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David Poland

By David Poland

Festivals Raping Filmmakers… Or Just A Friendly Reach Around?

When Tribeca, America’s Most Funded Festival Failure, made their announcement about pushing festival films to VOD before they even had a chance to premiere at a festival, I didn’t quite know what to do with the information. Besides being distracted by all this late Oscar idiocy, the press release, the news leaks, and the NYT story… none of them seemed to be able to clarify just what the hell Tribeca – a privately held for-profit company that still is selling the idea that they are in business to help someone other than their owners – is really after.
But a day later, having consumed all I could find, I think I have it.
Like most other players in the area of VOD, they are trying to fuck filmmakers. Now that wasn’t so hard to figure, was it?
The basic step to the future is this… everything will be available, both online and through some kind of streaming devices to your television set. A small percentage of filmed entertainment will have theatrical distribution. Another small percentage will have wide release via the modern version of broadcast, which includes both the networks and the cable nets.
And the rest will live in the massive clusterfuck of The Long Tail, finding niche audiences, praying to be the one in ten thousand that actually makes a profit in VOD without the marketing that goes into the other, wider delivery methods.
Festivals, led by Cannes and the Sundance, grew like wildfire because of two prongs on value. First, they became Markets that were, relatively, open to newcomers. The truth of that was a little less pleasant. 90%-plus of films at the major festivals have some kind of “insider” access to get to the top of the pile. This does not make the work that gets in less valuable, but the odds of getting into Sundance if you are a kid in Idaho with a DVD are not so good.
The second prong is Marketing. A festival was and can still be a great place to get attention for your film. As we see every year at every major fest, the media goes in thinking they know what they want to see and almost invariably, one or two of the “hot” titles remain hot and the majority of heat coming out of the fest is for unexpected films that get buzz within the confines of the festival.
Now, in the raw, ugly light of declining hope for big dollars in the arthouse universe, even with the big (and declining in $s) domestic theatrical distribution buys at the fests, we seem to be at a moment when Getting Seen is being embraced as more important than Getting Paid.
But Business abhors a vacuum as much as Nature does. And I am just about ready to start crying, “Rape!”
We saw this a few years ago with short films and a parade of companies that were going to come in and monetize the short film platform. All of those companies are now out of business or have been significantly reconsidered. And a part of that failure was YouTube and the realization of once-excited short-filmmakers that $250 wasn’t enough to give up their rights in perpetuity.
We also saw a reflection of this in the reversal of the laws that kept television networks from owning the shows they put on the air. What happened when the nets were allowed to own shows? Suddenly, the shows they owned had a much better chance of being on the schedules than shows that they were buying from others. Hundreds of millions were lost by independent TV producers when the ink hit the paper.
Let’s have a show of hands from everyone who believes that SnagFilms bought indieWIRE because they love indie film and want it to be well covered from one end of the globe to the other!
But even more troubling than a Buyer buying a media business as bait for filmmakers to Sell them their stuff cheap is when the Buyer and the Seller is the same company. I believe that Matt Dentler’s intentions are good. I even believe that John Sloss’ intentions are… uh… just give me a second… okay… good.
(ADD, 5:42p – I have been reminded, and originally intended to point out, that Cinetic’s program does not take the rights away from the filmmaker in order to be in their program. Fair enough.)
But no matter how much we all want to believe in the honor and good intentions of industry players, being both a Buyer and a Seller requires them to be on their best behavior at all times, no matter whether anyone is watching or not. When everything is in the same pile, expedience sometimes has a tendency to encroach on good intentions.
And while not-for-profit Sundance did experiment – and failed, dare I remind you – with VOD this year, now we have the For-Profit Tribeca positioning themselves, as Eugene Hernandez comedically positioned them in a story today based on a chatty, but not ready for public discussion meeting, as The New Miramax.
All of a sudden, we are finding a new basis for marketing movies that the people with marketing money do not think are capable of generating even hundreds of thousands of dollars… brands. Tribeca Presents. indieWIRE presents. Sundance Presents. Cinetic Presents.
And for the filmmaker? Well, it’s Something instead of Nothing. But as with the situation with the shorts, the Something is so tiny that it may be more expensive to have than Nothing. In the meanwhile, everyone else is building their brand.
And so what is in it for the filmmaker with Tribeca? Desperate hope is all I can see. I mean, look at what Tribeca has done for that movie… you know the one they blew up… what’s that title… um… anyone… anyone?
What’s in it for Tribeca? Well, it sounds like they are sick of this silly festival business. Too much time kissing American Express’ gold ass and finding a vodka sponsor. VOD is not a change in the festival model… it is something completely other than a festival model.
I keep screaming it, but when will people catch on that collapsing windows gives you NOTHING but fewer opportunities to take advantage of the windows that exist and will always exist? I completely embrace VOD… but it’s the caboose, not the freakin’ engine!
Thing is, 5 years from now, every one of these filmmakers will have the opportunity to self-distribute VOD – really, films of any real profile have it now – so that if they have any real success, they won’t have to share it with these organizations that will inevitably be spread so thin, with hundreds of movies to “premiere” each year, that the success of these titles will be based on promotion by the filmmaker and not by the “VOD distributor.”
We are at almost the exact same place as we were with the shorts, except the stakes are much higher for feature films being produced with festival hopes, and the potential revenue from a VOD deal is as bad or worse than the cheapie deals short-film filmmakers too back then.
You know, at least when Sundance Channel or IFC steals your short film or even your feature for virtually nothing, you are still getting seen on a cable network. You are bending over to be part of a push technology with hundreds of thousands of daily browsers.
And if you are looking at Funny or Die as a positive example… well, good luck with that. When you can get WIll Ferrell to front you, fund you, and get an HBO deal for you, let me know. You are not an indie filmmaker at that point and you don’t need anyone’s VOD.
“The New Miramax” Ha. They haven’t even been The Old Sundance or even The Old Seattle or The Old Santa Barbara.
VOD (and New Technologies, in general) is the petri dish into which you put the sperm and egg when the old fashioned way doesn’t work… it ain’t your daddy.
Crying for papa is not the future of anything. All it does is keep therapists in business. The indie world needs to learn to walk again, stand up, and be its own grown person.
There’s always someone out there who wants to sell you magic beans in exchange for your cow. But that story only has a happy ending in fairy tales. This is no fairy tale.

