Although due to work I wasn't able to attend much of IFP's Independent Film Week this year as I had originally planned, I did sit in on a few panels of varying subject matter. One common, yet predictable thread that did run through every single panel I went to, was that times are very much a-changin' and it's still kind of difficult to adapt to these changing circumstances surrounding independent film. That's a little worrisome in the eyes of an editor for hire. Regardless of what panel I listened to, the same old song, with only slight differences emerged sooner or later. How do I get money for and/or make money off my film?
On Saturday, September 19th, the only session I was able to make it to was Working with Film and New Technology. The moderator was Scott Stevens from Eastman Kodak. Speakers included Stefan Czapsky (DP, Fighting, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands), John Dowdell, (Colorist, Goldcrest Production), Martina Radwan (DP, Beautiful Darling, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe), Joshua Zeman (Producer, Ghost Robot).
This panel was made of of industry professionals with a great love of film as a medium. John Dowdell, Stephen Czapsky and Martina Radwan waxed on about the irreplaceable beauty of film. "Only film has the dynamic range for color and luminance...", according to colorist John Dowdell. I love film too and can still tell the difference between film and other formats. That's just how it is and I'm glad for it. Although discussion was interesting, I have to admit I didn't learn a lot about what considerations should be made about stock and camera when working with media that will end up in a digital format. Joshua Zeman did talk a little about it from a producer's point of view but it was most of the other panelists talked about how great the medium of using film is. I will say that John Dowdell is very passionate when describing what film gives a filmmaker (and a colorist). It's obvious he loves what he does and I always find that inspiring to see someone at that level still very excited about their occupation.
I returned to the conference line-up Monday for the Documentary: Thinking Ahead panel, followed by Case Study: Digital Filmmaking and then Crowd Sourcing: Building Fans, Bloggers, and Press Allies.
Documentary: Thinking Ahead consisted of panel members Lisa Heller (VP Documentary Films, HBO), Ross Kauffman (Filmmaker, Born Into Brothels), Molly Thompson, VP, A&E Films. I thought Molly Thompson summed the situation up best when she said (yes I'm paraphrasing a bit, but I'm close), "... the whole market, industry is under pressure. Print and film is shifting. No one knows how it's going to turn out. There's also a recession...". That does explain a lot because there certainly is no sure fire formula for fund raising or distribution. I suppose there never was, but at a time in the not so distant past, filmmakers applied for funding, made their film, submitted it to film festivals and if it was a good film (in some cases not even good) a filmmaker would be fortunate enough to experience a bidding war for their property. From what I hear, those were the days...
The good news is that there are apparently still viable ways of making money from a film. Video on Demand is one. Sundance has an ultra-low budget category now. Ross Kauffman suggested that people will still spend the money if it fits their lifestyle. I would interpret that as meaning, iTunes and other services like that can make money. I know I have learned to watch television series on my iphone (with certain shows, but can't get myself to watch a feature length film on it as of yet. I don't plan to try). I also watch films on my computer, via Netflix, iTunes downloads or dvds. I would have to agree. If it fits my lifestyle, I will spend the money. In other words, there is more competition and the platforms are experiencing a transition right now, but that shift is and will continue to sort itself out.
There was talk of a film's extended life also. A person can't just make a film and call it a day. Filmmakers must think about supplemental material as well and not only for the dvd release. One example the panel brought up is how Lisa Heller worked with Ross Kauffman to create follow up material to Born Into Brothels, which in turn brought further revenue. The follow up film extended the life of the property when offered through HBO on Demand.
Where things get foggy for me (and it seemed I wasn't alone here) is the sort of grass roots, social networking, youtube, internet vortex. The question arose as to when your film is overexposed by the internet. When it comes time to advertise your film release, if everyone's already written, talked and blogged about it, it might be challenging to regain enthusiasm. Where does a filmmaker find a balance between tweeting the word out, youtube hits and Facebook friends (creating a "community" - a following) without hitting the over saturation point? That is a tough question and I believe part of the confusion with modern marketing and fundraising.
Lisa Heller said her attitude toward new technology was positive. Ross Kauffman seemed to couple a great sense of humor (i.e. "Do they have Final Cut for the iphone yet?" and when asked about funding sources, Kauffman quipped "Visa and Mastercard") with the integrity of a filmmaker that still believes good film without concerns over the latest in marketing gimmicks. Molly Thompson appeared straightforward. The same sort of conversation surfaced though, and that is the industry is unclear how to make money off of new platforms.
The next panel in Monday's lineup was Case Study: Digital Filmmaking, Featuring: Sally Potter's Rage. This was a very intriguing session and Sally Potter was an excellent example of a filmmaker making real effort to integrate art and new mediums (no matter how ridiculously small they happen to be).
