itzon – a new film platform. It’s film, but different.

I got a press release last week announcing a new platform for indie film that I thought you all would like to know about, and it's FREE. The press release is below. Let me know what you think about this new platform for indie film.

www.itzon.tv brings a huge variety of independent film to a global audience. You won’t see these fantastic films in your local multiplex cinema, they are the best of up and coming indie filmmaking talent streamed straight to your computer or Internet-ready TV. Film lovers all over the world can dive straight into itzon.tv to see what’s playing now on the linear stream, browse the programme guide and magazine, use the Video on Demand (VoD) service and vote on the films they love.

And the best bit? It’s FREE!

itzon is changing the face of independent film online by converging TV, Internet video and film festival with the latest in cloud and streaming technologies. The online platform provides film lovers with a huge range of independent films, documentaries and animations from around the world all scheduled into a linear stream. Providing a full-screen, high-definition ‘TV’ experience, available through an Internet browser or Internet-ready TV. The itzon team has listened to film lovers and done away with the need to sign up or log-in to watch the films they show, just go to www.itzon.tv and watch straightaway.

In addition to the free-to-view linear stream, itzon offers viewers:

Access to amazing films that won’t come to your local cinema.

Ease of use. There’s no need to download any special software to watch itzon, in fact you don’t even need to open an account. Viewers can just arrive and start watching great films straightaway.

Films that are categorised by type and genre with introductions that make it easy for viewers to decide what they’d like to watch without searching through an endless library of content.

Next-to-no buffering or stalling when you watch films on itzon (they have clever auto adaptive bandwidth detection!).

itzonDemand, a 30-day VoD catch-up service. Viewers can either watch films from the library for free with advert breaks, or purchase credit and watch the films advert-free.

Credit viewing as opposed to paying for a film upfront. Credit is used per minute which means viewers have the freedom to watch what they want, when they want, without having to pay upfront for a film to watch in a certain timeframe. If a viewer decides after a few minutes that the film is not for them, it will cost less than a penny/cent.

The chance to vote on the films they love to create winners in the monthly itzon film festival.

itzon is for people who love to be at the start of something new. Whether that means itzon itself, a great new series, a hot new director or discovering and promoting a film that everybody should see. itzon is for the independent film fanatic, the mainstream film and TV lovers and the tech-savvy early adopters who are simply looking for something a little bit different. Currently in Beta testing, itzon is preparing to launch 18th May. It’s film, but it’s different; it’s itzon.

www.itzon.tv | facebook.com/itzon.tv | twitter.com/itzontv

Guest Post by Jon Fougner: Cinema Profitability Part 2

Today's guest post is Part 2 of Jon Fougner's guest series on Cinema Profitablility - today he focuses on the products that cinemas offer: 
Products 

 Cinemas' suppliers have leveraged the proliferation of alternative retailers for their products: DVD, cable, VOD, Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, and more. Cinemas, meanwhile, have barely experimented with sourcing alternative product. The result is an oligopoly5 (the studios) selling to a captive market (the cinemas), a game theoretical nightmare for the buyers, even if they are an oligopoly of their own. That translates to a 55% revenue share back to the studios on tickets. (The other half of gross profit comes from food, sold at an 85% gross margin.) And the theaters know it could get worse, as more films go day-and-date or nearly so.



The good news is that the pending deployment of digital projection will reduce the fixed cost of showing a given product on a given screen to nearly zero. Without having to recoup the cost of manufacturing and shipping a physical print, it's economically feasible to experiment with niche content that you might exhibit only a few times. Translation: the cinemas can throw scores of more tests against the wall, and arrive at an equilibrium with a greater diversity of content.

Many industry watchers would not have predicted that the digital broadcasting of the Met would have done so well. Let's try other marquee fine arts (Broadway plays and musicals, ballets, etc.), live sports (Olympics, pro sports, NCAA, etc.), prime-time network TV, other films (classics, independents, etc.), even university lectures. My personal favorite: content with built-in intermissions, so patrons go to concessions during the breaks. Since these productions' cost structures are already supported by existing revenue streams, and the marginal cost of adding cinema distribution is low, their producers' negotiating leverage should be low.

