In my last post about film festivals, I argued that film fests needed to think about innovation (and avoid over-professionalization). Innovation is a word that gets bandied around a lot these days. We’ve seen a fair bit of innovation in certain sectors of the industry. Filmmakers are using new tools to innovate in production, storytelling, editing and even in distribution. We’ve got new models for funding, such as Kickstarter. We have new tools for measuring the impact of our films. We have new business relationships with brands. Heck, we can even make and distribute a new style of media in just six seconds via Vine, innovating the entire chain of production and distribution in one fell swoop.
Weirdly, however, we’ve seen very little of it in film festivals (or the organizations that support filmmakers, but that’s another post). Not that nothing has happened here – there are grants now to support innovative artistic practices, plenty of panels and workshops about innovation, some festivals tweet, we have electronic ticketing and watch screeners online, submitted via Withoutabox or on Cinando. One festival made a Vine contest, but I’d argue that just sucked the innovation out of the medium, subjecting it to the old model. For the most part, however, film fests operate business as usual. Travel to a few film festivals, from small to large, and there isn’t much variation in the form, the business model or the thinking.
I’m not arguing that we should tear apart what works. As I stood in line with 500 people in a well-organized queue at Hot Docs to watch a well crafted, well projected doc, I could feel the magic of movie-going that you rarely get anymore outside of a film festival. So this isn’t a call to arms to tear down the walls or anything (and see what can go wrong with this approach here), but as I suggested in my last post, I believe the only way forward is innovation, perhaps a little less professionalization and some fresh thinking about the underlying goals of the festival. Film festivals were created for a few reasons – to help films get seen, to reward filmmakers (with esteem, not money), to serve audiences, to fill a gap, to build community, to stimulate the local economy. These are just a few of the most prominent reasons. While these are all valid reasons, I would propose we’re at a bit of a tipping point in the film world now (crisis might be too strong a word for it) and several factors combine that should make us all want to build upon the good foundation festivals have laid, and make something even better, and our focus now should be firmly on better serving filmmakers by connecting them to their audiences, in both old and new/innovative ways. Festivals don’t need to have a panel about new models. Festivals need to create the new model.
But before we can explore the new model, let us first, perhaps, acknowledge some new truths that may possibly be uncomfortable, controversial and inconvenient to acknowledge. These should inform how we think about the future of film and film festivals.
Truths: Too many films are being made, and this won’t ever change. 50,000+ unique titles are submitted to film festivals annually. The majority of these filmmakers don’t get paid a living wage for their art. Even those who get major grant funding, play every great fest, and perhaps even go to the Academy awards often don’t make a living for their work. Revenue is being made on the backs of this work. Broadcasters, distributors and yes, even struggling film festivals are making more money than the artists themselves. Supply and demand is helping multiple gate-keepers but not the creators of the work.
Truth: The artists, most but not all of them, are our digital share-croppers. We need our films. We need them to entertain us, to educate and inspire us, and to make us feel better for all the horrible things we’ve done to the world. Much like the agrarian and industrial societies we’ve come from, someone must be exploited to keep the system moving, and here those people are the artists. We throw our festivals. The industry comes and does business, the audiences are entertained, the sponsors push their wares, money flows. But not to the artists. They might get a flight and a sponsored beer, but not much else.
Truths: There are a few artists who do get paid. They seem to fall into four camps: those born rich and not in need of income; those 3% who get lucky and their films are such a success that they actually make enough to buy a house and make another film; those who get paid to teach others how to become filming share-croppers; and a small percentage of those who have taken up the entrepreneurial model and are connecting to their films directly to their audience with innovative new business strategies. This last group has the most potential for growth, and are where we should look for the disruptive innovation we need for the industry to thrive. Those who try this and succeed remain a small percentage, akin to the few lucky ones under the “old” model, but it is a growing group.
Truth: We also have many new tools for discovery of films. Quite simply, it is easier now to distribute your film to and find an audience online than you could ever do through film festivals. Let’s acknowledge another fact: an online success (let’s say one million views) is more valuable than winning any film festival award, and arguably more important than an Academy award. Let’s leave that argument aside for now, however, and just admit that you no longer have to get into a film fest to get your film seen, discovered or to become a success.
Truth: online festivals don’t seem to work. They generally suck, in fact. We can’t rely just on online success either – there are plenty of people who still enjoy the theater, and who stand in line for hours to see a film at a film festival. There’s a role for film festivals, but it will be a shame if they solve that conundrum without also benefitting artists.
Truth: good film festivals have built a relationship with an audience. They’ve built a brand. They are trusted sources for finding the gems out of the shit (usually) and have a team of programmers who know their audiences well (ok, just sometimes, many just program what they like). While many filmmakers are now building direct relationships with their fans, film fests can help them reach local audiences who aren’t yet fans, but might become one after discovering your film through a festival.
Truth: almost no distributor has built a relationship with the audience. While some do a good job through marketing (wait, who does this? Again, another post…), for the most part they are salesmen sucking value out of the work artists and festivals do, returning little value back. The exceptions are few: some educational distributors who know their audience well, but often hold back filmmakers from their consumer audience; or those like Criterion who have built brands that add value to already great content, but this has mainly built niche audiences for very specialized films.
Truth: In a world of abundance, several things become more valuable. Curation becomes important to cut through the crap. Authenticity and real experience, such as seeing a filmmaker on a panel or in a Q&A become experiences worth paying for. Data becomes gold: what festivals know about audiences becomes valuable data, and aggregating audiences becomes more important. Getting attention is harder, and attention is the new scarcity, but a contained festival helps focus attention.
So given all of these new truths, and what we seem to know about the new realities of how the web works, how video online works and where things seem to be headed it would seem we can make some guesses as to ways in which film fests might innovate, and quite possibly help both filmmakers and audiences in the process. My next post will cover a few ideas for these new models.