Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Access to 40 Million – Is it an audience?

I sure struck a chord on that IFC post. Several people seem to agree with me that an IFC First Take film being “available for download by some 40 million national cable TV subscribers” doesn’t mean much. Being available to 40 million is not 40 million served.

They aren’t the only ones making such claims, however, and smaller fish do it all the time. LinkTV, for example, loves to talk about how they are “available as a basic service in over 29 million U.S. homes that receive direct broadcast satellite television (DBS).” Great, I’m glad their alternative programming is available, but who watches? To this day, I haven’t met a single person who does, and I ask people regularly.

To be fair to IFC, however, these films being accessible to audience members is not a bad thing. IFC needed to spin their change in course somehow, and this was as good a way as any probably, but they could have been clearer about the difference between potential and actual audience.

My blog is potentially accessible to billions of web users. That’s great – anyone can find it, read it and argue about it - I couldn’t possibly have written something just ten years ago and had that big of a potential audience. In the words of IFC, it is “pretty much unparalleled.” Oops, it is paralleled, by every blog out there, just like First Take films are paralleled by just about every on-demand film. We both have lots of potential, but what about audience?

I’d be willing to bet that maybe 12 people read my blog regularly if I am lucky, perhaps more when someone links to it from a more popular blog. I would love to be carried in Harpers or the New Yorker (or the Huffington Post), but I’m not. I don’t claim, however, that I’m getting unparalleled traction anyway just because billions of people could, theoretically, link to my blog and IFC shouldn’t use that same claim towards its 40 million potential viewers. It’s a bit disingenuous.

That said, the potential that I could be read, and that these films could be seen is a great thing for everyone. I would even call it revolutionary, as pretty much everyone does. I am glad that a world now exists where I could, in theory, order up any IFC First Take film on-demand from my home. I also love that I can go online and find thousands of other films that never got picked up by IFC or anyone else. It’s not easy to wade through everything, but just like I loved flipping through bins of albums by crappy bands just to find that one great record, I am glad that I have more access to so many more films.

It’s also great that filmmakers, who for so long have had so much trouble finding an audience, now have this possibility. Even if only 1/10th of 1 percent of the potential IFC First Take audience watches, that would be 400,000 people (come to think about it, that’s a number worth aiming for). If you put your film on Amazon, they have 65 million customers – even better odds. I think most of us can feel inside our bones that this must be a good thing for both filmmakers and audiences.

Access does not equal an audience, however, and it’s an important distinction. Perhaps what we should say is that access is only part of the solution to finding your audience. It’s an important step, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked. Not being accessible to 40 million people would be much worse. But this doesn’t mean that being accessible to this large audience is an end-unto-itself, and filmmakers would be wise not to consider it a distribution plan. It should be part of such a plan, but you’ll also need a plan to make sure the 1/10th of 1 % buys the film. To figure out these odds though - you’ll need to analyze the numbers. It could well be that more people will watch your film (and you may perhaps make more money) going with a smaller distributor or even self-distributing, than by being put out in First Take. I don’t know – since no one has the full picture – but its worth asking around and finding out who is making what. For all I know, more people watch LinkTV and I’ve only heard of IFC because they have a bigger marketing budget. Who knows? No one I know.

What’s really needed are better numbers – how often are titles ordered, how often is it a purchase and how often is it part of a monthly all-access subscription, what’s the split to filmmakers, etc. No one can fault IndieWire, Variety or anyone else for not answering all of these questions – the answers are obfuscated too often by the distributors - sometimes because they can’t give the numbers out (contractually), but more often because they don’t want to do so. While I do think some heavier digging could be done by the press, it isn’t easy. I may try to do some here eventually, or at my day-job though, because I think getting at these numbers is one of the greatest needs in the field. It’s way too hard for filmmakers to get real advice and real numbers on distribution, especially beyond box-office. Since most of us can agree that theatrical has become primarily a marketing move, this doesn’t help much. We need DVD, VOD, download, streaming and other numbers, and some way to correlate the effects of each mechanism on the overall success of a film. We also need systems and distribution mechanisms that help turn potential audiences into actual viewers, and hopefully, purchasers of films.

Bottom line – access is good, potential audiences are good – real numbers, even better.

IFC Flopping and Flailing (and media buying it)

IndieWire and Variety (and others) report today that IFC is abandoning its plans to release bigger budget indie features and focus instead on IFC First Take. IFC touts this as a simple strategic shift with IFC Entertainment Pres Jonathan Sehring telling IndieWire that IFC is "sticking to its core" by "focusing on niche titles or, 'providing independent films with the strongest vehicle and the broadest reach possible.'" IndieWire essentially reports this matter of factly, and fellow blogger Sujewa even asks " are such initiatives the revenue & awareness future for real indie filmmakers?

Dear God, let's hope not. With all due respect to my friends Sujewa and IndieWire (and even those I know at IFC), I think its time to call bullshit on all of this IFC malarkey. First, IFC is essentially announcing a failure - they're either not capable of releasing these larger films or someone at the company, probably above Mr. Sehring, has pulled the plug because these films aren't profitable or don't fit the company's overall strategy, which is cable. IndieWire notes that You Kill Me has pulled in about 2.4 million at the box office - ahem, subtract marketing costs, etc and that there is a failure. A marketing campaign, sure, but not a success.