Although channel-partnering with cinemas is an obvious win for the Met, since the geographical constraints of its audience means it doesn't have to fear cannibalization, TV execs might hesitate longer. However, it becomes a no-brainer for even them if the cinemas are willing to show their ads -- which makes more sense than relying on National Cinemedia, since the TV ad market enjoys so much more liquidity. Many of these alternative content trials will fail. For instance, competing with sports bars without selling alcohol may be a tough sell. That's fine. Only keep the winners.



A skeptic might ask: isn't there a big opportunity cost of borrowing a screen from first-run films to test these alternatives? The Big 3's screens gross only $44 - $57 / hour (including concessions), or about $100 / hour if you count only noon to midnight. At $7.50 ticket revenue plus $3.50 food revenue per patron, that's an average of just 20 butts in seats during operating hours (estimating that screenings average two hours apiece). At a wild guess of 200 seats / screen, about 90% of inventory is wasted. During daytime and weekdays, wastage is obviously highest, so these periods are ripest for experimentation. In order to maximize combined profits of the content producers and exhibitors, I suspect that it's optimal to lower ticket prices for some of this alternative content, since the concessions gross margins are so lucrative. (To do that mental exercise, pretend you are CEO of a holdco that owns both the content developers and the exhibitors, so the content rev share is a wash to your bottom line.) The trouble is, to get to that Pareto-efficient outcome, I bet that the content owners would turn the conversation to revenue-sharing the concessions, which I imagine would make the exhibitors' heads explode. Rev sharing the concessions is unnecessary to make this work, since there's so much admissions gross profit being left on the table.



I hope but am led to doubt that each of the Big 3 has built a detailed, quantitative model projecting the total revenue stream of each picture it evaluates for rent. Back in 2006, Malcolm Gladwell was enamored of the team at Epagogix working on this problem. More recently, on the production side, Ryan Kavanaugh has become one of Hollywood's fastest rising moguls, in large part through his number crunching acumen. (Now even amateur B.O. modelers can put their money where their mouth is, via the "Hollywood Stock Exchange".) The models are often set up as complex regressions whose right-hand side variables include genre, format, release date, actors, directors, studio marketing budgets, and so on. One risk with such models is that they be over-fit, due to the large number of RHS variables and wealth of historical data. Their analytical approach is typically not experimental, since they don't have the levers to run the experiments.

Averaging 5,000 screens across 400 cinemas, each Big 3 chain has the luxury of being able to run controlled experiments. For instance, suppose Regal is evaluating two prospective titles, Picture A and Picture B, each of which it projects to gross $20k per screen over its run of April 1 to May 1. It could randomly assign each of its theaters to bid on either A or B, and then look for statistically significant differences in the total revenues of Picture A and Picture B theaters. Besides direct revenue from A and B ticket sales, such an approach would capture indirect effects, such as cannibalization, sell-out spillover, and concessions. (Once most transactions are tied to a specific customer (see below), it will be possible to directly measure such effects: e.g., hypothetically, each "Transformers 3" ticket might generate 1.5x the concessions sales of a "White Ribbon" ticket.) The same experimental design could also be applied to other proposed products, such as new concessions.



So there's a science here, but there's also an art -- just ask Tim League. His Alamo Drafthouse chain in and around Austin, TX is one of the highest revenue-per-seat cinemas in the United States. Tim has built loyal communities around his theaters, which are the social anchors of their neighborhoods. Revelers pack the house for singalongs, "quote-alongs", film festivals and more. And they gorge on good food and alcohol. Does it help to be in a college town that's an anchor of the independent film movement? Of course. Is Tim's the most profitable theater, per screen, in the country? Maybe not -- his costs are high, too. But I'm told that Tim is getting offers to franchise around the country. And if I were one of the Big 3, I'd sweat that.



