Archives for films

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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Breathing New Life into Your (old) Film

I’ve long thought that people give up too easily on older indie films that didn’t break into the big time on the first go-round. Usually, it’s the distributors that give up, (not to beat up on them, but because many older indie films that one has ever seen are locked up with distributors, not lying in the filmmaker’s closet), but sometimes it’s the filmmaker not being creative enough with their older titles. I understand this – people want to move on to the next project, so spending much time re-positioning an older film may not be worth the time. But when you have a little success that first go-round, you’re well positioned to tap back into that fan base, and bring in some new ones, and noting does that better than an event-based screening.

Which is why I’m so happy that Milt Thomas is planning a 10 year anniversary screening of his little masterpiece, Claire. A very smart event-based anniversary screening. See, Claire was always an event-based screening kind of film. Shot on a hand-cranked, Mitchell 35mm camera in Black and White, Claire was a silent film only shown with a live orchestral accompaniment. This made for quite the magisterial screening, but it was also quite expensive to pull off. In fact, one very famous, major film festival turned down the film solely for this reason, but the film premiered at the Frameline San Francisco LGBT Festival and went on to play multiple festivals and cities. One of these was recorded to make a DVD of the film, but the real way to see this film has always been live.

Now, Milt is putting together an anniversary screening on November 3, 2011 in Atlanta, GA and he’s holding a very tiny Kickstarter campaign that will pay for the venue rental and for the composer, Anne Richardson, to re-compose the film for a string quartet, which will allow the film to travel to other venues much more economically. This is a very smart idea, and I imagine Milt can get a fair amount of 10th Anniversary bookings. I’m planning to support him, and to travel back down to Atlanta to be there for this screening. I recommend you do the same – Atlanta is great in November, and this promises to be a great event. I hope to see you there!

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