Archives for DIY

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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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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FilmDIY Guide to the Interweb

Recently, I was lucky enough to meet Kobi Shely, the filmmaker of MacHeads, and founder of both DocMovies and FilmDIY. FilmDIY is a very filmmaker-friendly e-commerce site where you can sell your film online at any price you want, nonexclusive terms and get an automatic 70% return. His company also helps with some promotion and things like Facebook apps, etc. Kobi sent me this excellent video they made to promote the service, and it’s pretty smart. Check it:

What is filmDIY? The Filmmaker’s Guide to The Interweb from filmDIY on Vimeo.

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On Gettin’ One Over: Food Trucks and the New Ethos of Quality

veronicasLike everyone else in NYC (and SFO and many other cities), I’ve been enjoying the recent explosion in Food Trucks and pop-up restaurants. Near my office in Midtown, I can often hit up any number of random food trucks, with my favorite indulgence being the Daisy Mae’s BBQ truck near Rockefeller Center. On the weekends, I love hitting the Kelvin and Kimchi Taco trucks, usually at the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market, and I really miss Veronica’s Kitchen near my old office downtown.

There’s all kinds of ways to look at this phenomenon: too many rich people in NYC and the hipsteryuppification of NY; entrepreneurial business endeavors; menace to existing restaurants and old style water-dog and pretzel stands; or proof there’s not enough real jobs for college graduates. I like all of these simultaneously, but what is most striking about these to me is how different the ethos of these trucks is to what we’ve gotten before.

If you look at the recent, say 50 year, history of food trucks/carts in the City, they’ve been about one thing, really – ripping you off. Getting one over on someone who needs a quick lunch for not too much money. Give em a f-in dirty water dog. Or a crappy pretzel. Or a stale bagel that’s more expensive and worse tasting than the one at any corner deli. The customer has nowhere else to go. F-‘em

Now, not every vendor actually felt/feels this way. Many were/are struggling entrepreneurs, often immigrants, who were/are just trying to make a living, renting their cart for way too much money from another boss. It was what you did, what was expected. A way to make some cash. The history of the food carts, and how the City (from the bureaucrats down to all of us) have dealt with them is too complicated to explore here, but I think we can sum it up as – barely tolerable food, barely tolerated by the authorities and served up to suckers of either the tourist or harried worker variety. But whatever the motivation, giving a customer something good, decent, that had real value has not been a top priority.

The new food truck phenomenon is completely the opposite. Good, usually awesome, food that people will not just eat when they are desperate for a meal, but that they’ll hunt down via Twitter and follow obsessively. The vendors are usually quite serious about making high-quality food and giving you value for your money. Many are overpriced – yes, I could never eat at Rickshaw Dumpling knowing that I can get a better deal in Chinatown at Prosperity, but here’s the thing – at least they’re making quality food and you can tell they enjoy doing it. They’re also, by the way, not limited to hipsters – the food truck phenomenon is remarkably diverse, with the annual Vendy awards consisting of Red Hook vendors alongside Belgian waffles. Most importantly, regardless of the truck, you don’t get the sense they’re just “gettin’ one over” on you.

This to me is not just a defining attitude of food truck vendors. I think it’s something bigger and it might even qualify as a generational divide. Up until recently, we’ve been willing to live in a world of “getting one over.” Everyone was doing it – from the food cart vendor, to the McDonald’s franchisee, all the way up to MoMA. Yes, even MoMA. Every frickin’ museum in this City, including MoMA, has always had a crappy cafe where they’d sell you horrible, overpriced food created with not one ounce of love. It was endemic and accepted. “Eh, that’s what you get” we’d say. “Suckers” they’d think as they served up another steamed soy burger. Gettin’ one over.

Yes, the new food truck scene is sometimes overpriced, but I don’t get the sense I’m being ripped off by a scam artist every time I visit one of these trucks. I usually have an actual conversation with the owner, who is sweating it out right alongside his/her employees. I get quality food I’d actually recommend to someone else, not something I’d tell my visiting relatives to avoid.

It’s not just the food trucks. I rode my bike this weekend to the Morningside Park Market to buy sausages from “Brooklyn Cured,” my favorite food vendor in the City (he also does the New Amsterdam Market). The guy is working his ass off, and selling a quality product at a fair price because he loves doing it. I’ll keep going there because of this difference.

It’s very easy to knock this all down and say – just a bunch of rich people trying to find a new version of “authenticity.” I know all the arguments, but I’m putting them aside for now because I do think there’s an underlying ethic of providing quality goods to the consumer that we haven’t seen for some time. Oh, we’ve seen lip-service to it, and marketing to it, but not much of the real thing.

We’ll see it copied too. It’s already happening across the board, and you do see it in all the “authenticity” marketing going on, as well as in the move to “high-quality” in other places. My favorite example is, once again, MoMA. They’ve gone upscale with their cafe and their restaurant. They have a fancy chef instead of someone more used to school-cafeteria cooking, some craft beers and what not, but they’re still “gettin’ one over.” The restaurant is under-staffed, the feeling is still one of getting ripped off and the quality of the artisanal snacks (and entrees) reeks more of “how do we suck another dollar out of this jerk’s wallet” than “how do we make this a better, more valuable, experience.”

Contrast that with a place like the Rerun Gastropub Theater. The seats and environs are decidedly less fancy than at MoMA, but I’m getting food, beverage and a movie all of which have been created by someone who gives a flying fuck about the quality of what they’re giving me.

That attitude is relatively new as a mass phenomenon. It has its problems, but I like it more than the status quo. I see this same attitude in many of the newer galleries I respect, the filmmakers and film festivals that I tend to like, and that, to me, is something I hope to see more of.

I’m sure people in the worlds of food, film, art, etc will continue to get one over on us (I’m lookin’ at you, 3D), but I also think many of us will want something better, and demand it. Artists who take this to heart will have to work harder, just like the food truck vendors, and have a more direct connection to their customer/audience, but the experience will be more rewarding for both of them.

Photo of Veronica’s Kitchen from FeistyFoodie.Com

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