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Tonight I had the opportunity to speak at the New York Foundation For The Arts. I think the video posting of it is going to go up shortly in case you want to compare how closely I keep to the text.
TOWARDS THE NEW MODEL: FILMMAKING AS AN ONGOING CONVERSATION WITH YOUR AUDIENCE (NYFA 5.28.09)
We are cursed. And it’s that old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. We certainly are living in interesting times. Still though, I’ve always considered that curse a blessing. I know that back in my early days — when I gave up trying to be happy and instead decided to pursue an interesting life — I found as a result: things got better and I got a lot happier. So I am here to tell you, that although a lot of what I may say today may make it sound like the sky has already fallen, if we filmmakers finally surrender unrealistic expectations and instead embrace our opportunities, and precede along logical, practical, passionate and community-oriented lines, we are going to have it better than we’ve ever had it before. These interesting times are gong to open up film culture in a freer, more engaged way.
I am assuming that all of you recognize yourself as filmmakers, and the type of filmmaker who aspires to make ART, to be truthful, bold, groundbreaking. I want to help you understand what it means to be that type of filmmaker in the context of today and what it is going to mean for you tomorrow. To do that, I want you all to first look at where the business, the culture, and the practical aspects of filmmaking are for the various people who maintain the apparatus that makes filmmaking work: the distributors, the financiers, the marketers, the exhibitors and the audience.
You need to recognize these folks as your collaborators, and for you to be able to see with their eyes, to stand in their shoes, we first must all speak the same language. We need to have a common definition for cinema. For this common definition, I want to move away from the technical or business vernacular and instead define it on the most human scale possible: cinema is a dialogue between the audience and the screen.
I don’t think film-going is any more a passive experience than filmmaking is, and cinema is where creation and consumption unite. If we embrace the active spirit of film-going, if we accept that there is a quiet dialogue running in the heads of all audiences, we are going to start to find some answers on how we – the filmmakers – survive this vast paradigm shift our culture is now engaged in – because I am confident we are not just going to survive, but we are going to prosper and bring better work to more audiences in all sorts of new ways. But hold that thought. We will come back to those answers later.
Having first accepted this definition of the common dialogue that cinema is, we must now look at the situation all those aforementioned collaborators of ours – sometimes called “the suits” — are in. And this is where it is going to get ugly:
• Right now, according to this week’s Variety, Art House admissions are down 66% whereas Hollywood Product’s ticket sales are up 16%.
• Last week more Americans defined themselves as “game players” than those that called themselves “Movie-goers”. More leisure time activities compete for our attention than ever before, and the movies are losing.
• In a recent poll, 20% more Americans preferred to watch films at home on DVD rather than in the theater.
• By my account, only about 4% of the independent films made in America annually, get traditional distribution. I saw more good work produced for under $1M last year alone than I usually see altogether in five years – yet only two of the 18 or so excellent low budget films I saw had traditional distribution and neither of those made much money.
• The acquisition market in the US has collapsed to the point that you can not expect to get more than $50K for a twenty year all media license for a non-genre feature and even then it is doubtful your film will play beyond NY & LA.
• International sales prices meanwhile are down 40% and very little is now bought on presale.
• Private equity investors are asking for budgets to drop by about 60% from where they were a year ago; what once was $15M is now $6M; what once was $8M is now $3M – and on each of these, the financiers demand twice as many name actors for each film as they did last year.
• Distributors and financiers, aka studios, are generally built for the future library value of the product they make; but in a world where a digital copy is easily disseminated in a blink of an eye, that library value can vanish overnight – and with that, their stock value, and certainly thousands of jobs will vanish too.
• Although the bootleggers have already built a platform that provides whatever you like wherever you like whenever you like, the industry leaders can no more decide on a common format for just such a platform than they could over VHS tape or BluRay disc or internet digital music downloads.
• Our cultural curators, the critics at magazines and newspapers, have almost all lost their jobs, leaving virtually no one to champion the undiscovered gems.
• The newspapers and magazines where they worked, once the easiest way to unify upscale opinion, are shuttering left and right, leave the marketers with no place to advertise efficiently and effectively.
• The economic collapse has wrecked havoc on everyone, and not the least of all: non-profit arts organizations and film festivals. The local launch pads for many films have vanished or shrunken and more will be doing so soon.
Now that you get the picture, let’s try on those shoes I spoke about. Put yourself in your well-suited collaborators’ place:
• If you are a marketer, how do you position something if there are no critics to champion it and no place to advertise it?
• If you are an exhibitor, are you going to take a chance on something with no marketing budget from someone that isn’t promising bigger films down the pike? When the big guns insist you run their film for a long term booking, how do you take a chance on something new even for a short while hawked by some upstart filmmaker?
• If you are a distributor, why should you pay money for a film when most festival prize winning films by the biggest names are being given away for the promise of a NY & LA theatrical opening – if even for that.
• If you are a financier, why would you invest in something that can sell for, at best, only 40 –60% of its value? And even then, it can be easily stolen out from under you by a savy pimply-faced pirate knowing basic computer code?
• If you are an audience member, who loves new work, and wants to engage in a dialogue with your social network, how do you resist the temptation to press “download now” when it is free and simple and you know that it won’t be available to you anytime soon near by in its traditional form?
