The Really Good Things In The Indie Film Biz 2012

Last year I wrote out 15 really good things about the indie film biz (2011). My first instincts at looking at the list, are that the 15 from last year are still in process this year. Maybe I was a bit ahead of the curve.  Maybe I should hold this post until 2013.  But I don't think so -- we have much to celebrate this year too.

So what are the new developments that are now taking hold?  Unfortunately, my mind hasn't found the answers as quickly as others have (and here too) even if I do consider myself quite the optimist.  Okay, make that a pessmistic optimist, but an optimist nonetheless.  I have struggled to hit the same number as last year, but I did it, and even exceeded it -- and hopefully you'll continue to fill in the list with what I forgot.

  1. Direct distribution is really working.  We did it on DARK HORSE.  They are also doing it on I AM NOT A HIPSTER (opening January 15 nationwide). The list on the doc side is pretty huge: Stacy Perata and team did it on BONES BRIGADE.  Jeff Orlowski is doing it on CHASING ICE. As INDIE GAME: THE MOVIE: THE CASE STUDY ( http://bit.ly/105pigj) shows, they did it there too.  Add Eugene Jarecki and THE HOUSE I LIVE IN team to the list too.
  2. Hollywood is taking more creative risks.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/movies/films-dispense-with-storytelling-conventions.html  As Ben Affleck noted about this year in film, ", “movies that involve taking risks by the filmmakers and the financiers have been successful."
  3. The film industry is moving towards proportional gender representation in front of and behind the camera.  The NY Times did a good job of pointing the work women are doing done in front of the camera, and that Hollywood is doing producing tales of female heroines.  Additionally, Indieland -- the traditional leader of the cultural space -- has for the first time, shown some balance behind the camera too.  Sundance has an equal number of female directors as men in the narrative competition.  That shouldn't be a surprise, but it has taken us a long time to get here, and we do need to address why there are not more women in power in the entertainment business.
  4. There is an appetite for acquisition from the distributors.  73 titles were acquired at Sundance in 2012. The question of whether they were acquired for a fair price may not unfortunately be part of the general discussion, but at least there was the option of licensing your work again this year.  And I will bring up the lack of a fair price in my upcoming "The Things That Really Sucked In The Indie Film Biz 2012".  Stay tuned...
  5. Worldwide, the industry is asking questions if there is a better way.  Just recently I was invited to Paris and Austin to discuss different perspectives on how we can serve audiences better and improve the business.  This is not the same as launching initiatives, but it is a start.  Last year, I mentioned that the conversation on the Future Of Film took off, but this year it seems to be on a global basis.
  6. Technology is confronting the problem of our transition from an entertainment economy based on scarcity and control of content, to one recognizing the abundance of, total access to, and full distraction from that content.  We have launched an app that does this well.  And we have a good number of competitors in the space.  Readers of this blog have been following the weekly peek into the start-up KinoNation that Roger Jackson has been chronicling -- another example of technology coming to the rescue (hopefully).  And we have media innovation incubator/accelerators starting to blossom.
  7. There has never been a better time to both preserve and advance the film culture I dearly love.  That's why I chose to change my life and focus not on project producing but on producing infrastructure and change.  I am not going to be able to do it alone, but working with the support of the organization that launched the oldest running film festival, should hopefully prove far more fruitful than from proclaiming on high from my private soap box.
