Guest post by Sheri Candler. In this second post, I want to focus on how to rehabilitate the film distribution entities so that they may continue to exist. I know what you are thinking “What’s she on about? We’re fine. We survived the latest shake out and are all the stronger for having less competition.” I am here to tell you that is fallacy. The old ways of bringing films to market are fading fast and it is time to reinvent your business. I want to acknowledge my gurus Gerd Leonhard, Seth Godin and Clay Shirky (though he is more my go to guy on all things having to do with immersive storytelling and audience collaboration) for being a constant source of inspiration for me in looking toward the future of media.
When Ted announced on his Facebook page that he would take part in a panel discussion at the upcoming Woodstock Film Festival concerning the new distribution paradigms, I had to look at who would be involved in this discussion. What people and companies would be taking part who are practicing radically changed business models for film distribution? It was as I thought; none. I posted a link on his page (http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100326/1452138737.shtml) asking all involved in the discussion to read it and then talk about how they see the new paradigms. I don’t know if anyone did, but I did get a response from Dylan Marchetti from Variance Films explaining to me how his company functions to actively engage audiences for films they’ve booked in the theater. It was a lengthy exchange that resulted in my writing this post. I don’t think he read the article before he spoke because the point of that piece was to inform on how businesses need to form ecosystems around their companies, not continue only to sell copies of the content they distribute. Distribution companies should not be focused on selling copies, either for viewing or for owning. They should be selling access, creating networks of devoted fans around their brand and developing customized experiences instead. In other words, selling things that cannot be copied. This means they must first gather and cultivate a community of engaged followers and then develop, acquire, produce, and source material with only these people in mind.
Of the companies taking part in the Woodstock panel, I would say only Cinetic with their Film Buff organization has started with the potential to do this, but rather than building an engagement platform, they have merely built another online distribution portal (like so many others in existence that consumers have never heard of) to put copies out on the internet. Actually you can’t see any of the films on the site, it just directs you to their existence on VOD channels. Their “community” engagement is only a call for an email address so that they may send marketing messages. What is communal about that? What connection would a consumer have to the company itself besides advertising? None. Cinetic has no idea who these people are, what drives them, motivates them, interests them. It is not fair to pick only on Cinetic, I can’t think of a single distributor currently connecting directly with audience who can answer those questions. Troma comes to mind as a distributor with a very clear brand identity but even they are not directly in dialog with their audience. All current distributors are far too dependent on push marketing, usually hired from outside the company, and sourcing films purely on guesses based on audience reactions at festivals , favorable press or from hottest trends in market research. Every investment prospectus will tell you future earnings are not indicative of past performance, so why is that how decisions are continually being made?
What would I suggest for these companies? First, a total rethink of what business they’re in. Distribution of goods is no longer needed from you. You should not think of yourselves in the film distribution business because distribution has become easy to access by anyone online. (I know Dylan, you’re not online, but art house theater days are numbered too). Attention getting is now your main role. But from whom? If you don’t have a following as a company, a deep relationship with a community, how will you get attention and keep it? By building a tribe around the people in your company and, in turn, the company brand itself. This starts by identifying what kind of group you appeal to or want to appeal to, actively seeking them out and forging those deep connections. At first, this will mean attracting people through outside means, appealing through media and various outside groups to introduce yourself. Eventually the effort to enlarge the circle will be done by the community members, but until you have one, you must do that work.
Often, in a rush to monetize, companies jump right over the relationship building. The dismal failure of paywalls in newspaper circles only serves to prove my point. They did not build up an engaged community first, and then ask for payment. They falsely thought that their paper subscribers would be willing to continue the previous paid relationship even after it was possible to get most of the news stories from aggregators for free online. There is a great video from Jeff Jarvis explaining the new business models for newpapers here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jsb9NfJmqPY&) and lots can be gleaned from it for all corporate endeavors.
The reinvention “The future leaders in business will be connectors, not directors”-Gerd Leonhard The new model will be to build and foster a community around the brand as a company and to be in the entertainment fulfillment business. This community will have interests that the company can fulfill and that is the company’s ONLY function. To try and serve a well balanced diet of wide ranging content is to spread too thin and attract no one. Mass is not your target. You will be a resource to your community not only in entertainment but in anything that interests them. This means you MUST know what “that” is. Is it books, is it music, events, clothes, games, causes, other similar tribes? These will be your other revenue sources as you create a network of interconnection with other companies who have their own niches, their own tribes. Also, consider enabling community members to profit in what you have sourced, to be affiliates and to create networks of their own. The network will feed each other spreading the brand even further.
A key part of your site will be to connect your community to each other. Some companies have sites where they connect to the user, but they don’t allow for intraconnection and some networking platforms are merely housed on a company website but members are never engaged by the company, merely left to use the tools as they see fit. Listening and collaboration will be cornerstones for this model to work. This isn’t work to be left to interns, by the way, but by those in power within the company.
You will also partner with other tribes of like minded individuals. Through these interactions, you tribe influence grows. There is no need for shouting out messages, gaining favorable PR placement, buying media for attention or forcing members to spread the word. If you are fulfilling their needs admirably, they will do it. You will however, generously reward those members in your community who do enlarge your circle. Instead of paying large amounts of money to outside companies to get “buzz” and “traffic,” you will invest that money in building experiences tailor made for your community. Development of experiences can only be done from active participation in the community and collaboration with them.
This model is far simpler to run as you won’t be going for masses, you will only cultivate your community. It will be labor intensive work, but not prohibitively expensive. You will need to develop tools so that the tribe members can speak to each other and so that they can spread the word to their friends easily. You should be facilitating sharability at all times, not closing it off and being insular.
The filmmaker/artist whose content you will source (not acquire as creators will have an equal partnership in your tribe) will be encouraged to participate with the community. In fact, if they will not, then their work is not very attractive to your community. Engagement at all times is key, this is no place for egos.
Tomorrow: How To Make Money With The New Model!
Sheri Candler is an inbound marketing strategist who helps independent filmmakers build identities for themselves and their films. Through the use of online tools such as social networking, podcasts, blogs, online media publications and radio, she assists filmmakers in building an engaged and robust online community for their work that can be used to monetize effectively.
She can be found online at www.shericandler.com, on Twitter @shericandler and on Facebook at Sheri Candler Marketing and Publicity.
Whenever I walk into a grocery store, I can't help but wonder if people really want so many choices. But does the same applies to tomato sauce or frozen waffles also apply to art, literature, music, and movies? Sure Pandora can source new music for me based on my prior expressed preferences, but music also works as a background pleasure. The same is hard to say for movies. And man, do we sure have a lot of great stuff readily available to us. What are we going to do to filter and search through all our choices? My NetFlix WatchInstantly queue has 275 titles in it currently. Since at best I do two such titles a week, I am pretty much set for the next three or four years for the $108/yr I dole out to them. And I think I add to that queue faster than I subtrack.
Snag recently mentioned their ambitions to aggregate over 100,000 documentaries (up from the current 1,500. I recently heard of a VOD experiment utilizing something like 50,000 titles. My consumer side loves even the mention of such volume. But my filmmaker side starts to get the shakes as I wonder how the hell will people find my movies.
We've all heard that titles that begin with the letter "A" do better on VOD than any others. Viewers have a hard time investing much search time in the current interface. The Netflix algorithm for finding what I like is a nice tool for adding to the queue, but it an anonymous source and sometimes I want to know more of the "why" that than "just because you liked X". I was excited to stumble upon WhichFlicks.com the other day and added ten more titles to my WatchInstantly queue as a result. Yet they were all generally well known titles.
If the annual film production number estimates I was given recently by Chris Hyams of B-side fame were even 50% accurate (7000 films in the US, and 45,000 films produced worldwide per year), every filmmaker's most pertinent question is not "How do I get my movie made?" but "How am I going to get my film seen?" .
Who wins in the volume game? The same folks who win in the limited supply game. Who has the most money at the end of the game? The same folks who had the most money at the start of the game. Who gets their story told in the history books? Those that write the history books. Wait... I'm off point. Okay, just sort of, but... you get the picture.
If we can't get attention for the work, how is it going to get seen? I know many out there believe that the cream rises to the top, just like their are many that believe that hard work and a good attitude can bring you all you dream. Me, I feel that the exceptions to those stories are what we must all work to prevent, that with effort and support, we can make it better together.
I don't think it needs to just be volume and quantity of the message that gets your work noticed, but that is still how it is all working. Sure design is still effective and originality scores points too. And occasionally we see the underserved community come up and respond to a direct address (remember FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) or even a well served community respond to something that even just smelled authentic (BLAIR WITCH, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY), but what about good work in general, good stories well told, how can we find those and make them a priority for people again when they are being assaulted with choices from every sector under the sun? Call me an optimist, but I am confident it can be done.
We lost an incredible service when all the film critics lost their pulpits at the national and local papers. Individual blogs don't work the same way papers did. Now you want sports news, you go to sports sites, and the chances are you aren't going to find news on some obscure indie film gem. Sure you may get personalized ads on your social network and your thousands of friends and all those you follow have an opinion about what may be important that minute, but it isn't the same as a long standing relationship with a critic with a history of well thought out opinions -- you know how to judge the critic's taste against your own. I know you can go to MetaCritic or RottenTomatoes but I personally find the aggregated opinions don't deepen my relationship with a critic or a film; they feel generalized, even after I drill down to the individual.