Assigned seats. Real food. Alcohol. Ticket stub ad inventory for local restaurants' coupons. Video game tournaments. Subscription products ("Monday Night Comedies", etc.). Demographic-targeted titles that follow the Netflix rental maps. Ancillary revenue streams akin to how Live Nation makes its gross margin: "VIP" access and film-specific merchandise and media (not necessarily fulfilled on-site). We've seen small pilots of some of these. AMC has even promised its lenders some innovations. Which of these products can be meaningfully accretive to margins at scale? We'll never know, at least not until one of the Big 3 conducts a good ol' fashioned experiment.

Notes: 5 I say "oligopoly" in the game theoretical, as opposed to legal, sense.


END OF PART Two Tomorrow: Channels

-- Jon Fougner

Jon leads local product marketing and monetization at Facebook, working with the advertising engineers and product managers to build products for local businesses, ranging from restaurants to movie theaters.

Guest Post: Orly Ravid: Subtitles in Digital America Part 2

With today's guest post, Orly Ravid of The Film Collaborative looks at digital distribution opportunities for foreign film here in the USA.

Recently I was invited to be on a panel at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) and participate in their mentoring sessions and the lab at Cinemart. Great experience. I am always amazed by the difference between the US and Europe. The whole government funding of films and new media initiatives as our government is about to shut down. Well, their policies and practices do take their own financial toll too but one I think is worth it. For all my europhileness I have to note that the Europeans can be just as guilty of not wanting to watch subtitles in fact some countries dub films instead. And of course we know that Hollywood is big business in Europe too. But all in all, art house cinema seems to reach more broadly in Europe and even some parts of Asia than it does in the US. Films in Cannes and other top fests can sell all over Europe and never in the US or success in opening theatrically only in NY and maybe LA and overall it seems to me box office is generally down for foreign language cinema.

International filmmakers want US distribution and it was painful for me to discuss their prospects at IFFR because for so many, the prospects are slim. But this one’s for you! (Please note this blog is focused on digital distribution and not healthy categories for foreign language cinema such as Non Theatrical including Museums, Films Festival, Colleges, Educational / Institutional).

Cable VOD was 80% of the digital revenue in the US in 2009 but it’s now declining little by little, now estimated to be in the high 70’s (approx 77%) and may decline further still. The reason for this change, which is expected to continue, is that Internet based platforms are growing.

Regarding FOREIGN LANGUAGE ON CABLE VOD: Distributors and aggregators agree that foreign language cinema is very hard to get onto Cable VOD platforms and slots for non-English cinema are reserved generally for marquee driven films and/or films with a real hook (name cast/director, highly acclaimed, genre hook). A big independent Cable VOD aggregator notes a real struggle in getting foreign language films to perform on Cable VOD and even Bollywood titles that had wide theatrical distribution and a box office of upwards of $1,000,000 still perform poorly (poorly means 4-figure revenue, 5-figure tops). They have had some success with foreign martial arts films and will continue with those in the foreseeable future.

Time Warner Cable (TWC) remains more open to foreign language cinema though it plays the fewest films, a range between 190 – 246 at any given time (with a shelf life usually of 60 days and with 2/3rd of the content seeming to be bigger studio product, and the rest indie). By comparison Charter and AT&T play about 1,000 and Verizon plays 2,000, and Comcast plays about 4,000. [See below for the 2010 breakdown of Cable subscription numbers.] Hence, individual titles may perform better on Time Warner Cable for obvious reasons, Comcast may have more subscribers but there’s less competition and TWC is in New York, the best demographic for art house cinema.

Generally speaking, platforms overall are far more receptive to foreign films following the recent success of DRAGON TATTOO, TELL NO ONE, IP MAN, etc. than they have ever been before. However as one can see from the titles noted, foreign genre films are preferred because they have the opportunity to reach broader audiences than the usual foreign film. Genres that reportedly work include: sci-fi, thriller/crime, action, and sophisticated horror. Dramas have had limited success, and comedies often don't translate, nor does most children's content.

