Archives for Film industry

The future is find – film curation & festival programmers

Just prior to Sundance and Slamdance, I conducted a very unscientific experiment and asked my Facebook friends – many of whom are programmers for film festivals who could all be expected to have long lists of “must-see’s” at the fest, and who are very opinionated when you speak to them in line for a film– what films they recommended at the festival.

I got back exactly what I expected – nothing. Now, there’s a chance that none of them like me enough to read my post and respond, and an equal chance that because it wasn’t about #metoo or Drumpf, they couldn’t be bothered. But I don’t think this was the issue.

When I was working with Ted Hope to build Flicklist (which failed miserably for other reasons), we encountered this same problem. We thought it would be great to showcase the greatest asset any film festival has – the expertise of their curators – as a way to help audiences find great new films. Who has a better handle on the films you should see in theaters and online? Who could better tell you to add that movie to your queue months before it gets written about? It seemed like a no-brainer – if I trust my local film programmer at the festival, I might trust their recommendations year-round, and take a chance on a film because of that – maybe even going to see a film at another film festival when I’m visiting another town, for just one example. And it would be a simple way to further the brand equity of those film festivals and their programmers, perhaps giving great curatorial “power” to the awesome programmer in Atlanta as well as the one at Cannes.

We approached a lot of film festivals and their programmers behind the scenes, and nearly every one of them said the same thing – oh, our programmers we would never share their real lists. They didn’t want to give away their possible programming choices, didn’t want to seem to privilege one film or filmmaker above another, especially early in the game, or didn’t want to be so public about their tastes. We made it clear they could hide their programming choices and only share other recommendations, but there was still concern. The lists of reasons went on and on – even when we suggested paying for the service. Programmers just weren’t accustomed to sharing their recommendations and favorites except in two places – in the festival selections, and possibly in end-of-the-year, best-of lists.

We gave up, but I’m convinced that part of our idea was a good one,  and I’ve hoped for a long time that someone else would crack that nut and tap into the collective curatorial power of those festivals and give them a new type of relevance outside of the time of the film-fest taking place. It hasn’t happened. No one has built any kind of curatorial machine that takes advantage of actual film curators. Not only that – no film festival, to my knowledge, has done it on their own. Not even the ones with the most power – Sundance, Cannes, Hot Docs, SXSW, or anyone else.

It seems to me like a lost opportunity, and it seems like a big, gaping hole in the services that festivals should be offering their audiences – not to mention a potential revenue stream. As content proliferates online, consumers need curators to help them cut through the noise to find the best stuff. Critics are part of this, but so are festival programmers, and they have a lot less baggage and more good-will already. And you don’t have to be a rocket-scientist to figure this out – everyone talks about the importance of curators to the future of content online. And every festival seems to think their programmers are good at finding good films, or presumably they wouldn’t pay them.

I would pay them for this service, and many of my film-going friends would do the same. If I could get a weekly email of recommendations from trusted programmers at my local festival, with a mix of things that played their festival, but also things they couldn’t program that they liked, I’d add all of those films to my queue and happily pay for it. Or I might even become a member of their festival – and festivals need reasons to convince me to become a member beyond a discount on tickets at the festival and an email newsletter (…talking about their next festival or their next fundraiser). Turn this into an app, and I’d pay for that app, and I don’t pay for anything now. Everyone I know wants help cutting through the garbage to discover the best films to watch, and fest programmers could be that guide online, year-round. And they should be, because as I’ve argued before (in 2013, jeesh), in a world of super-abundance, film festivals need to think beyond their old missions of just bringing undiscovered films to their locale.

Right now, the leading websites for finding films are Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. These are helpful to some extent, and I use them, but they’re not really curatorial or based on any curator’s knowledge. I can’t easily follow just the reviewers I trust, and none of these focus on curation, which is very different than criticism.

Yes, a few people have taken to Letterboxd to share the films they’ve seen, and for a long time, I hoped this would become the curatorial service that I think we need. Here’s my favorite programmer Tom Hall’s list of films he saw at Sundance, for example. But aside from Tom, I don’t find many actual curators telling me what to see online. Instead, Letterboxd seems mainly used by critics (here’s David Ehrlich of IndieWire posting his reviews and rankings as just one good example). But again, this is different than the curation a festival programmer could bring, and I think its lacking from the discovery process online.

