Archives for July 2017

Distribution & Discovery Ideas

After my last two posts on IndieWire (and here) about the need for more distribution funding and the problems with the algorithm ruling film discovery, several people asked me in the comments, on Facebook and offline for some ideas. So here’s a more positive post about five ideas for better funding of distribution and discovery. They’re five easy to think about, hard to implement ideas, and I’m not claiming them as just mine or as ground-breaking, but I hope this kick-starts some conversation.

via Ambulante

1. Plain ol’ distribution funds – Ok, the easiest route to helping with both distribution and discovery would be strategic offerings of distribution funds. They should focus on smart, tried and tested models; new ideas that show promise; projects to increase the diversity of what’s being distributed and big initiatives that might have impact beyond one film (slates, curated programs, regional strategies, etc.).

 Personally, I’d be open to the idea of funders backing the distributors themselves. In many countries, government funds already do this, because they support culture beyond the marketplace, and that’s what foundations should be doing anyway (some do support public broadcasting). But in the short term, it would be great if the money goes straight to producers/filmmakers, and the funds could be used to augment a distributor’s campaign (with extra grassroots outreach, for example) or for service deals, “direct” distribution, etc.

Importantly, I don’t think these should be focused on impact. We have a lot of impact funds already, and while they’re great, I’d love to see more funds supporting work finding its audience even when “impact”- read social impact – is not a goal.

As mentioned in my recent post, Sundance is already doing some distribution funding, and there are a few other funds, but more foundations should offer this support, as should more nonprofits, festivals and venues.

2. Transparency – I am biased here, as I helped on the pilot Transparency Project for Sundance, but I think this is the biggest need in the field. It’s impossible to build comps, speak honestly with investors about potential returns, plan for distribution, evaluate offers, etc. because there is no transparency as to what is being made where beyond box office.

We need data, perhaps anonymous and grouped by genre, budget and release strategy. But we need more than just VOD numbers. Festivals should be required to report attendance numbers for your screenings. Theaters should do the same (they do to distributors, but these numbers rarely make it to filmmakers). We should have transparency on diversity numbers – behind the camera, in the curator’s office, on the screen, how well films perform based on diversity…the list goes on.

A quick side-note, festivals and screening organizers should also share photo and video documentation to filmmakers. I’ve used this as evidence to secure better deals, and it can also be used for marketing.

We’ll probably never succeed in getting more transparency into Netflix, but we can start with the easy stuff, and work together – we need a transparency movement, and quite frankly, it needs to be forced on the field by filmmakers and their funders, because the nonprofits and even the distributors are stuck in the middle here, with little political capital to lead this fight. I bet some incentive grant money could open some windows, as could some requirements for numbers in grant reporting as a condition of funding.

3. Network Building & Data Sharing – We need funding to help build more direct connections between film festivals, theaters, nonprofit programmers and even alternate venues on an ongoing basis, to help them build audiences. What does that mean?

A few ideas – Building systems where the film-lover in Sarasota can track a film from Sundance to the Sarasota film festival and maybe not just buy a ticket in advance, but someday even let the programmers know how many of them want to see it. Systems to let regional festivals better triangulate artist and guest travel. Sharing of audience data, even if in aggregate, to help build databases of where the fans for certain types of films reside, and how to best reach them.

Why can’t I subscribe to indie horror films, black directors, LGBTQ films or indie docs, and get updates via email or app of what’s playing at 10-20 festivals around the country and add those films to my Netflix queue? Let’s go further – if I like Lucy Walker’s films, and see one at the New York Film Festival, they should let me know her new one is playing at BAM CinemaFest (an ostensible competitor), and vice versa. In the long run, each venue will win, as will Lucy.

Let’s build a ScreenSlate for every town, and get some foundations to fund it. But let’s broaden it, and let me subscribe to filmmakers I like (a la BandsInTown) and be notified whenever they play in town, whoever is programming the film. And let’s go further and remind me when that film is available on Fandor, or Netflix. How about when BAM shows the new Jim McKay film, they also link to his past films, or similar themes, for further perusal, even if it doesn’t hit their bottom line immediately? Again, in the long run, we all win as we’ve built a better culture of film discovery.