In regard to Cable VOD - foreign box office is becoming an important proxy, because the marketing and pr tend to build US awareness on the larger titles prior to being available here. Many companies have built very successful VOD businesses pursuing a day and date theatrical or DVD strategy. Again, genre films work best, with horror and sci fi being the top performers. 3 of the top 10 non-studio titles in 2010 were foreign language subtitled releases. Small art house distributors say that at most it’s a small dependable revenue stream via services such as INDEMAND http://www.indemand.com (iN DEMAND’s owners are and it services Comcast iN DEMAND Holdings, Inc., Cox Communications Holdings, Inc., and Time Warner Entertainment - Advance/Newhouse Partnership.) Distributors and aggregators all site Time Warner as being far more open to foreign language cinema than Comcast, because it’s urban focused (NY, LA, etc) not heartland focused as Comcast is.

In terms of these titles finding their audiences on Cable VOD, Comcast announced improved search functionality by being able to search by title and Cable VOD is aware of its deficiencies and is said to be improving in terms of marketing to consumers but Cable VOD is still infamous for its lack of recommendation engines and discovery tools. Key aggregators work to have films profiled in several categories and not just the A-Z listing.

Orly Ravid has worked in film acquisitions / sales / direct distribution and festival programming for the last twelve years since moving to Los Angeles from home town Manhattan. In January 2010, Orly founded The Film Collaborative (TFC), the first non-profit devoted to film distribution of independent cinema. Orly runs TFC w/ her business partner, co-exec director Jeffrey Winter.

Another Great Poster

If you have been reading the TFF post on the sale of Septien, you know that IFC bought it for Sundance Selects.  What you may not know is that it is up on VOD now but it's only on the market until February 24th, though it will be VOD-able later in the year once it gets a theatrical release and has a (hopefully) healthy spring/summer festival run.

Co-Production Studies: Strategic Partners Forum

Guest post by Yael Bergman A few days at Strategic Partners, Halifax, Canada and a crash course at International Co-Production Financing.

I saw Ted in Toronto a few days before heading to Strategic Partners in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He suggested I write on his blog with what went on there. I am reporting back now...

I write this as an Australian producer who recently produced a romantic comedy in Australia called I Love You Too.  It was completely financed within Australia, largely with Australian and state government investment, and the tax rebate (up to 40 per cent of Australian spend). We are fortunate in Australia to have this public funding as a resource, and whilst it is perpetually competitive, it is the way most film and television is made in Australia. It sustains the industry and ensures we continue to tell Australian stories.

My producing partner, Laura Waters, who is originally from Colorado but has lived in Australia for almost 20 years, regularly comments that she can't believe governments actually give you money to develop and make stuff here. Well, it's true!

To some independent American producers, this must sound like the gold pot at the end of the rainbow, but the reality is it's a limited pool and the funding bodies (and consequently, the producers) are always trying to work out a way to make it stretch further.

One good way is via co-producing, i.e. we split the cost of making a project over two or more countries that has a vested interest, and then we can each claim it as our own as a “national film”. Arguably, the project should be culturally relevant to each producing country and there needs to be a fair split between creative elements and financial contribution, but on the whole, with a bit of juggling, it can work very well if the project calls for it.  (NB: This applies for international producers entering into an official co-production with Australia, the project becomes automatically entitled to the Producer Offset rebate as an Australian project, up to 40% of Australian spend.)

Australia has official co-production treaties or Memorandums Of Understanding (MOU) with countries such as Canada, China, Singapore, Israel, NZ, UK and most European countries. Canada has treaties with more than 50. Unfortunately for the American independent producer community, no official treaties exist with the US. If you are an American independent producer and "that sucks" has just crossed your mind, be aware that its not all upside - dealing with bureaucracies to make films is often slow and time-consuming, which is time and energy that could otherwise go into the creative process… but nonetheless, we are absolutely grateful it exists.

The state of play is, however, changing. As the marketplace gets tighter and more competitive, there is a general appreciation, certainly within Australia anyhow, that we need to open up to wider markets, including the US. We just need to be creative in how we do it.

So, it was with much curiosity that I noticed the organizers of Strategic Partners, the international co-production market in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, from Sept 16-19 (which I attended thanks to support from my local state funding body, Film Victoria…) decided to spotlight the USA, as well as Germany, as potential co-production partners. Despite having no official treaty, is there a way international producers can partner up with US producers? Apparently yes. While the spirit of traditional co-productions is to align the interests of international producers whose domestic markets are too small to compete with the US in the global marketplace, it appears that unofficial alliances between US and other countries, are becoming more accepted, especially via co-development and co-financing. (Note: in Australia, Screen Australia has launched a development program where they will match development funds up to $50,000 with funds from a third party with marketplace credibility i.e. financier, sales agents, distributors, broadcaster, etc. who can be from any country).