But I’ve given up hoping for that world to come along. I think most of the fest industry is focused on their current model, not thinking about what they should be doing in a new paradigm. If they won’t take on that curatorial role, then we’ll need someone else to do it.

I suspect these new curators and curatorial services are developing now, being built, will launch, and they won’t include many of the experts or the expertise of these film festivals. The curatorial app of the future will probably be built on celebrity, an algorithm or some other system of trust. Once it launches, a few festivals will try to launch their own version, to jump on the bandwagon, but it will be too late. We’ll all get our recommendations from someone else – and in a world where almost any film ends up online eventually, I’ll have less and less reason to show up at the festival in person, when someone else will curate it for me in a more convenient form.

I’ve always argued that back in 2005, Sundance could have, and should have built YouTube. The technology and the need were there. The writing was on the wall, and everyone could sense what needed to be built, but nonprofits (which most festivals are) don’t think that way. They do the same old thing instead of the new. So we got a very different YouTube, and have no idea what that alternate one, informed by the curation, artistry and artist-centric thinking they had might have become. (To be clear, I’m only picking on Sundance here because they’re the most famous name, you could insert almost any other name; and Sundance has been plenty busy doing a lot of other good things).

This is another one of those moments. The need is clear. The history of the internet is search, the future is find – finding exactly what you need, hopefully with some curatorial help.  I think we have just a few more years before someone builds the perfect curation system, and a short window where this could be done by the existing players in this space. I’d much rather have that service be built by those with the curatorial vision found in our film festivals than on the backs of some algorithm or the whims of some brand or celebrity (or both). And I’d rather that the money it makes benefits these festivals than some new version of Facebook, and that this data informs better art, not more advertising. The technology exists, and festival programmers have the expertise we need.Who will pick up the charge?

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Net Neutrality and Film

Kudos to Sonos (disclosure, a sometimes client) for taking a big stand this week pre-Grammy’s. That’s their website artwork at the beginning of this post, and this week, they closed their NYC and online stores to support Net Neutrality, and took out big ads in the NYT and WSJ (and many social media posts) in support of it as well. I hope some people in the film world do the same, and soon, but it also reminded me to post this little bit about the impact of recent net-neutrality decisions on the future of film.

I’ve been writing about the importance of Net Neutrality since I started blogging in January of 2006. There’ve been many close calls since that time, and many decisions that those close to these issues considered likely precursors to the end of net neutrality, but 2017 brought the official end of net neutrality, and it’s not hyperbole to say it’s the beginning of the end of the Net as we’ve known it. The changes will be gradual and practically imperceptible, but very real. We’ll wake up one day and find a very different internet unless we take some pretty radical steps, and soon.

But what does this mean for film in the short term? You can expect more deals to privilege certain content over others – get Netflix or Verizon Go90 or whatever other content faster and cheaper. That will be good for consumers when you want to watch stuff on the big guys – Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, etc. But it also means it will be that much harder for people like Fandor or Mubi to get traction, and even harder for new services to launch, as the costs to deliver quickly to consumers will become hurdles too high. That may not seem too bad, but as Netflix and Amazon buy/license less indie and arthouse fare, these alternate services are crucial to those wanting to find and watch the multitudes of films not on these larger services. And those viewers wanting to experiment might be discouraged when a “Classic,” or “experimental” focused service is slower to load or costs much more to access.

It will also mean less relevant alternatives like Vimeo, and over time, fewer opportunities for truly independent work to reach an audience. Right now, if your film doesn’t get picked up by one of the major services, you can always fall back to using a Vimeo to reach your audience, but that could become more expensive, slow or difficult quite easily.

But in a world of super-abundance, where I can barely keep up with the content coming over the transom, this will be imperceptible to all but those stuck behind, trying to break through, and I suspect very few people will care. That’s one reason why it’s even more important to fight this trend now, before we forget why we’re even in the fight.