23 Responses to “Festivals Raping Filmmakers… Or Just A Friendly Reach Around?”

  1. NV says:

    C’mon. Most these films have no chance at theatrical and dvd distribution. And what distribution company doesn’t have a deal that is heavily slanted towards them? Do you really think people get back ends anymore? The chances of them showing a profit with a traditional deal is a lot less than one in ten thousand.
    If you dont think VOD is an engine, then ask why Magnolia and IFC were both cash positive last year? Who else is besides Summit and thats because they are lucky?
    You want them to slef distribute on VOD? Time Warner or Direct TV or Comcast is going to take some film festival film from Joe Smith and charge $6.99 if they do a Truly Indie theatrical release?
    You make some valid points, but your arguement is too extreme.

  2. I’m with NV. And worse, what’s your plan or idea for indie filmmakers, David?
    As a guy trying to shill his little short docs on his own (newest one now on sale at Create Space! I’d gladly “give” my film to Tribeca, IFC, Sundance or any tried and true fest or channel that would have it because more people would see it. The more people who see it, the more my cred goes up as a filmmaker. Or, if I tell a potential investor my last film was on IFC or Tribeca’s on-demand, that’s a tangible thing you can bank on. It’s an investment in my career and image as a filmmaker.
    Do the filmmakers get screwed? Probably, but not completely. My take is; when you put in with a big corporate media entity, you get that media entity working for you and being a part of that team is a huge break for a filmmaker.
    You even point out that in 5 years or so filmmakers will be able to do their own VOD but not only is 5 years away a TON in terms of the longevity of a filmmaking career, it doesn’t mean anything if you put something out yourself and no one sees or hears it.
    Another example: have you heard the band I manage, five a.m.? They’ve been putting out their own albums for 8 years. If IFC music wanted to give us 1-cent an album and they kept the other $9.98, we’d be making more money at it than we are now in terms of record sales. More people would have heard the songs and maybe our next album gets picked up by a major.
    Everything is so in flux and up in the air in terms of small filmmakers needing and making money that I just don’t think there’s an answer. People are trying new things and I kind of like it.