• If you are a filmmaker how do you hear all this and not feel the shoes you walk in are actually cement boots headed off a short pier?
Now that I’ve told you all this, I want you to know that by the time I finish tonight you are not going to want to kill yourself because even if others have not yet found the answers, they have started to pave the paths towards them. You are not going to hang from the rope you’ve been desperately clutching on to, because audiences have been telling you what they want for a long time now if you wanted to listen. No plastic bags or pill bottles are needed in any filmmakers’ arsenal when they have the incredible tools being handed to them as they are… right now… for free.
Filmmakers are lucky because we’ve got to watch the Roman Empire that once was the music business burn before our ears, and we have seen musicians rise like phoenixes from the ashes finding and exploring new methods of bringing songs to their fans and even finding ways to earn the money that is needed to do so. If we embrace their example, extract some lessons from those who have recognized their audiences as collaborators, and utilize the liberty that comes with our independence to explore and even be willing to fail as we innovate, aggregate, and motivate, we can have a truly free culture before us. (If you haven’t read Scott Kirsner’s “Fans, Friends & Followers” do so tonight and you can get specific examples of people doing it right.)
Music is different from film because musical artists seldom ever bet it all on each new album. Musicians expect the fans that they developed with one effort to come back for more, but here in the film world, we are reinventing the wheel each time. Today musicians work to engage their audience for the long term, for the long tail, but the film business remains a series of one-offs. If a diverse film culture is going to flourish in this country, we have to move to a new model where filmmaking is a process, an ongoing conversation between the filmmakers and their various audiences. That is the new model I hope you can embrace when you walk out of here tonigh.
For film to make sense as a business in today’s world, filmmakers must accept the responsibility of bringing their audience to their movie and to engage them in a meaningful way. Filmmakers must reprogram themselves to accept that it is their obligation to seed, corral, and drive their audience. The marketing, publicity, and distribution apparatus out there will build upon that audience foundation the filmmaker first developed, but in choosing what films they will take a risk on, these new collaborators will be motivated to work with the filmmakers who come with several wheels already rolling – those that have already built an audience foundation, a dependable fan base.
You don’t need anyone’s help to build an audience. You start to grow it yourself and soon others will join in. You just need to be willing to work, to reach out to others, to curate, to recommend, to listen, to make sure you have something to say that will excite others, to join them in a dialogue. There is no excuse not to engage with others through the multitude of social media that is available now for free to anyone. It is your obligation. You can not afford to be precious and think you only make art. The culture supports for the “seventh art” are virtually non-existent in this country. You have to complete the equation and bring the audience to the dialogue.
I recognize that it is my obligation too. It is part of the price for the privilege of making and enjoying culture. I kept seeing good work that quickly was being forgotten. Every festival delivered me new gems but I recognized that these films were not being helped by the mainstream media. So what did I do? I got some friends together and started HammerToNail.com to champion true indie work, to curate for the fans. I watched great films not being distributed or screened on a big screen, so what did I do? I reached out to some friends and now co-curate a screening series at Goldcrest where we invite over 500 people to a 60 seat space to appreciate new work. I speak about a “Truly Free Film” culture so much, but know I am not being heard widely enough, so what do I do? I started TrulyFreeFilm.blogspot.com and got over my fear of Facebook and Twitter and try to speak to folks like you as much as I can. I ask you: what are you doing to save this thing that you say want to devote your labor to? Do you want a world where the only American cinema is blockbuster tentpoles told by privileged white men? I may be one of those, but I know I don’t.
Now, I am a busy guy. I have produced 60 films. I hope to produce 40 more – and those are just the ones I have identified right now. But I have time to do all this because IT MUST BE DONE. And it is freakin’ easy too. And even kinda fun. It has reached a point that even my eight year old can run and maintain his own blog. Share what you like; you will find others who like what you have to say (in fact with his obsession with lego, bakagan and Dr Who, he probably has more of an audience than I do with American Art Film). Champion them and they will champion you. Help your new friends find an audience for their work and they will do the same for you. Why do you think I am here speaking before you now? I am not some sort of self-less giver. I come here now because I will want your help later – and I expect you will want mine. Let’s make it a give-give, win-win scenario.
But that work must begin early, and it must be maintained. You have to be a good friend. You have to provide. You have to enhance the lives of your fans. It is not just about self-promotion. I don’t care that you are having coffee or walking your dog or even have ideas about the three most frequently said words after sex are (that was a popular tweet this week). I want substance. I want beauty. I want to be wowed – at least every once and awhile.
Kevin Kelly pointed out that to be a self supporting artist we all need 1000 True Fans who are willing to pay $100 a year for whatever it is we have to say (okay, maybe a bit more if you live in NYC, but…). Backed by such an army, there’s a whole new way for you to create. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a year on most social networks to develop those relationships, longer to refine them, and even more to enhance them – if you are going to have those fans, friends, and followers join in your ongoing conversation.
