Sub-Genre Blog

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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Wither the pull quote? On Ratner and Rotten Tomatoes

Brett Ratner hit the news this past week, saying: “The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes, I think it’s the destruction of our business.” He went on to say: “But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”

Now he’s likely just upset that Batman vs. Superman scores so low on Rotten Tomatoes, which most articles pointed out, but he does raise a valid point about the industry that I’ve been pondering as well, but from a slightly different angle: the disappearance of critical reviews and pull-quotes from the marketing of films to audiences.

Working with Abramorama, I recently released a film I produced called Love & Taxes by Jake Kornbluth and his brother Josh. It’s a little movie, with a small theatrical release, but we’ve gotten amazing reviews. We’re happy to be at 100% for the critic’s scores on Rotten Tomatoes, and have gotten heaps of quotes like this one from the NYT’s Ken Jaworoski:”A Minor Marvel.”

Love & taxes poster

It used to be that distributors would tell you that one of the reasons to show films in theaters was to get the critical reviews, so you can put them as pull quotes on your movie poster and then your DVD case (or way back, your VHS box). And they seemed to work, because everyone did this. And you still see it in advertising for movies in newspapers, etc.

But guess where you don’t see them – online, where most audiences watch these films. Go to iTunes, Amazon or Netflix and look – no pull quotes anywhere. Each of these platforms requires film distributors to remove these quotes from their poster art. Heck, Netflix doesn’t even really show your poster art anymore, mainly using images from your set of film stills. Click on a film on these platforms, and you get some extra synopsis, and some cast and above the line credits, but mostly no reviews or reviewer’s quotes.

Heck, Netflix doesn’t even show the Rotten Tomatoes score anywhere. You have to try hard to even get to a details screen where you can see a few member reviews – and who knows how valid their opinions are anyway. Amazon Prime shows the aggregate IMDB score and customer scores, but you have to link away to even look at IMDB, and there’s no RT link at all.  iTunes does show the RT score and does include the top four critics reviews. But even then, we can see that the majority of the marketing of films on the platforms is very limited.

And that’s a problem for smaller indie movies. If you’re a blockbuster or larger film, you can rely on your own marketing spend to gain awareness for your film. You can run that pull quote thousands of times in print and digital and try to get the word out. But for most indies, the majority of their marketing spend has been around their theatrical release and sometimes the beginning of their digital life. And almost all of this marketing goes into building word of mouth and discovery, so that someone seeks out your film, and perhaps helps it to land on the top ten on iTunes, which makes it get streamed more – because most people look on the home screen for their films.

But we have always hoped people would find our films through browsing as well, and might see the critics reviews, and maybe even a great pull quote and take a chance on our films. But that doesn’t work anymore. And even if they heard about our film from its theatrical release, or elsewhere, they might be further persuaded to take a chance when they read a great pull quote. But that’s not possible if it’s not even there at the buying site. Few people are going to go look it up on your site, or in the NYT or on RT.

Now I’m almost ready to blame the platforms for removing the critics or reducing them to a Tomato score, but… they wouldn’t have done that if it didn’t work. They have more data than any of us can imagine, and if showing pull quotes sold or rented more films, they’d be pressuring us to get more of them, and would be displaying them properly.

Or maybe they do work. iTunes after all needs you to spend money and rent or buy the film, and they make a few of them available. Netflix doesn’t care if you watch a title – it just cares that you keep subscribing. And just by having a good inventory of TV and films, you’ll probably keep subscribing even if you don’t read the reviews or watch my film. You don’t need a conspiracy theory about lessening the role of critics to see why it may not matter to Netflix at all.

But it matters to us indie filmmakers. And it means we have to start re-prioritizing our marketing. Your thumbail images need to be that much better. Your poster design (and its pull quotes) matter less. Your marketing spend, especially on Facebook, should emphasize your best quotes even more. And for some people, they’ll have to debate whether a theatrical run predicated on  getting reviews even matters for their film anymore – perhaps that four-wall or service deal money would be better spent on other marketing. Lots to consider in the digital age.

