Guest Post: Ray Privett: Past, Present, and Future Meet in ZENITH's Multi-Platform Release

Independent filmmakers are always on a search for new ways to get their films seen. Audience building is part of any practical artist's plan. The tools we have available for this improve consistently. Regular readers of this blog probably share my fascination for innovative approaches to distribution, particularly with efforts that put audience first. It's refreshing to see discussions that once were limited to the marriage of form and content to now embrace a three way coupling and add presentation (aka platform) to the mix. Do certain subjects or story-telling methods require unique forms of presentation? Ray Privett considers this in today's guest post.

"I know words no one else knows anymore." - dumb jack in Zenith

Readers of HopeForFilm.com are familiar with VODO and Bittorrent (both the protocol and the company). Gregory Bayne mentioned them in a HopeForFilm post about his release of Person of Interest, and VODO shows up in occasional lists here of filmmaker tools. That said, readers might be curious how bittorrent tools have been useful as part, rather than the entirety, of a release. One such release is Zenith, from my company Cinema Purgatorio.

Zenith is a film by Anonymous - no, not that Anonymous - which we've been releasing in extremely conventional as well as unconventional ways. Since long before the release began, Zenith has had an extensive online transmedia campaign. Then we played twenty-some traditional movie theaters as well as temporary venues, and did a fairly conventional cable VOD and DVD release. iTunes is coming soon. Meanwhile we have released the first chunk online under a creative-commons license, free to download with VODO and Bittorrent. After downloading, supporters help bring forth further chunks of the film, new materials, and limited edition Blu-Rays and masks. For $1000, you can even can meet a character from the film in person.

The VODO release, and the release in general, have been big successes so far. In the first ten days, more than 500,000 free-to-share downloads of Zenith's first 30 minutes led to more than $5000 in audience sponsorship, and notable increases in film-related website pageviews and mailing lists.

Would we like more? Well, of course. However, we've thought of this also as a way to celebrate and share the meta world of the film, increase the general viewer base, and develop ongoing relationships with fans. Hopefully our successes are only just beginning.

Not all projects would benefit from a promoted VODO / Bittorrent release as much as Zenith. Zenith's cyberpunk atmosphere, surplus of internet paraphernalia, and - most importantly - achievement as filmmaking qua filmmaking likely resonate with the bittorrent userbase. Also, Zenith's time-jumping, cliffhanging, idea-heavy substance - think The Da Vinci Code / Blade Runner / The Big Sleep - works well with the serialized, participatory release method that bittorrent and VODO can provide. Contemplative documentaries and slow burn chamber dramas might not function well in this forum; however, disruptive, episodic cliffhangers can. Or, in a different direction, harrowing, up to the minute, war-zone reportage that needs exposure to and funding from strangers might benefit from a modified approach, if they can take the time to develop the infrastructure (which is a big if).

Offline, and in private, some of our esteemed colleagues have criticized Cinema Purgatorio for pursuing a relatively traditional release on such a forward thinking film. I understand their perspective; Vladan Nikolic - who may or may not be "Anonymous" - even was cautious about the "theatrical" and DVD release. However, without those traditional elements, we wouldn't have achieved the same level of press coverage and relatively secure income from traditional sources as we have. We would have depended too much on the technology of the future to achieve a release in the present. That's fine for people who have infinite venture capital behind them, and who are more interested in proof of futuristic concept than in contemporary result. But for a release with more modest resources, and which actually must stand up and run on its own feet, I think this has been the right way to go. Zenith's release has looked both forward and backward, using methods of the past and the future to achieve a unique and successful release in the present.

For me the question is this: As Zenith is a film set in both the present and the future, which is deeply enriched by past science fiction filmmaking and literature, does our multi-platform release resonate with the substance of the film proper better than a purely digital release would have? Vladan Nikolic and the other filmmakers, and everyone in the viewing community, are the most important ones to answer that question. I look forward to ongoing discussion with them as the release continues forward, and I look forward to seeing how other filmmakers - hopefully many of them real independents, other true "Anonymouses" with no connections to big powerful players - use bittorrent-related methods into the future.

-- Ray Privett

Ray Privett is founder of Cinema Purgatorio. He ran New York City's Pioneer Theater and managed Facets Video's Exclusive DVD line when each was at its most successful.

Guest Post: James Fair: The Path To The New Model: Share Our Failures

Yesterday, James Fair guest posted here on "The Path To The New Model: Join The Community". Today he returns with an important recommendation for all us to share not just what works, but what doesn't. We can get beyond the repetitive culture of remakes of yesterday's hits. We can find new stories, new formats, and new ways of working, but it takes the willingness to be both FAIL and SHARE the experience. Perhaps the barrier to a successful ‘revolution’ is our own inability to share our failures. We are always keen to promote our successes to others but we rarely want to admit to the mistakes we’ve made. However, the mistakes are arguably more valuable if we can learn from them. Ideally we should all share our mistakes so that we can all collectively learn from them, but it goes against our conditioning. We don’t want to appear unsuccessful. We don’t want to admit to failure, yet it is a fundamental component of the scientific method. This method emphasises the construction of a hypothesis, and then a process of trial and error testing followed by conclusions from the findings, good or bad. Encouraging mistakes, understanding their causes. This then indicates progress, and a move forward.

Placing an emphasis upon success means that filmmaking gets locked into a process of repeatability – namely ‘hit’ culture – whereby filmmakers are always under pressure to repeat the success of something that went before. There is very little emphasis upon encouraging or understanding failings; there tends to be a rejection of anyone who fails to deliver the success. How do you deliver such success? The easiest way is to use the tried and tested model. And then we get into a situation where we have lots of movie remakes and sequels.

The ‘slow-climb up the hierarchy’ model, or the ‘fantastic short director who then gets discovered’ model result in one shared outcome – a filmmaker who finds themselves making a feature for the first time, with pressure and expectation on their shoulders. There have been very few steps established within industry that actually encourage new filmmakers to experiment with their filmmaking, and stay with them until they establish a ‘voice’. This may be why critics feel that conventional cinema is becoming so homogenous and boring, because the pressure is there to deliver a solid performance from the beginning. Little room for manoeuvre, little room for mistakes.

Digital technology has made amateur experimentation affordable, but it is only when we share the experiences (the good and the bad) that we collectively feel the benefit. It is an Open Source project in search of a new model – Truly Free Film – the same way that Linux is an operating system that benefits from collective contributions. I personally benefitted a great deal from reading posts upon this website when making a feature in 72 hours in Australia last year. In turn I contributed a series of posts about the experiences to complete the loop. These are the ways we can collectively move forward. Sharing the failures is contributing to a cumulative success.

James is a lecturer at in Film Technology at Staffordshire University. His latest feature, The Ballad of Des & Mo, was shot and edited in 72 hours at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2010 and was in the Audience Top Ten. The film screens this weekend (Saturday 12th Feb) alongside the Berlinale Film Festival – people interested in going along can register here or email james@hellocamera.ie