The Rise Of Theatrical-On-Demand: What's Working

By Scott Glosserman

A year ago I was having breakfast with Ted Hope, but I didn't know it.

Attending Sundance's Art House Convergence Conference in Midway, Utah, (a coming together think tank of progressive art houses and independent theatres), I found myself sitting at a communal breakfast table, conversing with Ben Galewsky, a co-op expert who was applying his preferred model to a small theatre in Champaign, Illinois.

The collective mood at the conference was cautious and guarded. Theatre owners commiserated over Fox Searchlight's recent letter vowing to end shipments of 35mm prints, essentially requiring indie houses to retrofit for digital projection or to get used to solely showing repertory titles. Yet, sales reps for VPF's (Virtual Print Fees) weren't revealing their deal structures. Indie exhibs were looking for answers, but little at the time were understood, much less given.

Ben surmised that capital could be raised for retrofitting theatres by converting to a co-op model and thereby turning to the community for assistance where participating banks were not to be found. Since over $100 million in independent film financing has already been crowdfunded through Kickstarter I am hopeful that Ben's endeavor to crowdfund for indie exhibitors has also met with success and I am eager to find out during this year's Art House Convergence that begins today.

Over our breakfast buffets, I explained to Ben the meaning behind a term we’d recently trademarked, Theatrical On Demand style distribution. I was hopeful that my start-up, Gathr, could apply crowdfunding concepts to the crowd-sourcing of critical masses of theatrical audiences, through our online platform. Simply, a movie-goer would request a screening of a film and tell us when/where it should be shown, and if enough people were to reserve tickets to the screening by pre-authorizing their credit cards, we’d 'greenlight' the screening and collect the money for distribution/exhibition up front so that we’d at least be at breakeven the moment we had actually booked the engagement.

Here we were, two folks new to the theatrical distribution/exhibition business, both armed with ideas -- albeit his a very old concept and mine a very new one -- for preserving a segment of the industry seemingly headed towards a cliff. As green as I was at the time, I was confident that assuming we could aggregate and consolidate the theatrical audience demand before a distributor and exhibitor committed to an engagement, we would create no-risk, found-money for everyone in the theatrical distribution food chain.

That was when I noticed a guy in a ragged sweater and glasses raise an eyebrow from the other side of the table.

"You need a mid-step," he said. "You'll want to build interest first -- see where your demand is." A moment later he introduced himself as Ted Hope. And, that's when I realized that the guy I'd heard about and read about for over a decade during my time as a filmmaker -- the guy who in half an hour was going to deliver the closing address at the Conference -- the guy to whom somehow I wanted to introduce myself and with whom I wanted to discuss my concept, was sitting across from me and listening to my 'pitch'.

From our beta launch in March, through our stumbles and successes, Ted has been a  mentor of ours. When he asked me, recently, for an update on screenings and such I was more than obliged. Ted, although we're still perfecting the mid-step, here are a few anecdotes and takeaways from two of our projects, and a look at our most promising title, GIRL RISING, scheduled for release in March:

 

SHUFFLE

Written, directed, produced, edited and scored by Kurt Kuenne

 

This black and white, untraditional narrative jewel box of a festival film darling garnered fans and awards wherever it screened. Yet, the movie didn’t have a prayer at a traditional theatrical release. Although ancillary rights were picked up, Kurt would have had to have risked his own capital on self-distribution if he wanted to share his film with others on the big screen for commercial exploitation.  His film is a microcosm of the countless quality niche films out there that aren’t broad enough for even a limited theatrical release.

 

With no marketing and advertising spend, but rather the passion and persistence of a filmmaker, Kurt was able to ‘tip’ 15 screenings of SHUFFLE around the country. In places such as Cleveland and St. Louis, we enlisted the support of film festivals (CIFF and SLIFF) where SHUFFLE had screened to promote an ‘encore’ presentation to their subscribers, thus addressing the age-old festival post-screening audience question, “How can I share this film with my friends? Where can I see it again?” Answer: Don’t wait for it to come to you. Gathr it!

 

In far-flung Port Angeles, Washington, the film’s costume designer brought together close to 200 people to watch the film and stay for a post-screening discussion. Kurt’s efforts were greeted by grateful cinephiles appreciative of his past work and receptive to supporting his current endeavors. Kurt can tap and manage an ever-growing fan-base of his while we take away the barriers of entry for self-distribution. We were also happy to provide Kurt with a foreign sales agent so he can get his film seen by even more people.