These are just a few ideas, and I’m sure other programmers can think of more.

4. Empower our greatest assets – the Programmers –  Film festivals don’t take advantage of their greatest asset often enough – their curation via their programmers. In many smaller cities, they’ve practically taken the place of critics as only local voice on film, but far too often, their voice is only heard by a small crowd (those who know them).

I trust Tom Hall’s programming more than almost anyone in the US. It would be great if Montclair was promoting his curation throughout the year, on other films, not just festival films. And to continue to remind me of films that played Montclair (or even a rival fest) that are now online. But for this to be done, fests can’t literally “take advantage” of these programmers, meaning more work for no extra pay. They’d have to build a financial model, which could include grant or sponsorship funding, but would more likely work in aggregate – as a tool built by multiple fests with a business plan and revenue model that supports all of them.

Let’s also take the programmers out from behind the curtain and hear their opinion a bit more. I know most are resistant to this, but I want to see a public list of the five films they rejected that they wished they could have programmed that are now available across town or online. Tell me your opinion, because you actually have one worth listening to (usually) and I trust it, and you can help build a better culture of discovery beyond your fest or venue (And yes, I know you already do a lot and with three jobs, like I said, let’s build financial models around this). One last note – I think a foundation should make a genius grant for a programmer/curator every year. Give them a ton of money and let them do something cool with their skills, or just pay their bills.

5. Touring support to organizations and to individuals – Yes, digital rules the world now, but the best way to get enough buzz to get people to know you exist online remains real-world screenings, be they full theatricals, or one-offs. Touring can be profitable for filmmakers and audiences alike, and it keeps the notion of watching a film in a group, together, alive. There are a few great tours out there (I know of Southern Circuit, which I used to run, and Ambulante in Mexico and now California, but am sure there are others), but there used to be more.

 We need funding to support more tours of films, in multiple ways. For the individual filmmaker to take their film on tour, even if they had a theatrical, let’s get them in towns without a arthouse cinema. For groupings of films – let’s curate a package of films with similar themes and have pop-up festivals around the country. Hell, there’s enough films about minimalist living to fill a couple of weekends.

Let’s fund film festivals to take their top films around their state, outside of the blue cities they reside in, to the neighboring red ones (oh how we need this). Let’s pool resources between a few festivals and take the best of one fest in each region (NE, NW, SE, SW for simplicity) to the others, perhaps Camden’s favorite in Albuquerque? Perhaps the best of the American Black Film Festival as a side-bar at, oh, every film festival?

Let’s take a series of human rights films to 300 public libraries around the US (we used to do that at NVR way back when). Let’s put some of these films in churches, or bars, but not just one or two, an entire tour of them. And let’s get sponsorship and grant funding for it. These are just some quick ideas, I’d leave it to smart curators (with genius grants) to build even better ones.

6. Bonus idea: Funding for fest websites and outreach – As I mentioned in my recent post, festival websites are notoriously horrible (mine may be worse, I know). That’s because few of them can afford to build a proper website, and they’re harder to build than you think. Back in the day, B-Side was helping with this, but now we have a hodge-podge of solutions, and I’ve yet to find a good festival website or app, meaning one that actually works. Even the best festivals in the world tend to have horrible web interfaces.

I still think an enterprising company could build this for multiple festivals and build a business on the data alone, even though this didn’t work for B-Side (but they tried to build a distributor instead of a data broker, which I think was a mistake). Regardless, it’s an area in dire need of funding, and if we can help festivals, theaters and other venues build better sites, we can encourage discovery and eventually build even better tools (like some suggested in 3 above) more easily.

