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.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Maintaining control through DRM

Kathryn Cramer has an interesting post about DRM as the "new killer app for corporate authorship.". As I've mentioned before, and as many others have known, the war on internet piracy has nothing to do with lost profits, but everything to do with maintaining control. While there may be some merit to the argument that pirated DVDs sold on the streets of New York (for example) contribute to lost sales, good studies have shown that the effect of internet piracy is nil. By arguing that piracy is hurting their bottom line, however, big media can now convince Congress and the Courts to install DRM software that enables them to control what gets made and distributed. Don't believe the hype - this is just another way to make sure that in the future, the media you share will be bought from the same people as today. A long time ago, before most people started thinking about using OurMedia.org to distribute content, Hollywood figured out that user-generated-content could be bad to their bottom lines and watermarking and other DRM is a way to re-professionalize media such that user-generated-content falls to the wayside.

Monday, February 20, 2006

......subMedia: Erasing Eminem

Great (relatively) new video by Franklin Lopez over at SubmediaTv.com which mashes up Ipod Ads, Iraq images and Eminem. In his own words:
THE SHORT STORY: A video Mash-Up/Re-Mix, whatever, of the Eminem Ipod TV ad. We replaced Eminem with Iraq war images, and added new lyrics to the instrumental version of 'Loose Yourself'. The clip was inspired by ForkScrew's 'Iraq' posters. Watch it at:......subMedia: Erasing Eminem

Submedia has been making some amazing mash-ups of video, and he's right in the thick of the rising trend of video sampling, which is about to shake the video world more strongly than it did music. More on this soon.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The end of an era?

The situation in the world of nonprofit media arts centers has never been more dire. In the past few years, we have seen the closing of several important media centers - Boston Film/Video being just one. Now, AIVF is having some trouble, and while I can't speak to the actual situation at any one center, it is no secret that there has been turmoil and/or massive change at Film Arts Foundation, IDA, IFP (and some of its sister orgs), Film/Video Arts...the list could go on and on, and doesn't even consider what were once strong regional media centers that are also now close to crumbling. While none will admit it, nearly every nonprofit media center and/or media arts service organization is near death.

Several factors have led to this situation. First, and most importantly, the field has been largely abandoned by its traditional support structure - Government and Foundations. All of these centers began in the early 1970's with strong support from precursors of and then the NEA. For many years, additional and substantial support came from the foundation community. NEA money began to disappear during the culture wars, although they still make some grants to these institutions. Foundation support began to dry up in the mid 90's and is shrinking rapidly.

The loss of Foundation support has been particularly painful and unfortunate. As Foundations priorities have shifted, they have switched from general operating support (money to be used as the nonprofit saw fit, essentially) to program support, or money that can only be spent on certain initiatives. Witness the explosion of youth media a few years ago - yes, cameras got cheaper and people wanted to train youth, but the youth media movement was largely started by a few program officers at a handful of foundations. Nonprofits, always desperate for money, shifted their entire programs into youth media, and guess what? When those program officer's whims changed and the money dried up - these center's programs began to die. Currently, the foundation community seems to feel that it is no longer necessary to fund the majority of media centers unless they are working on a handful of issues that fit the current trends in foundation support. To make matters worse, foundation support for the arts is declining in all sectors, so these media center's must look elsewhere for support.

While the foundation community needs to take some of the blame, so do the nonprofits themselves. All of these centers have been underfunded for years - most have operating budgets under 1 million, in fact, most have budgets under $500,000. Their staffs often make much less than $30,000 a year, many work part-time, with hourly wages that are below national averages. This has meant that each center has a hard time attracting talented individuals to the field and/or retaining them. On top of this, the staff and leadership of these organizations feel a strong demand for the work that they do - they hear from their membership constantly about the value of their programs. So, they are reluctant to cut programs, cut staff or make change. As a result, many are going under because they can't make the drastic changes necessary to survival. The sky has been falling for years, since at least 1995, and leadership wasn't able or willing to see the big picture and affect massive change.

Too, there is much overlap in the field. When I was in Atlanta, at least five groups started - within four years - whose missions overlapped with that of IMAGE Film & Video. Which meant competition for the same limited funds, all to do essentially the same job - to serve filmmakers and their audiences. The situation is the same nationally, and remains so. The field needs to consider consolidation, sharing of resources (especially back office type functions) and yes, even mergers as appropriate.