It must be part of every working artist’s job description now to develop your fan base and audience. We also have to recognize that those fans are ours, that they are our most precious resource and we’ve been giving them away up to now. You may have sold your work, but you should still own your fans. We must recognize that our fans are our path to freedom, but by abandoning our rights to them, we’ve turned our selves into slaves. By not recognizing our obligations to our fans, we have allowed our culture to continue to slide to lower and lower common denominators.
When you license your work for low fees because you want to move on and create again, and you haven’t even made sure that your contracts grant you access to the very data you’ve mined – who those fans who pay for your work are – you have sealed your fate for the next time around. You will never be free. It may benefit you to go the DIY route and it may not (that’s a whole other discussion we can have some other time). But what ever your path, you need to be gathering the data along the way on who cares about your work, who loves your work. You need to know how to reach them. And remember: if your fans follow you through some social network app, you don’t really know them – and you certainly don’t own them or their data. You don’t have a way to contact them outside of that app. It means nothing unless you have their email, and that too will be virtually useless unless you invest to make your relationship with them work. You must harvest your data if you are going to be able to survive.
Music – let’s go back to that — is also different than film because most musicians have multiple art forms to offer their fans, in that they have both the recorded and the live performance, whereas filmmakers still only have a single product. Most music acts have also realized that the business is in the merchandise and not even in either of those art forms – and that certainly doesn’t mean that the merchandise can’t also be an art form. It can. Yet with these strong examples before us filmmakers can’t seem to get beyond the simple t-shirt or action figure to provide their fans.
If I am a true cineaste, how do I display my passion? Is it through the purchase of the complete Criterion Catalogue? You call a dvd a fetish object? I think not! Film lovers want something that shows how much they care, but now, at best, they can buy another book from Taschen. When are we going to have each film come with that artwork, that sculpture, that special thing, that says I am more than just a fanboy? That I am a true cultural conneisuer? Now, I have a 3’x2’ art work on my office wall that looks like a series of large pixels. But once you take a magnifying glass to it you see that they are film frames, one frame from each second of Kubrick’s 2001. It lets you know something about me and my tastes. We need to come up with more products like this to extend our conversations beyond the screen and theater walls.
Music will always trump film because music gets better and better the more you play it, but there are few films that hold up through multiple viewings. But film can go much further than it has so far. Why are we so locked into film as a form that can only be enjoyed when it is completed in a single seating? DVD technology allows for extensive micro-chaptering which in turn will allow for Search Engine Optimization, which in turn will lead to crowds embedding these tiny segments and thus promoting your film across a thousand outlets – but no one is doing this sort of chaptering.
Who said filmmaking is only 90 minutes long with a beginning, middle, and an end, even if not necessarily in that order? And why did we believe them? Why do our narratives have to be limited to that duration and form? With so many platforms and devices to launch and engage from, why are we still waiting for that first popular transmedia culture maker to emerge?
We aren’t doing ourselves any favors when we don’t even know what to name that thing that is that thing that we all want. The evidence is everywhere: audiences want a more immersive experience that they can join in and shape and modify, one that they can remix and rejoin, drop and pick up, forget and then recognize again as it transforms, but what is that? What do we call this thing? What do we name this thing can make movies an event again, that can make them effectively compete with all the other leisure time activities?
When a child says “Pokemon” they don’t think of just the tv-show or the movies or the card game or the video games or the cute figurines. The word Pokemon covers All Of It. Yet we have no audience-friendly term for the complete engagement with media content across all platforms in various ways. Studios call it the “franchise” but they still drive all the by-products off the narrative feature film leader. Madison Avenue calls it “brand management” but they keep all the products separate and never participatory. And both sides lobby for laws that keep our culture private, never motivating fans to make it their own, to disseminate it, or deliver it in new ways to their friends.
Our salvation won’t come from anyone other than ourselves. Truly independent film, truly free film must be the innovator on all fronts. We are the ones willing to take the risk, to embrace audience collaboration, to give them more than the simple one-off video product, and it is truly independent filmmakers that will reap the rewards.
In the most simple terms, when filmmakers recognize that each story can be told in different forms with different tones, different approaches, even different characters, they will also have new ways to engage audiences, to seed them, corral them, and drive them. It maybe with thematically related short films that are released before and after the feature becomes available. It may be with written texts that enhance their understanding or appreciation. It may be through games, through products, through live events.
However & whoever it is, the filmmakers who participate in these multiple platform ways will have solved more than just one problem. They will have engaged their audience in an ongoing dialogue that extends beyond the film product itself, but also they will have reinvented the film so it is once again an event, something distinct, something fresh, something they make a priority. The film will be the unifying action that the community comes together around. It will be how they find one another. It will be the deciding factor amidst the myriad of leisure time activities competing for there ever shortening attention. I think it is clear: providing a better dialogue with the audience is how we going to keep our diverse film culture alive.
And keep in mind that amidst all of this chaos, release patterns and methods are changing even faster. Film festivals are no longer markets. Festivals need to be recognized and exploited as media launches. Festivals are the moment when filmmakers get the most attention. Festivals are also the cheapest way anyone has of getting attention so whether you are surrendering your baby to another parent/distributor, or going the DIY route, you are going to want to use the festivals to publicize your film is available to be booked, that you are selling the DVD. That said, exhibitors are having a harder time playing indie films – be it finding slots or feeling it will be promoted sufficiently — so where do you get your bookings?
