traditional audience or revenue model, as you state, the time has come for the model to change.

    By Blogger OVN.TV, at 1:57 PM  

  • The article I really like is the John August blog bit... bit hard on Sundance (they didn't make him go:)... and to Sundance's credit they've been working with making shorts avail. during the Fest... but in "the industry" there is still a fear that platforms cannibalize one another... and I'm not convinced (nor do I think you are, Scott?) that they do... ESPECIALLY for "truly indie" filmmakers.

    By Blogger OVN.TV, at 4:45 PM  

  • I want to talk about an experience that may shed light on the future of indie filmmakers and festival that truly are interested in supporting them. In 2000, a film I produced had almost a dozen sold out screenings at an international festival. The festival charged $7-$10 to see our film. This generated a gross income at the festival of over $50,000. Seems like small change? Our film cost us $35k to make. If the festival had split their earnings with us we would have been mostly out of the hole on the film. I think right there is a model. If the jurors or review panels think the film is good enough, they should be will to put there money where there mouth is, help filmmakers find specific sponsors for their screenings to offset receptions and exhibition costs and then actually split the box with the filmmakers.

    I concur with Michael that direct to DVD could be a boon once a solid portal for that is established. Right now I don't see any that truly work. Sales from a filmmakers site are a long shot. If it wasn't why wouldn't people like Joss Whedon with a huge internet following dump the studio system?

    The answer my friend, IMHO, is digital theaters developing relationships directly with filmmakers or small group of filmmakers. Like if I got two or three other quality animation directors together. We could approach a digital theater chain and say we will have a slate of films for 2009. We could negotiate a 50/50 split and cut out the middle man.

    Actually, I think I should be talking to my producer about this right now instead of posting it on this blog!

    Peace yall.

    By Blogger GBH, at 11:17 PM  

  • Digital projection in theaters could lower the barrier of entry for dependent-indies. Dependent-indie houses like Fox Searchlight and New Line have either vanished or grown to full size because the economics of sending film reels to theaters works for blockbusters and against indies. But the economics of digital distribution could work better for niche movies.

    Currently, indies on film go out to a few dozen theaters and show 28 or 35 times a week. In this case, most people around the country can't see the movie, and those few theaters that do get it show it to mostly empty rooms because there aren't a huge number of people near any one theater who want to see it. With digital distribution, an indie could go out to every theater in the country or in the world, but show as seldom as once a week. This schedule would use the same number of showings that each indie gets now, but get more customers per showing.

    This wide-but-shallow digital release strategy could also be a profitable way to rerun thousands of old movies in theaters. Hollywood could simply and cheaply rerun old movies rather than go through the current, expensive, laborious process of making new movies that feel old fashioned.

    Currently, Hollywood is only promoting digital projection as a way to make movies look better, but in fact it will profoundly change the economics and gatekeeping of movies.

    By Blogger Dean, at 3:57 AM  

  • I think you should get some filmmakers to comment on festivals. "Spin the wheel and hope for a deal" is not why the filmmakers we have worked with go to festivals. You build a track record of credibility in festivals that supports not only your film but your career. I think serious filmmakers understand that.

    By Blogger bob in ny, at 10:29 AM  

  • Bob -

    I know there are filmmakers who love festivals for the exposure they offer... and the chance to get a deal.

    But I also know plenty of filmmakers who feel that they pay an entry fee to get into a fest.... the fest charges money to see their movie... sells big-money sponosrships...and yet the filmmaker can wind up not seeing much financial upside from the experience, especially if they don't secure distribution.

    By Blogger Scott Kirsner, at 11:36 AM  

  • There was a back-and-forth on this a while back (see my comments [shameless self reference!] for example)that was kicked off by a post on GreenCine and followed by commentary from AJ Schnack and DIY filmmaker Sujeywa among others. The idea that festivals have money to pay filmmakers -- after they have built an event and created a platform for their work -- is not based in current reality!

    By Blogger bob in ny, at 12:23 PM  

  • Self distribution is becoming more of an option out of necessity, when as you mention with the WSJ article, even star studded movies don't always fare well. With more and more movies being made, filmmakers have to think smarter and take a few chances.

    The industry is changing. At Jaman, we're seeing increasing openness to filmmakers considering internet distribution as an earlier option than ever before.

    I do believe that if a filmmaker can show that people want to see their film - it can only help. A limited early internet release might be the best thing to build buzz for the right film or a release of an "internet" verison - a shorter piece of the film might prove less scary, but equally powerful. The internet offers a lot of creative possibility.

    By Blogger geetanjali, at 1:06 PM  

  • People keep saying the business is changing, but the fact is that it has already changed.