  8. New financing options are both here and on the horizon for independent & documentary film.  We've witnessed the launch of Slated and seen films get funded as a result.  Britdoc's impressive GoodPitch funding forum has funneled and support to doc projects and inspired many in the process.  How awesome is that?  Further, we now are seeing other evidence of a second generation of funding mechanisms, as entities like Seed & Spark are combining crowdfunding elements with distribution, marketing, and audience aggregation aspects.  If that was not enough for you, additionally the JOBS Act was passed in the USA, allowing for equity-based crowdfunding for films of under $1M.  We now can give people backend on the films they fund.  There remains a lot to work out on the legal side, but here's hoping that it is used both well and for good.
  9. Transactional VOD Players hit the flashpoint.  VHX.tv, Vimeo PPV, Dynamo player, and many more.  Whether you want an aggregator or prefer to sell on your own, it is easy and painless to do now.  Just ask Louis C.K.
  10. We have our first VOD Superstar. You want big numbers on VOD?  Just cast Kirsten Dunst.  Bachelorette.  Melancholia.  All Good Things.  She's beautiful.  She's a good actor.  She's fascinating to watch.  She's funny.  She's scary.  And she doesn't have too many letters in her name, but just enough to stand out.  Hell, if Elizabethtown premiered on Ultra VOD today, it would set records.  Okay, this isn't really the GOOD thing but just an aspect of a Good Thing.  The Good Thing is that VOD is becoming more marketable and people are not treating as a lesser product.  Once all media outlets start covering VOD premieres that will be an Awesome thing.
  11. Tech and film are talking to each other.  Soon they may even speak the same language.  Film Independent held a hackathon.  Marc Schiller did on the same day on the opposite coast. BAVC Producer University put filmmakers together with tech folks, and in less than a week new apps were born. And not only are they talking, they are getting in bed together -- okay maybe not film yet but media & tech are sleeping together.
  12. The dominance of the feature film form is starting to wain.  Whether it is great webisodes, a tremendous number of wonderful shorts, transmedia experiments, or just cross-platform experiments,  cinema is evolving beyond it's historic constraints.Okay, I did say this one last year, but I still feel it starting to happen.  I can put things on this list two years in a row can't I?  And then I will put it on the negative on the 3rd year, if it hasn't happened yet.
  13. The two films that I helped produce this year, DARK HORSE and STARLET got great reviews in the New York Times.  They also got great reviews many other places too. I can only state this here as a personal positive though.  Stay tuned, as this exact same fact will also be on my "What sucked in 2012" list too.
  14. While I am on that double list tip, here's another that will repeat on tomorrows list of the big and the bad.  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."  From the point of view of the audience, right now this is a beautiful thing.  Conceptually speaking, we should be able to match audiences with the film that is most right for them.  Audiences don't have to compromise.  There are more better movies than ever before.  Unfortunately, we have to build an infrastructure to support this, but that is a rant for another day (like tomorrow).
  15. There is a lot of real & meaningful support for indie writers, directors, and producers working in the genres & realms traditionally supported by indie film support organizations.  When I look at the various labs that are run by Sundance, IFP, Film Independent, & Tribeca, or the the financial & other support provided by the San Francisco Film Society (ahem...), Cinereach, Austin Film Society and other entities I am very impressed.  Granted there is a specific type of movie that seems to most appeal to this sort of thing, but I am impressed at how many programs they are and the good work that they do.  It ain't easy and our culture -- at least a very specific part of it -- really depends on it.  I hope all of you support the organizations that support the culture you love.  Vote with your dollars for the culture you want.
  16. The online community that supports the effort to advance a sustainable culture where the artist & their supportors benefit by the work they create, works to both preserve and advance the vibrant & diverse work that ambitiously reaches further, is committed to transparency, openness, opportunity, & our communal well-being, and knows that it is a team that builds the future and thus gives back in so many ways including posting, commenting, pointing, liking, and financial contributions.  I know this as I am experiencing it daily.  Thank you.