So within this context, over 3 and a half days at Strategic Partners in Halifax, 180 international producers, financiers, distributors, TV executives, sales agents, and representatives from national and state Canadian funding agencies were matched in 30 minute meeting blocks at tiny tables in a large hotel ballroom to talk about projects, possible collaborations, exchange information and hopefully find some common ground. These sessions were interspersed with inspiring guest speakers who generously shared their war stories and views on the current state of play. Christine Vachon spoke about the challenges of working with first time filmmakers in this risk averse environment, the downward pressure on budgets, and the opportunities opening up within the digital age, but her overarching message was that its always been tough and we keep getting used to the changes, so we just need to keep producing creatively (Christine is now producing a TV series for the first time for HBO with Todd Haynes directing, based on the original book of Mildred Pierce.)

Other keynote speakers included Toronto-based producer Laszlo Barna (whose company Barna-Alper Productions was acquired by E1 Entertainment in 2008) who was big on the message that Canada’s potential as a co-production partner is still underexploited.

Another Canadian producer and EP, co-production treaty expert and former law professor, Martin Katz, also shared his experiences, and among his many anecdotes, he shared how financing on Hotel Rwanda came together just days before cameras rolled with the last piece from Italy conditional upon casting at least one Italian role, so the writers wrote in an Italian Priest. Katz admitted they chose not to finance Hotel Rwanda as an official Canadian co-production because European casting rules are more flexible than Canadian.

There was a session on how to wrangle money from private investors. Essentially, the panelists concluded that money is still around and wealthy investors who have been waiting out the GFC, are poised to come back in given the right sort of project compatible with their philosophical and/or risk profiles. One panelist remarked investors like to feel good about projects they invest in, so it isn’t always about a financial return. There was also talk about how to creatively finance today by breaking down the rights, and assigning values to rights such as digital, soundtrack and itunes rights which traditionally haven’t offered much value.

Continuing the idea of rights, there was a fascinating session tightly facilitated by Janet Brown of Cinetic Rights Management on the current state of digital revenue, especially cable and broadband VOD, game outlets such as X-Box, Wii and Playstation, and mobile rights. Whilst this space is becoming increasingly significant as a potential content revenue stream, and the major companies are aggressively entering it, the golden goose example of how everybody will benefit over the traditional model is still elusive.  When it finally happens, and it is close, the landscape is destined to change…

By the end of the few days at SP, I felt as though my own personal landscape had changed in view of financing, producing and collaborating on film and television projects with global partners.  It’s a big world and partnering can open up creative choices. Can co-producing help us tell bigger stories to more people?

Of course, there are a million questions some of which are technical, and many of which are creative,

(…is there a place for local stories in global partnerships? How do we make sure bureaucratic box ticking doesn’t get in the way of creative decisions?) but like all aspects of producing, naturally it comes down to whatever works best for the project.

Personally, I love the idea of potentially reaching bigger audiences by working with talented storytellers from around the world with something in common to say. It seems, today at least, that it has never been easier to do it.

Yael Bergman has been working with Melbourne-based production company Princess Pictures ("Summer Heights High", "We Can Be Heroes", romantic comedy "I Love You Too"), developing and producing projects for film and television since 2004. She also co-wrote and co-produced the low budget feature film "Love and Other Catastrophes" which sold to Fox Searchlight.