All that said, I think Rotten Tomatoes is not the problem. If you go to their site, you can access a lot more reviews now. But Ratner is right that our reduction of these reviews down to one score, and even worse – the cutting of pull quotes from online sites – is a problem.

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Sundance Bound

Well, it’s been just over six months since I’ve written a blog post. Been too busy with client work, and I’ve also not had anything interesting to say, I guess. But the annual trek to Sundance brings me back to some thoughts on what’s exciting me about the fest this year, and a little on the state of the industry.

1. It’s a damn good time to watch indie film
I can barely make it through the Sundance catalogue, trying to make my schedule. It will be another impossible year, with so many great films to see. I know of at least ten awesome movies that weren’t taken, and there’s likely thousands more I didn’t see. 2016 was a great year for indie film, and 2017 continues the tradition. While there are many brilliant docs and narratives (and VR, and…) I am most looking forward to seeing David Yow in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore. Yes, David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, one of the best bands of the late 80s/90s. I saw them at least ten times live, and he’s got more energy than anyone this side of Shannon Selberg. Hope he does an impromptu show in Park City.

2. It’s a damn good time to sell a film

Buyers galore. Just like last year, you’ve got some deep pockets with Amazon Studios and Netflix on the scene, not to mention the usual suspects, plus you now have Neon, NatGeo upping it’s doc game (competing with Discovery), Bleecker Street, The Orchard, Cohen Media, etc, etc. I could name ten or more hot new-ish companies competing at the ‘Dance. And I hear we’ll hear some exciting news about Amazon Video Direct, and I bet Vimeo as well. BTW, it’s also a damn good time to raise money for films – plenty of film funds in place and launching, and (For some) an expanding economy, plus more people competing to get original content.

3. The Women’s March

The talk of 2017 is going to be all about how filmmakers react to the Trumpocalypse (in fact, the talk started the day after). I’ll likely opine on that later this year, but I’m glad to see a whole gang of bad-asses has put together the Park City Women’s March on Main (FB link). I’ll be there to lend my support, and wonder whether anyone will be in the theaters that morning? All P&I screenings should get a second screening to be safe.

4. Climate Change 

It’s on the agenda in a big way. With a new and much-reported section called The New Climate, Sundance programs 14+ films, shorts and VR experiences tackling climate change. I’ve helped make and distribute 10+ climate change related films in the past year or two (mainly with my client, Patagonia), so I can’t wait to see what everyone else is doing. I’ve also been pretty depressed post election about the possibilities of film changing the conversation at all, so I am hoping to get fired up and energized by these projects.

5. Will DIY die in 2017 (did it in 2016)?

Up until a couple years ago, everyone was speaking about the DIY distribution revolution. Now? Crickets. Sure, I know many filmmakers who hire bookers and do it themselves still, but that’s increasingly when they don’t get many other offers of any significance. It’s much rarer now to see the film that comes into Sundance already announcing they’ll be doing hybrid/DIY distribution. There’s also many fewer aggregator portals to work with (they all seem to want to grow into distributors now, and one’s for sale). I look forward to getting the latest reports from the field at Sundance, but also expect this conversation to continue through 2017.

6. FAANG rules

In the financial world, they refer to the FANG companies – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. I add an initial and say Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google. They rule the media world and are gobbling everything in their path. I don’t see how anyone can compete with any of them anytime soon. With Apple announcing they’re moving into original content, and Facebook rumored to be doing the same, you’d have to raise over 300MM to even begin to compete with them on a platform or film service, or as a content maker. In theory that means it’s a good time to be a filmmaker or content maker – and maybe even a distributor. They need films and content. But look at what they’re making. Aside from Ted Hope at Amazon (who for now is mainly making 15M+ films w/ established auteurs), most are concentrating on TV and original series. Talk in the distributor world is that Netflix is buying anywhere from 50-80% less docs than they used to, as well as indie films, and that confirms what it looks like from the consumer stand-point (I can’t find most of the films I want to watch).  I imagine distributors will see deep pockets ready for their better films, but there’s very few of them who understand marketing, especially in an algorithm world, so I could see them being bypassed pretty soon. It’s going to get interesting.

