Can We Create The Future Of Indie Marketing & Distribution -- Or Is It Already Dead?

We speak of the need to utilize PMDs (aka Producers of Marketing & Distribution) on Indie/TFF movies these days, but how do these people get trained (not to mention, paid for)? Where do they learn their skill sets? Two or three years into this DIY Indie Movement of sorts, can you name more than three or four people (at best) who do this? Isn't this the missing piece? How come we all aren't doing more to train these folks?

Two or so years ago, Jon Reiss and I developed a pretty extensive proposal for a Marketing/Distribution Lab. Our goal was to make it long term, six months to a year, with films in all different stages participating. We brought it to most of the indie film support organizations, and got a great response. Tribeca, Sundance, IFP, and FIND all said yes. Well they said "yes, but...". Financing it, maintaining it, and in one instance, monetizing it, were unsolvable issues too big for each for them to truly take on. IFP committed to bringing Jon in to speak to their lab participants, so not all was for naught, but the problem remains. Everyone recognizes it. Where will the people who can do the M&D work well come from?

On the agency level, I hear the problem amplified. Their clients, filmmakers, can make excellent movies at a very low out-of-pocket price point, but how can the movies get out and find audiences. Creators who have any regular work can not usually make the commitment to push their work out to audiences, let alone build vibrant communities. And often the agencies don't want them to, as it is perceived to "devalue" the clients if they go the DIY route. They need to find reputable and ideally prestigious entities to take on the film, and hopefully not in a manner that takes the rights forever and has little hope of upside.

Sundance has made great strides under new Executive Director Keri Putnam to not only recognize that most independent film won't find a traditional corporately-backed distribution home, but also most shouldn't even opt for that. Sundance's Artist Services is the first real step The Industry has taken to help build a true Artist/Entrepreneur class. Through this lens we can see a real creator middle class being born, not dependent on building their work to appeal to the widest audience, not self-censoring from the start, but recognizing that every option is theirs, if they are willing to take responsibility for their work.

But their lies the rub: are artists willing to take responsibility for their work yet? Is it even what is best for them? Twenty years in to being led to believe that great work will always not just find an audience, but also make money for all concerned courtesy of the golden hand of distribution entities, can we even glimpse what an alternative approach may bring?

I encounter the problem with myself. I know what I need to do to truly prep a film, but have a hard time allocating the labor and expense to it. I can imagine a better life where I distributed the majority of my films. Yet, how do I shift my priorities when I feel that my top skill set is in the development and production of feature length movies? Really, what I would like to do is supervise talented up & comers on the marketing and distribution of my films -- but I can't trust my work to total newbies. And I don't see a supply of PMDs coming out or up the pipeline and ladder.

Is it enough to hope that the producers that are pushed into or opt for the DIY or Hybrid approach are the ones who will build those skills and turn to that type of producing, if they enjoy it and are successful -- much the same as other producers focus on financing or packaging or development or physical production? Can we rely on partnerships developing between those who focus on it and those who focus elsewhere in producing pipeline? One can hope that this develops, but if I had to wager a guess, at the very least it is a ten year wait for such a natural progress, and that is ten years of not only good movies not being seen, but the entire chain of distancing from audiences and communities that will be indie's ruin.

In the studio world, there are producers more focused on marketing and distro than any other part of the process, and they are very successful at it. But Indie Film is a different calling, and a far different reward structure. Those of us in it, have chosen it fully because of the content, and are not compensated well for that choice. Fees for indie producing consistently have dropped over the last five years, requiring working producers to take on more jobs and commit less time in the process. The focus on marketing is something those in the indie world simply cannot afford to do.

So what is to be done? I could be wrong, but I think pure economics prevents a PMD sector from developing naturally in the indie world. Intervention is required. Starting out, I recognized I wanted to be a "creative" producer, but could not get a job remotely in that area for the longest period. Production skills were what was valued in NYC -- and still are. I was fortunate enough to have paying script reading work (in addition to my production stuff) that exposed me to some of the process and players -- but that wasn't enough to earn a living on. To get development work I had to first save my money, and then sell myself cheap in the dead production months to producers who were happy to find there was someone willing to be exploited. I eagerly agreed, but it was the only way open.

The newbie producers coming out of film school understandably look to make movies, and the desire to make the next one is never as strong as when you have just wrapped the prior -- you can feel your skill set at it's peak power and it wants to play in a new field.

We've known we need new blood in the distro field for decades, but as the previous crew won't (and some shouldn't) yield their seats at the table, there has never been much incentive for folks to try to step in that direction. The new generation has taken over international sales, but there is no equivalent in domestic distribution. Glen Basner who runs Film Nation, one of the true leaders in international sales. He was my assistant and for the longest time resisted the move into sales -- despite everyone at the company recognizing it was his calling. He was drawn to the lure of creative producing. Now he gets more movies made than most producers combined, and earns a far better living too, but it wasn't something that happened over night. He was fortunate to have great mentors in the sale business and a corporate structure that allowed for it. I can think of several others in his field that have a similar story. To foster similar innovation, growth, and success to that of the international sales arena that Glen and his compatriots have delivered, we need a structure in the marketing and distro world that can actual facilitate it.

We simply don't have the time to hope that a natural process of film by film growth will yield the new breed that we desperately need. I don't think it can be done without incentivizing producers to venture in that direction. They need to know that they will not only be expanding their skill set but also gaining prestige, connections, and opportunity. It won't just come naturally. People show their best when you can give them a path that promises the best view. They need a lab and other incentives. Where will the funding and leadership come? Can we get them to act before it is too late? Will the community recognize this as a real need and act to make it a reality?