Rise Up & Curate! (Part 2 of 2): Cinefist and Live Events

Today's guest post is once again from filmmaker Zak Forsman. Yesterday we ran part one of this post. Now, it should be pointed out that we are not alone in trying to aid the floundering LA indie scene. There are two other LA based screening series that we have partnered and networked with. Cinema Speakeasy by Saskia Wilson Brown has had great success hosting short film workshops where the audience is invited to offer creative feedback on films in post. Film Courage Interactive, hosted by Karen Worden & David Branin, bookends their screenings with a indie film quiz show with sponsor-donated prizes and a filmmaker therapy session of sorts where filmmakers discuss the more pressing issues of the day. All of us are building a network that we hope will grow into an alternative to film festivals, where the filmmaker can make a little dough showing their movies.

Experience has taught us that many filmmakers we invite to participate often need guidance and motivation. For that reason we have adopted a tiered revenue-share model where the first 40 seats go to the venue, the next 40 go to the filmmaker and the last 20 go to CINEFIST. Anything over 100 ticket sales are split evenly. In addition to having to first satisfy the venue’s cut, the filmmakers need to meet promotional commitments in order to participate in the box office sales. It’s not automatic. Having the filmmaker push and promote can often be the difference between 15 people or 150 people attending the event.

We’ve also discovered some things that just don’t work. At the beginning, I imagined that selling DVDs in the lobby would be a good way to boost the money a filmmaker could make. But the truth is that filmmakers have generally sold DVDs to less that 10% of the audience when priced between $10 and $20. Meanwhile, the bands that brought CDs to sell, sold them at $5 to about 50% of the audience. There is something to be said for the replay value of our films and the perception and effectiveness of “added value” that a DVD could or should have in order to motivate more purchases. This, however, is a tangent for another article.

Secretly, we at Sabi Pictures undertook this endeavor to experiment with doing live events in preparation for our upcoming theatrical tour of Heart of Now and White Knuckles -- two feature-length films we produced and will release this Fall. In addition to the lessons of the screening series, we have been actively tracking audience demand using two services: Open Indie and Crowd Controls. On the surface they look like they offer the same things and one should choose between the two, but I’ve come to the conclusion that they actually offer complimentary advantages and it’s worth the time to use both.

Where Open Indie (more so, as it grows) fosters paths for audience discovery through a twitter-like interface and filter exposing users to new works their friends have requested, Crowd Controls fosters the means to distribute our work to an identifiable audience that we can nurture once they’ve established themselves as a “fan”. Open Indie provides a layer of privacy for the audience, meaning that someone who requests my movie there will never hear from me unless a screening is booked in their town. Crowd Controls on the other hand gives a fan the opportunity to share their email and postal code directly with the filmmaker, so that a relationship can be nurtured beyond the promise of a theatrical event. Admittedly, this is a general simplification as they both do a little of what the other does. But their strengths are definitely weighted at opposite ends of the discovery and distribution equation.

These services have had the side benefit of introducing us to people with established audiences all over the world who run film clubs or a screening series of their own with a built-in audience they curate for. Further, we need a database of independent-friendly theaters. There is the Art House Theater Map on PBS.org, but I’m hoping for something a lot more detailed.

That’s why we’ve started the CINEFIST Digital Cinema Census where a theater owner can submit an extensive list of information about their theater from number of screens, to seating capacity, to format and technical specifications of the venue, to P&A requirements, as well as rates, splits and booking procedures. After identifying where the demand for our movies lie with Open Indie and Crowd Controls, this information would allow any of us to book theaters in those towns and cities with ease. If you know a theater owner, forward that link to them.

Looking toward the near future, we want to see the CINEFIST Screening Series expand into other towns and cities by providing would-be screening hosts who have found a venue, with a guide to run their own curatorial efforts under. I can one day imagine a worldwide grassroots network of CINEFIST venues providing a genuine alternative to traditional theatrical distribution. Let me know if you'd like to be one of them! Our personal goals for our tour are to create urgency and exclusivity with one-night-only events, to support the release of Heart of Now and White Knuckles on other platforms, to shoot video and create more online content, and finally to nurture relationships with true fans. At the end of the day, what drives us are the genuine friendships we’ve made in this community and the hope to make many more. That’s been the real reward and helping fellow filmmakers expose their films to LA audiences has been a real privilege.

Zak Forsman [Sabi Pictures | Twitter | Facebook]

Rise Up And Curate! (Part 1 of 2): CINEFIST AND LIVE EVENTS

Today's guest post if from filmmaker Zak Forsman.

If you haven’t heard of CINEFIST yet, let me explain what it is: myself, Kevin Shah, Jamie Cobb, Neha Shah and Erik Reese -- all members of the Sabi Pictures family -- needed a new company to separate the production of our films from the distribution and exhibition of them. CINEFIST was born out of that need. When people ask, I say "it handles all things distribution and exhibition."

If you were to visit the web site you’d see that in addition to an online store (selling DVDs, soundtracks and posters), there is a section for our Quarterly Los Angeles Screening Series and some tools and services on the horizon like our own VOD portal, a private invitation-only community forum, and a digital cinema census. For the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the screening series, why we started it and what we’ve learned about live events.

In September 2009, I was reading this blog, Ted's blog, and an new article entitled “18 Actions Towards A Sustainable Truly Free Film Community”. In that article he listed a number of areas where a member of our community could deepen their involvement through mentoring, collaborating, learning, evolving and more. As I went through the list, I was happy to note that we were doing each of these in one form or another with one exception -- curating. We weren’t involved in supporting other filmmakers’ work or elevating our local community’s awareness of the works we admired.

Around the same time, Jim Kirst of the Downtown Independent Theater in Los Angeles had invited me to program a regular night at his theater. He probably had something different in mind than what I proposed but he was happy to have us experiment with a new model. So we began with the following goals: To provide a path for an audience to discover independent films, to have filmmakers participate in box office revenue, and to elevate the level of audience participation in a theatrical setting.

I sought out ways for the audience to be involved in the curation process, in the hope that they would feel invested in the selection of films, giving them cause to return to each subsequent screening. Borrowing from something Lance Weiler pioneered at a FROM HERE TO AWESOME event, we created a system using Poll Everywhere, where the audience could watch two trailers, then use their cell phone to send in a keyword vote via text message, and see the results instantly on the theater’s screen.

In addition, we wanted to raise the perceived value of a $10 ticket, so we’ve coupled each screening with additional components like live bands and educational presentations. When we screened Tom Quinn’s The New Year Parade [VID 1, VID 2], his lead actor’s band played us out after a rewarding Q&A. At another, artist-entrepreneur Justin Evans did a two hour presentation [VID] on leveraging state and federal tax incentives to lower the risk of investing in microbudget features. This was followed by a screening of his film A Lonely Place For Dying, a Q&A and a live band featuring a member of the cast. Most recently, we invited filmmakers Gregory Bayne and Gary King to discuss their successful Kickstarter campaigns [VID] in a fireside chat before Gary’s newest film What’s Up Lovely:

We ended that night on the rooftop bar of the Downtown Independent Theater mingling with new fans and forging new friendships. That night in particular we had well over 50% of attendees sign-up for the CINEFIST mailing list.

Part Two continues tomorrow.

Zak Forsman
[Sabi Pictures | Twitter | Facebook]