 I’m not even sure we actually need more money. Festivals have no problem building big bulky print catalogues with tons of sponsor ads and words of wisdom from the executive director and the governor in the front pages. But beyond selling sponsors a fancy print ad, their print programs are worthless (usually), and are mainly a library badge of honor of your attendance. Many surveys show that audiences do use the print materials to find films, but I’d argue this is just because your website is such crap. This is the same dilemma the newspaper business is facing, in a way. To disrupt your print ad model with a better website is hard to justify when sponsors want ads. But we need to focus on discovery not just sponsors (we need both, to be sure), so those budgets should shift to digital. Heck, your sponsors would be better served by better in-person activations anyway. So let’s get creative.

So there’s 6 ideas (5+1) for a few ways to better fund distribution and creativity. I’d love to hear more ideas from the field.

 

 

 

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We are Fucked, or: Art Films in the Age of the Algorithm

Note: This article/post was originally published in a slightly different form on IndieWire as “Why Netflix and Amazon Algorithms Are Destroying the Movies”

A long time ago, I thought that the worst interface I had ever seen – after most film festival websites, that is  – was to be found on Time Warner (now Spectrum) cable. But today, what could be worse than Netflix and Amazon for finding movies?

Think of any new documentary, American or foreign arthouse film that you’ve heard of recently and go look for it, but don’t search for the title. Browse, you know, like 99% of customers do when they turn on their internet connected TV. Odds are good that you’ll not find that film until you’ve swiped, or toggled or (depending on your device’s interface) clicked through 10-20 screens.

Last night I decided to look for the Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip, which Amazon released last month.It was an acquisition; the company wanted to make money from it. It was a long, strange trip indeed (sorry), as it took me 20 screens or so of swiping before I came upon the movie. I came across numerous older documentaries, a shit-ton of crappy docs about blenders, ex-porn stars and other junk, and then the Dead.

In fact, if I wasn’t dead set on finding it, I would have given up and ordered something else. And that’s a problem for any video/film content that isn’t a blockbuster or a TV show. This doesn’t bode well.

Whether it’s Netflix or Amazon, the problem is the same: It’s the algorithm. Silicon Valley will tell you the algorithm is god. Bullshit. Amazon knows my entire purchase history — not just films, but books and, well, everything else. But none of the titles their algorithm was pushing at me had any relation to anything I’ve ever watched or wanted to watch. (There was a documentary about a stand-up comedian; I’ve watched one of those.)

But the algorithm is supposed to be smart. It’s supposed to know what I want before I want it. But it never does. Same with Netflix. Judging by their algorithmic offerings, I only like TV shows, stand-up comedians (ok, I’ve watched at least two), and I don’t want to go anywhere near subtitles, documentaries, or american indies.

But it isn’t true. Not only is that what I like to watch – I’ve watched them more than TV shows on Netflix unless they count every episode of House of Cards as separate movies (actually, I bet they do).  iTunes isn’t much better, although if you type a genre into them (instead of browsing), you do get some diversity, and I think more people go to iTunes with a film in mind,while people browse more on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Vimeo’s discovery interface is horrendous too, but I won’t pick on them because they’re way smaller and they also just have more indie content by the nature of their business model. I’m not mentioning other VOD services because, well, no one uses them.

Shut up, old man, you might say. But this is a huge problem for quality films whether they’re docs, indie, foreign, or classics. If the algorithms can’t serve these up to me, I guarantee they aren’t serving them up to anyone else. Netflix, in particular, seems to be pushing them further down the list — and, in the process, making it hard to find movies at all. As we all know, arthouse films, especially docs, are bombing in theaters if they make it there at all. Many go straight to digital, maybe with some touring. But most film watching these days is online, and if you can’t be found there, well, you don’t exist.

Sure, you can do your own marketing, send your fans there, and they can find you via direct link. But most humans sit down, scan and buy. And they tend to watch what’s on the home screen or within a few clicks. I know this because I’ve spoken with staff at some of these places off the record, and they admit that their data shows that people don’t search too far (they also barely use their queue, and tend to put aspirational films there that they hope to watch but never do).