Nonprofit media centers are also being killed by an essential part of their own structure - their board of directors, mandated by law. Almost every single center has a board that consists of filmmakers, friends of film and people who love the mission, but very few people who can raise money. No nonprofit can survive this way - you have to have board members who can "Give, Get or Get off" - give money, get money or quit. The board of most of these organizations refuse to give or raise money, and they've also been ineffective at seeing the big picture and forcing policy changes to change their organizations for the future. Essentially, most of these boards have been building their resume while suffocating the field.

Last, those centers that are dying can essentially be categorized as those who didn't recognize and shift to the changing nature of the field due to digital technologies. Media artists today don't often need (or don't think they need) cameras, edit systems, markets, magazines and the like. Things are different. What they do need are a community in which to connect, advocacy for policies that affect them, good information they can use, money to make their work, and new ways to distribute it. These can all be found or developed online, and these centers haven't made the shift. Let's face it, if these nonprofits had been thinking of the future, there would have been no need to start an indieWire, ShootingPeople or an Ourmedia.org or the like. Not that these aren't great developments, but that they were created out of a void that shouldn't have existed.

Many people will say, well, perhaps they don't need to exist anymore, their time has run out. Why does it matter if we lose places like AIVF? Because they have been and could be the lifeblood of this field. I will speak in terms of could be, because even those that used to be relevant no longer are. If media centers can repurpose, and take into account technological changes, they could be a central hub for media artists to connect - to find crew, to find out how to solve technical issues with their gear, to share their media, to get advice on distribution agreements, contracts and the myriad needs everyone has, especially when they first start.

Major policy changes are being proposed that will forever affect media artists' ability to create and distribute their work - and we need an advocate who can speak on our behalf, as a group, to get what we need. At one time, groups such as AIVF advocated so strongly that ITVS was formed to help independents. As many producers are now opening their contracts with ITVS and finding things they can't accept, they need a group that through sheer membership numbers can advocate on their behalf to change these contracts. Places like AIVF could lobby not just government, but also corporations to change policies (such as archival footage pricing) to better serve our needs.

When the MPAA (and others) can shut down a technology that could help independents distribute their films without a gatekeeper (Grokster), and can claim that technology is only good for piracy (a blatant lie), filmmakers need someone who can tell them the truth and fight the MPAA to ensure our films remain distributable through the new technologies. Make no mistake about it - the gatekeepers want to maintain their control, and without places like AIVF, there will be no one to stand up and fight on behalf of the "little" filmmakers.

Want cheaper health insurance? AIVF. Want to make sure you can upload your short to the internet as fast as Fox can, and that it can be found? Laws are being considered to make sure you can't - and AIVF could fight them. Want to ask someone whether a contract you've been given for distribution of your film is fair? Want to find out how to raise money for your film? Just moved to a new city, and simply want to find a home with others like you - creative people making media - and connect to help each other make films? These are all made possible through places such as AIVF, and when they die, our culture and our society will be worse for it.

The stumbling of the Boston Film and Video Foundation should have been seen as the canary in the mineshaft - the first sign of systemic change for the worse. AIVF's troubles, and I am hopeful they will rise above them, are just the next in a line of possible futures. It is not melodramatic to see this as another ominous sign. What's going to happen to smaller, nonprofit distributors, especially as many of their leaders near retirement? What about places like Anthology Film Archives, one of the only places caring for experimental film? PBS is under serious attack and simultaneously has no clue as to what it should do in the future. What would happen if both ITVS and POV disappeared? Most remaining arthouse cinemas are nonprofit, and most festivals are as well, where will your film show if they collapse next? Not at Regal, and possibly not even on the web.

Yes, we have some great new possibilities - ITunes, indieWire and SF360, BitTorrent and the like. We also have some growing for-profit film festivals such as Tribeca and SXSW, and channels such as IFC, Sundance and VOD services such as Here. But these are corporate entities, they are beholden to their shareholders, not to the needs of the independent community. Even those with good intentions, such as indieWire, can't take on all that a place like AIVF could offer - it's beyond their means or their own mission. Only a place with the public good in mind can serve our needs as media artists.

With increasing consolidation of the media, a very real and silent push by corporations and governments to limit the ability of smaller individuals (such as an independent filmmaker) to create and disseminate their work through the new technologies and with an increasingly limited sphere in which an independent can make their work and profit from it - there has never been a greater need for places like AIVF. There has never been a time of greater need for a strong system of national and regional support for the field, through places such as AIVF, Film Arts Foundation and others like them in this sector - and yes people, they are all near death. If you want any of them to survive, get involved now - whether through money or ideas, because otherwise I predict 2006 will be the year the nonprofit media movement dies. The definition of independent is debated regularly, but could soon just mean one thing: alone.