7. Diversity not so much, but it’s got to change

I haven’t had time to run the diversity ratios on the Sundance line-up, but I don’t blame them for the lack of diversity in the indie film world – they do a lot to try to help in this regard. While this year’s indie film landscape was pretty diverse – with filmmakers like Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay leading a list of great talent – the overall state of things for diversity, and women in film, remains pretty dismal. As Anthony Kaufman reported in July, 2016 in IndieWire: “This year’s first ever Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, for example, stated that ethnic minorities constituted only 12% of film directors and only 9% of broadcast TV directors, while over half of all films and TV shows failed to include a single non-white character.”

This must change. The indie film world can’t continue to look like me (white male), and we continue to need more diverse voices in front of and especially behind the camera. Nearly every film organization has a program to address this issue, something Kaufman explores in his very good article above. But the situation isn’t changing, which probably means we need to hold these initiatives for indie film programmers, buyers, execs and theater bookers instead of for filmmakers. I’m willing to bet the diversity ratios for decision makers in this business is even lower than the statistics above, and that influences what gets programmed. For example, there’s been no room for a black female mumble-core (not that they’d want to make that), because these up & coming filmmakers often don’t feel they can even submit to these fests, programmers wouldn’t be inclined to like them nor distributors to find their audience. Tyler Perry made a fortune making films for the underserved Black Christian audience. Well, there’s many more of these underserved niches just waiting for their films, and many mainstream audiences getting tired of only a few Moonlight‘s per year.

8. Subtitle purgatory

Sundance, and most film festivals, have a great selection of international, foreign language cinema each year. And a few big (Sony Classics) and small (Lorber, Grasshopper) distributors take the bigger ones out each year. But there’s a wealth of great foreign films, especially documentaries, that never make it to US audiences in any meaningful manner. I was once a doc buyer for a TV broadcaster, and was told to just avoid most subtitled films. That might be because 14% of US adults can’t read, 29% read at a basic, 5th grade level, and only 13% read at a proficient level (!). Or because subtitles don’t show up well on your iPhone, where 33% of consumers watch streaming services. Or it could be because so few Americans seem to care about foreign countries (64% of American citizens don’t have a passport). But the arthouse audience already skews towards an audience that does read and does travel, I’d bet, but if we watched these films, Netflix and their competitors would be buying more of them. It’s also not a lack of good content – attend any international film fest, and the American fare is often much weaker. Methinks this means there’s another underserved niche to be served. I know EuropaCinemas has an initiative to bring more undistributed films to the US this year (I consult with them a bit), but we need some more initiatives here too.

9. M&A City

Sundance 2017 promises to be M&A city – but meaning not mergers and acquisitions (ok, that applies as well), but mergers and announcements. Everyone launches new products, ventures and endeavors at Sundance, and this year, announcements should be plenty. I expect some new SVOD services, new original content, expansions of existing players, new film funds (I know of at least 4 in development), new slates, new divisions, new films of course, and mergers. We’ve recently seen the acquisition/merger of Gunpowder & Sky and FilmBuff, and earlier last year was Vimeo and VHX. Gravitas has announced it’s looking for a buyer. And that’s just what’s public info. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this in 2017 while money is flowing, and we might see many announcements in Park City.

10. Virtual Reality and new Media test year

Sundance has what looks to be an amazing line-up of new media – VR, AR, art and panels. I’ve been attending the New Frontier (I think) since it first started, and the past few years it’s been the most exciting and most trafficked part of the festival. I heard a rumor that more people went through New Frontier last year than any other venue (would love to know if this is true). People are genuinely excited about the possibilities when you attend. And of course, billions of dollars have been spent in the sector, with a lot of activity going on. Amazon is moving into the space in a big way in 2017 too. I believe in VR’s long-term importance, but I’ve been unimpressed with nearly every experience I’ve had in VR (but some interesting ones in AR and art), and overall consumers aren’t flocking to it as expected. I think we’ll learn a lot about what’s working at Sundance this year, and 2017 will be a big year for figuring out whether this version of VR will take off or if we need another 5-10+ years of experimentation before virtual becomes reality.