Even those friends whom I know whose tastes resemble my own, I don't know what they are watching. Or listening to. Or reading. Or where to easily get those things even if I did know. And when I get a recommendation, what do I do with it anyways? Why can't I have one list that keeps it altogether for me, whether I am going to find it in a theater, or on Netflix, or VOD, or whether I want to purchase it?
Some solutions are also a bit terrifying. If I let my tastes known about all things, if we have a set of common tags that I can like or dislike, even to varying degrees, presumably my next new favorite thing can be effortlessly found and delivered in this glorious digital age. But when IT could happen here, when civil liberties are consistently ignored, do I really want to share my data? Maybe such specific personalization is not such a godsend.
And what is it that we really want from such filters anyway? It's not just what to watch, but also when to watch what we watch. Doesn't eveyone miss those water cooler conversations about last night's Seinfeld episode? Isn't the pleasure of going to the movies, largely about seeing it with other people? We want to watch what are friends are watching so we can discuss it easily with them? And not just really our friends, but also those we hope might become our friends too.
Really, when we all have over 1000 films on our To Watch list, how do we begin to make a choice?
In Media Res is:
dedicated to experimenting with collaborative, multi-modal forms of online scholarship.
Each day, a different scholar will curate a 30-second to 3-minute video clip/visual image slideshow accompanied by a 300-350-word impressionistic response.
If you think it is as simple as make a great film and it will get seen, you are not truly recognizing the world we live in. Great films get ignored all the time. Great films don't get distributed, and when they do, often they are not distributed in a significant way. Filmmakers and their collaborators have to move beyond the dream that if you build it they will come as it allows both them, their work, and their supporters to be exploited. You are reading this presumably because you either love watching great movies or because you aspire to making great movies. I write here because I want to do both of those things and I have the confidence that if we change our behavior, both are possible. I write here because I want to do both of those things and I have the concern that if we don't change our behavior, we will lose the opportunity to do either for ever.
Change begins with a step, usually the easiest one for the most people to do. What would be that change that encourages either, and ideally both, for better movies to be seen more widely, and for more of the movies to actually be better? On all fronts, I think the answer comes down to collaboration. If the quality of culture and the access to quality culture is of a concern to you, you have to enter the equation.
Speak up and join in. Curate. Filter. Focus.
Steve Rosenbaum had an interesting post on Mashable awhile back, where he started to lay out some relevant questions about what the correct equation is for creation and curation:
it’s impossible to imagine curators as adding value without a reasonable economic arrangement to content creators. But the ethical issues around attribution, re-purposing, and editorializing around others’ content is far from resolved. Respect and remuneration seem to be reasonable starting places.
Mind you: curation is very different from aggregation. Curation provides the filter and the context. With the vast myriad of options out there, how much do we value the trusted sources that point us in the right direction
It is a huge number of films made in this country and the world. I used to use the annual Sundance submissions as the number for the number of films made in the U.S. (although that does not include studio films); when I participated in a discussion with Chris Hyams the other night he corrected me and said it was far greater. Whether it is 4500, 7000 in the U.S. or 45,000, the problem is the same. A huge number of movies are made and few of them are seen, distributed, and championed. We vote for the culture we want with our choices, voices, and dollars. You'd think they'd be more action in the voices department for better film -- and not just negative attacks, but thoughtful praise for what artists are striving for. Me, I am sucker for the noble failure, for the artist that reaches and may not always achieves, but tries nonetheless. Still we lack the places where we can see and communicate about the work we love (despite the technology being there).
There are some folks who like to dismiss the low percentage of work being seen by simply stating that most indie films suck. Sure, there a lot of simple things many filmmakers could embrace to make better films. I labored to put to print the "32 Qualities Of Better Film" that I was feeling at the time, and it remains far less read and commented than other things I've written. From this, rightfully or not, I discern that the community is more interested in the business than the art. Maybe I look in the wrong places. Maybe I hear the wrong voices. I think everyone I know chose to work in film because of the art, but the business is still against it. I truly believe that can change. I truly believe that it is good business supporting the art and a business structure can now be built that allows "better films" to flourish.
The divide and conquer effect happens in film because most only focus on their individual work -- and thus although good movies are made, no business is done (except by exploitative aggregators and the occasional success story.). Simple changes of behavior can lead to profound change. A little help from your friends goes a long way. Honestly engaging folks around the things you love, even your closest circle of friends and family, can start the ripple effect.
Filmmakers have to accept our mandate to curate and champion if we want our work to spread. I used to think that only 3 or 4 new American directors emerged each year whom would go on to have significant bodies of work. I was able to help co-found and launch HammerToNail.com and through that filter became aware of much more work, and saw over 15 filmmakers whom I suspected would hit that bar. Good movies are getting made that still are not getting seen and appreciated. This may have always been the way it is, but we don't have to stand for it anymore. We have the tools. We reach other. We can build it better together.
