Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Festivals and Distribution

Today, too few independent films reach a broad audience, and despite some signs to the contrary, the situation is worsening. Outside of a few successful instances, truly independent work by exciting makers remains largely in the realm of film festivals, limited theatrical runs and institutional sales, brief (if any) exposure on cable or broadcast television and the extremely rare success on home video. In spite of — and often because of — recent developments, including the DVD, the distribution system for independent media remains in crisis, with few films successfully reaching a broad audience.

Although generally made with the goal of connecting to audiences in person, few films are picked up for distribution that involves screening for live audiences outside of a few select cities. For-profit distribution companies often release a film in a few major cities (New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco), but do not see reaching a larger theatrical release as cost-beneficial, and often rely on a home-video sale to make profit. Non-profit distributors have generally survived by relying on institutional sales as a business model. These distributors argue that efforts to reach individual consumers would erode their institutional base, and that they actually reach more individuals through institutions than they would by marketing directly to consumers. While this approach does get smaller films to a market, it leaves the vast majority of consumers unaware that such films exist or how they could purchase or rent one.

It has become obvious that the market for a diversity of voices has grown over the past several years, as evidenced by the success of blogs and the recent success of several documentaries. American audiences hunger for diverse, interesting work and are connecting with it in new ways. At first confined to major cities, film festivals of one form or another began to pop up in towns across the U.S. (and internationally) more than 30 years ago. These smaller, less internationally recognized film festivals have become the de facto art house circuit, often screening works in conjunction with local film societies. General audiences have prospered culturally by having more access to a wider range of films than ever before. Unfortunately, this type of exhibition leaves the filmmakers well-traveled but none the richer for their efforts.

The proliferation of festivals highlights two interesting items – that an audience exists nationally of consumers who want to connect to exciting independent and artistic films, and that festival screenings may be the best way to place a film into the cultural consciousness and promote a film. At festivals across America one can often hear the same question during the Q&A – how can I purchase this film? The common answers are either “We hope to get a distributor soon —check back with this festival soon to find out how to buy it” or “Our distributor only makes it available to institutions.” This means that filmmakers are letting a captive audience of anywhere from 50-800 potential impulse purchasers go home empty-handed. Few will care once they’ve left the theater to follow up with the distributor or the film festival. This cycle is repeated in numerous cities, with neither the filmmaker nor the potential or existing distributor taking immediate advantage of the “buzz” of the film on the festival circuit. In fact, they will end up spending much time and money trying to re-create the film’s buzz, most likely never recapturing the audience’s attention.

What if the same filmmaker could sell copies of their film at the festival? What if filmmakers handed out postcards to the audience, with a website where they could buy or rent the film and recommend it to a friend? What if they did this in every city they visited and mentioned the website every time they were interviewed? One can imagine a small success for a filmmaker who took this approach. Why do so few filmmakers and/or distributors do so? Because it doesn’t fit the model of the release window — a model that only works for a small number of films. Additionally, few filmmakers want to put their energies behind distribution of their film — generally, they want to make another film. Many distributors work with festivals as publicity for a theatrical release, or sometimes to allow filmmakers to satisfy their desire to connect with audiences before an institutional release on DVD. Almost none have made a concerted effort to use these festival screenings as nontheatrical tours of work, to help spur DVD sales. Even fewer filmmakers have taken this strategy, with most hoping that a festival tour will help them find a distributor, instead of helping them find an audience.

We now need a more systematized, comprehensive approach that uses film festivals as a tool to help filmmakers profit from their filmmaking - or at least to be able to make a living at it. DVD, film festivals and the internet have transformed the way audiences interact with independent material, but no one distributor, and very few filmmakers, have yet effectively addressed these changes. The independent film sector is in dire need of a distribution system that recognizes these new realities and devises a comprehensive, duplicable method for distributing such content to a wider audience.

I'll post some ideas about this in my next post, but in the meantime, a similar thread has begin at Self-Reliant Fimmaking, which I suggest you check out.


Paul@spout said...

I think filmmakers haven't tapped into the festival circuit the way a musician might tap into a folk music circuit because there hasn't been a precedent. I've been offered bad flicks on DVD at a festival, but when a filmmaker has a good film in their hands, they hold out for a distribution deal.

It makes sense. Get the deal and get on with making another film. The down side is the issue of rights. Many great films are now owned by a distributor who did a worse job marketing the film than the filmmakers could have done themselves. But the filmmaker has no rights to the work anymore.

It's up to filmmakers to get savvy about what they do with their film. If they make something an Indiewood Distributor probably won't want, they should strike out with a plan to make the money back themselves.

David Lowery said...

"Unfortunately, this type of exhibition leaves the filmmakers well-traveled but none the richer for their efforts."

This was me last summer, after finishing the festival circuit with a feature that, in retrospect, should have been made available per the model you suggest here but instead to this day gathers dust on my hard drive. I'll know better next time.

This is a wonderful post, Brian - I'm so glad Paul pointed me to your blog.

Jim said...

I'm more than a little skeptical that any filmmaker . . . no matter how good nor how popular their film became . . . could literally "finance" their operation through event specific over the counter dvd sales.

The truth is that dvd distribution does not make sense for the independent. When it comes to making your "money" work for you . . . boutique sales just don't get it done.

A more effective channel . . . in my mind . . . would be an on-line service which allowed the filmmaker to provide their consumer base dvd quality downloads for a fee . . . a fee which did not have to take into account all of the costs involved producing individual dvd's. Thus, the costs of providing the media, the time, not to mention the production itself, could somewhat be avoided in the distribution process.

BNewmanSBoard said...

I agree with Jim's comment on needing an on-line service for this to work better. It's just around the bend, actually, as in addition to iTunes and things like OurMedia.org, lots of people are developing business models in this arena.

I do think, however, that DVD is still a solution for some. The key seems to be a mix of cheap production of the DVD and using the festival circuit as marketing. It sure as hell beats no release at all.

Jim said...

No doubt . . .

and to clarify, I certainly wasn't discouraging the production and distribution of DVD's. I would even encourage the filmmaker to put every effort into producing quality DVD's as they do their films . . .

Lynn said...

If I only had it to do over again...


The Lady from Sockholm, the feature I wrote and produced premiered in June 2005 at the Atlanta Film Festival and it's still plodding along the fest circuit with about 15 screenings to date. So, we are on the downside of our fest run and, yes, I can now see that I should have been trying to recoup some money along the way.

I've had distributors offer the film deals, but I've had issues with terms in each of them -- mostly related to $$$. And as the sole financier for the project -- I want to see some money back.

But, as a production company of one (me) I don't want to deal with fulfillment (taking orders, tracking shipments, returns). So, I hold out hope that a moderately decent offer will come my way.

Also, part of it is vanity. I don't want to self-distibute because there is still a bit of a stigma attached -- "Oh, I guess no one wanted it."

Again, if I only had it to do over again... I honestly don't know if I would have made the film at all.

Someone cheer me up...