    Theatrical release just doesn't make sense for most films. It's the investors and the audience that has to wake up to the idea of making their money back on DVD alone. Even the big studios make their money on the DVD sales, because M and A costs are so high, and the budgets are so high.

    The idea of these festivals paying lots for films makes no sense. Most festivals struggle to get by, are non-profit, and have intense competition among themselves. We're lucky to have them. They provide access to an audience that are really interested in seeing good films. Remember, most people don't even go to the movies.

    By Blogger GS, at 2:55 PM  

  • I've got to echo what everyone else is saying. Festivals, along with the theatres that host them, are on the way out as independent film has found its finest distributor in the internet. Internet distribution and home viewing are bad for the big screen visionary who needs their 30 million plus budget to make their mainstreamtastrophe, and it's fantastic for nearly everyone else.

    I say enjoy the festival glee while you still can; this is the end of that era. The delirious dances between director and distributor that occur so frequently in the Cannes sunset will not been seen in a few years. Instead, it will be an instant message:
    cr8or: whassup, got teh #s 4 today?
    $$$: yeh check ur dashboard @ main site
    cr8tor: wtf won't load
    $$$: one sec.... teh sql's been buggy or summat
    $$$: k, try again
    cr8tor:k got it...HOLY SHIT!
    $$$: totally ;)

    By Blogger stinger839, at 4:20 PM  

  • I guess the thing is we will keeping making movies and someone else is going to figure out how to make money off them. If we spend all our time trying to figure out the market what does that make us?


    By Blogger GBH, at 12:16 AM  

  • The problem with "business models" for film is there is not a single one and never will be. Every film needs it's own approach based on many factors - quality, audience, timing, current industry conditions, etc.

    What filmmakers needs is comprehensive understanding of the options and then spend the time as early as possible developing a strategy for that specific film.

    My current project is a indie IMAX - totally different parameters from everything discussed here. Learning and understanding will always be the key. Then coming with innovative ways to apply that knowledge for a specific film - that's the key, not a single or even a few models.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:25 AM  

  • Bob (and others)-

    I'm not really suggesting that film festivals need to cut filmmakers in on their revenues. (Though some filmmakers I know have proposed that.) What I am suggesting is that film festivals dedicate more thought, and spend more energy, on working with their filmmakers to help them earn more money...whether that's selling the films for broadcast, on DVD, as downloads, etc.


    By Blogger Scott Kirsner, at 10:08 AM  

  • ... and for my part, I am totally convinced that Festivals can and will have an increasingly important role in promoting the visibility of independent film. We think so much about the virtual social networks of web 2-point-0 that we tend to overlook the "real world" social networks of festivals and their communities. I completely agree with you that Festivals should -- and I think will -- become more influential in building audiences for indie films (n.b. not necessarily engaging in distribution per se, but in building audiences).

    By Blogger bob in ny, at 11:18 AM  

  • What we did at one of the top Festivals was geo fence the country we were in, while making the film available for download in the territories that the film had already screened... the Festival didn't mind (as long as we geo'd), we generated some revenue (not much but enough to offset costs at the Fest) and in the end we were able to utilize what is/was going to (probably) be our high point, awareness wise, to some positive affect... also to the "industry's" credit there was no blow back biz wise (eventually made sales etc.).

    By Blogger OVN.TV, at 8:17 AM  

  • Another minor point... what some Festivals have started doing (I think mostly doc fests), is paying a "screening fee"... it's usually not very much, but when you're deep in the red aft. making your movie... not adding more red to go to Fests is MOST appreciated.

    By Blogger OVN.TV, at 12:47 PM  

  • I think that film festivals are essential learning tools for filmmakers as well as great networking tools. Having a film screened at a festival really gives the filmmaker a chance to see there film in front of a live audience and get a real reaction. Being accepted to a few festivals also gives creditability to the film.

    Indie Filmmakers have lots of control if they decide to market their film themselves. I've even started a blog hoping to teach others some of the ways to go it alone.

    The main thing is know your audience and be proactive. If you believe in your work, it will show and others will want to see it.

    By Blogger Slow Down and Fast, at 7:08 PM  

  • I agree and disagree. Clearly, for the "indie" filmmaker, marketing and advertisement is key. And the festival, in theory, provides this. However, the film world is too saturated with festivals that of which most of us have never heard.

    Grassroots marketing in a locality, I think, is the way to go. Myspace. Four-walling. Utilizing technology. Media coverage begets media coverage.

    After all, Film Festivals Aren't a Necessary Evil....

    By Blogger Anthony Kilburn, at 3:55 PM  

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  • By Blogger wu, at 6:52 AM  

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