If Robert Greenwald can take his (thankfully) fiercely partisan films into people’s living rooms, why can’t you? Countless filmmakers have found ways to incentavize individuals, communities, and organization to push their films, so what’s to stop you from building your own promotional army? People are selling DVDs directly from their websites, directly at their screenings. These are plans that you need to consider before you shoot and there is good reliable information available for free all over the internet to help you weigh these decisions. You need to put it into action before you apply to the festivals. You need to embrace it as your plan before you apply for grants. You need to accept that it is a filmmakers responsibility to find their audience and bring their work directly to them.
Now all of this is not easy, but it’s really not hard either. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is happening right now. It requires labor but that which is derived from love is hardly really work. It requires delayed gratification but promises infinite satisfaction. It requires strategy and planning, but needs to be playful and sweetly chaotic. There is no one to discover you, but we all want to find you. No pot of gold waiting; but there is a life, a life time, a career, and a body of work begging to be created before you. Sure, it requires adding more to your job description. And it requires refresher courses along the way. It requires a different way of seeing altogether. The nice thing is we have good examples. We are ahead of the studios in our plans and we are willing to take bigger risks.
Your work is your life. You aren’t striving for any one thing other than to improve and to change. Don’t think about that ONE movie you want to make;focus on the long term and what you need to feel as excited, as engaged in fifteen years as you are today. Use your resources. Use your audience. Grow it. Sustain it.
What is stopping us? Let our barriers please not be ourselves. We have now been given the tools to bring us together, to share and to promote. Our products gain in value not by their scarcity but by how much they multiply and are enjoyed. Our desire is not to acquire, but to give away. Filmmakers, those who aspire to ART, to the bold, to the innovative, and to the transcendent have always thought differently: we’ve been most concerned about the outcome and not the income – and rightly so. Begin the conversation. Make it last a good long time. We will all profit from it.
Is there something in our wiring that makes us respond more to problems than to the positive aspects about our situation? I started the year out with a list over 52 Reasons To Be Hopeful. Last week I posted a shorter list, a virtual brain dump, on the problems I felt we all faced on the American Indie side of the film industry.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: WHY INDIE FILM CULTURE WILL SURVIVE
1.It is so easy to blog that everyone could have their own page in a matter of minutes. I thought about having a blog for several months before I made the leap and then I was up and on it a matter of minutes.
2. The more people are exposed to quality films (and culture in general) the more their tastes gravitate towards quality films. I would love to see an actual study on this, but I was told it by one of the Netflix honchos in that their members gravitate to the “auteurs” the longer they’ve been a member.
3. Committed Leaders To A Open Source Film Culture have emerged. I have been incredibly inspired by all the work that those I have labeled as Truly Free Film Heroes have done. Even more so I am moved by their incredible generosity in their sharing of all they have learned.
4. The Tools To Take Personal Control are available, numerous, and fun. There are more than I can list (but the TFF Tools List is a pretty good start).
5. Giving it away for free is good business. Anderson’s essay is required reading. Look at Google who gives away 90% (est.) of what they create (the search engine) and drives a good advertising business in the process. For years The Greatful Dead were one of the top grossing concert acts, driven in a good part by their willingness to allow their fans to “bootleg” their concerts and “distribute” them themselves. The question is what do you give away and what do you use to produce revenue.
6. Film Festivals are evolving. Local film fests have already identified the core film lovers in every region. For decades these festivals have been content to live in a single period each year, overloading their audiences with too many choices come festival time. Now festivals are giving theatrical bookings as awards (help us build a list of these). Some are moving to a seasonal subscription model. Some are even paying significant screening fees. And then there are the cash awards (those are still around somewhere, aren’t they?).
7. Internet Streaming is being used by filmmakers to build A WORLD of Word Of Mouth. Slamdance has announced that they will stream films right after the festival. For years we have know that word of mouth is the primary way that a specialized film succeeds. But it is costly, but now that has changed.
8. 2008 is the strongest year for under $1M EVER. I have seen almost 20 films this year by filmmakers who clearly will develop a great body of work. Only a few were at Sundance. They keep on coming. They may still be hard to find, but the films are out there and at a quality and quantity as never before. Check out Hammer To Nail’s list of top 13 films of the year and get watching.
9. Plenty of DVD manufacture & Fullfillment places (see sidebar).
10. Plenty of places to place your content online for eyeballs to find (anyone want to generate a comprehensive list to share?).
11. Things like Netflix and Blockbuster.com make it possible for anyone with a mailing address to see any movie he or she wants. A lot of viewers who haven’t had access to theaters or even video stores that stock smaller films can now get them if they know about them. (thanks Semi!)
12. The Major Media Corporations retreat from the “Indie” film business. This will open up distribution possibilities for entities not required to produce high profit margins or only handle films that have huge “crossover” potential and necessitate large marketing budgets.
13. A new turn-key apparatus is evolving for filmmakers who want to “Do it with others” in that they can hire bookers, publicists, marketers – all schooled in the DIY manner of working. Instead of hoping for a Prince Charming to arrive and distribute their film, TFFilmakers are seeking out the best and the brightest collaborators to bring their film to the audiences.
14. We have seen a perfect distribution model and its success: the Obama social network was nothing short of a thing of beauty. Its methods should be an inspiration for all truly free filmmakers. People had a reason to visit the site, to supply information, to reach out and connect to others. They were supplied the tools and a mission. Now go out and find someone to vote for the culture you want.
15. The DIY/Do It With Others model is now recognized as a real alternative to traditional make-it-and-pray-that-others-will-pay-to-distribute-it-for-you. Filmmakers are planning for it as a possibility from the start of production. This preparation becomes the key to success.
16.Filmmakers are recognizing the need to define a platform far earlier. Be they producers like Bill Horberg or Jane Kosek , directors like Raymond DeFelitta and Jon Reiss ,or writers like John August and Dennis Cooper, creative filmmakers are taking upon themselves to find and unite their audiences at an earlier stage in the process. Okay, maybe it isn’t so Machavellian; maybe they just want to talk to people. Either way, it is going to lead to more people seeing better films.
17. A curatorial culture is starting to emerge. Creative communities need filters. Every year I have as many “want to see” films on my list as I do “best of”. It’s not that there is too much as some like to claim, but it’s that there is still too little discussion on what is best and why. We started Hammer To Nail for this reason, but we are not alone. Although they tread in much different waters, popular email blasts/broadcasts like Daily Candy and Very Short List, these sites work as much as filters as they do identifiers. Social Networks most popular features are members “favorites” in their profiles. We are all being trained as curators, but are only now starting to share it publicly.
18.A feature film is no longer defined as a singular linear narrative told in under two hours. Filmmakers are recognizing the need to extend the filmic world beyond the traditional confines. Whether this is in Judd Apatow’s YouTube shorts for KNOCKED UP or in Wes Anderson’s prologue short for THE DARJEELING EXPRESS, the beginning of new models have emerged helping filmmakers continue the conversation forward with their audiences.
19.New models for production are being utilized. The most widely noted in this regard is “crowdsourced” work. Massify has recently brought together the horror film Perkins 14. This year brought us Matt Hanson’s and A Swarm Of Angels open sourced / free culture start-up THE UNFOLD; the trailer is mysterious and I am looking forward to the feature. These massive collaborative works are the ultimate union between audience and creator.
20. Grassroots has come to distribution. The Living Room Theater model advanced by Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Theaters empowers audience members and filmmakers alike bringing them together and invested in each others success. Filmmakers give the audience more power and control, and audiences recognize that they have to fight to preserve the culture they want.
21. The independent art house theaters are organizing. Sundance is hosting the first Art House Convergence this year prior to the festival, helping to build the knowledge base of these theaters and enhance their collaboration. This platform will be key to preserving the theaterical experience for films outside the domain of the major media corporations.
22. Financiers are collaborating with each other. Groups like Impact Partners that provide regular deal flow, vetting, and producerial oversight for investors with common interests lowers the threshold number for investors interested in entering the film business. IndieVest is another model based on subscription, deal flow, and perqs. The high amount of capital needed to enter the film business has limited its participants. The film business has its own vernacular, and mysterious business practices. It is an industry of relationships. Collaborative ventures like this help to solve many of these threshold issues.
23. The US Government, at the city, state, and federal levels, recognize the positive economic impact of film production and has created a highly competitive market for tax subsidies and credits. The vast amount of experimentation in this field has allowed for it to grow forever more efficient. Although these benefits are designed to attract the highest amount of spend, and are thus most beneficial to Hollywood style models, the steady employment these credits have helped to deliver, develop a crew and talent base more able to also take risks on projects of more limited means. The “soft” money they provide a project is often key to getting the green light.
24. A greater acceptance of a variety of windows in terms of release platforms is emerging. Filmmakers were once the greatest roadblock to a pre-theatrical release DVD. Filmmakers are experimenting with everything from free streaming to the filmic equivalent to a roadshow tour. It is only through such endeavors that we will find a new model that works.
25. Industry leaders have said publicly that they will share the meta-data that a VOD release generates with the filmmakers. Although license fees have dropped considerably, filmmakers have new options on what to ask for in return. I spoke on a panel with two notable industry leaders who said they would put it in their contracts that filmmakers can receive and share the data the VOD screenings of their films generate. This information will become important the more filmmakers seek to maintain direct communication with their audiences.
26, Collaboration among filmmakers is recognized as being a necessity among filmmakers. Todd Sklar’s tour of films with their filmmakers brought vital work and their creators to places that generally went lacking. The teamwork approach benefited everyone. One can easily imagine that this model, like the collaborative finance model, will extend to production too, and not just in the aforementioned crowdsourced way, but in ways that will make individual personal films stronger too.
27. The Independent community has demonstrated that it is quick to action and embraces both tolerance and strength. Over five years ago, the indie film community joined forces to defeat the Hollywood Studios’ and the MPAA’s Screener Ban, but despite a lot of activist attitude they have not joined forces in a significant way.