Stay tuned for next week: The Really Bad Things In Indie Film 2012

Addition: I added to this list with a subsequent post.  If you want more reasons to celebrate, check this out.

How To Defeat 10,000,000 Adorable Kittens

by Emily Best & Liam Brady EMILY: Recently I was a guest on an awesome show that brings together musicians, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs to talk, play, and pontificate. Here’s the first question we were asked: we all know how much technology has helped music and film, but what about the challenges it poses?

There’s no doubt in my mind that the greatest challenge technology poses to the arts is fragmentation. In a world where the audience’s attention is so divided, how do you make something stand out? Audiences are more empowered than ever by technology: they can find whatever they want whenever they want it, mostly for free. So why would they ever choose my movie over 10,000,000 adorable cat videos (and then pay for it!)?

We’ve all become extremely adept micro-taskers. “This matters. This doesn’t. This matters. This doesn’t.” These days, if what you're making doesn’t matter, your audience clicks on to the next thing.

 

LIAM: I absolutely agree with the imperative to stand out by making something "that matters," but perhaps the first thing to realize is that we don’t need to construct the “meaningful thing” for the purposes of competing directly with those 10,000,000 adorable kittens. We shouldn't imagine our audiences with their index fingers hovering over their keyboards ready to change the channel the second they're distracted by a brainwave. We should imagine our audiences as communities of trust with which we as artists and storytellers have built a relationship over time.

As artists we probably do ourselves a disservice if our strategy for gaining an audience hinges on making a splash. I still believe we can expect a model in which the audience sits down to watch a movie that was made for them, and they will do so because they know something about it, have become invested on some level, and therefore are willing to afford the filmmaker a little patience beyond the time it takes to deliver only one or two (captivating/beautiful/authentic/hilarious) images.

 

EMILY: Based on just such a vision, we launched Seed&Spark (barely two weeks old!) because we imagine a truly independent and sustainable filmmaking community inclusive of cinema’s two essential sets: filmmakers and audiences. It’s an environment in which filmmakers crowd-fund AND build their audience on the Studio side, and where they can deliver the finished film on the Cinema side and keep 80% of the revenue. We like to think of this as a Fair Trade Filmmaking model. It’s a noble cause!

However, while we certainly think that our WishList crowd-funding tool, our oh-so sexy and sleek design, and our Fair Trade distribution model make us stand out against our competitors, nothing helped us better clarify how we might win over an audience for our website than having to answer this question from our Founding Filmmakers: “How do we build a really successful crowd-funding AND audience-building campaign?”

Unquestionably, the most successful pitches we have seen are the personal ones. The filmmakers are very clear about what they are offering to their community, not what they are asking from them. The filmmaker says: I need to make this project because it matters to me, and then supporters and audiences choose to support that offering because it matters to them as well.

 

LIAM: Yes, and getting personal about the process can be an extremely difficult adjustment for a filmmaker to make. Until now, as filmmakers, our "customers" were really only sales agents, distribution companies, and exhibitors. Audiences weren't our customers at all. But suddenly, we have the opportunity (the obligation?) to interface directly with our audience, and they don’t choose the films they watch based on market quadrants and the results of test-screenings at the mall. If we're going to attempt to leverage them as a source of support, we do need to get more personal with our pitch in order to make it matter to them. It's a completely different animal (read: it is most certainlynot 10,000,000 cats).

The consequence of all this is that we need to think even more deeply about why we're doing what we're doing, and if this sounds like a lot of hard work, that's because it is. Asking "why" and attempting to answer that question with sincerity is a deeply personal and constantly evolving exploration. But what we already know is that the story of this process is deeply compelling to supporters, and these supporters are the first and most passionate tier in the network that will become your own self-made audience.

As filmmakers we must be willing to lay bare our personal drive to create, with faith that the audience for our films will respond. Only then will we have discovered the method by which to defeat those 10,000,000 adorable kittens.

 

EMILY BEST is the founder and CEO of Seed&Spark, a startup to build a truly independent community in which she would like to make moving pictures. Before producing Like the Water, the project that inspired it all, Emily produced theater, worked as a vision and values strategy consultant for Best Partners, ran restaurants, studied jazz singing at the Taller de Musics, tour guided and cooked in Barcelona, and before that, was a student of Anthropology at Haverford College. 

LIAM BRADY is the Chief Operating Officer at Seed&Spark, and a writer/director by vocation. He is currently preparing to direct the short film FOG CITY, which tells the story of an amateur baseball player with a hidden past who must overcome his need for privacy after making an unnerving discovery on the beach. @LiamEdwardBrady

Without An Audience, It Can't be Art!

By Emily Best I hold this apparently really unpopular view that without an audience, it can’t be art. “Art” is a social label, a negotiation between the artist, the object (or performance) and the viewer.

This is history’s fault. Art was reserved for the rich or those with access to the rich. We didn’t see how it was made, conceived, choreographed, or staged until it appeared in front of us. And mostly, everyone liked it that way. Artists got to create with very little interference. Audiences had very little interaction with the artists or processes that created what they saw in museums, theaters, and on stage, so they were happy to pay their hard earned money to witness that “magic.”

