reading list shows, there's been a lot of great new models proposed. But whenever a crowd agrees on something, well, something's wrong. So, here below are ten of the most promising developments of the year and a few words about why I think each one is also worrisome. Or rather, why the future remains uncertain. Note in advance - I really believe in the good side of many of these things, but I'm always contrarian...
1. Direct connection with your fans. Earn 1000 Fans and you can make a career. You can now connect directly with your audience and make a living. But to quote Matt Rosoff of CNET - "The common wisdom today dictates that musicians need a personal connection with their fans. They must blog, tweet, maintain their MySpace and Facebook profiles, and generally act like your next door neighbor who's always pestering you to see his band. There's a word for receiving "personal" messages from your favorite 100 bands--it's called "spam." Eventually, this cloud of self-promotional noise will dissipate, and will be replaced by old-fashioned word of mouth." I can't say it better. So, remember, as every other filmmaker catches up with audience-connection - and this means Hollywood too - you've got more emails, more requests for micro-funding and a lot more noise. Who do you think will drown in this noise....?
2. Advertising Models and Sponsorships - I don't think I've been to a single conference where these two topics haven't been mentioned as the savior for indies. But I've worked at getting sponsorships and advertising for many things (fests, videos, programs) for years, with some of the best people, and it's f-in' hard work. It's going to be the rare indie film that cracks this nut. Few brands want to be associated with your little indie film. They want numbers, even in the niche, and few indie films reach enough people. I'll also say it again - if advertising worked as a model for niche content, it would have worked on TV. Advertising will start to work online, but returns for niche content will remain weak. Forever. And think about it, Tivo was kinda collectively invented by all of us because we don't like watching ads. You're a consumer as well as a producer. Don't do things to your consumer that you would prefer not be done unto you.
3. Social Media. Alluded to in number 1, above, but it's become increasingly noticeable to me that I now live in a feedback loop. I get the same articles linked on Twitter, speak to the same people and hear the same gospel of the future of film. Social media easily lends itself to such a feedback loop. Now, I'm not decrying social media the way you'll hear pundits saying we'll all divide into right/left camps and get self-confirming noise all day long. This too will happen, but I think the average Josephine on-line is smarter than we give credit, and can search for and find contrary opinion. It's just that it's much harder to escape the "wisdom" of your crowd when it's so cacophonous and loopy.
4. Transmedia. Boy, this one takes the award for worst new tech name since net neutrality. And it's everywhere, like a virus. A canker sore on the butt of indie film. See, it really lends itself to bad connotations, even if you like other trans- related things...like transfats. The problem isn't just the name, however, but that everyone is convinced (me included) that our move to participatory culture, multiple consoles, etc means audiences want an immersive and/or differentiated experience offered by transmedia storytelling. I get it. The Matrix worked. But, I usually have no interest in playing your ARG, or your video game or delving deeper into your comic. Yes, some people do, but how many indie films lend themselves to such treatment today? And if we focus our attention on this, instead of reaching the audiences that like to just sit back and watch a movie unfold, do we risk spending too many resources on the smaller crowd? I'm not sure, and I understand the changes going on, but it's a worry.
5. DIY Distribution. This one's been the talk of the town, and people keep giving me all kinds of success stories. Trouble is, they usually end with about the same numbers. Too many filmmakers tell me "I made $50,000 and that's more than any advance I was offered by a nasty middleman." Well, great, but you can't live on that in most cities (especially not when all of it goes back to your investor who probably invested much more than that). And I don't define the success of a new model as doing just as poorly as the old model. My last beef with this - I keep hearing stories of the same handful of films, many of them released years ago. We need some new success stories if this is the new model.
6. Crowdfunding. As alluded to before, Obama made micro-payments hot. He connected with millions of fans and made them not just funders but supporters. And now that he's not living up to their dreams (their, not mine, I still love him), guess what - they are his vocal detractors on the Left. So, remember when you raise those millions for your film one dollar at a time - those same supporters can become a massive sea of bad word-of-mouth with a real stake in the game if your movie isn't great. But don't worry, it's unlikely you'll raise that money for long because crowd-funding has reached the crowd, and before long it won't be so novel and fun to donate directly to your favorite artist. And when Hollywood starts joining in, it will be much harder to raise a $5,000 "super-fan" level unless it comes not just with a name in the credits and a t-shirt, but also with a date with George Clooney.
