crowdfunding

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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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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Funding Individual Artists – some ideas

While it’s a great time to be an artist in so many ways, it remains difficult to raise money for making art, much less for sustaining a career as an artist. In fact, funds for support of artists have been drying up over the years. In film and new media, where I work, there are just a handful of places to turn if you aren’t making very commercial work or social issue documentaries – Creative Capital and Jerome being the most prominent. There are others like LEF in New England, and Sundance, which also offers support through labs and services, but not nearly enough support is out there for interesting artistic work. I’ve worked in artists support organizations for most of my career, so I think about this often, and lately I’ve been dreaming up a few things I’d love to see. Here’s my wish list for new types of grants for artists (particularly media artists) that I’d love to see, in no particular order:

  1. More money to those supported – the more money vs. more people supported debate always rages on, but to my mind, that’s just because grant givers haven’t been able to truly keep up with inflation and use the more people argument as an excuse. Minimum grants should increase, and I’d love to see more funds giving greater than $50,000 USD per grant.
  2. General Operating Support for artists – Every nonprofit complains about wanting more general operating support and less funding tied to specific projects. This should be true for artist grants as well – fund artists for their career success and/or potential, not just their proposed project. Underwrite their living expenses for a year. Here’s a good place to start:
  3. Give the same amount you pay in salaries to the same number of artists. Have an ED/CEO making the big bucks? Give that same amount to one artist per year, to support whatever they want to do that year. Hell, add on what it would cost for insurance and benefits as well. Then pay as many artists as you have staff the same average yearly amount. This would bring some needed transparency to the process, and would actually be a great concept for fundraising.
  4. Commit to diversity, in all ways – racial/ethnic/sexual orientation/geographic/artistic practice, etc. Not that these are all equal, but you know what I mean. Sure, everyone says they do this, but not enough grants shake out this way. Don’t have enough applicants or nominees? That’s your fault, do better outreach. I could find 15 lesbian, African-American artists making cutting edge art or film in Georgia alone, but I’m not seeing that many of them on grant rolls, festival screening lists, in galleries or other artistic venues. I think this is an organizational failure – of improper scouting, not enough use of good nominators (not at the expense of open-calls), not enough outreach and an accrued liability where many people don’t feel they fit into established grant maker’s giving histories and thus don’t bother to apply (this last one is especially true for the lack of diversity on the film fest circuit).
  5. Increase support for established artists. Everyone loves emerging artists, and I’m not saying anyone should cut back support for them, but I know way too many “successful” artists over 40 who have won nearly every award and who can no longer get grants, but they still struggle to pay their bills and make their art.
  6. Portfolio Training – I’ve been on numerous grant panels, and you’d be shocked at the difference in the presentation skills of various artists. You can tell which ones went to schools that teach how to present their portfolio and those who didn’t, and it severely impacts how their work is received. Multiple grant organizations should conduct regional training workshops on how to apply for grants and how to present a portfolio. They should also agree on a common application form (this is in the works in many places), and every grant giver should be required to have a sample, successful application available on their website.
  7. Use the Crowd: I’ve seen numerous proposals for this, with this one being my favorite, but to my knowledge almost no one has embraced the crowd in their grant giving. You know, because their program staff are such experts (ahem) that they don’t need any help. There should be a fund available only to people who have completed a successful Kickstarter (or similar) campaign. There should be funds where the majority of applicants come from crowd-sourced nominations. There should be grants that come with a guaranteed minimum and a match for up to X amount of dollars raised from the crowd. And support for the campaign as well. There should be much more experimentation with participatory grant giving. Not to the detriment of other giving, but come on – Kickstarter is six years old now, and we’ve had no new funding mechanism invented since that time. That’s leadership for you…
  8. My personal bias here – there should be a fund to support media about art and artists. Almost no funding exists if you are making a documentary about art. We need more films showing great art and artists, and these works rarely get support. This should cover all disciplines and practices, and it should not just be film, but also new media.
  9. Travel grants – Fund artists to travel around the world. Not just to attend some conference, lab or retreat, but just to travel the world, live, think and perhaps make art as a result.
  10. Shake-up the decision-making process – Almost every grant program has a panel process. But panels don’t always pick the best art, they pick the art everyone can agree on (this is also true of festival juries). I’d love to see a different process, perhaps where each panelist can pick one artist they want to see supported whether or not anyone else agrees, and then the rest are decided by the committee. Let the panelists, especially the artists on the panel, take some risks and support some artists that not everyone can agree upon.
  11. More funds for exhibition, promotion, marketing and audience development. All of this work is falling to the artists themselves now, so let’s fund it separately from the funds given for production. Let’s have grants that go towards hiring a publicist, mounting an exhibit in Manhattan, touring a work or marketing a film.
  12. More funds promoting collaboration. Let’s recreate the Bell Labs without Bell. Let’s fund more artists to collaborate with scientists, with start-ups, with other artists in other disciplines.

That’s just twelve quick ideas. I could give twelve more, but let’s face it – what we really need are more funds for artists, no matter what the idea. Perhaps what we need most of all is a fund to promote the idea of giving more direct support for individual artists. Maybe we should fund a marketing campaign geared towards convincing more of these new dot-com millionaires to support artists.

note: I can’t seem to get the wordpress editor to number the last ones 10-11-12, so sorry for the weird numbering

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Ten Predictions for 2014

Tricky business, these predictions, but I’ll try once more to get something right here.