Them’s my quick thoughts heading into Park City 2017. If you are attending, I hope to see you there.

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Stephen Follows on Windows and how Hollywood makes money

I’ve been following Stephen Follow’s writings on film data for the past couple of years, and he’s doing a stellar job. He recently published this excellent long-read on How Hollywood makes money (or whether if they do) on Blockbusters. It’s a fascinating read, and he breaks down everything you could possibly want to know, from budgeting to production, marketing to windows, and everything else. He promises to write one soon about other types of films, indies, etc. but while a lot of this is particular to Hollywood Blockbusters a lot of it is useful for indie filmmakers as well.

In particular, I think no one has done a better job at defining release windows for films. Here’s a nifty chart Stephen made:

Windowing via Stephen Follows

Over at the article, he breaks down how each of these work, and how the revenue comes back to the studios. It’s pretty much true for indies, albeit with smaller numbers.

He also debunks a myth I’ve often believed about marketing costs. Here’s the graph and relevant points:

Via Stephen Follows

It is often claimed that marketing a Hollywood movie can cost up to twice of the cost of the film’s budget, however from the numbers above we can see that this is untrue. Across my dataset of $100m+ movies, the average budget was $150.6 million and the average combined marketing spend was $121.1 million (i.e. 81% of the budget).  

When expressed as a percentage of the total costs involved with making and selling a movie, marketing accounts for an average of 29% of costs.  Across my dataset, the largest proportion of total costs going towards marketing was 40% and the lowest was 24%.

With both P&A and Marketing all together, it remains close to  the same as the production budget. This is something indie filmmakers need to realize as well  – you need to spend almost as much on marketing and you do on making your film.

There’s a great need for more transparency around the numbers in film. I’ve helped Sundance on this with the Transparency Project a bit, but more work needs to be done, and Stephen is doing a great job. Read the whole article here.

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Hocus Pocus – Know your advertisements from your journalism

I do a lot of work in “branded content” – working with brands making films. Call them what you will, even when they’re great, and even when the brand truly cares about making a difference, or making some good entertainment, you can call them what they also are: advertisements. I can argue all day that if the filmmaker has creative control, it’s not much different than a commissioned piece for the BBC (I believe this to be true, but that’s another post), or one funded by MacArthur (again, I believe this to be true), but regardless, the clients I work with are pretty transparent about their relationship.

Every brand I work with prominently displays their logo at the beginning and often says “Brand X Presents…” so you know that what you’re about to watch is funded by a brand. In fact, we’re all proud of the films we sponsor, and we think they’re great films – that’s what we call them, films. You can quibble with how indie they are, but they’re good short or feature films that happen to be funded by a brand. Some call them films, some call them content, some call them branded films or branded content, but one thing we would never call them is journalism.

Apparently, the NYT doesn’t share this ethical standard. I awoke this morning to read the NYT in print (old habits die hard), and on the back page of the paper was a full page advertisement, congratulating themselves for the Cannes Lion Grand Prix for Mobile for their VR app, and Grand Prix for Entertainment (italics mine) for their VR film “The Displaced.” It closes:”Congratulations to all who were involved in bringing our journalism to a new frontier.” (italics mine again) Here’s a photo:

Ad/Journalism Awards

Ad/Journalism Awards

Journalism? I nearly puked up my breakfast. That’s the hocus pocus I’m referring to in the title, but let’s call it “virtual reality…” The Cannes Lions are awards specifically for advertising. Or as the NYT’s own Jim Rutenberg describes it in the next section: “On the surface, this festival is a great bacchanalia the advertising industry holds with its clients and business partners in Big Consumer Goods, Big Entertainment and Big Journalism.” Nothing celebrated there could remotely be called journalism. And neither the NYT VR app, or this film is either. The app may be used for journalism someday, but make no mistake, their plans for it are mainly for advertisers. That’s why the app’s description is under their marketing URL: http://www.nytimes.com/marketing/nytvr/

And in the case of The Displaced, while you’d have a hard time knowing it from the NYT itself, it is branded content. As Cannes Lion jury president Jae Goodman, chief creative officer and co-head of CAA Marketing so elqouently states (quoted in AdWeek):

“From the beginning, he said, the judges followed these criteria: The work had to be high quality, have a powerful relationship to the brand, attract an audience and not be interruptive, and be entertainment in its form and not just entertaining in its effect.