  3. Foamy Squirrel says:

    “Or, if I tell a potential investor my last film was on IFC or Tribeca’s on-demand, that’s a tangible thing you can bank on.”
    This is one of the issues with the lower entry barrier for many digital distribution ecosystems – a lot of relatively new entrants are willing to write their first few attempts off as a loss or a learning experience. The reasoning tends to be that this gets a foot in the door, or builds a demonstrated portfolio so that they will be better positioned when they finally try to get someone to pay them.
    There’s one problem with this logic – why should anyone pay you when there’s a stream of cheap content from new entrants? What’s the value that you add that’s going to be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars that isn’t available from an “indie” featuring Steve Carrell?

  4. David Poland says:

    This has been placed in the entry… but for those who might have already read the piece, I wanted to note it here as well…
    (ADD, 5:42p – I have been reminded, and originally intended to point out, that Cinetic’s program does not take the rights away from the filmmaker in order to be in their program. Fair enough.)

  5. David Poland says:

    You’ll notice that I didn’t mention IFC or Magnolia in this piece. Why? Because they are not following the same model these other businesses hope to follow.
    Their model is VOD, but with a theatrical push with some real marketing dollars… relative to these others.
    I’m not saying that there is an answer that involves every movie getting more significant distribution. There isn’t. There will always be losers in this game, VOD or not.
    My point remains… let’s move boldly into the future. Great. But let’s not delude ourselves into buying a lost horizon.

  6. To me, the main problem with independent filmmakers is that there are just too many of them out there, and the vast majority of them have no damn clue what the hell they are doing. They have no patience, and no interest in learning how to tell a story properly. They don’t take the time to just screw around with friends and a video camera, learning about lighting and camera angles. They just need to be famous and they need to be famous now.
    But to get more back on track… with digital projection and distribution becoming more prevalent in the years to come, this is going to help the smaller filmmaker as much, if not more, than the studios. Once you’ve created a DCI-compliant master, the cost of creating copies and getting them out to theatres will be so cost-effecient that some schlub can do a service deal with a Freestyle and get their title out to a couple hundred theatres easy with less money than a studio spends to get a :30 second spot on American Idol.
    But even if this utopia does come to pass, we all know that marketing is what makes or breaks a title. Paranormal Activity doesn’t become the new Blair Witch without Paramount’s brilliant marketing job. Blair Witch doesn’t become what it became without its astute “is it real or not?” marketing job. And that’s where Sundance and Tribeca and IFC and Magnolia come in. Cuban, for all screwy bravado, has it right. Own the entire pipeline. Finance it yourself. Produce it with your people. Distribute it through your company. Show it in your theatres. Release it on your video label. Show it on your VOD/PPV channels, and then on your cable channels. Full integration. And when they get something more like Oceans 11 and less like Che to go through that pipeline, you’re really going to see a fundamental shift in the system.
    Man, I need a drink.

  7. NV says:

    you know, the crazy thing is that the IFC/Magnolia model might be the model that the other businesses should hope to follow. There’s very little sell through in this space anymore and rental is shifting to low cost transactions. Everytime you sell something to Block now, you wonder in the back of your mind whether you’ll get paid.
    Trying to make it work on DVD alone relies on the old mentality of “if i just get one hit, it will pay for all these loses”. At least with VOD, you can exploit a revenue stream and you’ll be making money, but you just have to own a theatre or be prepared to four wall. And then if everyone does it, the saturation will make it even more difficult.
    And yes, there will always be more losers than winners. Distributing movies is not for those who want to make money.