Setting aside the fact that Netflix and Amazon are buying less films overall (that’s a problem too), and less documentary and arthouse films every year, as told by every sales agent, these guys aren’t even trying to push the ones they do buy. And when the algorithm buries those films,it becomes a vicious cycle, with Netflix deciding they don’t work and let’s buy even less of them. As filmmakers and film lovers, we end up just where we were with cable pre-Netflix – the illusion of choice that is so vast we don’t realize how much we’re actually missing.So, where I used to always worry that this whole net thing would end up with just giving me a better TV, now I’m worried I won’t even get that. Forget jet-packs…

Last week, I posted about the need for more funding around discovery. Kent Bye, a very smart man who mainly works in VR now, posted this comment, which I quote in full. It’s about YouTube, but it’s interesting for this too:

YouTube has 300 hours of video uploaded every minute, which amounts to about 49.28 years of new content per day. Here’s a really insightful video from a popular YouTube creator breaking down the recent changes of the YouTube algorithm to preference new daily videos over older and more higher quality ones. Content creators who depend upon that algorithm for revenue are at the whims of YouTube’s changes, and those who create content optimized for the algorithm produce shoddy, low-quality, clickbait that has a monetary incentive to figure out new ways to game the system, produce glossy and deceptive thumbnails, and keep people hooked in a loop of the latest drama. The current system is producing a lot of empty calories.

As Ken points out, we are fucked, we are fucked, we are fucked (WAF). WAF1 is superabundance. Your film is not just up against other films. It’s up against every video being uploaded. Heck, if we stick just to film, there are estimates of 50,000 unique titles (or more) being submitted to festival submission sites annually.

WAF2 is the algorithms are not set up to help me, or you, find the content we want; it’s designed to glue us to each service. House of Cards is great TV, and Netflix knows snacking on that addictive in-house production will bring you back more often than The Turin Horse.

That’s WAF3: Expect more episodic TV and less worrying about quality films (much less esoteric films). Another time, we can argue about how episodic series have supplanted film in the public conversation and whether that’s a good thing. (I watch a lot of it too.) But WA4 is we can’t sustain independent or fringe voices if the only two buyers who matter anymore aren’t buying our films. The problem will move from one of discovery to one of absence.

That’s why I think we need to focus more money on discovery now, and less on creation. This is some dire shit, and my hunch is that solutions have to come from outside the system. The disruption won’t come from a competitor to Netflix (you’d need a billion dollars just to begin to compete). Just like the indie doc world has built a support network for funding (Britdoc, Sundance Doc Fund, Just Films, pitch markets, forums, etc.), we need to come up with solutions to help curate better, help people discover and remember films (since they often hit Netflix 90-180 days after theatrical), and help them to find a diversity of films.

I hope to have more thoughts on that soon, and hope to hear them from you.

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Contrarian Views on Artist Support

 

Artist Service organizations should stop serving artists

image:No Film School

Ok, I’m being hyperbolic here, but bear with me. Back in the ’70s, many nonprofits started to spring up to help filmmakers (and other artists). For film, the idea was simple – buying a film camera and equipment and then a Steenbeck to edit a film with was super-expensive. Band together, apply for grants and voila – you’ve got access to equipment. This is how IMAGE Film & Video of Atlanta, GA came together, an organization I used to run, and which still exists in a different form as the Atlanta Film Festival. In fact, that’s how many (but not all) film festivals came together – those same filmmakers thought, “geesh, now that I’ve made my indie film, where the heck can I show it?” So they started film festivals to show their work, and soon after the work of their sisters and brothers from around the US and the world. Nonprofit film organizations launched across the country – helping filmmakers through education, equipment access and training, screening venues, and then sometimes with advice and access to funding (re-grants) and market/industry connections. Whether big events like the IFP Market, or small,like bringing some industry vets to speak on a panel in Atlanta, these organizations could help connect these “disconnected” voices to decision-makers from NYC, LA and major international markets.