“The Displaced,” which immersed the viewer in the lives of three child refugees, was extraordinary both as an editorial and a marketing piece, said Goodman. Rather than describe its power, he urged the journalists assembled to watch it for themselves, but he did say that it satisfied one criterion in particular—the brand connection.
“This is a piece of entertainment content that moves the brand and the business that created it forward,” he said.”

Wowza. How’s that for journalism? It is high quality, but it’s branded content, meant to build a brand connection (here with Mini, GE and Google).

Why do I care? Does this matter?

I think it does matter, and I care because the future of our journalism, our advertising and our entertainment (and education, and enlightenment…) are being built now, and when you get your peanut butter in my chocolate and call it journalism, you’ve gone a bit too far. As John Oliver has pointed out, “Ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie. Except, it’s actually more like raisins into a cookie—because nobody f-‍-‍-ing wants them there.”

I have no problem with brands making content, obviously, because I promote it all the time. I have problems when this is hidden, or when someone really important (like the NY F-n Times!!!) pretends that it’s just another form of journalism. There’s a lot of ethical standards built up around journalism, and you’d expect our leading US paper to at least pretend to follow them. But in fact, the NYT is probably the most egregious rule-breaker here of all.

As I’ve shown in many of my branded content lectures, the NYT T Brand Studio – a relatively new entity at the NYT, built to work with brands on “native content” has been up to these shenanigans for awhile.

Here’s a photo of one of their earliest efforts:

Early Branding

Early Branding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note that you can easily tell that it’s sponsored content. Well, that didn’t go over so well with advertisers, as was soon reported in AdAge:

nyt2

 

So then they came up with a new format:

nyt3

Note here that the branding is much smaller. You could almost not notice that this great article on women in prison is really an ad for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which is how it becomes “native” or icky… Remember, this isn’t journalism. As the NYT T Brand Studio says on their home page: “We create and distribute insightful brand content and experiences that shape opinion.” It may shape opinion, but it’s still an ad.

Now they just come out and say that they’re VR story sponsored by Mini is journalism. But it’s not. It’s an advertisement. It may be cutting edge, and it may be important, and it is likely the future, but can we please just call is what it is?

In the meantime, if you want to watch some good films that are clearly branded content, and not journalism, and are honest about it, watch some of my client’s films here or here. Oh, and that’s an advertisement I just wrote, not journalism.

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Saving Indie Film History – IndieCollect and the Apparatus Films

He Was Once (1989, 16min) via IndieCollect Kickstarter page

Filmmakers – Do you know where your negatives are? Didn’t shoot on film? Do you know how little time digital masters are expected to last if you don’t keep migrating them to new formats? The history of independent film – especially its current history – is in jeopardy. As an industry, we’re always focused on what’s new and what’s next, but our indie history is just as important as what’s around the corner, and the reality is that the majority of independent films aren’t properly stored, archived and indexed (so they can be found), and current indie films are being shot on digital formats that disappear quickly (remember floppy disks?). Sure, it seems like you can find just about anything on YouTube, but actually, you can’t and even those films online are usually not being preserved for the future.

Sandra Schulberg has a solution – IndieCollect, and when Sandra comes up with an idea it always goes somewhere – she founded the IFP, and has been a leading figure in the indie film sector (and is also a filmmaker). She realized that the history of indie film needs to be saved, and she’s gathered up a posse of like-minded people, including me and some others – to help out. IndieCollect is indexing, archiving, preserving, digitizing and making available the history of independent film. They’re partnering with existing archives (such as UCLA, the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress and others) to ensure that indie films are properly stored, and finding homes for those that are in danger. They’re rescuing thousands of films that were close to disappearing, and they’re working on solutions to make sure that filmmaker’s work can always be discovered, and that (whenever possible) filmmaker’s can get paid for that work.

