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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