But today, filmmaking tools are cheap and ubiquitous, and you can find and audience and screen your work for free online. Heck, more people can watch it on their phone or on a connected large screen than even the biggest festivals can service. As a regional filmmaker, I can learn from websites like Filmmaker Magazine and NoFilmSchool or random bloggers about any aspect of the art, craft and business of film. Yes, we still have a problem with diversity and for some, access, but let’s admit – a lot has changed. The nonprofit sector? Not so much. An enormous amount of nonprofit money goes towards putting on artist development projects that can be better accomplished online, or that are obsolete in today’s marketplace.

The problem today is not access, but discovery. In a glutted marketplace of content, it’s increasingly hard to stand out from the crowd. Nearly every dollar spent on artist training and development should be shifted to audience development and helping to connect audiences to filmmaker’s work. And this will have the added benefit of still helping artists, by giving them a bigger audience which should lead to more money earned back from their films.

Yes, many artists will bemoan any decrease in funding for the creation of work. But we don’t face a crisis in the creation of good work, rather the crisis is in getting that work seen. The key here is to make sure that any new programs in audience development include some mechanism for positive cash flow to filmmakers for the screening of their work. Right now, too many programming efforts don’t reimburse filmmakers for their screenings. Organizations that program films, run film festivals and connect work with audiences will need to start paying filmmakers for these screenings. That’s a big hurdle for most film festivals – I know because I’ve run a few, but it’s a hurdle we need to conquer for independent film to survive and thrive.

The main concern I have with ending direct artist support for creation is the possible impact on diversity behind the lens – we need more diversity, not less. And the market – investors and studios – tend to still support white males. But plenty of diverse work is being made too, but not enough of it is being seen. This is a big problem, and I’d argue it’s mainly because so many festival and venue programmers, and acquisition executives, are white men, but again the nonprofit industry should build programs to address these issues. Let’s think hard about how to create innovative solutions to bring more diverse films to a wider audience instead of just focusing on the (relatively easier) part of just getting them funded.

What would this look like? I don’t know, but I’d like to see just as many new projects here as we have grant funds and markets/pitch forums. For every GoodPitch, we should have a GreatAudiences program. For every Hot Docs forum, we should have a new audience focused program, and the same for every Creative Capital grant. Note – these are all great programs, and I’m using them to showcase the type of excellence we should seek in audience development.

The first thing we should do is work towards every festival that is not a major market (meaning below the big guns like Sundance) starts working towards paying filmmakers for screenings. Second, we already have a pretty vibrant theater space – go to the Arthouse Convergence and you’ll quickly be dispelled of any notions that arthouse theaters aren’t doing great work to build audiences. That said, the nonprofit sector could be doing more to help them discover diverse voices and then work to ensure those screenings are attended. We can definitely help bring audiences to the work they program, and someone needs to build a tool that helps us find that work again when it finally makes it online.

We need more national screening programs, for films that may not warrant a theatrical. At Patagonia (my client) we’ve been having a huge success with getting audiences out to our tours, with our last film averaging 1500 people per screening. There used to be more film tours, but I believe Southern Circuit (where I also worked) is one of the few still around. I’d love to see a grant that allowed Thom Powers to take Stranger Than Fiction on the road, for example, with guest filmmakers in tow and being paid to attend.

We need more online curation – and no, that’s not easy. I launched a start-up focused on just this, and it folded. Nearly every online platform for managing one’s queue or sharing films has failed or is stagnant with no real consumer use. Perhaps that’s another thing nonprofit’s could tackle, and the foundations that fund them.

I admire the program Sundance just launched to help filmmakers with distribution, but we need more programs like this, and the foundation world needs to fund distribution and marketing more (and creation, and “impact” less).

Ok, like I said at the start, I don’t really want to disband artist support for creation. But I do think we need to start spending equal energy on what happens after the films are made.

 

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