IndieCollect recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to save some super cool films from early indie film history – the Apparatus films of Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes. Check out the Kickstarter page to learn more about what IndieCollect is doing, the Apparatus films they are saving and more. If you want to learn more, read this NYT article on IndieCollect, and if you like what they’re doing, please contribute and/or spread the word.

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Windowing & Piracy

Another year, another bogus analysis of piracy in indie film. The latest is this gem from Adam Leipzig (who I actually like a lot), and Entertainment Media Partners in Cultural Weekly. The report came out just before Sundance, but I was too busy to even take a look until now. Adam does a pretty good job of showing the numbers for indie films at Sundance this year – how many applied, got accepted, possible budget ranges, etc. I like it when anyone tries to explain data in indie film, so kudos for this.

The problem comes when he starts to analyze piracy’s impacts on indie film. He shows a lot of lost revenue, but his calculations are based on a pretty interesting assumption – that 5% of illegal downloaders would have purchased the film at $3 per transaction. There is no evidence, or even theory, presented as to how he arrives at this percentage. But my bigger problem is the logic – let’s just pretend for a minute that 5% of the 12M+ people who illegally downloaded Whiplash would have purchased the film for $3 meaning $1.825M in lost revenue (per the infographic)… well, that assumption leads to another, that there would be a mechanism for them to actually make this purchase. But that wasn’t an option for anyone who pirated Whiplash (he doesn’t offer transaction dates, so let’s assume most of the piracy occurred early in the film’s release). If they wanted to pay $3 for the film instead of pirating it, they couldn’t.  There was no button, no availability, because of old-fashioned windowing practices. This is true of every film on the chart.

What the study actually shows is not that piracy hurts anyone, but rather that millions of dollars are lost each year because of antiquated business practices. If pirates could buy the films for $3 they might, and if 5% of them did, the business would see millions in new revenues. In fact, for the 14 films from Sundance 2014/5 that he studied, that’s over $6.5M dollars lost because of a crap business model. Seems to me that if we studied this a bit more, we might focus less on piracy and more on getting rid of windows.

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Predictions for 2016

Every year I send out my predictions for the New Year, and I have to be honest, I don’t have the best track-record. Sure, I was correct last year that it was an important year for Net Neutrality, but no, Chris Dodd wasn’t forced out of the MPAA, and Facebook didn’t launch original content (not to the extent I meant). But I do think I predicted some trends, so I guess I’d take this list more as some predictions for the future, but they might not happen in 2016. Gotta be ahead of the game!

