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.