Panelists for this case study were moderator, Janet Brown (COO, Cinetic Rights Management), Andrew Fierberg (Producer, VOX3 Films, Rage), Karol Martesko-Fenster (General Manager, Film Division, Babel Nework - Babelgum.com).
Toward the beginning of this session we're told that Ms. Potter made Rage thinking of every distribution form and size. The style of the film is basically portraiture and it does look stunning. Although the session didn't include clips from Ms. Potter's film (apparently there wasn't enough bandwidth at the venue), they did show stills with various celebrities against intense, vibrant backdrops (green screen, later saturated in hues such as fuchsia and cobalt). This idea being it will work watching it on dvd, your laptop or your iphone.
Mr. Martesko-Fenster of Babelgum.com was there to talk about his collaboration with Rage. An interesting advertiser supported site that doesn't contain user generated content. It claims innovative auteur driven content. In a nutshell, this isn't youtube. As Mr. Martesko-Fenster put it, it's not for mainstream viewing. That shows in Sally Potter's Rage.
I did go to Babelgum.com and watch Episode 1 today. The film is divided into 7 episodes which slowly develops a backstage mystery at a couture fashion show. It looks as though internet viewing is free via Babelgum.com or ragethemove.com. You can purchase the dvds at a standard price on the official website. I found the first episode slow to start but am interested enough to watch at least another episode to see if it picks up and I imagine it will. I do see how the idea of portraiture works for computer and the iphone viewing, but I wonder if it's interesting enough to sustain a feature length film. I guess since the film is divided into episodes, that may help. Regardless, it's interesting to see how an independent filmmaker is adapting to new technology. Of course we're not all Sally Potter and not all filmmakers have a laundry list of well known actors in our films to sell a viral movie effectively. It is a start none the less and maybe films by well known independents will help foster an internet market for lesser know independents.
The final session I caught was on Monday. Crowd Sourcing: Building Fans, Bloggers, and Press Allies was a popular panel. The several sessions I had attended previous to this weren't nearly as well attended as this session. Apparently there are still many filmmakers trying to figure out crowd sourcing.
The Crowd Sourcing moderator was Ingrid Kopp (Director, US Office, Shooting People). Panelist were made up of Gary Hustwit (Director, Helvetica, Objectified), Bladimiar Norman (Head of Digital Marketing & Communication at 42West), Asiel Norton (Director, Redland), Slava Rubin (Co-Founder/Chief of Streategy Marketing, IndieGoGo.com).
Mr. Hustwit talked about independently financing and producing both his films, largely by way of the web. What that means exactly I'm still unsure. I imagine he did his share of getting the word out via the social networking staples and probably accepted online donations, but it's hard to believe that would be enough to finance a full feature film. I'm guessing it was a combination of individual financial contribution and some other sources. Gary Hustwit talked about starting really early, blogging, posting trailers and clips 9 months before the film is finished. He also talked about a certain amount of audience involvement in the direction and funding. (I found it interesting how some panelist suggested to avoid over exposure too early, while other panelist thought there was no such thing as too much to give viral viewers. Again this area still seems grey).
Asiel Norton was made Redlands discussed expanding the Redlands story via his website, creating additional character and locale backstory to extend the movie's life. Great idea.
Mr. Hustwit suggested looking at who your movie speaks to and find where that audience is. His example was the marketing of Objectified. His film about about a consumer's relationship with manufactured objects and the people who design them include gadgetry. Mr. Hustwit found a gadget enthusiast site, contacting that website with the offer of showing an Objectified trailer exclusively through them. Gary Hustwit said he sold 5,000 worth of tee shirts just from those hits. Another great idea.
There were interesting statements throughout the panel that make a lot of sense. Bladimiar Norman said, "The world loves to talk right now". Ain't that the truth. (I'm blogging and I'm not exactly an extravert.) Another panelist said the web is everything. It's T.V., print, film and more. It's everything and that's the beauty of the internet but keep it simple.
Interesting question came up during the Q&A. One person quoted Ted Hope from an earlier panel saying that he suggested to build 5,000 followers and then make your movie. That can't be an easy task. Another person said they found themselves Facebooking and twittering so much that they've ended up neglected the actual film. That got a big laugh, but nevertheless there were a number of questions about finding time to do all this in addition to the extreme commitment it takes to make the film itself. Someone was even worried about delegating social networking tasks to possible rogue interns. That one got a big laugh too.
So as I said early in this IFP Independent Film Conference review, I heard a lot of variations of the same song. How does an independent make a movie today? Where is the funding and how do I get a paying audience? It's a tough time of transition no doubt and although there was a lot of the same information regarding this, there were also bits of ideas I hadn't thought of or heard before. That's to be expected in a depressed market with changing platforms. Things will work themselves out and I do believe independent film will still exist.