 

BIG EASY EXPRESS

Directed by Emmett Malloy

 

This SXSW audience award-winning, GRAMMY nominated music documentary featuring Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes had slightly higher expectations than SHUFFLE because of the significant online reach of the film’s cast. The movie deserves its place in the canon of all time great music documentaries, so it was a ‘sell’ that the Mumfords and other participants could feel really good about getting behind.

 

BIG EASY EXPRESS debuted on iTunes and other ancillary platforms before Gathr joined the picture, which presented challenges for us. The most obvious was that the exclusivity angle of its theatrical window was eliminated. Who knows how many folks chose to stay home to watch the film; but more importantly, having the film release online or on VOD before (or concurrently with) a theatrical release alienated several theatrical circuits that stand in solidarity against this type of ‘day-and-date’ distribution strategy and simply refuse to exhibit the picture. This, in turn, prevented us from being able to service the theatrical demand for the film when a screening was requested in an area where only the reluctant theatres had a presence.

 

Nevertheless, we have had over a hundred screenings of BIG EASY EXPRESS. Also, because we book traditional theatrical engagements in addition to our TOD℠ method, we have been able to accommodate the desires of theatres that want to book a run for the film, or that simply want to guarantee the one-off screening. (There have been several instances on films for which we augment the distribution of a traditional distributor where the theatre has refused the distributor a week-long booking, but engaged us for a one night screening in order to mitigate their risk and in order to consolidate the audience).

 

Had the content owner engaged a traditional distribution company, alone, for BIG EASY EXPRESS, the film would have likely seen a 10 market, 2 week release, with a handful of additional theatres requesting the film for screenings. Because of the way our model works, we have been actively screening the film since September, and show no signs of stopping. We recently sold out a January 15th screening at Josh Levin’s wonderful West End Cinema in Washington, DC, in fact. The content owner hasn’t had to spend a dime on marketing and publicity, but they have been able to leverage the impressive reach of their casts’ fan bases.

 

GIRL RISING

Directed by Richard E. Robbins

 

GIRL RISING is as ambitious as a kwasi-documentary gets. The film, shot in 10 locations around the world, has attracted the voices of Meryl Streep, Priyanka Chopra, Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington, Alicia Keys and Selena Gomez, to name a few. Its objective is to effect change for the more than 66 million girls around the world who don’t have access to school. We are Gathr’ing screenings for International Women’s Day, March 8th, and beyond.

 

With this film, we are fortunate to not only have a significant amount of social media muster, but a great deal of traditional marketing muscle, as well. Corporate partners, Intel and Google, and several prominent NGO’s are committed to creating consumer awareness. Additionally, we will have an exclusive theatrical window of over 90 days before the film debuts on CNN, worldwide. These circumstances enable us to exhibit in virtually any theatre, anywhere. We could not ask for a better opportunity to prove large scale demand in our business model; for the filmmakers and producers have chosen to democratize theatrical distribution by exclusively employing our bottom-up model. Their goal is a minimum of 1000 screenings and we are pursuing it with great alacrity.

 

Outlook:

 

Ted, recently the Met Cinema rose from the ashes with a community-driven ‘crowd-sourced’ subscription model to save Oakhurst, California’s only cinema. Many theatres continue to struggle and many deserving films continue to be overlooked, and a few of us continue to pursue innovative ways to keep the theatrical experience robust with myriad film choices. Movies are meant to be seen in theatres, with crowds. Crowdsourcing via online platforms gives exhibitors, distributors, content owners and movie-goers a wonderful opportunity to access theatrical audiences in an innovative, cost-effective way.  The Art House Convergence Conference, commencing today, brings together the most proactive of these leaders and I know you share my enthusiasm for seeing what ideas are working and what new ones are yet to come.

Scott Glosserman founded Gathr in August of 2011 after producing and directing his latest feature, THE TRUTH BELOW, for MTV Films. Scott is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, The Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America. 

The Really Bad Things In The Indie Film Biz 2012

I can't always be optimistic.  My apologies.

I did start this HopeForFilm / TrulyFreeFilm blog in the hopes that community action could improve things for us all.  My original lists of 75 problems of indie film remain relevant, alas; and with this latest addition we are almost at 100 such challenges.

But don't be bummed, every problem is an opportunity, right?  To quote the great Walt Kelly of Pogo:  “We are surrounded by unsurmountable opportunities.”  We just need the will, the strength, the hope, and the power to change them.  12 Steps to progress?

I admit, even blessed by my last name, even I can't be always be optimistic, at least not if I want to also speak the truth. Sometimes throwing a brick is an act of love; you know what I mean?  And granted I've thrown a lot of bricks at this indie film thing. What can I say?  There's a great deal really wrong with our culture these days and a hell of a lot that can hurt our business.  We have to work together if we want to build it better.

