Archives for indie film

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?

Share This:

FAANG and Film



In the business world, people refer to Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google as FANG – also known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This has been widened by many to include Apple, and while Google is now “Alphabet” the acronym has stuck as FAANG – the big companies that are changing all business through their digital prowess, market capitalization and stock performance. They are also increasingly impossible to compete against – just starting a real competitor to Netflix today would probably take a starting investment of maybe a Billion dollars.

For the film world, this is especially true – and its why Disney and Fox are merging, why AT&T wants Time Warner, and everything else you see happening. In the future, you need to own the content and the pipes to even have a chance at surviving. While everyone continues to underestimate Facebook Watch, and yes they’ve launched like amateurs, they will one day rival Netflix for where you find, watch and talk about content (movies, TV, news, likely music and everything else). Amazon, Apple (via iTunes) and Google (via YouTube) are close behind, and no one else stands a chance.

We can already see a real impact in the film world – when it comes to stellar offers for film, you’ve got Netflix and Amazon offering beaucoup bucks, and literally everyone else in the business is a second thought. Increasingly, if you aren’t on Netflix or Amazon Prime, you don’t exist to a substantial portion of the potential audience (iTunes and YouTube Red remain far behind here, and while Hulu is spending more, their subscriber base is still paltry). And bad news –while Amazon Prime takes almost anything, Netflix is buying less and less indie and doc content.

Meanwhile, nearly every OTT service that could fill the void in offering content NON (not on Netflix) struggles to gain attention or traction. Why pay for another service when it seems like you have more than enough content on Amazon Prime and Netflix, and can augment it with one-off purchases from iTunes?

Things are still shaking out, but my bet is that by 2020, FAANG will be the only names you think about when watching films (studios will still make films, and indies never quit), and it might possibly be just FAN (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix alone).

Share This:

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.




Share This:

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.

Share This:

createEquity Rocks…someone in film pls imitate

Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas, itself a rockin arts group, has a pretty cool blog called CreateEquity. Every week of two, he posts a wrap-up of the latest news from the art world, which he calls “Around the Horn.” Here’s last week’s post. It rocks.

It sums up pretty much everything you need to know that happened in the art world recently – from new studies to new hires to important news. With enough info that you can actually learn something (unlike similar columns in the Hollywood Reporter, for example).

It rocks so much that it makes me miss having a similar service in the indie film world. I get more value out of this one column than I do from a week of reading every indie newsletter in existence. I’m too lazy, but can someone take the charge and copy/imitate this for indie film? Please?

Share This: