Friday, April 24, 2009

Jason ruminates on the vagaries of film festivals and indie (self-)distribution

Yesterday I was inspired/coaxed to comment and add my fan's perspective to this roundtable discussion on indie film self-distribution. I encourage you all to read all the filmmakers' opinions, and then find my comment for my perspective.

A couple things happened when I started writing my thoughts on film distribution. First, I "broke the seal" and lots more ideas and opinions started flowing out. Second, I realized that my goals are not quite as aligned to the filmmaker's goals as I thought they were. This led to a few new filmmaker followers on Twitter, and some lively 140 character (or less) discussions that identified some common enemies/frustrations, but also some divergent goals. In a nutshell, what I prefer in a film watching experience is:

  1. A good movie
  2. On a large screen
  3. With a good audience (enthusiastic, adventurous, risk-takers)
  4. And a social event (have a drink or two with fans and filmmakers while talking about the movie)

I don't want to watch movies on my computer (at best I can only get point 1 there). I don't really like watching movies on DVD (again, at best I only get 1, but maybe I can improve my home theater to get close to 2). If I'm really lucky, seeing a film in general release I might get 1-3. If I get a few friends together, maybe I can get all 4 (like I did for BEER WARS or MILK), but that's actually a rare occurrence. Often I'm left with a boring/nonexistent audience (when I see films on weeknights) or obnoxious audiences (like the loud, drunk couple sitting next to me when I saw THE DEPARTED. Fuckers ruined the movie for me!) At least I sit up front where I nearly completely miss the scourge of cell phone users texting through the movie.

Anyway, the point is my best bet to get all 4 points is a film festival (or the close cousin, the film club. I keep thinking of joining the Camera Cinemas Club, my excuse is always that I'm too busy going to film festivals anyway). Sure, you can never guarantee a film will be good, but at least at a film festival I'm seeing a film that some programmer thought was good enough to show me (rather than a studio dumping garbage into the theaters with a big ad campaign trying to take my money). Not all film festivals have the biggest screens, but even the small screen at the Little Roxie is better than my TV. You can never guarantee a good audience either (I've been at some pretty empty festival screenings), but 999 times out of 1000 a festival audience will be better than a general movie audience. And hopefully that audience will be friendly, some filmmakers will be there, and there will be a bar nearby.

Now, if I were to hazard a guess, I'd estimate that filmmaker priorities are:

  1. Make a good movie
  2. Make enough money to make another good movie
  3. Get your movie in front of an audience that appreciates it

I suspect many filmmakers would claim to reverse points 2 and 3. That reminds me a lot of politicians claiming they're taking a principled stand and not just trying to get elected. I don't buy it. The first lesson in the only Poli Sci class I ever took was that no matter how lofty their goals are, politicians can't do squat without getting elected. Therefore you have to assume they act in a manner that maximizes their chances of getting elected. Same thing with filmmakers, if you assume they're rational actors (huuuuuge assumption), they'd have the act in the manner most likely to enable them to do what they do--make movies. Ultimately all the money in the industry comes from the audience, so there will be a lot of overlap in our goals, but if streaming a movie online makes them more money (and probably a larger audience) than playing at festivals or chasing distribution, then they'd be insane not to go that route. So when filmmakers sell the remake rights to their film (which in my experience guarantees the original will be buried and doesn't guarantee the remake will ever happen), I lament the fact but understand their motivation and don't begrudge them for making a living (even if I think it's an awful decision).

You'll also get a wide variety of opinions on point 3. For some filmmakers, putting their work online, even for free, is good enough (good luck fulfilling point 2, though). Others (most I've met) will argue that it's important for their film to be seen on the big screen with a full audience. I've never met a filmmaker who insisted his film can only be seen on a cell phone, for example (although with all the crazy auteurs out there, I'm sure there's someone). But again, in the real world whatever allows you to fulfill point 2 is what wins. This came up again just last night at the opening night of SFIFF. At the Q&A for LA MISSION, director Peter Bratt mentioned how great it was to screen at the Castro and how some people speculate that in 10 years movies will all be streamed online and actually going out to the movies will be a cultural elitist event like going out to the opera (Graham Leggat quickly chimed in that in 10 years SFIFF will still be going strong and showing a hundred or so films on the big screen).

By the way, I'm actually optimistic that even if the general movie watching experience migrates online, the film festival experience is still growing. While the digital revolution democratized indie filmmaking, I believe that digital projection has democratized film exhibition (at least at the small, local film festival level). Just looking through where I've lived in my life, my childhood home of Bellingham, WA has a film festival (that was last weekend, next weekend they have a children's film festival). My high school hometown (where my folks still live) of Anchorage, AK also has a film festival. It started in 2001, 8 years after I left for college. Growing up, there were no local film festivals where I lived. Now if you grew up where I did, there's at least one film festival. And if you're in a sizable metropolitan area, there are several to choose from. Maybe this is just a film festival bubble. But just maybe the audience will become more like a selective opera audience, but every small town will have at least one opera company.

Anyway, that's a small aside. The point is that filmmakers and the audience (at least the segment of the audience I can represent, which might be no more than myself) sometimes have divergent goals. And so I started exploring those forces that keep films from playing at the film festivals I attend.

One thing that came up (that I didn't address in my comments) was that unless you're discovered, film festivals are generally losing propositions for filmmakers. They don't get a take of the box office, they usually have to pay a fee to even submit their film (with no guarantee it'll be shown). If they choose to attend, they might (usually?) have to pay for their own travel, hotel, etc. Festivals are a giant hole for filmmakers to throw money into, with a small chance at a financial reward and perhaps a bigger chance at the psychological reward of seeing people enjoy their film. I don't know how to fix this. Eradicate all submission fees? Force all festivals to pay to fly filmmakers into town and put them up in a hotel? Unrealistic. Festivals struggle to survive financially, too (my earlier paragraph about how many festivals have sprung up notwithstanding). It seems that most filmmakers (at least, the ones I meet at festivals) go to festivals because they actually are that passionate about seeing their film the way I want to see it. Even if it means they lose money, and therefore increases the obstacles to making their next film. I love those irrational, passionate filmmakers.

BTW, as another aside in one tweet I flippantly said I only tangentially give a crap if filmmakers make any money (i.e., I only care that they can make more movies that I might enjoy). That's actually fairly facetious, and I was exaggerating to highlight the differences in our goals. The fact is, I love film and I revere filmmakers (at least the good ones) and I wish them all gobs and gobs of success. However, if the road to that success leads to the films never playing on the big screen in my area, than fuck that! No offense intended to the filmmakers who are only doing what's required to make a living and make their next movie. Fuck the system that leads to that scenario.

Another point--that sparked most of the discussion on twitter--is the exclusivity of the Premiere status at festivals. Jarrod Whaley spoke about this in his section of the roundtable. A filmmaker has finally finished his film, and wants to show it at one of the "big" festivals (e.g., Sundance). Sundance might like the film, but only have interest in showing it if it's a World Premiere (or at least a U.S. Premiere). So filmmakers have to hold off on showing it at all the other festivals (I guess that means HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE won't even be submitted to Mill Valley? Not that I've been back to that festival in a few years). In an ideal world, Sundance wouldn't care whether they had any premieres, just that it had great movies (and preferably ones that are looking for distribution). But I don't know how to force that world on them. And for that matter, I don't know if that would be the best world for Sundance. I love film festivals, and I have no interest in a solution that kills them off. If World Premieres more than Great Movies bring the crowds to a festival, I don't know how to convince them to take the latter.

Can one possible route be to level the importance of the festivals? If filmmakers had no reason to care if they played Sundance, they'd be free to present their films at any number of festivals. What if there was no more prestige to the Sundance label than, say, the Indiefest label? Or rather (since Indiefest is shortly after Sundance, and hence not stealing their premieres), what if Indiefest had as much prestige as SXSW (which takes place shortly afterwards, and I actually do know of films that have skipped Indiefest to premiere there). Or maybe "prestige" is the wrong term. Maybe it's simply the chance to sell their movie to a good distributor at a fair price. What would it take to get a moderate sized distributor to come to Indiefest to buy? If, in some dream world, there was a huge success discovered and signed at Indiefest,would that be a step towards levelling the playing field, or would it just be a step towards lifting Indiefest into the ranks of the "big" fests? Or would it just be seen as a fluke and life goes back to normal? Can this be something that the Internet can help with? Can social networking (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace) promote a film to the point that distributors notice? Can amateur writers--the all-volunteer blogging army--proselytize a film enough? To raise a very scary question, is the future of indie film in my hands?!

