The Conversation took place this week in NYC, and while the entire event was great (kudos to the organizers) and I learned a bit, had some great conversations and even found some inspiration, I was also left scratching my head. How can we, as a field, get something so collectively wrong as the notion of film festival premieres and audience awareness? Thomas Woodrow, a producer who I admire, stated on one panel that you needed to sell your film at the point of its maximal awareness, and that for Bass Ackwards, that was clearly at Sundance (paraphrasing). Joe Swanberg said something to this effect regarding his decision to do a simultaneous premiere at SXSW and on IFC. We’ve seen these experiments at multiple festivals now, and will continue to see more. As currently conceived, all of them will fail.
Let me be clear - I am not critiquing IFC, the filmmakers or the festivals for experimenting - we need more of that. I also like all of them. I’m also sure that some of them would argue with me over what constitutes a failure, and I’m sure some of them will make some money, possibly even good money. That said, we’ll never know how much they might have made with a different strategy. My argument here is really with the notion that a premiere at a major festival is your point of maximal awareness. It’s not, never has been and never will be, unless such festivals do a lot of re-visioning of what they are and how they operate.
It’s truly a sign of the self-absorption of the entire industry that they can think this is remotely true. This self-absorption is sometimes a positive for film - many films wouldn’t get made if their directors and producers weren’t so singularly obsessed with their vision that they wouldn’t take no for an answer from anyone. Unfortunately, it not only leads to just as many bad films being made, it also leads to confused thinking about the field and many bad business decisions as well. Yes, by now a large segment of the population who bother to think about films at all, know about Sundance. Some slightly smaller portion know about SXSW, and in some of the hipper circles they may even prefer it. You can also make a reasonable assumption that the most cinephilic of them follow what’s playing there in blogs, twitter updates and, perhaps a few of them, through the trades (which I bet have much less influence than anyone would guess). Even with this level of awareness, however, your film’s playing there is not known to the majority of your potential audience. If your potential audience is just the few thousand people (being generous, perhaps as many as 25,000 people?) around the country that pay attention to all this noise, you are in trouble. Many more don’t obsessively follow this news and don’t know that your film is playing at all. Even this hard-core crowd doesn’t likely have a clear sense of whether they should take a chance and spend money on your film. They’ll likely wait for more word of mouth to judge whether they should see your film. You also have to guess that some large percentage may know about the film, read the review, but still decide not to buy access to your film (through VOD, streaming, Netflix or a ticket). Perhaps 10% of them will actually follow-through to a transaction. That’s not a lot of people, or money in your pocket.
Beyond this dismal picture there lies a bigger disappointment that we all must realize - the majority of the film going public, the ones who might arguably watch something other than the latest blockbuster, don’t know about your film at all. I’m sorry, but most of them know that Sundance exists, vaguely, somewhere, but they have no idea what films are playing. Worse yet, I would posit that even if you play the top 10 film festivals in the world, they still haven’t heard about your film. Guess what? You are excited that you just played - Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, SXSW and five other fests - your excitement is palpable. It is also distorting your mind and making you think that your excitement is felt by everyone in the film universe. It isn’t. Me, you, and everyone we know (props to Ms. July) is excited about your film. This includes a lot of people, but most of them are industry insiders, hard-core cinephiles and your Aunt in Seaside, NJ. Even with social networking tools, this crowd is likely very small compared to your total potential audience. Most of that audience has no idea what films played each of these fests and got a great review in Variety (even less now that it’s behind that brilliant pay-wall) and was the talk of the festival going crowd. For all of them, your film is still non-existent.
I used to get in an argument with one of the local critics every year when I was working at the Atlanta Film Festival. He would look at our line-up and sigh and say something like “well, all these films already played at other festivals, even in Nashville, where’s the news here?” I would then blow a gasket, trying to explain to him that no one in Atlanta knows that, so for them, the films were all still big premieres. A very small segment of the Atlanta audience reads any of the ongoing, online chatter about these films. It’s great that they do, and they are crucial early-adopters who will help any fest spread the word about that precious little film that’s about to show in town. They weren’t enough, however, to ensure a packed house in a 150 seat theater. For that, we needed to do a lot of other marketing, PR and general word-of-mouth audience building. This takes time, and it still takes time even in this hyper-timed-zone we live in now. And it is no less true for audiences for VOD, Netflix or YouTube.
None of the current experiments take this into account. Yes, IFC has a huge potential audience and a great brand, arguably better than any of the fests playing in this zone, but very few people are going to sit down at the TV, with their limitless options of things to watch, and pick your film from the line-up just because it’s playing at the same time as Sundance - because they don’t even know this. Even with the marketing about it. No word of mouth has been built. The film hasn’t had time to enter the cultural conversation, and without this, it has less chance of success. (No, I don’t mean it should be part of the “big” conversation, like on Oprah or something impossible).
Now the ongoing evolution (if it isn’t regression) of the indie film world stutters and bucks along on the backs of these experiments. That’s a good thing, so at least the conversation is starting, but it’s not good enough...yet. We need to devise strategies that incorporate festivals and other screenings into building an audience that leads to more sales. For example, if Sundance had paired their YouTube experiment with their (fully operational) Sundance ArtHouse Project, which showcased films in multiple cities at the same time as the festival premiere, then these films might have gotten more traction. Instead, the YouTube experiment failed miserably, which was a shame, because with just a little bit of thinking, perhaps we’d have a success story instead of thousands of stories (there might have been 100s of thousands) saying these new models don’t work. This is just one example, but in general, if Festivals are going to start getting into this game, and pressuring filmmakers to follow them into it, then they owe it to the field to take this seriously and experiment more smartly.
I tweeted my frustration about this at the Conversation and Mynette Louie, the producer of (the great) Children of Invention followed up on Facebook with these thoughts:
"According to IMDB Moviemeter, Children of Invention had bigger spikes after Sundance, with its biggest at our NY theatrical release. That's in large part due to our trailer being on Apple trailers home page, Hulu, YouTube, national reviews, and other various promo that we're only "allowed" to get w/a theatrical release." She followed up again later, adding: "smaller films need time to marinate, build word-of-mouth, collect awards, smaller/regional reviews, blog posts, etc."
I bet this would be true for all of the films trying these strategies (she was one of them, btw, but as part of a bigger campaign that has taken over a year). I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we might improve our odds of success - what tweaks to this model might work? Or do you disagree, and think that the premiere is the best time to release your film? Let me know.