IndieWire reports further:
"There are more distributors for films in the 5, 15, 20 million budget range," noted Sehring in today's conversation with indieWIRE, adding that competition for those films has become more intense, while "truly independent films are left without a sustained distribution mechanism."

Read: We can't compete, and might as well use this as a way to spin IFC First Take as some smart strategic move. Sorry, but I'm not buying that they feel so bad for "truly independent films" that they decided to stick to their core and work only with those films. More likley, First Take allows them to convince producers to sign over their film to them, getting it on VOD, which the cable operators want. Cable operators are telling places like IFC and Sundance (and others) that they want VOD offerings. And Yesterday. This doesn't mean anyone's making much money off of VOD, but the cable operators (Time Warner, etc) need to be able to tell consumers about all the great VOD offerings they have so that consumers bother to pay their hefty cable bills each month.

Note the word-parsing IFC must use to make IFC First Take sound like a success. IndieWire reports:
Meanwhile IFC First Take is flourishing, according to those at IFC and Rainbow. According to the company, the bi-monthly releases are available for download by some 40 million national cable TV subscribers when those titles are simultaneously relased in movie theaters.

Excuse me, but "available" to 40 million subscribers is a worthless figure. IFC keeps spinning, as if their life depended on it (hint hint):

"The growth of this service [known as IFC In Theaters on national cable systems] from zero to forty million in about a year is pretty much unparalleled," Rainbow spokesperson Matthew Frankel told indieWIRE this afternoon, citing the widespread availability of IFC First Take's films to subscribers of DirecTV, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable, beyond just Rainbow parent Cablevision. While not releasing specific download numbers for the First Take films, he noted, "And in regard to the films, we are very pleased with the kind of demand for this small independent film -- not only are these films available in Des Moines, Iowa but people are actually buying them in Des Moines, Iowa."

All this means is that four cable systems wanted to offer VOD, and IFC needed to suck up to them all in order to remain being carried on these services. IFC needs the cable operators more than they need IFC, and while a kid renting a film in Des Moines via VOD is great for Des Moines, its not ground breaking news. If Frankel was so happy with the numbers, perhaps he would have shared a few of them with us!

If you look at The Numbers (the website), you find First Take having a total gross from 1995-2007 of just $1.14 million, from 17 films for an average gross of $67,000. For comparison, much-less well known First Run Features has had a collected gross in the same time of $3.32 million (but with an average $46K per film) and Koch Lorber has averaged over $100K on their films in this same time. Parsing the numbers is never easy, and I can't vouch that The Numbers has these right, but IFC First Take has definitely gotten more press than it deserves for "helping" indie filmmakers. While none of these numbers include DVD or VOD sales, no one is reporting them to us in any easily decipherable manner. Bottom line - no one is making much money, but IFC can't call First Take a success without backing it up better than they have thus far.

Indies shouldn't look at First Take as a model for anything other than what it is - a strategy for a small cable channel to keep getting carriage on big cable systems. While VOD will impact the business, and indies should keep it in mind, my money says this isn't the player to watch. I'd love to see a better analysis of these numbers and the entire marketplace for smaller film distribution than I can offer here. I'm not picking on IndieWire or Sujewa - both are also small players trying to make sense of this - but someone needs to look further into this than they, or I, have been able to do. It's about time indies start getting some real numbers, solid advice and possible solutions instead of pr spin, party photos and bad distribution contracts.

[UPDATE: I stand by this info overall, but a friend pointed out that The Numbers doesn't list everything. See IMDB, for example. There's probably some overlap with the IFC Films numbers, but I can't be sure. Overall point stays the same]

Monday, August 13, 2007

Open Video Content and Education

Back in May, Columbia University and Intelligent Television held a two-day conference on "Video, Education and Open Content." The conference was designed to think about best practices for making video more openly accessible for educational use, as well as to think about what that will mean - for producers, for scholars and teachers, for funders, as well as its ramifications on legal issues, archival issues, etc. I've thought a lot about this, and at Renew Media, we are thinking about what this means for Reframe.
The conference organizers just made the full set of panels available online - you can download the slide presentations, listen and/or watch the presentations and forward them to others. Not all of these will be of interest to many people (sometimes, maybe no one), but its worth checking out if for no other reason than wondering why every film festival and conference doesn't do this as well?
I spoke about some things we are doing at Renew Media, and the slide presentation and speech is linked here. My slideshow below just has certain features, if you are really interested, click the full link and you get the audio, video, etc.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Film Rules Reconsidered

This just in - the NYTimes reports that the Mayor's Office of Film is reconsidering the rules they proposed, and will reopen the comment period. Kudos to Picture NY, Jem Cohen, NYCLU, IFP and all the others that worked on this - and special kudos to the Mayor's Office who did listen. Let's work with them to come up with something better.