On Saturday I attended the “The Conversation” at Columbia University, a conference focused on “Social Media, Distribution, and the Future of Film.” Related material can be found by searching on the #convonyc hash tag. Here are my notes, not everything here is a faithful translation of the words and meaning intended by the speakers, unless I put something in quotes. There was little talk of the future of film per se, distribution and marketing in the here and now were front and center on the minds of independent filmmakers at this conference, for unless we master distribution and marketing in the new media landscape, there will be little or no future to contemplate.
Free distribution. Nina Paley has been pleased with the results of doing free distribution for her film Sita Sings the Blues, she has managed to generate revenue from the sale of DVDs, T-shirts, and donations. She writes on her web site, “My personal experience confirms audiences are generous and want to support artists. Surely there’s a way for this to happen without centrally controlling every transaction.” Why not? In the old days many filmmakers supplemented their income with grants from Arts organizations, why not go directly to your audience for support? Paley said that “Copyleft was the best decision, the audience is distributing [my film].” Thomas Woodrow (Producer, Bass Ackwards) suggests that even if you do free distribution, you should not offer it free forever, think of it more like a traditional release window, rather than perpetually giving something away. In the end, it’s not simply a choice of one technique over another, it’s about coming up with a portfolio of techniques that makes sense for your project.
DVD and what works. Steve Savage (CEO, New Video) suggested that “DVD is not yet dead” and remains as a robust revenue streams for filmmakers. And while digital revenues might be about 10% on the average of independent filmmaker revenues (compared to 90% for DVDs), this will most likely flip just as it’s going to do in music. 2010 is the year that digital downloads will overtake CD sales in the music business, so it’s only a matter of years before the same thing will happen with films. It’s easy to predict what could happen, it’s hard to predict when, and exactly how things will happen. Richard Lorber (CEO, Kino Lorber) said “we’ve entered the postmodern era of film distribution [in which] everything is possible and nothing is working.” Ira Deutchman quoted an article (don’t recall the titled or reference) that with unusual candor summed things up, “the film business has always been hobby” challenging the “content is king” mantra. Robert Bahar (Producer, Made in LA) said of indie distribution, “This is not easy, this is like being in a rock band…”
New models are emerging. Arin Crumley talked about his new project, OpenIndie, a “”Niche social network” with the goal of connecting independent filmmakers directly with their audiences, filmmakers make their films available, Open Indie helps potential viewers request screenings and entrepreneurs to host screenings, linking potential audiences with films, much in the same way he did with Four Eyed Monsters. Related discussion included the use of Gowalla and Foursquare to help drive audience to screening locations. While digital distribution was the Tsunami in the room, there ramains strong desire among independent filmmaker, and a culultral need, to screen films for an audience.
Using social media. There was a great deal of discussion the use of social media platforms (especially Twitter and Facebook) for promoting your film, but given the panel structure of the conference, there was not a lot of time for tactical nuts and bolts, the level of the discussion remained, for the most part, strategic, but the strategic insights were valuable nuggets:
- Focus on aggregating passionate followers and don’t worry about those who hate your film.
- Online communities moderate themselves and take on a life of their own.
- Participate online speaking in your own human voice (the advice of Seth Godin and The Cluetrain Manifesto comes to mind), authenticity is currency. And modulate the frequency of your interactions with the characteristics of the community you build, we don’t want to replace the old push advertising model with the same beast in new clothing.
- Nina Paley suggested that attention is scarce, while information is plentiful.
- If you make a film for a niche audience, it’s quality, not quanitity that counts. Angel Aviles-Clinton mentioned the film, At Home By Myself With You as an example of successfully raising $46,000 using Facebook and Twitter with a modest number of followers.
- Thomas Woodrow suggests that for content creators to stand out they need to create stories around their stories.
- And many others (search on the #convonyc hashtag for more insights).
New forms? Davin Hutchins of ITVS IndiesLab and I combined our lunchtime discussions, “MicroDocs: What They Are and Why You Might Want to Make One” and “20 is the New 90: The Future of Not-So-Long Form Content on the Web,” respectively, which led to a lively conversation. I’ll write about the discussion in a future blog post, after some synthesis and post-conference discussion with the participants. Stay tuned…
It’s an exciting time to be a storyteller. Lance Weiler‘s words during the closing session wrapped things up, suggesting these are “exciting times to be a storyteller” and in spite of the internet being a disruptive force, “a creative class is going to emerge.” He added that “we’re all trying to figure out how to fund, create, distribute, and exchange.” I hope Lance’s optimism wins out over the concerns over free culture and Web 2.0 voiced by Jaron Lanier in his new book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, a very thoughtful critique that can’t be dismissed lightly, written from an informed perspective.
It’s up to us to create the new landscape. One thing is for sure reading between the lines at this conference: nothing is predetermined at this point and collaboration among independent filmmakers is crucial if we’re going to develop an alternative way to build and connect with audiences and develop a healthy distribution ecosystem, the mainstream mechanisms are breaking apart and we have an opportunity to fill the cracks with a vibrant alternative way to fund our films, find an audience, make our films, find collaborators, deliver media, and engage in a two-way conversation, but we have to do it, we being independent filmmakers. The media technology is in our hands. What will we build with it? How will we build it? In the process of distributing our films, we also have to reinvent the ecosystem in which we distribute our films. A good place to start thinking about this is with the resources gathered in The Workbook Project, started by Lance Weiler.
Shout-out. Kudos to the organizers for assembling a wonderful group of people to discuss, in a productive and meaningful way, the tectonic shifts in communications technology and social media that are rapidly redefining the independent film marketing and distribution landscape. The conference was organized by Scott Kirsner (CinemaTech; author of Fans, Friends And Followers: Building An Audience And A Creative Career In The Digital Age), Tiffany Shlain (Filmmaker; Founder, The Webby Awards), and Lance Weiler (Filmmaker; Editor of The Workbook Project) and hosted by Ira Deutchman (Managing Partner, Emerging Pictures; Professor of Professional Practice, Graduate Film Division, Columbia University School of the Arts).