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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Distribution U. Wrap-Up

Wow: two hundred filmmakers made their way to USC on Saturday (braving a walkathon that encircled the campus) to talk about the future of film marketing and distribution.

Amidst the continual caterwauling about the indie film “crisis,” Distribution U. was remarkably optimistic, as Peter Broderick and I had hoped it would be. Rather than organizing a panel where various experts would wring their hands about how it’s impossible to turn a profit making indie films anymore, our objective was to focus the day solely on strategies and tactics for finding an audience and earning a return.

I began the day by looking back at the history of cinema, briefly. Thomas Edison thought that movies projected for a communal audience would spell the end of his lucrative Kinetoscope business: the movie industry’s first existential crisis. In the late 1920s, most of Hollywood was convinced that sound technology was too expensive and complicated, and probably a passing fad anyway. TV was seen as a threat to the studios’ box office take, and a few decades later, once a big TV licensing business had emerged for movie studios, they were certain that the VCR and home taping would mean the end of that gravy train. Now, studio honchos and indies alike worry about declining DVD sales and digital revenues that, of course, will never be sufficient to support high-quality content creation.

But the bulk of my talk consisted of examples of how filmmakers (and musicians, artists, and writers) are engaging with their audience in new ways, and generating substantial revenues. (This was a one-hour version of a three-hour Fans, Friends & Followers workshop I’ll be giving in San Francisco on the evening of December 1st, at BAVC.)

Peter’s presentation was split into two hour-long parts, and though I’ve seen him speak several times before, each time there are new examples and clips that make me excited about the future. You can certainly keep hoping for the lottery ticket distribution deal, where someone hands you $10 or $20 million and turns your film into a great hit. Or you can be as creative with marketing and distribution as you were with your film, and take matters into your own hands.

One tidbit from Peter’s talk: he emphasized the need for filmmakers to create a persona – to be a human representation of their film, the “character” responsible for its creation. You might call this personal branding, and I know it doesn’t come as second-nature to every producer or director, some of whom prefer to operate behind-the-scenes. One of the filmmakers who was present at Distribution U. to lead a lunchtime discussion group, Adrian Belic (“Beyond the Call,” “Genghis Blues”), is a near-perfect example of someone who has cultivated a larger-than-life filmmaker persona. Belic is so enthusiastic about his movies, and bursts forth with stories about them, that you feel like the absolute next thing you must do is go see them.

We ended the day by inviting five filmmakers up to the stage to tell us a bit about their current project. (People were chosen at random.) Then, several of our guest experts – as well as other filmmakers in the audience -- offered constructive ideas and advice about marketing, sales, and distribution. (Among the folks who chimed in were Belic, Thomas Mai of Festival Darlings, filmmaker and marketing guru Marc Rosenbush, producer Cora Olsen, and Madelyn Hammond, most recently a top marketing exec at Variety and Landmark Theatres.)

The five films we talked about were:

- ”Two Spirits”

- ”Tricks”

- ”In My Sleep”

- “While Time Stands Still”

- ”Becoming Bert Stern”

It was a nice mix of narrative features and docs from some really driven, creative filmmakers.

We closed the day by asking the participants to boo if they were feeling more depressed and pessimistic than they had been in the morning. The room was quiet. Then we asked for applause if people were feeling more energized and enthusiastic, and it seemed like just about everyone was clapping.

Were you at Distribution U.? If so, what was the idea or tactic that struck you as most useful? What did you get out of the lunch discussion you were part of? Was there any advice you had for the five filmmakers who were part of the brainstorming session, but didn’t get a chance to impart? Do post a comment….

And here are some more pics from the event...

Madelyn Hammond leads a lunch discussion group.

Cora Olsen talks with the audience after her case study session.

Sacha Gervasi shares some advice with the audience.

Thomas Mai leads a lunchtime discussion on foreign sales.

Adrian Belic leads a lunchtime discussion group on theatrical bookings and working the festival circuit.

View from the back of the room. (Yes, we're hoping to release a DVD of the course at some point...)

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  • I learned a great deal not only from the material presented at the event but how the event itself was structured. We were able to interact even before the event!
    The helpful emails before the event with maps and directions (and a heads-up about the walkathon) were very thoughful and very much appreciated.

    Our group put on our first film festival last year. In planning this year's we will be much more interactive. Audience members will sign up before the event and will be able to provide ongoing feedback to the filmmakers. We will even put all the audience members names on our t-shirts! The audience is listening..and talking back!

    I see that we must find ways to get more cooperation from the theatre owners. In talking to filmmakers, I have discovered that our own experience of miserable service from the theatre we booked seems to be the norm. The current economic model is that the staff is geared to showing the evening's blockbuster but is indifferent to your Thursday night event that you have set up yourself. The digital projection equipment looks like something procured from a yardsale. People buying tickets at the box office for your event the week before are told "We've never heard of that." The theatre staff treats you and your audience like an inconvenience.

    If anyone is doing a screening in the Los Angeles area, I will be happy to volunteer to help ensure that everyone goes smoothly. I'd like to find ways that we can influence the theatre operators. I'd like to also find ways that we can share where we've had good experiences.

    Thank you so much again for a rewarding Distibution U!


    By Blogger Vince, at 6:50 PM  

  • Very much look forward to the DVD.

    By Blogger Gene Latimer, at 3:56 PM  

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