Friday, July 31, 2009

Filmmaker Demands Right to Lose Money

I moderated a panel yesterday for the New York Latino Film Festival entitled "Web Distribution, The Future is Here but how do Filmmakers Maximize the Movement?" We had a diverse, but all male, panel of experts - Warrington Hudlin filmmaker and founder of the new, Slava Rubin of IndieGoGo, Alex Rivera the filmmaker behind Sleep Dealer, entertainment attorney Fernando Ramirez and Josh Green of Emerging Pictures. The conversation was pretty far ranging about how to find your audience online, as well as new distribution strategies (not all online) and a particular emphasis on reaching the diverse audience that is America, especially Black and Latino audiences. Great conversation.

We also spent a fair amount of time bemoaning the state of the indie film marketplace and the fact that it's become even more difficult to recoup your investment on any film made for above oh, say, $50K. Alex Rivera noted that to make his film he needed $2 million to accomplish what he wanted to do artistically. His sale of the film post-Sundance and his net returns from that distribution were decidely less than this investment. Nothing new there, of course, it's the rare film that actually is the financial success that filmmakers dream about. But I liked what he said about it -

" Filmmakers need to demand the right to lose money."

The audience laughed, but he elaborated that not all films are meant to be profit centers. Some art will never remake their investment, but need to be made as they are part of our cultural heritage. Furthermore, as a Latino filmmaker, he feels strongly that he needs to put forth an image of Latinos in society that's different than what mainstream media portrays and what many people think of when they think about Latinos. He doesn't make films just to make money but because of a greater cultural and social need - as well as an artistic one.

He went on to say that funders - both private and governmental - need to respond to this need. He particularly bemoaned the fact that the NEA hasn't stepped up and told the audience that filmmakers need to start demanding that they help fill this role. Warrington countered that while he agreed with the sentiment, the history of the NEA - particularly who would end up making decisions of what gets funded - doesn't bode well for this, but agreed that funders need to fill this gap. Coming from a place where I've mingled with this world pretty regularly, I don't see much hope for this - funders now want to see "impact" and other buzz words and tend to support only social issue docs (worthy of course) as opposed to art or narrative cinema. I do like Alex's sentiment, however, and agree that artists should defend their right to not just create what the market will bear. (knowing full well, of course, that they may not make a living!)

image: Alex's website.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Help Northwest Film Forum

I got this email today from a friend at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle. I'm a big fan of this theatre, and hope a few of you will join me in helping them out.

Friends, compatriots, and loved ones, I'm here with what could be the biggest small ask of my life.

I am writing to you to ask for your help. I am asking you for $10, the price of an average movie ticket. The Film Forum has had done many great things this year, but much like other organizations our income is off by 30%. And while we remain scrappy and imaginative in tough spots, this time is different.

We are looking at real changes at the Film Forum unless you say yes and support us. We need to reach a goal of $70,000 by August 15. Please walk it in, mail it in, or visit to make a donation.

You and 10,000 others are receiving this, which means you regularly find our emails and enews in our inbox, which means that you care, too. Maybe you even love what we do and believe the city is a better place - more sophisticated, inspired, or just more fun -- because of the films we show here, the summer filmmaking camps we offer to kids, the screenwriting and film editing classes we schedule, the filmmakers we bring to town (and the classes they teach), and the movies we are so instrumental in getting made.

Classes, filmmaker support, equipment rental, special screenings, and film series, many of these programs may be put on hold, shelved, or stopped altogether without your small gift. That means programs such as Soul Nite and ByDesign could go. It means fewer masterpieces such as "Silent Light" showing up on our screens. It means maybe no more camera rentals. Jobs and programs are on the line.

So, as the movie voiceover says, imagine a world: imagine a world in which people can open a door and find community. Imagine a world in which emerging filmmakers can receive the advice, equipment, collaborators and support they need to make their movies. Imagine a world in which anyone can register for classes to get the tools they need to enter the fields of screenwriting, editing, and video production. Imagine a world in which you can see movies that change the way you see the world. Imagine a world where you can find people of a like mind for inspiration and community.

Fifteen years ago we did that, all of it. To summarize what the Film Forum provides the city would take a much longer letter, but if you are a member or regular patron you have a pretty good idea already. You already believe in what we do.

You can keep all this, now, for the price of a ticket at your average movie theater. It's tough out there, we know that; we have tried our best to keep moving ahead in spite of the current economy. But now we know that some of what we do and provide will go dark without your support.

I am asking you urgently. If you have benefited from our equipment, from the images on our screens, from our classes, from our network of people, from our famously great parties, we are asking you to say yes, you believe, yes you can give $10. Yes.

Please make a donation here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

DIY Days

I'm looking forward to heading down to the sixth borough, Philly, this coming weekend for the DIY Days Conference. I was just in Philly a few weeks ago to speak to PIFVA and this time I'll be talking about how artists make a living in a world of free. If you live in the area - and with the Chinatown and Bolt Bus prices, the "area" is pretty far, I highly recommend attending. Check out the schedule.

On another note, I lived in Philly for a little while post-college and always love the chance to visit again and visit McGlinchey's and it's siblings! I highly recommend this book of photos by a former bartender there. If only I'd had that idea while sitting there....

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Free thoughts on Free

Nothing like a book about selling everything for free, as a way to make money, to get the whole darned web-o-sphere riled up. Not to mention the old content industries and a few others. Sheesh, come on people, haven’t read a purposely provocative, only half-true article before. Guess you didn’t read that last one about the long-tail either, huh? Like the Long Tail, Free is only partially true, but what it says is nonetheless important to anyone thinking about, well, just about the future of anything.

