Thoughts on The New Festival Model

I love that the Tribeca Film Festival has facilitated an immediate VOD launch for some of the films premiering there this year.  This is a key step in freeing festivals from their geographic limitations.  With the collapse of print and the firing of local film critics, festivals have become our most vital curatorial voice.  Whether we like this or not, it is the time we are living in, and it requires festivals to aggregate their audiences and expand their base; that is if they really want to help film culture grow and deepen, which I thought was their mandate (maybe that no longer is what it about; maybe it is now, like everything else, primarily financially motivated). Unfortunately though the VOD experiment as currently structured (or at least as I understand it) is not the distribution or marketing solution for filmmakers that is necessary.  I worry that the lack of prior promotion,non-existant window, and filmmaker-led marketing will lead Tribeca's bold step forward to mirror the popular (and negative) wisdom that came from the Sundance YouTube experiment (i.e. Fail!).  This is totally avoidable.  We already have better answers.

It's great that most of the film industry now accepts a festival launch as the media launch and not the market launch for most films (okay, so-called producers' reps may still have motivations to think otherwise...).  But a media launch does not translate into immediate audience want-to-see.  Without want-to-see failure is a forgone conclusion. We still need to manufacture the desire for our films (and for the culture and world we want too while we are at it!).  It's not like the films with their festival slots were creating lines around the block, selling out shows with rapidity.  We need to harvest word-of-mouth, seed it, and corral it.  And that takes time, labor, promotion.

Festivals and Film Organizations need to launch Marketing & Distribution Labs akin to the Screenwriting & Directing Labs currently endorsed worldwide. Sending filmmakers into the distribution world without proper tools is irresponsible.  Granted filmmakers are not helpless creatures, and most are not ignorant of this necessity these days.  Yet, it is rare that filmmakers arrive at the festival having built a full campaign, armed with engaged and aggregated audiences.  The established players, and most certainly the platforms offering the opportunity, need to offer more support and guidance to their filmmaker constituency (or is that not really their constituency after all...).

If filmmakers are not prepared to exploit the opportunity of VOD or Online Streaming availability of their film, those that offer this opportunity are aiding in the destruction of a new model before it has been given the opportunity to prove itself.  One step forward, two steps back.

It is not as if we are lacking in good films to view.  It is not even as if we are lacking in good films to view instantly.  New films compete against the entire history of filmmaking.  What new films offer that the classic movies don't is the opportunity for an audience to engage with one another in a new and unexpected way all at the same time.  The launch of the conversation is a key component in the launch of a film.  You can't make movies by yourself (okay other than a few folks out there) and you can't start and lead a worldwide conversation by yourself.  Availability on VOD is not a conversation starter.  The big winner in the current model of festival VOD launch will be the content aggregators again.  Yay, right?  Not.

We need to pave the path to make this new model work.  AMPAS currently will deny films award consideration if the films don't first premiere theatrically.  Award consideration has historically been one of the most dramatic and cost effective ways to increase want-to-see; cross that out from your strategy plan.  Or maybe we should organize to get some rules changed...  and organize marketing & distribution labs while we are at it.

It seems to me that a more effective strategy would be to have released a series of transmedia content prior to the festival launch, using that content to create a robust database of engaged fans, tracked geographically.  As the festival approaches, utilize a crowdfunding campaign, not so much to raise $ -- but of course that always helps -- but to further engage the super fans.  In the final weeks leading to the fest, mobilize the audience to demand the film locally via a service like OpenIndie.  All the while feed the hungry with increasingly available updates to a site that offers a wide variety of related products for purchase (audiences do want to support the artists they respect).  With this crowd now identified and engaged, launch a series of regional (and ideally sponsored) screenings following that festival media launch, whereby the audience gets involved to help spread awareness.  And only after all of that, launch the VOD release.

Well, that's my two cents, but I only recently got up, and need my coffee -- and besides, I wasn't charging you for this (not that I do).  You may not agree.  I am sure you have some thoughts of your own and I hope you will share them.  This was all news yesterday.  We shouldn't be so damn slow to respond.  Let's figure out the right way.  I make myself pretty available. I would have liked to discuss this before, but happy to do so after too.  Share your thoughts.  We can make this work if we work together.

P.S.  Since posting this yesterday, there's been a lot of great comments and deep thinking going on.  Please make sure to continue reading below.

ADD 3/5: Tribeca's VOD has grown as an issue over the web.  Filmmaker Magazine and TheHotBlog here.

MIke Fleming addresses the marketing question head on and states:

Gilmore believes the festival's growing momentum creates a high awareness level among specialty film lovers for a dedicated Tribeca VOD channel. That effort will be helped by promotional clout provided by longtime festival sponsor American Express, which signed on to become Founding Partner of Tribeca’s VOD distribution program, as well as a separate online venture that will show short films and broadcast filmmaker panels during the fest's run from April 21-May 2. While it’s not exactly clear yet how much promotional might Amex will bring, one thing is for sure: promotional spends won’t be deducted from the film’s revenues the way traditional P&A costs are.

ADD:  The story is being covered really widely;  the NY Times has joined the fray.  Yet no one seems to be doing any real reporting.  Where's the facts?  How much are they paying for these VOD rights?  What's the filmmaker's split of the revenues? Where's the beef?