7. Festival as launchpad. It worked for Swanberg at SXSW, and now people are using Sundance as their launching pad this year. Festivals could become the savior of indie film...again. And having run a fest, I hope they do, but I'm skeptical. As I've mentioned before, getting your film seen is only part of the goal. There's also the part about having some impact - entering the cultural conversation in some way. This is very tough to do on the backs of the relatively few film buffs who follow festival coverage as much as my social network, er, feedback loop. It leaves very little room for building word of mouth, or getting a film beyond the initiated. And outside of a few fests, very few have the resources to really promote your film the way it will be needed to increase attention on VOD and DVD.
8. Demand-It screenings. With the success of Paranormal Activity in copying the Four-Eyed Monsters demand-it strategy, this is now all the rage. Make a google-map mash-up and let your fans request your film and put on the show. They've always wanted to be more than fans, they wanted to be theater managers. Clean gum off the floors. Exciting stuff. But lots of people are too lazy to demand a screening. They just walk up to the theater (or drive outside of NYC) and pick a film. Or realize it's much easier to add a film to your Netflix queue than organize a screening.
9. Free. Yep, I'm a big fan of this one. Preach it all the time. But it's very hard to make a living on free. Especially when all those ad revenues dry up and people stop sending me dollars for my spam tweets. But my bigger concern is this - free is nothing new. I got most of my music for free a long time ago. I work in the film industry, so like all those complaining MPAA types, I don't even know what it's like to pay for a movie (ok, I exaggerate slightly). I get handed DVDs of crappy little indie films all the time. For free. I've been able to find any indie film I want on pirate sites for years. Funny, indie film is no more popular than ever before, and my filmmaker friends are no richer. Hmmm....
10. The direct connection of your TV and the internet. The holy-grail. For some reason, most people consider it hard to buy a dongle and connect their computer to the tubes of the net. Spanning that gap is held out as the holy grail, and with XBox, PS3 and all these other boxes, we're getting closer and closer to....having absolutely no reason to buy the DVD. So much for that freemium model to sell the packaging. Don't think for a second that if I've stopped showing off my DVDs, stopped showing off my books, stopped collecting yellowing newspapers that I am somehow going to pay extra for your DVD. What? It's got extended scenes, chapter stops and behind the scenes footage you say? Great - and I'll be demanding that for free with my $1.99 VOD rental before long.
And for good measure, number 11. 3D. Ok, this one isn't being upheld by many as the savior for indies yet, but I've read a few business plans from indies for it already. And it's supposed to save the industry in general by making movies more immersive, less easy to pirate and a bigger spectacle. So Cameron makes an entire world populated with hot Na'Vi's and they don't even have sex? So, I can get immersed in the technology to watch a silly story where not even wheelchairs have improved with technology? I'm supposed to wear some silly glasses to see it? I'm not buying this one yet, but hey, I predicted the failure of Blu-Ray as well.
So is the future all doom and gloom. Nope, each one of these things I've just complained about is actually a part of the future, and all are good signs. But just a part, and just partly good signs.They are experiments. We are in the beginning stages of a massive shift in how we make, consume and participate with media. We're going to see lots of experimentation, and some of it will work, some won't and the collective sum of these experiments is what matters for the future. (some borrowings here from Clay Shirky on newspapers) So, don't stop being DIY and getting all transmedia on me, keep it up, but realize two things. First, we'll be experimenting for quite some time, and none of these things alone will be the solution. Second, there will never be a savior for indie film. It will always be hard. Anything we come up with will be snatched up by Hollywood and be used better to the success of some commercial crap than honest, "truly free" film. That's ok though, because unless you went into this for the wrong reasons, you've known this all along and will keep making your trans-film-social-gamey-thing anyway.