  8. Foamy Squirrel says:

    “the success of these titles will be based on promotion by the filmmaker and not by the “VOD distributor.””
    The source of future distributor revenues is probably more going to be from matchmaker services rather than flat promotion.
    One of the issues with the Long Tail is that the barrier to consumers finding niche content that is valuable to them is too high. No-one wants to sort through thousands of films/songs/books/games to find the one that is a perfect match to their preferences when they can just pick one of the few demonstrated “hits” that is an 80% match instead.
    However, in a VOD ecosystem it’s possible to gauge an individual’s appetite for riskier fare based on their individual consumption habits and those of their friends. This allows the provider to make tailored recommendations – pushing the consumer out to niche fare that they are otherwise unlikely to find and are more likely to enjoy. This kind of system benefits hugely from scale – the more content coming in, the better the chance a consumer will find something to their taste. The more consumers at the far end, the better the information gathering and ability for content producers to connect. As both sides of the market build up, the better the service becomes to both content providers and consumers.
    This even has benefits for theatrical distribution too – being able to collect geographic information means theatre owners can better schedule content tailored to their areas, and consumers can again be pushed through the recommendation system to buy tickets online to indie movies they are more likely to enjoy. The idea of passive promotion in an age of intelligent ecosystems has its place (“hits” are still hits due to mass market consumption after all), but distributors still have their place.

  9. LexG says:

    I knew as soon as Poland this, like clockwork Don Lewis would blow in pimping his films.
    But name-checking his band too? Even *I* didn’t expect that one. SHAMELESS.
    Don, you’re a good guy and all, but seems like you work circles to just put off getting a nice bank teller job. Your wife got serious cash or something? GET A JOB.

  10. I have a “regular” job and I hate it almost as much as you hate yours, Lex. I just don’t gripe about it in public like you do. Incessantly.
    I’m flattered you think I make my living reviewing movies and making smaller than tiny films but the truth is, I work close to 40 hours a week doing something I can do in my sleep in order to pay the bills and still be able to make films and go to festivals. The fests I cover come out of my vacation and sick time at work and I don’t go on many family vacations cuz we’re broke. I won’t even broach the credit card situation. But I fucking love film and festivals and meeting filmmakers and seeing new films and it’s what I want to do so I make the effort.
    I feel bad pimping my shit here or anywhere but it’s something I have to force myself to do because, also like you, it isn’t who I am and it’s a skill I avoid trying to have. I’m also not very good at it so it comes off clumsy and yeah, shameless. But I’m trying to do the work to get where I want to be instead of at this lameass, dead-end job that makes me angry the second I set foot in it.
    And the mentioning my band thing wasn’t meant as a promotional effort, just as an example that bands have been self-releasing for years but it’s still the major label gatekeepers (and, magazines/blogs) that get these bands noticed the same way Tribeca, Cinetic, IFC and so forth can get a small movie noticed. Plus, I’ve sold about 12 total copies of my films and those were mostly to family members who thought it was neat that they could buy my film on the internets. You gotta have someone pimping you is my real point.
    I don’t know why I bother addressing you and why I’m going to say this because it’ll fall on your deaf ears but, do the work. You’d be amazed what might happen.

  11. Ray_Pride says:

    The great thing is when you look at the comments on an ENTRY like this and HALF the SHIT is in ALL FUCKING CAPS you know you can go to BED.

  12. Ray_Pride says:

    tHe gReaT thing about comments on websites rich with ALL CAPS is being able to SKIM and only note stuff that MAKES SENSE and isn’t filled with FEIGNED OBSESSION. Unless you want to READ about JAILBAIT and those who WANT it.