But the more important concerns are the loss of possible futures we can’t even imagine now. It’s hard to believe, but we’re at the very beginning of the revolution(s) brought about by digital, and what movies you get to watch are in many ways the least concern. Perhaps artists will come up with entire new artforms, utilizing new technologies still to be built, but they cant get them out to an audience because they’re made harder to find or censored from the web altogether?

And speaking of censorship, that becomes much easier under a non-neutral net as well. Incumbent powers who might be threatened by new competitors to their services, or regimes who don’t want certain voices heard already have it pretty easy, but the loss of net neutrality makes it even more assured that alternative voices, business models and visions of the future will be that much harder to find.

Want to join the fight? I recommend Public Knowledge and Free Press as two great places to find out what’s happening and how to fight back.

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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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Edinburgh and the Future of Film Fests

'Edinburgh' photo (c) 2009, Moyan Brenn - license:

For my money, there’s no better reading right now in the film world than David Cairn’s excellent series of interview posts on the Edinburgh Film Festival. You can read the latest one here, and part one and two here. I think this is essential reading for anyone who cares about film fests, the film industry, the state of and future of film going…or about the state of culture generally.

Why are they so great? Well, there’s been a lot of griping about this year’s Edinburgh Int’l Film Fest, but David’s series is going beyond the gripe. He’s interviewing several people involved with the festival, promising to also run an interview with this year’s artistic manager, and he’s not concentrating on the bad. For example, he starts by asking them to talk about their favorite moment’s from their history with the festival. The stories he hears are great, and tell us a lot about what makes a great film fest, as well as why people keep working at them. A few gripes do get shared, but what comes across the most is a great discussion about why festivals matter, what they mean to their local community and the film industry, and how that might evolve. I’m finding them a fascinating and much needed discussion.

What is most striking to me is the fact that I can’t imagine anyone in the US film news/blog scene doing anything remotely as important as this. Seriously. No offense to my friends in the film news space, but what has happened and is happening in Edinburgh is worthy of some serious reporting. Not just from the current perspective of “oh shit, this was a bad year,” but from the perspectives of: there’s great change facing many film festivals, what can we learn here?; Edinburgh has a glorious history, what did it use to do that we can learn from by examining the past?; How is film going changing?; What does it mean to run/be a film festival today?; and yes, Who is at fault and what can be done??!!

On that last note, can I just say publicly, since no one else is doing so:

Give me a f-in break people. Quit blaming artistic director James Mullighan for all the woes of Edinburgh this year. He may be a friend, but even if he was an enemy, I would point out that he only took the job some four months before the festival, he inherited many problems and the buck doesn’t stop with the artistic director. He had no time to do much of anything, and even less budget. As much as I loved Hannah and her predecessors (and am not pinning the blame to them either), I have attended the festival for the last few years, and there was a lot of (less public) griping going on about many of these same issues. The problems didn’t just start this year. He also seems to have experimented with some cool new programming that actually worked, as well. And last, and to my mind most importantly – the problems facing the Edinburgh Film Festival are arguably completely in the realm of the management level, not the artistic one, and I’d be willing to bet that ANY artistic director with less problems on this front could experiment more and honor the past more than was possible here. Let’s face it – if the festival is losing money, bringing in an artistic director too late and losing both big name support and street cred, the buck stops at a higher level. Without having met the CEO or board of the festival I am quite certain that’s where the blame should be placed.

Yep, them’s fighting words, but no one I’ve read yet has convinced me otherwise.

In the meantime, every film festival director and their board chair should make this series of posts a must-read for their entire staff and board. There should be a staff/board retreat dedicated to thinking about what can be learned from this debacle, and if you happen to run a film conference attended by many festival people, or maybe a conference for festivals…ahem…perhaps you should consider a panel about this as well.

In closing, so it doesn’t seem I’m wallowing in anyone’s failures and changes – I have loved the Edinburgh Film Fest since I first attended it. I’ve liked every staff person there that I have met, and think they are doing an excellent, hard job and took too much criticism this year. I think it can and will become an important festival again. Its problems can’t be pinned on any one person, but can be linked to leadership failures. I can’t wait to attend it again in the future.

What do you think?

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