  1. This will be a boom year for indie films, especially for documentaries, but…it will also presage a major crash. Gotta take the good with the bad. First, the good. With Amazon, Netflix, the Orchard, CNN, AJA, Broad Green, Gravitas… and my Grandmother … all funding original content and buying up indie films like crazy, it’s a great time to have an indie film for sale. We might see another year where almost every Sundance film gets distribution, and regardless, I bet Sundance sales will be gangbusters. This is great, and I hope it works for everyone. So what’s the bad? I don’t think it’s sustainable. We have more distributors and platforms than ever. And sure we have more content for all of them,but it’s a crowded market-place and they can’t all make a return on their investment. Amazon and Netflix can wait it out and keep building their base, but a lot of others can’t. So while I think we’re safe for 2016, I am willing to bet that by 2017, we’ll start to see some major flame-outs among distributors. Until then, Party On!
  2. Virtual Reality will also boom and bust. I’m not the only one saying this, but we’ll see more VR companies and products launch, and people will snap them up like crazy. But when the nausea sets in, and customers get bored with most of the actual experiences (yes, once you get over the hype, most are pretty yawn inducing), we’ll see a major back-lash. Probably not enough to kill it, as so much has been invested already, but there will definitely be a dampening. This will lead to a few people/companies going back to the drawing board and coming up with some amazing shit, so it’s a good thing. Plus, it also means there’s never been a better time to build a VR company, get funding and/or sell it and make a fortune. That’s what I’d do if I could.
  3. There will be an ongoing explosion of branded content. I am biased here, as I work almost exclusively in this arena now, but it’s booming and it won’t stop anytime soon. Every day another company launches a new division to make films, or a major initiative. Here’s just a sampling: Levi’s, Patagonia, Starbucks, Marriott, The North Face, Red Bull Media House, GoPro, Timberland, Pepsi, Nike, Chevy, GE, Yeti are all doing some serious films now. Many are actually quite good. This doesn’t even count all of the branded content being made by places like T Brand Studio (the NYT), Conde Nast, etc. Or the Foundations and major nonprofits making content. It’s now a major competitor to other films and TV for at least our attention, and this will only grow as more people come into the space. And brands know marketing, so they know how to build an audience. I suspect we’ll see even more of it in 2016, if not a major push by someone into fiction films as well.
  4. Theatrical will gain in importance. There’s been way too much hype about the death of cinema. Force Awakens proved people will still go to the theater. But more importantly, everyone is realizing that save for a few instances you simply can’t get the buzz and attention you need unless you have a theatrical. This is partly because of the way critics and the press work – they still pay undue attention to theatrical releases over online – but it’s also because it reaches the core audience who then spreads the word to those of us who might not go to the theater and will wait for the digital release. Yes, windows should usually keep shortening, but theatrical remains a crucial part of the pie. Plus, I am coming around to believing that as people begin to find the cacophony of online overwhelming and too much more of the same, they’ll keep seeking out more genuine experiences. I expect we’ll begin to see a small uptick in younger audiences over the next few years as more of them seek something more rewarding than their cell screen or VR goggles. Luckily, here in NYC we have a few new theaters opening, like the Metrograph, so perhaps this prediction will come true, at least here.
  5. The end of aggregation options for filmmakers or The Death of Aggregators or The Death of DIY Distribution. Ok, this one has really already happened. Just two years ago, I could steer filmmakers to half a dozen or more aggregators who could help them get their films onto iTunes, Netflix and other platforms. But now, most of those places have become distributors, and they are increasingly turning down a lot of indie films. True, a couple still exist, but options are thinning. On top of that, most of them now demand to take your direct-to-fan sales through Vimeo or VHX as well. Why? They claim it’s competition with them, which it utter bullshit – if someone finds your film on your site, it’s because of your work and they wouldn’t have found it from The Orchard’s work (or anyone else), so why give them a cut? Because they need it? From my perspective, it’s never been a worse time to be a self-distributing indie, unless you already have a massive fan base. The partners you used to have are disappearing, becoming distributors or becoming much less friendly. That said, if you need someone good, try Quiver.
  6. Facebook buys Vimeo. Ok, this one is a stretch as supposedly Vimeo isn’t for sale. But Barry Diller has thought about it before, and while Facebook can clearly build the system themselves, they would gain an easy path into owning their own set of channels, with a very loyal customer base. They’d gain a mass of quality content that comes cheaper than Youtube or Yahoo, and with much better brand value than the latter. They could turn the VimeoPro features into Consumer-Pro features and have a subscriber base, and they’d automatically have a home for quality video. Facebook will become a network – they are one – so something like this is coming, and it may be the best possible exit for Vimeo anyway.
  7. Video Start-ups die or are acquired. There’s a lot of tiny video sell-through, rental and SVOD sites out there. They’ve been plugging away for years, but none of them have come close to the user base they need to survive in today’s VC investment environment. I think many will run out of cash, and a few will be acquired. I have some thoughts on who these might be, but I’ll keep that to myself for now, but I do think this is their year of reckoning. That said, we’re long overdue for a well-funded Netflix competitor, so perhaps someone will launch one this year as well?
  8. HBO is spun off from Time Warner. Everyone else is predicting this as well, so perhaps it won’t happen just because everyone thinks it should. But HBO would arguably be much more valuable that way, and hey, I need at least one of these predictions to come true.

That’s it. I’ve only got 8 predictions for 2016, but I’d love to hear some predictions from others. Send them my way.

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