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A Review of the Latest Discourse on Self-Distribution

By Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn - On Oct 29 - In Grassroots distribution - With 1 Comment

One very useful website we’ve discovered, not only for keeping on top of the latest fluctuations in the ever-changing landscape of the independent film “industry,”  but also for a hearty conversation about these fluctuations, as well as a straight-up resource for independent filmmakers aiming to do-it-themselves, is No Film School. Interviews with people and organizations changing the game are regular, as well as profiles of these organizations and lists of tools, websites, tutorials that can be of great use to the filmmaker starting from scratch.

Perusing No Film School’s articles about distribution is a good way to take the pulse of what’s on in that world at the ground level. Many recent entries correlate with and elaborate on things covered through our study. For example:

An interview with the creators of Simple Machine (“a peer-to-peer marketplace that allows anyone to become a theater and anyone to list a film to be shown”) builds off of and actually diverts the dialogue we had with Arin Crumley about the race to the bottom, technology-wise, in distribution:

So this all started as just a film trafficking tool, a way to move digital film prints into theaters, making the physical process easier, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t the physical process that was holding anybody down. Theaters were so bogged down in the bureaucratic processes and political relationships necessary to run their business, that despite expressing enthusiasm about the idea of single-night films and more eventized screenings, they couldn’t actually get their shit together to commit to anything. At which point I realized that I wanted to make this available to anybody who wants to show a movie off their laptop.

Essentially the Simple Machine creators realized that as increasing numbers of filmmakers had means to physically distribute films themselves, “distributors” weren’t the problem, but rather the exhibitors that are entrenched in their ways of dealing with traditional distributors. These conventional exhibitors are not as nimble as the film landscape itself these days. So they must be routed around — something Jake Perlin mentioned in our conversation with him and Kate West.

Another conclusion from our talk with Arin was that as distribution gets easier, “distributors” become more important as brands — a way to group the plethora of “content” out there. These brands can shape exhibition too – as Simple Machine’s Nandan Rao says: “That’s why I think that, to some degree, film festivals are successful. They provide a very different context than the traditional theatrical experience.”

Nandan also had a pretty conclusive conviction about the debate as to whether independent film really is a profit-making venture, but from an unforeseen angle: “I don’t really see making independent filmmaking an economically viable proposition at this point, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be from the payments of end-consumers. The effort of building the context for people, of educating and establishing connections and relevance, is probably always going to be more than what you’re making back.” This assertion assumes that you, as the filmmaker, want to ensure the absolute optimal and proper reception for your film — that that is more important than making a quick buck. For an independent filmmaker, that’s a safe bet. But the trade-off may just be that that effort to put out your film in the “right” way will cost you any profit on the back end.

No Film School also covered Vimeo’s recent offer at the Toronto International Film Festival of $10,000 (and 90% of sales) for a 30 day digital distribution deal. Will filmmakers coming out of festivals, desperate for any compensation or attention for their film, increasingly gravitate towards short term digital deals, that pre-empt the theaters? What does this mean for a “campaign” model? Campaigns are built on momentum. Does a film being available in short term on a pay site like Vimeo on Demand deflate the momentum towards something like a potential theatrical run/tour… or is it the perfect promotion for it?

A constant topic in our study is how to access information on audiences — how to get them to “opt in” to the campaign or life of a film, so that they can be accessed, activated, and energized. In a profile of the distribution platform Chill, and how they offer “Inside Access” to the making of a film, the No Film School writer notices a pattern based on a simple equation between content and opting in: “In terms of DIY or self-distribution, the trend seems to be in favor of gated content — the idea of entering your email address in exchange for content. Audiences want content and creators want an easy way to directly contact their audiences.” This seems simple enough, but if a user doesn’t already have enough of a reason to want to see the content, even that sign-up ask can be too steep. On the Obama campaign, it was never required to enter information to see new content like videos; it was more in the interest of the campaign to use publicly available modes like YouTube. It may be the same for filmmakers: it is more helpful to have access to content totally unblocked until you can be sure there is a premium on what you are creating…

Which is exactly why “touring” or physically “campaigning” (from place to place) with a film has become more popular — there is an irreplaceable premium on seeing a film in person with its filmmakers (ie that different context, like a festival, that Nandan mentioned). That should assure that some form of a theatrical element (even if it’s more like an “event” and less of a “run”) will always have a place in a film’s life, say filmmakers like James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, who asserted:

As we watch how digital media has changed the music industry it’s all about hearing them in person, and that’s where bands are making money. It’s not the easiest life touring and you have to be a special kind of person to do it. Even with the internet and having access to everything you want, people are still looking for cultural experiences or artistic experiences in person. We live our lives on our smartphones connecting with people that we don’t actually connect with in person, so I think that’s what films are going to do.

This begs the question: is going on tour with a film part of the “optimal context” you’re providing to the audience in exchange for the possibility of profits, or is it a means to the end of cutting out the middleman and reaping direct revenue?

These are just some of the many topics being explored in the self-distribution world; what’s very clear is that while many people think they have the answers, the questions just keep coming.

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Comment (1)

  1. October 30, 2013 - Chris Dorr says:

    Great summary of what is going on in this area. I think it also shows that in the old world, there were a couple of right answers to the question of film distribution but in the new world (today) there are many right answers, and most of them provisional. What works today, may not work as well as tomorrow as the Internet and consumer behavior continue to morph at a high rate of speed. It also shows that filmmakers will have to borrow from the worlds of music, of newspapers, of television, of gaming, of publishing–of any other media form that is trying to reach consumers with video online and offline. There is no area of media that they cannot copy, reshape or be inspired by. This is what defines the new world–a world that constantly blurs the lines between each form of media we experience and through which we gain access to imaginative stories. When the indie film community truly embraces that approach in substantial numbers, than we will see fundamental change that will benefit a large number of filmmakers as well as film audiences. Here is hoping that your work helps accelerate that shift in thinking.

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