  1. This will be a deciding year in the film tech space. We’ve got a lot of platforms in this space: Vimeo, VHX, ReelHouse, Fandor, IndieFlix, Snag, Mubi, Distrify…the list of platforms is long, and I didn’t even mention the gorillas in that room. We’ve also got lots of competition in the discovery arena: MoviePilot, Letterboxed, SeenThat and Flicklist (which I’m still struggling to launch). Then we’ve got the tools like Assemble, MoviePass, TopSpin, Tugg, Slated, Seed & Spark, and more, all helping with various aspects of the film business. I won’t even begin to list the numerous online news and review sites. I don’t see many of these companies existing in 2015. I think 2014 will be the year where we figure out who is going to grow up and own this space (or, these spaces, these companies represent a lot of different business models). My money is on ReelHouse at the moment. They’ve just launched a partnership with Warner Brothers that is pretty interesting. If they can navigate the waters and merge indie, arthouse and studio discovery, viewing and engagement right, they could own this space. But there’s an equally good chance that someone new will launch and eclipse all of these guys, or that Facebook just launches better versions of their services by close of the year.
  2. Branded Content Explodes. I hate every word I just typed, but it’s a better short hand than: Smart companies with a powerful relationship with their consumers/fans will realize that they can and should make smart films and other video content to better engage with them, and it will expand dramatically this year. I am biased, as one of my clients is in this space, but two non-clients are doing it best now: Red Bull and ESPN. I think we’ll see many more doing it soon, and indie filmmakers should watch and learn…and debate what indie means, because many of these companies will want to work with you soon.
  3. Data finally taken seriously in this space. I remember roughly five years ago when Lance Weiler told the crowd at Sundance that data was the new oil. Everyone ignored him. I too have been preaching this for quite some time, and now everyone has woken up and is exploring data in the film world. I am consulting on one project in this space, and I know of many others. I expect we’ll see several amazing data projects in the film world this year, and we’ll learn what more we could know as a result, meaning 2015 will see some longitudinal studies and more people opening up their data as they see the value in sharing it.
  4. Changing of the guard. We’ve just seen three or four major institutions in the film world lose their leadership, for various reasons. There will be some new leaders announced, but I think we’ll also see more shake-ups at a few more. I don’t have any feelings good or bad about the changes, but I am excited to see who takes the reins at these institutions, and what next steps they will (or won’t) make.
  5. Direct Distribution Backlash. I’m already sensing this on the festival circuit and think it will become a more open topic of conversation. 2014 will be the year where everyone starts to dis direct distribution. Many will think I’m crazy for saying this- in a world of unlimited new tools to reach your fans and distribute your film right to them, how can I make this prediction? Because it’s hard work, and it doesn’t often pay off any better than going with a distributor. It’s a tough business whether you do it yourself or go at it with partners. Not everyone has the stomach for it, and everyone is starting to realize it works well for certain types of films, but not every film. I am not saying direct distribution will die, or that certain filmmakers shouldn’t try it. I am also sure we’ll see at least one project a month that nails it – does it right and makes bank. But many people are starting to realize that we’ve not gotten rid of the middle-men here, we’ve just made more of them (aggregators, bookers, marketers, etc) and that sometimes you just want to make the next movie instead of becoming a carny for 18 months.
  6. That said, direct distribution will make someone a millionaire this year. Who will it be? Probably a film to be discovered at Sundance in January. We’ll see.
  7. Distributor Shake Out. There’s too many players in the space. In the documentary world especially, it’s leading to unsustainable prices being paid to acquire content (good for filmmakers in the short term), and when that money isn’t made back, heads start to roll. I predict we’ll see some consolidation here, and several burn-outs.
  8. Episodic Content Will Rule. It already does. It will explode even more this year, and my hope is that more indies will learn from those leading in this space. Six million subscribers is more valuable than a film fest laurel, or even an Oscar.
  9. Online Episodic Creators will roll out more feature projects. As Freddie Wong has already done twice, more creators will launch feature projects, and many of them will do it through crowd-funding direct from their fans, turning those millions of followers into real gold, and making the most exciting, truly independent work out there.
  10. More investors will lose money in film than ever before. Thanks to the JOBS Act and the upcoming expansion of crowd-funding and crowd-investing initiatives, more people will get the chance to lose their investment on crappy film ideas with no business plan, and no chance of success. It will make it harder for the rest of us with good ideas to get funding, because we’ll find more burned investors in the pool.

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Guest Post: The Net Helps People Do What They Love

This is a guest blog post from Adam Richardson of Netstars. Check out his site and his IndieGoGo Campaign too.

The convergence of high speed internet, exponentially faster computers, and user generated content is drastically changing the mass media industry. How we get our entertainment and information is being transformed as we speak. Consumer expectations and consumption habits are changing drastically. The new digital era has helped turned passive consumers into creators of their own media experience.

Technology advances always bring new challenges, but they also frequently present us with new opportunities. Digital media can only be expected to continue to pervade all aspects of our lives. Creation and distribution of content have been revolutionized and continue to evolve before our eyes.

If you are an aspiring musician, writer, photographer, filmmaker, or any other creative type trying to get discovered, then the Net provides you a great opportunity. Selling on the Net makes it easier than ever for you to find customers for your niche and for your customers to find you. You can use the Net to sell directly to customers. Online marketplaces help connect you with your buyers and makes it easy for everyone.

So, there is no need for a publisher, record label, or film studio to take most of your earnings anymore. After realizing this I created Netstars.com to help creative people cut out the middleman. Now digital creators can connect with buyers, get recognized, and be able to make a living doing what they love.

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