First, the Long Tail - a lot of people thought this meant (as Anderson kinda said) that previously niche content would suddenly become a lot more popular because of the ability of folks to use the web to push value “down the tail,” so that suddenly videos of old avant-garde movies would make as much money as Spiderman. That’s not quite what happens with the long-tail, and it’s not what Anderson really proposed, but it’s what lots of people believed enough to create crazy businesses upon it. All the long-tail really means is that if you aggregate a lot of the long-tail, then all those itty-bitty revenue streams for niche content can add up to something approximating a financial success.


This is nothing new; the web just amplifies this age-old truth and makes it easier. Of course this is simplifying things, but long-tail-story-short, it’s the rare piece of niche content that gets rediscovered because of the web and suddenly becomes a minor hit. More often than not, the value accrues to the aggregator, and as many sub-aggregators are finding out now, it really only pays when you are an uber-aggregator, like Amazon. That doesn’t mean it’s not great that more of the longest, thinnest parts of the tail are becoming available to consumers. That is great, and I love it, but I don’t expect any of these niches to start making a mint.

Which is good, because now we have to contend with free. I should clarify, however, that once again, this isn’t anything new. Nope, we’ve always had what seems to be free - radio, tv, mix tapes, just plain copied albums, VHS, free toaster at the bank, what have you. People always rush to point out these things weren’t ever really free. Again, duh. Yes, few people make the connection that when they pay for a Coke, a portion of their money underwrites the same advertisement that sold it to them in the first-place. Some people also undoubtedly didn’t realize that broadcast tv and radio weren’t ever free - there are enormous costs, underwritten by advertising so it only “seems free” to consumers. Same with all this internet stuff - the hosting, etc isn’t free, of course, so all you freevocates are wrong. Well, I don’t think anyone who thinks about this stuff ever made these wrong judgements, if ever a consumer did either.

There’s been a lot of writing on all this, but to me, what matters are really a few things -

  1. To the consumer, these things are as good as free, and that’s how they like them;
  2. Certain things that used to be expensive aren’t really anymore. The gig is up, and this means a lot of pain to a lot of people and industries, but tough luck. Them’s the breaks;
  3. Just because something is free, doesn’t mean you can’t still sell it for a buck;
  4. That same info that wants to be free, also wants to be very expensive. Just like Stewart Brand really said, folks;
  5. Yes, some freevocates are wrong, and many businesses built on this will crumble. This neither means that free can’t be good for society nor that it can’t be good for some businesses - if they build a business model (a real one) around it;
  6. Those who stand to gain the most from free want to kill it, or don’t understand it and will contribute to killing it, just because they’re afraid of change and unable to envision anything different than what they know;
  7. It’s better to embrace free and build a plan that accounts for it than have none at all. You know, proactive vs reactive, just like they supposedly taught all these suits in business school;
  8. As many others have pointed out, free can be a darn good marketing tool and it’s one that I think the film world should embrace, especially indies.

So, I gave this little lecture at the Power to the Pixel conference at the Edinburgh Film Festival. The slides are posted here, but the video of my speech is now live. Check it out below, as well as the roundtable that followed - you can find that and all the other Power to the Pixel videos here.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Cross Media Film Contest

My friends at Power to the Pixel have launched their pitching contest for cross-media projects. From the website:

The Pixel Pitch is Power to the Pixel’s ground-breaking new pitching forum for up to ten of the best UK and international cross-media film projects.

We are looking for stories that can span film, TV, online, mobile and gaming to be presented to a select group of financiers, commissioners, tech companies, online portals and media companies in front of an audience of PTTP participants.

The selected project teams will compete for the

A great opportunity for the right project.

Monday, July 06, 2009

IndieScreenings Tool

While in Edinburgh, I got the chance to speak with one of the main folks behind The Age of Stupid. This was pretty lucky for me, since I've been talking about their fundraising model in some of my presentations and wanted to learn more about how things are going. Great, it seems.

In case you don't know the story, check out the link above, but the short version is that they have used the web and social networking to raise a lot of money for both the production and distribution of their film. They are now showing the film across the UK and Ireland, and will soon be expanding internationally. In order to facilitate screenings, the've built a pretty cool online tool for booking screenings. It allows you to book the film for anywhere from 1 to thousands of viewers in multiple types of settings. Right now, it's only screening in the UK and Ireland, so to experiment with the process, just pretend you are booking it somewhere there. I imagine they'll expand this to other cities as the film rolls out.

I think it's a great start for a tool to help book events - not just films could use this, but also other cultural orgs, letting the audience tell them where to book the screening or event. Taking a lot of work off the shoulders of the producers/distributors as well. It's something Four Eyed Monsters did as well, and I hope to see more tools like this.

Friday, July 03, 2009

My new gig

As many of you might have seen in IndieWire yesterday, I've decided to move on to new things. In the spirit of open communication that is the web now, I'm posting the info I sent my friends and colleagues on Friday announcing my departure.

After five years leading NVR on the path to becoming Renew Media and then joining forces with the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI), I have decided to leave the organization. I am thrilled we could combine these two great organizations into one Institute with impressive, innovative programs in support of filmmakers, youth and their audiences. I am particularly proud of the launch of the Reframe project last year. I feel that the organization and these projects are now in a place where I can leave them in the hands of my extremely capable colleagues here at Tribeca, where they can continue to flourish.

As many of you know, I have quite an entrepreneurial spirit and want to now explore other opportunities. I will be launching a consulting business focusing on business development projects in the entertainment and cultural industries as well as helping filmmakers, artists and organizations to distribute content and connect with audiences through innovative uses of new technology.

Hopefully, you'll hear more hear soon.