Thoughts on "Free" From The Conversation: NYC Edition

Today's guest post is from producer Smriti Mundhra.  I confess I have been slow in my posting and should have run this last week! If the sun came out in New York City this past Saturday, I didn’t see it. Instead, I spent the day in Columbia University’s Uris Hall with about two hundred fellow filmmakers participating in The Conversation, an all-day conference about the future of independent film funding, marketing and distribution. There was a lot to talk about.

The program for The Conversation consisted of panels, discussion groups and breakout sessions, each featuring both indie fllm stalwarts (Eugene Hernandez, Scott Macaulay, Bob Hawk) and new media trailblazers (Lance Weiler, Arin Crumley). But it was Ira Deutchman, CEO of Emerging Pictures and professor at the university’s graduate school of film, who dropped the first bomb in his opening remarks when he quoted a businessman with whom he recently had lunch: “Film? That’s not a business, that’s a hobby.”

Though the folks behind Avatar might disagree, the conversations that followed Deutchman’s speech had me wondering if this cold-hearted suit had a point when it comes to the independent film industry. If one could have extracted a theme from the day’s panels and discussions, it would have been this: you want to get your independent film out there? Chances are you’re going to have to give it away for free.

As Michael Barnard pointed out in his two-parter “Free is Not Worth the Price” a few posts back, this principle of “free” does not a business make. I was alarmed by the number of filmmakers I met on Saturday who have willfully resorted to giving the milk away—either to distributors by accepting zero-advance deals with virtually no hope of profit participation, or directly to the consumer via online platforms. Equally distressing is Eugene Hernandez’s case study of the upcoming film Breaking Upward, which reveals that the filmmakers took their generous-by-comparison $40,000 advance from IFC Films and reinvested it into their own marketing (thereby doubling the advertising budget for the film), and yet do not seem to have an increased participation in the film’s upside should it succeed.

Most vocal of these “free mavens” was panelist Nina Paley, director of the charming and deeply personal animated feature Sita Sings the Blues. Paley, who was road-blocked into a selling no more than five thousand DVDs of her film because of a complicated music licensing deal, decided instead to give it away for free, in all digital formats and in perpetuity, to anyone who wants to screen or sell it. She then crafted a “creator-endorsed” logo available to anyone who shares part of the profits with her. Paley spent years making her film and took out loans to pay the $50,000 music licensing fee, and now relies on the kindness of strangers—who voluntarily pay screening fees or share profits, and buy Sita-inspired merchandise from her website—to see profits from her work. This suits her just fine.

Though Paley has become the poster child for Free Method, not everyone shares her enthusiasm. The filmmaker came to a head with distribution consultant Peter Broderick during his dealmaking seminar, when she announced to all and sundry that by guiding filmmakers into selling of exclusive rights to their films, Broderick was perpetuating a monopolistic system that killed free trade. She informed Broderick that she was “the only filmmaker in the world who is happy with her distributor,” to which he curtly replied, peering at her over his eyeglasses, “I doubt you know every filmmaker I work with, Nina.”

Throughout the day, my thoughts kept drifting back to the “film is a hobby” statement. The dictionary defines hobby as “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.” As anyone who has made or distributed a film recently knows, it is not relaxing and is very much a main occupation. In fact, it was made clear during The Conversation that filmmakers are having to work harder than ever for increasingly smaller pieces of pie (crumbs, really). However, as condescending and arrogant as it is to refer to independent filmmaking as a hobby, for most of us it’s not exactly a business either. As panelist Richard Lorber, CEO of distributor Kino Lorber, put it, “everything’s possible but nothing’s working.”

Though no distributors seem to be willing to reveal numbers or metrics, I would have liked to hear more from companies such as Oscilloscope Laboratories and Palm Pictures (who released a feature I produced called Bomb the System with some success) that at least seem to be making money selling independent films to consumers, as opposed to the myriad companies selling distribution platforms to filmmakers.

Ryan Werner of IFC Films—the lone voice of semi-traditional distribution at the conference, bless his heart—offered some candid insight into what sells and what doesn’t: no-name personal indies and romantic comedies are the toughest sells, genre material and anything laced with controversy are the easiest. Anybody surprised? Probably not. And yet, the majority of us independent filmmakers work doggedly to make films that have virtually no chance in the marketplace, only to have to jump through hoops to get people to watch even as we give them away for free. Clearly, we on the content-production side have some reassessing to do.

Just as everyone was getting ready to collectively throw up their hands in despair and looked for the nearest exit, The Conversation co-host Scott Kirsner reminded us that when the film business started over a hundred years ago, when somebody started charging people to watch thirty-second reels in a kinetoscope parlor on Fifth Avenue, the average weekend box office was $120.

“I think if you were in Manhattan back then, you would have said ‘this isn’t really storytelling, this isn’t an art form, and this certainly isn’t a business,’” Kirsner said from behind his podium. “I think we’re in a similar moment right now. It doesn’t feel like a business yet, but those of us in this room are the early pioneers, ignoring the warning signals that eventually won’t mean anything.”

In the mean time, events like The Conversation are helping bring like-minded pioneers together to share and experiment so that one day, the independent film business can truly be a business again.


The Conversation:

Eugene Hernandez’s case study:

Sita Sings the Blues:

Precisely: The Conversation

Scott Kirsner has blogged about the the highlights of The Conversation last weekend, which I had the pleasure of participating in.  

film is just one component of a story that you start telling before your first festival showing... and continue to build on and embroider even after you've released the DVD and digital download. The "movie release date" becomes just one milestone in this conversation between you and your audience. Some people who participate in the conversation may never actually buy a ticket or a download... while others may become so engaged that they buy everything you offer, and help market your movie to everyone they know.

This is two things:

1) utilizing the power of the internet to be different media all at once.

2) This is branding. Intellectual property building.

Filmmakers and novelists and other creatives need to figure this out now. Their book, comic, movie, animation, music, radio drama, is only the beginning. A book isn't just between the covers. A movie isn't just onscreen.

Don't think small. Think about how you can add to your creation. How you can translate it. How it can have further value - both to you and your audience


The Conversation: Live in Berkley 10/18

Scott Kirsner, Lance Weiler, Tiffany Shlain and others put together a great program at Pacific Film Archives this past weekend, bringing together folks from the tech, social entrepreneur, and film worlds.  There was a lot of great stuff on the new world of DIY/Hybrid Distribution.  I imagine Lance will post a lot of it over at The Workbook Project.  

This is a nice low angle (i.e. I am not quite so wide in real life -- or rather I still like to think my self not so wide) shot of my "Coffee Chat" with Scott and Dean Valentine of  It captures and highlights my nasal honk quite well though.   It's the end of the session Q&A and I rant on the transformation from an impulse to a choice economy of entertainment, throwing in some speculation on the coming Post-Fest Era to boot.

On changing Festival world, Variety has an article on how the financial crisis has effected film festivals. Worth checking out.