Let's get started and call these "opportunities" out (in no particular order); maybe they are not so unsurmountable after all:

  1. Filmmakers are unable to earn a living even when they consistently make successful films.  Budgets have been dropping over the years -- and fees go down with them.  Movies are few and far between in terms of years for their makers and without overhead deals or teaching gigs, it's hard for a creator to stay focused on film unless one is wealthy.  And of course, net profits grow more of a joke daily (although they don't have to).
  2. The acquisition price for US rights hovers around 10% of the negative costs -- and no one complains.  Sometimes doesn't it seem like a cartel where all buyers got together and said "let's just offer less"?  If no one breaks rank, other than occasionally, all the buyers benefit -- and the only thing that can drive things is passion -- and the markets are supposed to be devoid of that.  We are better than just letting a market race to the bottom.  We should be able to recognize that the health of a culture is dependent on those that create and innovate being able to live a financially secure life.
  3. "Oops, I Farted" is the dominate "specialized" title of desire in these United States Of America.  Art film be damned.  The gaseous (fictional) title is courtesy of producer Mike Ryan who used it as shorthand for what he saw as most companies' acquisition strategy: the audience-friendly falsely-transgressive youth-focused star title.  Art film is dead.  Distribution companies don't just aim to give people what they want.  They also lead as everyone knows that people generally like what they want (The White Hare syndrome).  Where are we being led?
  4. This is the last year of celluloid.  Here's HwdRptr on it. What could be a better signifier of this than the fact that Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year.  People are writing sad eulogies & fond remembrances. Nostalgia arrives in the same year as a passing these days.
  5. Although women directors proportionally make up the as many directors as men do in documentaries, they are not even close in narrative features.  This is true even if the Sundance competition is proportionally represented in terms of gender for the first time ever.  It sure took a long time to reach this point.  And how much does anyone want to bet that it slips back fast?  And what of all the festivals that are not so progressive?  Sure, folks say it really needs to always just be the best films, and I am not arguing for quotas anyway, it's just that we need to acknowledge that the system does not grant the same opportunities to everyone.  And further, equal opportunity has never come close to providing equal outcome .  We need to further the discussion of why there are not more women, youth, and people of color in positions of power in the entertainment industry.  After all they are the top consumers; it would make sense they know better what the people really want.
  6. Great reviews -- even in the most important newspaper in the world -- have no effect.  It used to be that indie & art film was good business because it was completely review driven.  You did not need to do much advertising if the critics gave you love.  Those days are dead and gone.  Two films I produced this year, DARK HORSE and STARLET got excellent NY Times reviews, but fat lot it did them.  DARK HORSE even hit the trifecta with awesome reviews in the New Yorker and New York Magazine (Time and LA Times too), but fat lot of good that did.  Granted there are many factors to a film's lack of real cultural impact, but still: it once was that reviews like those films were worth a huge weight in gold.  And not they are not.  Critics were once our guide through the cultural landscape -- and that is how we selected our films.  Maybe it is time for a change, but for now we not only haven't found it, but losing what we once had makes it even harder to distribute what once was recognized as quality.
  7. The NY Times and others are going after the film and television tax credits.  These tax credits create jobs and spread wealth.  These tax credits keep our #2 national industry afloat.  Film is a migratory industry and these jobs will flea if they suspect tax policy is not stable. When the press goes after something in such a one-sided fashion, we have to wonder what really is afoot.  Further, we have to start to get serious about combatting such wrong-headiness.  We need to truly quantify the spend nationally in indie film.  If anyone wants to help fund this effort, I would love to undertake it at the San Francicso Film Society (hint, hint).  For more on this, see #13 below...
  8. People don't go to the movies anymore -- particularly young ones.  My tale of my 12 year old son ("I don't like movies, although I love many that I have seen") got quoted globally.  Sure, I need the statistics to back this up, and I hope you send them to me, but we all recognize that youth attendance is dropping.  Isn't it time we woke up from our dream, and started making films that had real youth appeal?
  9. Virtual print fees suck (VPFs are how digital projectors were both financed and indie films are shut out of national chains).  We had to turn down dates for DARK HORSE due to them.  Sure we have a DCP but between the traditional film rentals you a pay an exhibitor and the VPF most indie films can't expect to make money.  Let's say you pay 60% to the exhibitor and anticipate only a $2K gross.  That leaves you with $800.  And guess how much the VPF generally is?  So you  get nothing.  And it is not just in the US that the structure does not work.  Ditto for the UK.
  10. Even worse than not having any transparency in VOD numbers, there is not enough outcry about the lack of transparency in VOD numbers.  How can we make all of this public?
  11. VOD is still treated as a second-class citizen as VOD premieres can't get reviewed in major media outlets.  I am thankful we have On Demand Weekly, but when will the major media publications get wise to it?  And why is this not happening now?  Is it that they fear they would then lose the advertising for the movies?  Would they not be opening up a new advertising revenue source?  What's wrong with this picture?
  12. The US reports box-office revenue figures but not attendance.  How do we know how our business is and culture is doing if we can't get access to the numbers?  When will we truly have transparency in all things?  I thought information wanted to be free.  We were promised jet packs.
  13. We have yet to begin a real effort to quantify the spend on indie film, both directly and indirectly.  If we don't harvest the data our work generates, we don't control the power that is rightfully ours.  Since the only thing that talks in this town is money, we need to be able to speak accurately about how we create jobs, benefit communities, and generate wealth.
  14. The Digital Disaster is digging in deep. There are many aspects of this, but we particularly bury our head in the sand when it comes to preservation of digital works.  Recommended best practices for digital data is to migrate it from your drives every 3 months.  If you don't do that, you can not be assured you will have an archival quality copy.  As of five years ago, very few cinema makers finished their work on celluloid -- which could preserve work for over 100 years.  So in the race for technology to save us, we traded 100+ years for 3 months.  Hooray, right?  Read this.