The indie film community was very vocal about their opposition to California’s Proposition 8 referendum, but never in a unified way. Similarly, many major figures within the community defended the LA Indep. Film Festival’s head’s, Rich Radon, right of political expression when it was revealed he had donated funds in support of Prop 8, refusing to engage in blacklist tactics. In the end, the obvious conflict of an organization that defines itself by tolerance, being then led by someone supportive of a discriminatory act, albeit on what is called religious grounds, seemingly led that individual to resign. There was no true organized effort by the film community itself either to defeat Prop 8 or to remove Radon, but one suspects the outcome of each will bring more unified action in the months to come.
The community’s embrace of a new issue will be a test of their abilities to act in a unified way.
28. The embrace of the “1000 True Fans” model: filmmakers are recognizing that they need to engage in regular communication — via a regular output of varied material – with their core audience. Not only is necessary because it speaks of a model of how filmmakers can earn a living , but it also offers a manner of working that will allow filmmakers, and artists in general, greater variation in the type and form of work they do. The dialogue with the audience will also keep filmmakers more attuned to what their audience responds to and why, all the while, strengthening the bonds between artists and their community.
29. Rational consolidation and expansion is taking place in the blogosphere. Entities need to have funding if they are going to truly cover this space (man, what I could do with a few bucks…). Indiewire, the premiere indie film news site, was acquired Snag Films, the leading documentary film streaming aggregator. GreenCine, one of the leading sites for art film appreciation, had its lead blogger go over to IFC – greatly strengthening that site. Movie City News got another great editor. As these core film appreciation sites improve, we all benefit. Audiences need to know where to go to find the type of films they love and this bit of consolidation could help.
30. Some of the major specialized distributors recognize the need to build film education and appreciation into their job description. Focus Features “Film In Focus” website, in partnership with Faber & Faber, demonstrates this impulse beautifully. Independent, Specialized, Art, Foreign, and Truly Free Film all need an audience who acts out of choice not impulse. They need to remain review driven despite the loss of so many critics nationwide. They need to be able to recognize what qualities make a film better or unique. They need to recognize what makes a film art. They need reading that helps their love of cinema grow.
31. The need for digital preservation of indie films and their history is slowly being recognized. Granted this is a little hard to document, but I have had a handful of conversations this year with organizations contemplating both the preservation of specific films and of filmmakers’ archives. In this digital age, preservation is all the more difficult due to the lack of physical copies. Additionally the technology changes, and what was stored on form of drive is not compatible with another. Blogs are born daily and evolve so quickly, we are left wondering how to chart their progress.
32. Communities are renovating their historic town center theaters and turning them into community centers, with capabilities of film and/or digital projection. The great old movie theaters are the shrines to the first century of cinema, and a truly wonderful way to see a film.. Organizations like the League Of Historic American Theaters and the Theatre Historical Society Of America which are dedicated to the restoration and operation of these palaces. Often situated on the old main streets of many American cities, the restoration can often be the cornerstone for the revitalization of the old downtowns. But apart from being great for the local municipalities, for filmmakers these palaces are the antithesis of small screen viewing experience that most seem to think has become the defining indie experience – they are places of worship.
33. Theater owners and managers recognize the need to make the community vested in their success. I have heard of theaters giving back Monday nights to different community groups to program and in doing so building loyal audiences. Michael Moore’s Traverse City theater has 25 cent admissions for childrens’ matinees and Wednesday classics – investing in the youth and education of their community. New and best practices are developing and the theater community is sharing it’s knowledge.
34. Theater chains recognize the need to give the audience something more than they can get at home and have started to develop upscale theaters that cater to a more sophisticated taste. Village Roadshow’s Gold Class theaters offer top projection, sound, and seating, along with valet parking, wait staff and a good wine list. It’s important to make theater going a unique experience that can not be topped and it’s exciting to see what state of the art will be come.
35. Film schools are waking up to the need to educate students on how to survive – it is not enough to know how to direct or produce, graduates must have real world skills too. Jon Reiss is developing a specific curriculum on this, and I have heard from others who are looking to do the same.
36. Filmmakers are recognizing that film festivals are more of a launch platform than a marketplace. More films have trailers available prior to Sundance than ever before. Some wise filmmakers even come to their festival premieres armed with DVDs to sell. Will this be happening at Sundance? Are there any filmmakers reading this who plan to? Let us know.
37. Cultural institutions are stepping into to fill the void left by mainstream media’s abandonment of the art film space. MOMA in NYC now schedules films for regular runs. If we want to see art, why not go to a museum? We need shrines to see beautiful projection and I hope there are many other institutions picking us MOMA’s lead. It could become an actual circuit.
38. The fight to restore integrity of the producer credit continues. The PGA continues to lead the charge here and looks poised to step it up. The recognition of the need to a specific financier credit is becoming part of the conversation – namely that the Executive Producer credit should not be used for line producers but preserved for those who help finance. There is so little dignity left in the role of producer, one hopes that the rest of the industry recognizes how they are all vested in restoring integrity to the credit. Granted there are times when more than three individuals truly are producers on a project, but twelve? Wouldn’t it be a great world if even the distributors committed to stopping over-inflated credits? If an organization like the PGA actually went after the individuals and companies who push for such false credits? Real producers are always in a vulnerable position when looking for cast and financing and a soft position will not get this done. Why does a distributor or sales agent seek such credits anyway?
39. Producers are being recognized for doing more than just sourcing or providing the financing and administrative structure to a production. A good producer makes a better film and not just by making it run smoothly. Sundance – who has been recognizing producers’ contributions for years — just held its first Creative Producing Initiative. There still remains a lack of clarity in the public’s mind as to what a producer does, but when leading organizations like Sundance take the effort not only to clarify that producing is a creative act, but also help producers to build their creative skills, change will come. This clarity and the restoration of the integrity of the producer credit won’t just restore producers own recognition of self-worth, but will lead to stronger films.
40. Senior film organizations, like the IFP, Film Independent, and IFTVA/AFM are working together, along with advocacy organizations like Public Knowledge to try to maintain key policies crucial to indie’s survival like Net Neutrality and Media Consolidation. If everyone with common interests learned to work together…. Wow.
41. There appears to be real growth beyond navel gazing in terms of subject matter among the new filmmakers. Filmmakers aren’t just interested in whether the boy gets the girl or the boy gets the boy. We seem to be moving beyond strict interpersonal relations in terms of content and looking at a much bigger picture. Chris Smith’s THE POOL, Sean Baker’s PRINCE OF BROADWAY and TAKEOUT, Lance Hammer’s BALAST, and Lee Isaac Chung’s MUNYURANGABO to name a few, point to a much more exciting universe of content to come.
42. New technology makes it all a whole lot better. Whether it is new digital cameras or formats, digital projection, or editing systems, it just keeps getting better, faster, lighter, cheaper. Reduced footprints, sharper images, and quicker turnaround: who amongs us does not believe all these things lead to better films?
43. Both the creative and business sides of the film industry are embracing the streaming of features. Both Hulu and Snag are looked at as success stories, although the short form and clips remain most popular with audiences. The key to specialized films’ success has always been creating word of mouth. Regional screenings and publicity has always been an expensive undertaking, prohibiting niche film from truly undertaking such a campaign. Streaming makes it all possible. A limited streaming campaign could do wonders for building an audience’s desire to see a particular film. When directors like Michael Moore and Wayne Wang climb aboard the streaming bandwagon (as both did this year), one can only hope legions will follow.
44. Green awareness: slowly the entire industry is waking up to the fact that there is no away to throw to. Last year less than half of the distributors distributed their award screeners in cardboard packaging. This year all the major ones did. Granted you still have to police sets to make sure bottles are being recycled, and offices to make sure that paper is – but it is much improved from before. I still haven’t been asked to put a carbon offset into a budget, but I am confident that day will come. Green carpets became the vogue over red this year. At the very least, the industry seems to be embarrassed by their waste. Maybe the days of excessive consumption are numbered…
45. The career/financial sustainability of producers is at least now recognized as an issue somewhere in the world. In the U.S. we have watched virtually every studio cut virtually every producer-based overhead deal. On one hand it seems that the US film industry has forgotten what a producer does, but across the ocean, there is a ray of hope. It has been enacted as law that the UK tax credit must be counted as the producer’s equity, thus increasing the back end a producer would have on any given project. Once local municipalities in the US start providing prolific producers with office space then we will know we are on the right foot! The longevity of producers is the cornerstone of fostering a film community’s growth.
46. Filmmakers are recognizing the benefits of limiting the time spent between films. When the American Indie scene kicked into gear in the late 80’s, the directors were quite prolific. Up until recently, the new generations of filmmakers seemed to take five more years in between projects. The directors’ pursuit of larger budgets necessitated this to some degree, but also limited their ability to build a loyal following worldwide. Whether it is the Mumblecore crowd of Swanberg or The Duplass Brothers, or the world vision practitioners like Sean Baker and Ramin Bahrini , this new generation is aiming more for growth in their work than growth in their budgets. The audience will benefit as these directors mature.
47. Actors are truly embracing indie film and seem to be doing it because they love it. We know they don’t do it for the money or just because the schedule is short and shooting quick, but when you know they are getting offered bigger paydays and chances for true stardom and yet they still keep on doing indie movies, you have to accept they do it because it is the kind of cinema they adore. Michelle Williams , Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Peter Skaarsgard, Maggie Gylnehal. Quality actors delivering quality work time and time again.
48. The Jacob Burns Center in Westchester has raised over $20M for a Media Literacy Center and it looks like an incredible addition to our culture and a wonderful model for others to follow. Imagine if every community had something like this! Check out the press release at: .
49. Power continues to decentralize. Time and time again it is proven that a good idea can triumph and change will follow it. Frank Leonard’s brain child, The Black List, the annual report that lists executives favorite scripts, has been instrumental in getting unique (dare we say “quirky”) projects appreciated, bought, and even made. Sundance was once the be all and end all of festivals. Virtual festivals like From Here To Awesome give everyone a chance at being seen now.
50.We are getting new film movements faster and faster. 2007 was the year of Mumblecore. 2008 was the year the neo naturalists broke (Wendy & Lucy, Chop Shop, Ballast, etc.). The speed of which common aesthetics form speak of better communication. Multiple filmmakers working in the same vein can only lift the conversation higher and raise the bar for technique. Work will progress faster and the audience will again benefit.
51. Life Sustaining tools slowly are proliferating. The Freelancers Union Health Care program offers a good option for indie filmmakers looking to have basic health care coverage, Creative Capital alum Esther Robinson’s brainchild Home Loans ___ , offers artist financial planning services and consultation on home buying. As we live in a nation without real government support for the arts, creators have to assume they will be partially financing their work themselves — developing the wherewithal to plan for the future and not put oneself at significant financial risk is part and parcel to being able to choose what stories you will tell.
52. The great beacon of hope I find in the film horizon is the often TFF-cited Lance Weiler and his gang of collaborators at The Workbook Project and From Here To Awesome. The open source generosity and advocacy stemming from their platforms provide a plethora of information and point to the real possibility that artists everywhere can not only create the work they want but have the ability to find, access, and join with audiences everywhere. They show that power is not in the hands of the establishment but in the community. Lance and his team having taken a host of good ideas and put them into action — and it appears to be just the tip of an iceberg that we can expect to come from them. The revolution is being podcasted; it’s time you got the URL tattooed onto your soul.
Jim McKay, who once was called by Variety “America’s own Ken Loach”, responded to my recent email blast and has kindly agreed to go public with it:
“even the A-list auteurs’ star-filled agency-backed packages are failing to find US buyers at Cannes”???
I don’t see this as cause for alarm, I see this as cause for celebration.
I mean, look at that sentence. What could be more diametrically opposed to small, independent filmmaking than stars, agencies, and packaging?!?
The root of this whole problem goes back to the indie-fication of Hollywood and the fact that small films have found themselves competing with bigger ones for casting, financing, and, worst of all, Oscar recognition. Small films should never have had to compare themselves with these products or compete against them at festivals or in the box office. And yet this is where the “Indie Film” phenomena ultimately landed.
We must stop seeing ourselves through the lens of 1) Hollywood and 2) Indiewood. The first is a system completely outside the realm of what small filmmakers create. The second is actually a non-existent planet that for a small time differentiated itself from Hollywood but is now just a sub-folder. Many of the great American filmmaking veterans, the ones who have spent their careers making small films, exist completely outside these worlds. Rob Nilsson, Jon Jost, Nina Menkes, Victor Nunez, Yvonne Rainer…. Let’s start looking at how they do it, comparing the state of things for young filmmakers with the state of things for these makers. We’ll probably learn a little about how to create and survive and I bet things will also look a lot more rosy in comparison…..
Let the Cannes/Sundance/Tribeca house burn down.
Or let it just do whatever it’s gonna do. But I think we need to stop looking at the bigger system as something that exists in the same universe as films like the ones you listed.
The sky is not falling, the sky is opening up.
We’ve spent the last ten years eating filet mignon when rice and beans taste just as good. We’ve been flying first class instead of driving in the van with the band. No shit – steak and warm mixed nuts are lovely. It was nice while it lasted. But things have changed and we can change with them (for most of us, back to the way we always did it in the first place – much more challenging when you start becoming an old fuck like me) or we can just quit or sell out or buy in.
The fact is, now that the economy has crashed people will finally start making films for less money and with less bullshit attached and stop trying to play the Hollywood or, just as bad, Indiewood game. And in the future, just like in the past, really good films will still have a tough time getting made. And getting seen. And making their money back.
But there is one maxim that will never cease to apply: great work will ALWAYS, always find its way. It may not make a lot of money, it may call for extreme or inventive means of distribution, it will almost never be seen by the masses. But great work will continue to be seen and appreciated and maybe now more than ever, the means to spread the word about and gain access to this work is on the brink of discovery.
I know we’re saying pretty much the same thing. And I love how you’re actually doing something about it. Providing a space for people to share information, taking part in a community…. all this is great and also pretty much all we can do right now as the system makes its seismic shift. While the glass might be half empty of money, I believe it’s half full with creativity. Which strikes me as a pretty ridiculously optimistic thing for a cynical guy who hasn’t made a feature in 5 years and is coasting into middle-aged curmudgeonhood. And yet, there it is.
keep on keepin’ on.
Periodically I send out email blasts to various film folk and some actual film enthusiasts. I resort to the blast because there still is a certain breed of people that don’t seem to do much web surfing. They want their news delivered and they haven’t mastered RSS feeds or Feed Burner subscriptions (I know, I know, no one likes to enter their email address, but…). It usually is a recap of much of what I have previously written here, perhaps with a few Twitter posts thrown in. Since many are industry types, I need to stir them up a bit. I sent the following out yesterday afternoon. Here it is for your reading pleasure.
I have been asked why I stopped doing these email blasts; was it that everything is now okay in Indieland or was it that good movies stopped coming out? Did the lack of blasts = no news to report? I am happy (okay, sort of happy, sort of really really frustrated) to report that none of that is the case.
The good news is a week doesn’t go by now when I don’t see at least one film that really impresses me (Goodbye Solo, Treeless Mountain, Star Trek, The Exploding Girl, We Live In Public, Made In China, Humpday, The Yes Men Fix The World, Sugar, In A Dream, Tulpan, