A Thought for Sundance: Will Your Films Still Be Watched in the Future?

By Reid Rosefelt

Many of you are at Sundance now with a new movie.  Congratulations and I wish you the best of luck.  I know you’re overwhelmed with the experience and it might seem a ridiculous time to ask: “Will your film still be watched in 2043?”

With the advent of digital streaming, movies available for round-the-clock viewing have already become needles in haystacks as high as Everest.  Netflix claims to have 90,000 DVD titles and 12,000 streaming ones.  Add to that, movies from other streaming sites like iTunes, Hulu, Amazon, CinemaNow, Mubi, Fandor, Snagfilms, Crackle, YouTube, Indiepix, Crunchyroll, and apps like HBO to Go, that even allowing for overlaps, it becomes numbing for most people to pick a particular movie out of the pile.  In 2043 there will undoubtedly be hundreds of thousands of films and TV show episodes available instantly, but all current indications suggest it won’t be a comprehensive list or include the best films.  The lack of selection isn’t an issue today, but I believe that future cultural and technological trends will lead the mass public to select among what is most convenient and instant, and only the most discerning viewers will seek the best of cinema history on plastic discs.

You’re at Sundance now with a film--and in the future, many films-- that audiences love and critics do too. (You can stop reading this if that’s not true.)  Moving forward you should know that it’s rare to find a career that doesn’t have its ups and downs, and some people fall so far off the radar that when they return to the public eye we call it a comeback even if that person worked steadily while they were “away.”   Don’t let that be you. Here are some things to think about.

Keep at it.  Woody Allen makes a film every year. People don’t like some of them? They go crazy for “Midnight in Paris”?  It doesn’t matter what happens; he’s always on to the next one.

You have to learn media skills.  Here’s some basic advice you can use today.  First, when you speak to a journalist it’s not a chat, it’s an opportunity.  Imagine that you weren’t you, but someone else trying to persuade somebody to see it.  What points would you want to make?  Don’t force things, but do try to say things that help and avoid things that don’t help.  Never do anything that doesn’t take you towards your goal, which is to find the reasons why people should see your movie.   Second, just as you study the art of the great filmmakers, scrutinize carefully the skills and technique of the most brilliant marketers. Third, be willing to devote some time.  Ang Lee takes nearly a year after every movie traveling the globe to promote it.  If you meet with a potential distributor during the festival, they will be very receptive to you throwing out how much energy and time you are willing to put into selling your movie.  (There’s so much more I can say here, and I will write about it later.)

Branching out.  The more things you do, the more you will stay in the public eye.  Actors become directors, directors become actors, and both actors and directors become producers. Some filmmakers also work in theatre and TV as well as pursue causes and politics.  The ultimate multi-tasker is Robert Redford, who in addition to his never-ending initiatives to expand the mission of the Sundance institute, and his career as an actor/producer/director, has devoted much of his time to environmental activism.  Wanting to branch out is a personal thing, but there’s no harm in stopping to think now and then about things you always wanted to do… and whether it’s time to start doing it.

Change and reinvention.  As artists move through their careers, sometimes they face the riddle: “If I keep making films like I did before then people say I’m in a rut, but if I make different kinds of films they say they liked the old ones better.”  There’s no safe choice to this, so if you do have the inclination to change course, I say go for it.  I don’t think change is ever wrong, as that’s how you grow.  If your experiment leads you towards taboo subjects, you might get a lot of attention, and there’s nothing wrong with that, unless you’re doing it only for the publicity.  You can take that to the extreme and never stop the process of reinvention.

Let me talk about your legacy now.

If all goes well you will spend a lifetime making good films and working hard to get your films seen and make your presence felt in the world.  If you reach a certain level, it won’t be an issue for you to be remembered, but if your work is wonderful but less celebrated?   What happens to your legacy after you retire or die and your movies fall into the morass of too many streaming movies?

Not to be dramatic, but I have been amazed and disheartened with the fickleness of the public and how quickly they can forget the films of the past.  Here is what I have discovered from my decades as a publicist.

There has to be at least one person or an organization willing to carry the torch.

These caretakers will endeavor to get all your films online and have copies available that can be screened in theatres. So often the films that a writer and director is best known for fall out of circulation for one reason or another.

They will strive to set up theatrical retrospectives.   There must be events where the films are shown as a group, so that the totality of your work can be appreciated.  This creates a news peg for the media to cover.  Every time there is a retrospective, your work will become new again.  People who read about it will seek your films out on home video.

Often the reason that an artist’s work is sent to oblivion is not because nobody wants to memorialize it, but because the authorized person impedes or blocks it.  There are many stories of a widow or widower asking an unreasonable price for a film with a limited audience with the result that nobody sees it.

Thinking about who’s going to look after your work when you’re not around is important, like making a will.  If God forbid, anything happens to you, who would it be?

Social media is essential.  Extending a legacy is what social media does best. I’ve written about how this works here.   If you haven’t done so, build a Facebook page when you get home and learn how to get the most out of it.  If you sell your film to a distributor, ask if you can be in charge of social media.  Unless they’re Focus Features with their dedicated social media staff, it’s unlikely they will have as much time or motivation to lavish on a Facebook page as you will, and they certainly can’t do it with your voice, which is the most important thing.

If you’re at Sundance, think about this when you get home.  If you’re not at Sundance, then what are you waiting for?  Facebook is a magical tool that never existed before so why not use it?   You’ve put your heart and soul into your movies and I’m sure you want them to live on.  More than anything, I do too.

Reid Rosefelt coaches filmmakers in how to market their films using Facebook, and lectures frequently on the topic.  His credits as a film publicist include “Stranger Than Paradise,”  “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and “Precious.”

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Only YOU Can Stop Our Indie Film & Media Culture From Vanishing

I was invited to contribute to the "Wish For The Future" series on Good.is.  This is mine:

When do we stop just thinking about ourselves and instead start working together? I am not talking about saving the world; I am writing about preserving and advancing ambitious film and media culture. It’s threatened, and no one individual will ever rescue it. My wish for the future is for the creative community, locally, nationally and globally, to work together to build the better indie infrastructure that is now possible.

For the past four years, I have been noting the problems and opportunities in indie film (along with many triumphs). I now have 99 problems—but I fear our collective inertia may be another one. Some people look at such lists and despair, but the truth is that there has never been a better time to be a media creator. We must learn to collaborate with a far larger circle and crew than ever before.
 
The tools of both creation and distribution are affordable and useable. We can tell what we want, how we want, and connect it with the audience that most desires it.
 
We are in the midst of a vast paradigm shift that could usher in a huge transfer of power—and to the makers, not more gatekeepers. The film industry was built on, and still foolishly depends upon, antiquated concepts of scarcity and control of content. We live in a time of grand abundance, total access, and general distraction from that content. The irony is that we have more at our fingertips, but we discover less—and grow alienated because of it. As with virtually all consumer-centered activity, we can discard the sucker-bet of impulse buys and opt instead for informed choice. Yet with the media business, if we do so, not only will we get the usual additional satisfaction, we will elevate the culture, too.
 
If we don’t alter our behavior, our indie film culture will start to vanish. I have produced close to 70 films, and I know in my heart that movies like The Ice Storm21 GramsAmerican Splendor,Happiness, or In The Bedroom would not get made today. Even if they somehow managed to, they would not get seen, and the creators and their supporters would most certainly not benefit.  Think about that. If that is the case, would they even be worth doing? Think about a world without the stories that bring us together and inspire us with possibility. That could be our future.
 
Creators, and supporters of their work, must be rewarded for and by what they create. Instead of that, we live in a time when only the smallest percentage of filmmakers can sustain themselves by what they create. Even our biggest successes return only a small percentage back to investors Although a tremendous number of movies still get corporately acquired, the rates that are paid are lower on a percentage of overall cost basis than ever before.
 
That is the choice we have before us now: a world deprived of great art and artists, or one that thrives with vibrant diversity. We need people to step up, say culture and community matter, and that we are going to build it better together. We need to move past a culture that only celebrates success, and instead grow transparent with our risks, even our failures. We need to focus on the stories, the form, and the communities that promote them—as part of our cultural glue. We need to do this together. We have to stop waiting for a solution, and recognize that it is in fact us.  
 
Show you value your time and select then next 100 movies you want to see now. Share what you are passionate about with your family and friends and insist they watch it. If you can buy direct from an artist, buy direct from an artist.  Support the crowdsource campaign of a favorite or local filmmaker, demand media literacy be taught in public schools, or join a local film society or institute. Don’t undervalue your work by accepting too low an acquisition fee for your work when you could do as well distributing it yourself.
 
This post originally ran on January 1st, 2013 on Good.is.  You can read it (and "like" it) here.  There's some definitely interesting comments worth checking out there -- and besides Good is an awesome site that is well worth your time.  I guarantee you will discover something there you care about -- or I will refund the time it took to get you there ;-).