"Reaching The Impossible" Indie Prod Battle Diary: MADE IN CHINA

Today's guest post is from the star of 2009 SXSW Grand Jury Prize Winning film MADE IN CHINA, Jackson Kuehn.  I had the good fortune of being on the jury (with Scott Foundas and Anne Thompson) that year and was delighted how ambitious, inventive, funny and moving the film was.  As great all of those qualities were, the film also was centered by Jackson's comic and committed star turn.  Jackson and Judi (Krant -- the director) are both the real deal.  I will make a point of watching whatever they do.  And lucky for you: MADE IN CHINA is now up on IFC VOD.  If you love Indie Film, if you believe in ambitious film, if you want a diverse & unique film culture, if you want some good laughs, or just want to see how much can be created with very limited means, PLEASE make sure to watch MADE IN CHINA this month (and tell all your friends likewise). ‘One Hundred Year Old Egg’

by Jackson Kuehn

I was suffering from gastric pain, malnutrition, hot weather conditions, incoherence of thought, so three Lomotil pills later, I decided to stand up for myself and address the situation to Judi Krant during the casting process of our beloved Dorothy.  I let Judi know that agitation had gotten the better of me and I felt that at any moment I was going to die in Shanghai, China; commonly known as the Paris of the East.  At that precise moment, Judi’s highly concentrated eyes shifted my way like a famished, bloodthirsty wolf who had one last shot to feed her babies and to get it through my head that she’s the leader of the pack.  She said, “Jackson, now is the time to fight through it all.  I don’t want to hear any more excuses.  You need to toughen up now.”  I nodded my head and agreed.  Then she said, “For the next three weeks, you’ll be sharing the queen sized bed with Mr. James Choi.”  I replied, “But I need personal time to recover from all of our feverish activity!  I need plenty of time to listen to Mozart and time to take my bubble bathes!” Once again, she stared at me very similarly to a king cobra about to strike a blind burrowing rodent.  The consciousness of one’s own dignity was at stake, so I concurred.

It was time to make our movie ‘Made in China’- indie style.

With exceptionally clever Judi at the helm and a crew comprised of New Yorkers, Austinites, Californians, English, Swedes, Africans, Koreans and Chinese (all posing as an Italian Documentary Crew I might add) I knew that shooting under the radar from Chinese Authorities was risky.  However, tension mostly resulted from adverse, out of the box ideas, but that’s where natural aptitude is born.  No one was going to deny Judi’s astute, artistic temperament and shooting in Shanghai was a must, not camera-friendly Hong Kong.  Most days hit record highs of 100 degrees, accompanied by heavy rain in the evening.  The humidity was unbearable, even the camera broke out in a sweat.  Up at 5am, home by 1:30am.  Day after day.  I just finished shooting possibly one of the most pivotal scenes for the movie, a scene that captivated the intrinsic nature of the characters soul, a scene so powerful that Daniel Day Lewis and Charlie Chaplin would have been proud.  A couple of minutes later, the scene disappeared from the camera. Due to lack of sleep and ten, fifteen hour long days in a row, I remember throwing up in the train station before we boarded our train to the ancient water city. With all of my doubts and second-guessing, was I suffering the consequences of indie filmmaking?  Nevertheless, I was in Shanghai to examine the mind of a young novelty enthusiast, explore his fundamental core.  All of us were on a mission to prove our unbending indie principles and strong diet of independent filmmaking.

The days unfolded quickly and the 15-day shoot came to a halt. After we wrapped production, I remember sitting in the back of a taxi purposefully staring at neon lights and wondering about how much we all love independent film stories that proceed from genuine feelings.  My eyes welled up because I knew that this was my fate and kept thinking a sense of pride in oneself will only survive through self-sacrifice and widespread respect for others in the indie world.  The universal ‘indie-spirit’ theme we all shared was built upon trust and warm approval of each other’s actions, desires to explore human behavior and to seek the powers of our own imaginations.

The journey back to Los Angeles started.  After all the trials and tribulations in Shanghai, I found myself in the City of Angels directionless and in a consistent state of feeling bored.  I missed the culture, literature, the performing arts, food, the artistic awareness, the good times, the bad times and most importantly the warmth of the Chinese people.  What an ungratifying life not being apart of something you truly feel free doing.  A week passed by and my phone rang, it was Mr. James Choi or Judi, I couldn’t remember.  “Ni hao”, I said.   They replied, “Pack your bags, your going back to Shanghai.”

“Reshoots”.