Or can we break up the exclusivity of Premiere status? Amir Motlagh summed it up pithily in this tweet. I already know that a certain amount of the premieres are BS. I've seen films listed as "sneak previews" so they could "premiere" at a later festival. I've seen Cinequest list films as California (or Northern California, or Bay Area) Premieres after they played at Indiefest just a week prior (in fairness, I assume maybe they were premieres when they booked them and went to print with the guide, and Cinequest is too classy to force them out of Indiefest). Are there success stories of films that played at a half dozen festivals before striking it big at a Sundance-sized festival? I assume it's usually not the filmmakers who are saying they don't want to play small local festivals before the big one(s). It's that Sundance won't play their film unless they get to call it a premiere. Jarrod Whaley had a nice analogy about the indie film world being a huge lot of rusted out Pintos with a few Cadillacs hidden there (the idea being that without dealers--i.e., festivals--weeding out the inventory the consumer has a hard time finding the Caddies). I extended it to say that too many of the festivals would rather be the first one to drive off in a rusted Pinto than be the third to drive a shiny new Cadillac. I don't know how to change that, it takes a paradigm shift in the big festivals, and I don't think they have an incentive to change. Or maybe it takes a gutsy/naive filmmaker to just take it to all the small festivals, not care if he gets into the big ones, and hope that the blogger army will promote the hell out of him. That seems like a one in a million shot, not a good bet. I don't have a solution, I just wanted to repeat that analogy, because I really like it.

Maybe some film festivals are already finding solutions. Is Cinequest doing the right thing having their own DVD label? If you play at Cinequest, and never get distribution elsewhere, you at least already have a relationship with someone who already likes your work enough to put it on the big screen. I don't know if any filmmaker makes much money of it, but it's something, isn't it? I'd think it's especially good for their short film collections, without which there are practically no distribution channels for shorts. Not only that, but they're also playing ALL ABOUT DAD (the Cinequest Audience Award Winner) for a second week a the Camera 3 cinema. I don't know how much of a dent they're making in the overall industry, but it certainly seems like Cinequest is doing the right thing. Can other festivals follow? Also, since last year, the San Francisco Film Society (presenters of the SF International Film Festival) program one of the screens at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. As the film watching experience becomes more of a highbrow "opera" audience, will more film festivals pick up the charge of programming theaters year round?

And finally let me touch on some of my biggest frustrations--the traditional distributors. Now don't get me wrong, I generally like anyone who takes a chance and puts movies on a big screen. But the complications of the business side of it often gets in the way. In a nutshell, it seems like distributors are always trying to find the "best" way (date, number of theaters, which markets, etc.) to release a film, and that can mean sitting on it for a while. Maybe even forever, as Mirimax was infamous for (they'd test screen the heck out of their acquisitions, then bury the ones that tested poorly so as not to hurt their brand). But the worst scourge I've seen is the so-called "remake rights". Studios buy up films so they can remake them. The original disappears, by design, so as not to compete with the remake. And then the remake never happens. This has happened at least twice to films I saw and loved. First to SIDEKICK (Indiefest 2006, was never remade and eventually released on DVD through Warner Home and Lightyear Entertainment, with very little fanfare). Then to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (Indiefest 2008. As yet, not remade, and was pulled from festivals that had already programmed it, like Cinequest). If I can give one piece of advice to filmmakers, if someone offers to buy your movie and remake it, please say no. For my sake, at least.

So is there a solution for a more democratic distribution system? I don't know. I don't really think so, at least not for the big screen. On the Internet, sure. Anyone who really doesn't care about money can put their movie online for free. You can even solicit donations, although I don't think you'll get enough to survive. A little prediction (and I don't pretend to be an expert here). For a while some brave/idealistic/naive filmmakers will put their movies online for free with a donation button on their site. And a few of them will get enough to maybe make it seem like a good idea. And it will either never succeed or it will nearly succeed up until the point that it does succeed. And then it will fail. As soon as someone makes money by giving away a movie on the Internet, everyone will do it. And then you aren't asking your audience to support an innovator and an idealist, you're asking them to support a copycat. And they'll tune out.

Or I might be wrong.

And finally, just a few comments about self-distribution. First, it's a poorly defined term that can apply to an unknown giving away his film online or to David Lynch programming his own theatrical tour of INLAND EMPIRE. In general, I'm ambivalent towards it. If it fulfills the 4 criteria I mentioned at the beginning, I'm all for it. In general, I think the boundaries to sub-optimal self-distribution (streaming online, selling DVDs off your website) are low, but the boundaries to ideal (theatrical) self-distribution are high (something only a big name like David Lynch can pull off). So go ahead and do it as a last resort. I want filmmakers to survive. But I hope you can also work in some festival and/or theatrical screenings. That's where you'll find my eyes.

And one final note. I might not be the eyes you should be targeting. I watch over 400 movies a year (feature length programs, on the big screen). There's not a lot of audience members like me, and the ones that are out there are often in the industry and watch movies for free. To make money, it seems like you at least need to reach the ~50 movies or less crowd (the <>1 movie/day people). There's a lot more of them.

Okay, this post has grown far out of hand, and so I'm stopping it right now.

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