  13. LexG says:

    OH NOES, RAY PRIDE doesn’t like me, and he DOESN’T LIKE CAPITAL LETTERS.
    Hey, Ray, why don’t you go better spend your time by MAKING SOME MORE ADDITIONS TO YOUR OBVIOUSLY SELF-SUBMITTED WIKIPEDIA PAGE.
    Because LIKE ANYONE ELSE would submit YOU to Wikipedia, O I HAVE TWO BLOGS AND A COLUMN and NOT ONE PERSON EVER has made a comment on any of them.
    Nice FAN BASE OF ZERO, you old fuck. Seriously, do you BLOG EVERY DAY and get ZERO COMMENTS? Christ, motherfucker, I log into Twitter and I get 200 responses… I opine in a Wells thread and the thread INSTANTLY goes to 60. You can RESEARCH THAT SHIT, bro. And when some LONGFORM PIECES BY YOURS TRULY were posted on YOUR VERY WEBSITE, they were a TRILLION TIMES more widely read than your hack ass.
    But, no worries, Ray, my posthouse is hiring for spot scripters. It pays 35K, I can get you a job, since obviously you don’t make any money and you’re a total fucking loser.
    Sorry, maybe you skimmed that, bitch, ’cause it was in ALL CAPS.
    You’re irrelevant. I’m SMARTER THAN YOU; Be a little more condescending.
    But at least when DPO bans this comment, I know whose blog to blow up next… Be grateful, Ray, if I become a regular at your dogshit unread blog, you might actually get some hits.
    SICK OF ALLLLLL YOU HACKS who think you’re smarter or better than me, when I WRITE CIRCLES AROUND YOU and have more film education than you know. Fuck off. Bitch.

  14. LexG says:

    That’s called a SIGN THAT YOU SUCK.

  15. The Big Perm says:

    Dear aspiring filmmakers, read what Lex writes here…his advice to Don is why he will never, ever suceed. Do the opposite, folks!

  16. LexG says:

    Dear aspiring filmmakers,
    Get thee to Baltimore, the heart of the movie industry. Kick it New Style.

  17. The Big Perm says:

    Yeah, cause things are really working for you in LA, right?
    Oh, also don’t forget NY is just around the corner, where I also work a lot. A LOT!!!

  18. jennab says:

    Foamy, you are absolutely right! Yes, Dave, filmmakers can self-release through VOD now (on Amazon and through WAB), but it’d be better to have an ecosystem like Netflix or iTunes or even Tribeca fest filtering content and pushing titles to potentially interested consumers than trying to find your niche on your own without any established channel of communication–easy and affordable marketing platforms like Facebook notwithstanding (which should be part of every indie filmmaker’s plan anyway).
    As others have pointed out, most small, indie filmmakers scrape together resources to make their passion project(s) without expecting much in the way of remuneration; that’s why the pipeline will always be glutted, especially with the lower barriers to entry digital affords.
    But the question is, what is a sustainable model for indie filmmakers, and the answer will be as individual as DNA. It will be a stepping stone to bigger things for some; some will get discouraged and drop out; others will happily stay in the micro-budget end of the pond.
    That said, I do appreciate your heartfelt advocacy for indie filmmakers!

  19. LexG says:

    Let’s hear it for Ray Pride, the least-read amateur photographer/blogger in Chicago.
    I tried to post on his shitty blog, but he deleted it; Guess he wants to keep his perfectly immaculate record of ZERO COMMENTERS EVER. Must be fun to WRITE IN A VACUUM.
    But I’m sure Mr. Magician is already whining to Mommy about me, so I can expect a terse email from Poland soon enough, just when I ripped that James Rocchi nobody and he went CRYING TO POLAND to get me to leave him alone.
    Ray Pride, here is the point: You came out of nowhere to fuck with me. I don’t know who you are or CARE, you are irrelevant, you are a hack who’s probably a nice guy and got thrown a bone, but basically you’re a HACK. You’re not interesting, you’re not a player, you’re a middle-aged, single, probably gay man in Chicago who takes shitty Polaroids instead of GETTING A JOB.
    You STEP TO ME, you get it BACK IN DROVES.

  20. berg says:

    to Don Lewis … IS 5 A. M. the band that formed when 4 A. M. broke up?

  21. It is! Just like you’re the new Steven Spielberg without the Spiel. Or, Steven.

  22. Also, I like and have commented on Ray’s blog, Movie City Indie. It’s good stuff that you don’t find regurgitated on every other blog.

  23. T. Holly says:

    lexg, he’s widely read and popular, does really unique and interesting reviews, etc., and his photographs make people stop, look and comment when I display them. Go play Chatroulette and find some friends.

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