Made in China is now available on VOD through IFC Films. Check your local listings at: http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/made-in-china

Jackson Kuehn was born in Austin, Texas but was raised all across the U.S. from California to New York. He attended New York University Tisch School of Arts and MADE IN CHINA is his first feature as a leading man. Jackson currently resides in Hollywood.

More Thoughts On The New Film Festival Model

"Blood Simple" was the first film I bought a ticket for at a film festival.  It was screening at the NYFF and I soon came to recognize that the films accepted to that fest were of a exceedingly high quality.  The curatorial taste behind that festival choices was something I had confidence in.  They gained my trust precisely because they have never tried to be all things for all people, and for that I have always been willing to pay a premium for. The NYFF was, and is, a trusted filter. Too many festivals these days program too many films without revealing, or reveling in, their curatorial hands, diminishing the power of their brand in the process.  If festivals are going to become the new curators, that will have to change.  Festivals must emphasize their unique taste, if not overall, then within sidebars at the festival.

One of the reasons festivals once mattered so much to indie filmmakers was that acceptance in them was a virtual badge of quality for the filmmakers to display.  As festivals proliferated and premieres became a matter of policy, the filter aspect of festivals vanished.  Festivals seemed to open up the gates to anyone and anything.  Where's Waldo?  How do you spot the curatorial hand in swarm of over 100.  The question then becomes how do festivals regain that curatorial stamp?

A return to less could be more.  If less films were selected, it would mean more for the filmmaker, in terms of prestige and discovery.  More for the audience, in terms of a filter and confidence.  A common complaint heard in industry circles is that films "get lost" at such and such festival.  I have always liked the idea of a festival within the festival, curators within the larger curation.

Another benefit of smaller selections could be that more festivals could develop distinctive flavors making them more of a required stop by the cineaste (particularly if they also transcended their geographic boundaries).  Festivals need, just like movies, to sell their individuality.  I was excited to stumble upon Saskia Wilson-Brown's post (at the indispensable Workbook Project) on the relevance of small festivals today (it is a good post and well worth your time).  She articulates what festivals provide quite well:

Empowering a community and its artists through coherent promotion; leveraging the festival name to garner publicity and opportunity for its participants; facilitating radness in general– Art for art’s sake, as it were. The efforts of the core team, then, were mostly spent on promoting and advocating for micro-communities through programming decisions, and fostering creativity and creative collaboration in our neighborhood and beyond.

Acceptance to a festival used to always mean a review by a major critic at a major publication because their was a major critic at every major newspaper. That itself was worth whatever other risk the festival brought with it (because they do bring risks). With the dismissal of the film critics from the US newspapers, there are a few such critics left -- and there is no way that they can cover all the films at all the major festivals.  Movies get lost at festivals with a wide swath.  Sure, the blogsphere's picked up a lot of the slack, but those reviews are hard to garner the same interest or generate the same want-to-see from audiences.  How can web reviews be used to generate more interest?  Can the different review sites team up and time review releases simultaneously or even post to a common site so that more traction can be generated with audiences?  Where are the new ideas that can make festivals once again a value-added proposition?  Festivals should be transparent with filmmakers upon acceptance as to how they will help market the movie to the festival's community (and beyond).

If the VOD model is going to work in these days of never-ending supply and availability, reviews are more than necessary.  They need and are needed to get traction and facilitate action.  Review aggregators should drive traffic to the VOD platform.  We need widgets that link these two services seamlessly.  Shouldn't we have all this stuff integrated by now?  But alas, we don't.  So what can we do in the interim, in this in-between-days sort of time?

In considering the joining of film festivals with a VOD extension, it is hard not to see the logic of the relationship.  Festivals offer the overwhelmed consumer a filter -- the curatorial service.   Festivals serve to generate the reviews that films need so much.  If festivals can leverage their brand and marketing muscle to heighten awareness for the individual films, maybe a film has a chance of popping out of the crowded herd at the end of the dial.  If a festival can help a filmmaker understand how to make the most of this opportunity, more power to them both.