  15. To quote A.O. Scott of the NY Times: "By the end of this year, The New York Times will have reviewed more than 800 movies, establishing 2012, at least by one measure, as a new benchmark in the annals of cinematic abundance.”   Grand abundance is not a bad thing; choices are wonderful when you know they are there.  I even argue from a cultural point of view, this abundance is splendid.  The problem is we still haven't evolved our culture or business infrastructure to adapt for this change.  We still rely on the methods of promotion, discovery, consumption, & participation that were built in the era of scarcity and control.  Without pivoting our methods towards this new reality, more movies don't get seen, more movies don't recoup, and more frustration abounds.  Items #1 & 2 on this list are a direct result of this one.
  16. The industry undermines the possibility of creating a sustainable investor class.  We all know about the Harry Potter "net profits".  I have to admit though Napoleon Dynamite was a surprise; how can the creators only get 12.88%?  Even it being legal, it's not right.  The best thing any of us can do for our industry, culture, and community is to make sure that those that create, as well as those that support them, are able to be rewarded for the work they create.  We are so far away from this being a reality, yet I see and hear so little discussion about it.  This should be an urgent matter on all of our leaders' lips.
  17. There is not enough money to teach media literacy in the schools.  We are bombarding  kids with content and yet we don't give them tools to decipher it. let alone defend themselves against it.  It's great all the conversation that Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up, but it only underlines the support we must give our children.
  18. Blog commenting burn-out is the law of the land.  Comments were my favorite things on blogs.  I used to get a lot here.  Now we get "likes" and tweets.  I started blogging because it seemed to me to be a community building tool.  When it is one sided it is not community.  Maybe it is me.  Maybe I am writing in a style that no longer encourages commenting.  Or maybe it is the community itself.  Or maybe all the comments just end up on the facebook page.  Whatever it is, it was more vibrant when people participated.
  19. There is so little that reads as truthful in the press.  It was so refreshing to read this interview with Terry Zwigoff on The Playlist because he told it as he sees it.  And that is so rare.  It is a shame.  Imagine a world where people recognized it was okay to share how you felt -- oh what a wonderful world that would be.
  20. We limit culture by the limits of what we support.  I got to make movies because a few folks recognized that although they didn't personally like my films, there not only were those that did, but also that my films were furthering the cultural discussions.  The success -- and now necessity -- of the various film support labs for screenwriters, fiction directors, and doc directors are invaluable, but they are also limiting.  American documentaries are generally all social issue, personal triumph, and pop culture surveys as that is what our support structures encourage.  Ditto on the fiction tale of triumph over adversity.  And I love all those forms, but there is so much out there that is still being overlooked.  And we even neglect the commercial forms.  Where are the labs for horror films or thrillers, the genres that actually work in the marketplace?  Where are those that really are trying to advance the cultural dialogue?  Is there a way we can start to pivot to widen our reach?  This may sound like something minor to most, but I do think we are doing our culture and community by not supporting more of what the audience wants.  Can this be a symptom of the gatekeepers thinking they know best?  How can we give the community a bigger say in what gets advanced?
  21. The bifurcation of the have and have-nots, I mean the tentpoles and passionate amateurs, has created a possibility gap.  Indie film was once a farm team for the studios.  David O. Russel, Ang Lee, Quentin T., Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, and many many more of our current greats all came through true indie work.  The next wave is being deprived of access to all the colors on the palate.  The drop out of the mid-range picture means that some of our greatest hopes for the future will never get to mix for the Atmos Sound System, will never get to play with something beyond the Cannon 5D camera, will never get the opportunity to build out a full story world architecture.  We are going to limit our dreams of the future by not giving new waves of artists access to experiment with all the tools that are available.
  22. Narrative film, despite firmly embracing micro-budget limits, has no staged-financing structure yet implemented.  Although I definitely want to do something about this, there are very little options available for filmmakers other than raising all their money upfront.  Now, many may argue that is irresponsible to shoot a film without full financing in place, one only needs to look at the doc world to see  the positive results from staged financing.  Doc films have proportional representation in terms of gender in the directorial ranks; could this be related to staged financing?  Since indie will always be an execution dependent art form, wouldn't it make sense to have a structure that allows for proof of principal?
  23. Investors have nowhere to turn to get better information regarding non-traditional film investment.  When they can only turn to the agencies for "expert" advice, they only get one side of the story.  Yes, they can hire high-priced consultants, armed with all sorts of numbers, but where do they usually find these consultants?  Why  from the agencies of course!  The agencies have tremendous insight for sure, just as these consultants do, but it is hard for change to take hold, when all our advice comes from the same source.  Imagine if we had a real investors' summit, led by folks outside of the business or power centers?  Imagine if we had services in place to train new investors in specific areas of  what might become their expertise.  Imagine if we had the structures in place which allowed these same investors to collaborate across projects.
  24. Where are the leaders in indie film?  I was very inspired by both Joana Vicente's & Keri Putnam's move into not-for-profit commitment.  Without them taking a first step, I probably would not have been willing to put down my project-producing magic wand for a time, and focus on rebuilding infrastructure for a time.  But frankly I expected many more at this point to be committed to giving more back. Those that have made a life time of non-profit counter-balance that a bit, but I expected more.  I started the blog because I thought if I spoke up, others would too.  There have been many positive contributions to the blog, and yes new leaders have emerged to some degree, but frankly I would have expected more producers, directors, executives, and screenwriters to step up and say that we have a tremendous opportunity before us and we best act on it or else that window will close.  I still believe it to be true: if you are not on the bus, you are part of the problem.  There may be 99 Problems but make it clear that you are not one.