But now we live in the age of the digital download. What a viewer used to have to spend $10 on a museum ticket to see can be called forth with a few clicks of a button. What a viewer used to line up to buy in a store for $10 (a CD or DVD) can now be downloaded in a few seconds for a few dollars (or free). The value proposition has been turned on its head. And now there’s just so much stuff available everywhere all the time, film studios and filmmakers are trying desperately to compete for a slice of a rapidly dividing pie. The movie business had a system: It used to be “theatrical release, then video, then TV.” Now it’s “VOD, then theatrical and DVD,” or “all three together!”, or whatever combination of existing options the studios can come up with using their data models. Not a lot of out-of-the-box thinking being applied.

Did you know football used to be a running game only? There were a LOT of combinations of running plays. Then one day in 1905, St. Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson passed the ball forward to his teammate, leaving the other team scrambling through the rulebook to see if that was ok. It was. Everyone started renegotiating their offenses around the forward pass. BOOM. Whole new ball game.

In the digital age, transparency is the forward pass. It’s the business play that’s changing the game. Everything changes when you let everyone in. Kickstarter has done it to business and Facebook has done it to society. It makes consumers - audiences - demand to know more, to see more, to feel like a part of the process. It’s toppling regimes, swaying elections, and making it more possible than ever for people to get creative endeavors off the ground.

It’s faster and cheaper to make movies and your audience is out there and it’s easier to connect directly to them than ever before. Yet fewer specialty titles are getting the green light from studios than ever before. Transparency is creating so much connectivity, but the data hasn’t caught up, and data is what they use to green-light pictures.

At the moment, studios are throwing money at the problem, trying to find the Thing to replace those juicy DVD revenues that padded their pockets for a decade. They make and remake existing properties rather than risk the potentially lower return of specialty (indie) movies because they have to feed the Beast. The Beast is not agile and flexible, and the technology platforms profiting hugely from transparency certainly are.

And yet, filmmakers read “How to get film distribution,” or “How to get your film financed” and all these books tell you how to think like a studio, how to find data like a studio, how to write a script based on the “market.” There’s no talk of passion, or connection to your audience, or ART. These expert authors write not about finding audience but about about finding “markets.” Who is a market? What does it like? It’s as impenetrable as the studio walls or cable’s VOD numbers. No one really knows (despite their most fervent claims).

So why are so many independent filmmakers trying to use the Beast’s model? Filmmakers are startup entrepreneurs with creative products, and can design their business models really any way they like. The difference is, startup entrepreneurs are learning from books like Eric Reis’s “The Lean Startup.” Reis’s core argument is that rather than investing tons of time and money producing what you think the market wants, you need to get the product in front of real consumers as soon as humanly possible – even before the masterpiece is ‘ready.’ You ask questions by showing them a fledgling product and seeing how they react. Then you iterate, and build a core of supporters from the very beginning who will help you make it better.

So, who is your audience? Can you really know without testing?

Transparency - letting people in - is a brave, creative act. It asks more questions of the material than it answers because it acknowledges that the art of filmmaking is meant to have an affect on an audience. And only an audience can tell you if that’s successful. They might also help you make it successful.

And so here’s the fight I have: many talented artists I talk to feel that letting the audience in to the process, even as a thought, somehow corrupts the purity of expression. And I say, corrupts? You must not think much of the people on whose eyeballs and pocketbooks your livelihood relies. Why should they not demand their equal place in the artistic equation? I argue that rather than hinder the artistic process, an engaged audience emboldens the creator to take bigger risks.

It means trusting the audience with their taste. In turn the audience trusts you to produce high quality work without all the traditionally legitimizing (studio) eyes on it. It's a big responsibility for everyone, but it means we might all get back to the art of filmmaking. And, you know, change the business while we’re at it.

EMILY BEST is the founder and CEO of Seed&Spark, a startup to build truly independent community in which she would like to make moving pictures. Before producing Like the Water, the project that inspired it all, Emily produced theater, worked as a vision and values strategy consultant for Best Partners, ran restaurants, studied jazz singing at the Taller de Musics, tour guided and cooked in Barcelona, and before that, was a student of Anthropology at Haverford College.