But if the films that are offered by a festival on VOD don't arrive with that flavor and spice, the rhyme and reason of why they are in a festival in the first place, will anyone really pay attention, particularly after the novelty has worn off?  Doesn't it precisely require more than just the brand of a festival but also the highly selective curation that festivals once promised?  The potential of festivals to provide the allure of a red velvet rope and shining spot lights is there.  Will we get to see what it looks like?  It is going to need to be a lot more than public twitter boards.  If the festival can not really add a lot of value in the marketing and positioning of their specific selections, aren't they taking advantage of the films they invite?

Festivals have always been a great place for the cineaste -- and not just because we get to see good movies.  The important part of festivals has always been the conversation.  What we expect from quality content is an even better social experience around it. Online users only spend 30% of their time looking at content; the rest is search and social -- discovery & discussion.  For film festivals to successfully evolve into a cross-platform non-geographicly specific discovery tool, they have to offer not just the added value of promotion, but heightened level of conversation & appreciation.

I know festivals can provide a lot more than currently do.  Particularly with a little help from their friends.  There's a lot of good thought going on about this, but when you see that filmmakers are questioning the very value of a film festival attendance, we can all discern that festivals are not offering enough value for the films that participate in them.  The answer is to offer more.

I have written about the need to utilize something like Festival Genius.  I think expanding the festival beyond it's geographic confines is similarly key.  A clear and understandable hand in the curating should be a given.  Guided and memorable conversation that transfers leisure time into intellectual capital and social capital is of the essence.  What more do you want?

Update Tuesday 4/20:  There's a lot of good conversation on what ideal festivals would look like.  Thom Powers recently held a breakfast discussing what a new Doc Fest in NYC would look like.  Brian Newman contribute a thoughtful post encouraging community, embrace of new tools, a focus on conversations over panels, a de-emphasis on formats, an abandonment of the demand for premieres, and a true collaboration with filmmakers by sharing data, audiences, and the opportunity to sell.  And yes, to pay filmmakers.

Festivals are going to change for both audiences and filmmakers. It is going to be exciting to see who really takes the lead.

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?

Sundance Observation

To me, the filmmaking community (the artists, the business folk, the curators & promoters, the appreciators & fans) have to embrace that we are in a seismic shift to an artist-centric collaboration with the audience and away from the corporate controlled supply & attention. This requires a redefinition of cinema by its creators to embrace the discovery, engagement, presentation, promotion, & appreciation processes as much as we do development & production. We have to erase the lines between between art & commerce and content & marketing. We have to stop thinking of films as singular objects and refocus on how they are bridges for the ongoing conversation we have with audiences. Specifics like VOD numbers are important, but we miss the point if we don't look first at the big picture.


Hope For The Future pt. 6: The List #'s 22- 25

22. Financiers are collaborating with each other. Groups like Impact Partners that provide regular deal flow, vetting, and producerial oversight for investors with common interests lowers the threshold number for investors interested in entering the film business. IndieVest is another model based on subscription, deal flow, and perqs. The high amount of capital needed to enter the film business has limited its participants. The film business has its own vernacular, and mysterious business practices. It is an industry of relationships. Collaborative ventures like this help to solve many of these threshold issues.

23. The US Government, at the city, state, and federal levels, recognize the positive economic impact of film production and have created a highly competitive market for tax subsidies and credits. The vast amount of experimentation in this field has allowed for it to grow forever more efficient. Although these benefits are designed to attract the highest amount of spend, and are thus most beneficial to Hollywood style models, the steady employment these credits have helped to deliver, develop a crew and talent base more able to also take risks on projects of more limited means. The “soft” money they provide a project is often key to getting the green light.

24. A greater acceptance of a variety of windows in terms of release platforms is emerging. Filmmakers were once the greatest roadblock to a pre-theatrical release DVD. Filmmakers are experimenting with everything from free streaming to the filmic equivalent to a roadshow tour. It is only through such endeavors that we will find a new model that works.

25. Industry leaders have said publicly that they will share the meta-data that a VOD release generates with the filmmakers. Although license fees have dropped considerably, filmmakers have new options on what to ask for in return. I spoke on a panel with two notable industry leaders who said they would put it in their contracts that filmmakers can receive and share the data the VOD screenings of their films generate. This information will become important the more filmmakers seek to maintain direct communication with their audiences.