Just remember: Lists like this only make the foolish despair.  We can build it better together.

And if that is not enough to get you through the night, I did write a couple of antidotes.  You can always read "The Really Good Things In The Indie Film Biz 2012"

Independent Distribution In America Is Seriously Threatened

And the reason is because independent exhibition is even more seriously threatened.  This is likely the last year of 35mm projection and the problem of that goes much deeper than whether you appreciate grain or not.

Sure the promise of digital projection & delivery is partially lower costs, but the cost of conversion is out of reach of many small exhibitors.  The funding scheme that many theater chains have utilized, instituting in a Virtual Print Fee (VPF), puts the financial return in jeopardy for indie films -- we could not play DARK HORSE in theaters that required a VPF because after the film rental split, another $800 in VPF risks having us not just not make money, but lose money.

The studios all require the theaters to be DCI compliant.  The cost of being so is out of reach for smaller theaters.  Yet, the studio, and their specialized subsidiaries, represent such a large share of the box office, theater owners have to consider this move.  But if distributors don't want to lose that $800 that goes to the VPF, can the same theater offer projection on one of the many cheaper systems.  Why not?  Because evidently the MPAA went to The Supreme Court and got them to approve an exception to the anti-trust laws and require all the theaters to sign a no-compete clause and use just a single platform.  This sucks and is not what I expect from a country that prides itself on being the "Land Of Opportunity".  

A former intern of mine, Ricky Camilleri, hosted a great conversation on this topic on HuffPostLive.  His guests include

Here it is that discussion non-live.

 

 
Two further notes: I have to say I really like this style of Google HangOut forum for discussion, particularly with the added in comments and questions from the audience/community.  It feels very participatory.
 
I wanted to title this "Independent EXHIBITION In America Is Seriously Threatened" but I suspect that "Distribution" will make more folks read this post.  More and more as I look at what is the lifeblood of independent cinema culture I come to exhibition.  They should be are heroes.  The industry and culture needs to celebrate them far more than we do.  The era of the filmmaker/exhibitor collaboration should already be here -- but it's not.  Shall we try to fix that too?