It is on one part a consumption problem. We need to manufacture desire in addition to art and entertainment.
It is also a communication problem. We need to get the word out both as to what is out there, but also why we care about it.
It is a perception problem on many fronts. Our work is truly connected to each other -- united we stand, divided we fall. Whether we look at ourselves as individuals or collectives, we don't benefit from a limited definition of cinema that addresses only the creation process and builds a wall between art and commerce -- particularly when we live in a country that does not recognize it as their responsibility to support diverse and vibrant culture. We need to expand what the perception, both that we hold and that which different audiences hold, as to what people think indie film, truly free film, is.
We have to put a lot more of thought and discussion into the discovery and appreciation process. Great discoveries are to be made, but I personally think it all starts with us. We have to increase and accelerate the discussion of the films that don't have the big studio support. We can not get it done on our own. We need to watch and talk about each others work now, and in a positive way.
Finding what you want to watch when you want to watch SHOULD be the easiest thing in the world. It still will always be hard to know what you want to watch, mind you -- but if you do, you should be able to find it. In terms of the knowing part of the equation, playlists are a start. Every social media site should have an easy to use playlist function that allows you to post what you are going to watch, and for others watching those films to find you. The film watching experience is only partially about content. It is also about social and we need to have easier tools to connect with if we are going to make it all work again,
And combining playlists with easy searches of what is available online is the start of something truly great. Clicker helps a great deal in this regard. The ability to share playlists is a key thing when it comes to discovery and it doesn't look like that is a possibility with Clicker unfortunately. We want to be able to build playlists, post them, embed them, share them.
Reid Rosefelt's SpeedCine is another such searcg tool. Or rather was. It's was easy to search but still had no playlist function. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that such a service shuts down in these economic times -- but still I am. These are the tools we need. Search & Share. They are services that all film organizations should offer. Someone should take over what Reid built, be it IFP, FIND, Indiewire, or MOMA. Someone, please!
What of course all these services miss is a real curating function managed by a trusted critic/educator/filmmaker/brand. Or rather several curators. Imagine how cool it would be if you could see what filmmakers you respected wanted to watch, and with one click there you were, and with another click, you could engage in discussion with a whole bunch of other film fanatics and discuss the film.
Surely, some smart people must be out there building this stuff. It can't be that hard. If only the film world had more collaboration with the tech world. Let's get it built and put it to use.
"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.
I am prepping a new film with the shortest amount of time I have ever had to prep a movie. It is also one of the more ambitious projects I have been involved in. There is so much to do I can't afford to squander any time (luckily I have been prepping some blog posts in advance, so this doesn't take time -- it expands time!). The short prep is also unfortunate because now is a time that the producer has to do even more than ever before.
- Recognize it is about audience aggregation: Collect 5000 fans prior to seeking financing. Act to gain 500 fans/month during prep, prod., post processes.
- Determine how you will engage & collect audiences all throughout the process. Consider some portion to be crowd-funded -- not so much for the money but for the engagement it will create.
- Create enough additional content to keep your audience involved throughout the process and later to bridge them to your next work.
- Develop an audience outreach schedule clarifying what is done when -- both before and after the first public screening.
- Curate work you admire. Spread the word on what you love. Not only will people understand you further, but who knows, maybe someone will return the good deed.
- Be prepared to "produce the distribution". Meet with potential collaborators from marketing, promotion, distribution, social network, bookers, exhibitors, widget manufacturers, charitable partners, to whatever else you can imagine.
- Brainstorm transmedia/cross-platform content to be associated with the film.
- Study at least five similar films in terms of what their release strategy & audience engagement strategy was and how you can improve upon them.
- Build a website that utilizes e-commerce, audience engagement, & data retrieval. Have it ready no later than 1 month prior to first public screening.
- Determine & manufacture at least five additional products you will sell other than DVDs.
- Determine content for multiple versions of your DVD.
- Design several versions of your poster. Track how your image campaign evolves through the process.
- Do a paper cut of what two versions of your trailer might be. Track how this changes throughout the process.
- Determine a list of the top 100 people to promote your film (critics, bloggers, filmmakers,etc)
- Determine where & how to utilize a more participatory process in the creation, promotion, exhibition, & appreciation process. Does it make sense for your project to embrace this?
- How will this project be more than a movie? Is there a live component? An ARG? An ongoing element?
- How can you reward those who refer others to you? How do you incentivize involvement? What are you going to give back?
- What will you do next and how can you move your audience from this to that? How will younot have to reinvent the wheel next time?
- What are you doing differently than everyone else? How will people understand this? Discover this?
- How are you going to share what you've learned on this project with others?
Brian Newman tells it like it is. Listen up.
Okay, so image quality is crap, but just let it play and go look at something on Flickr.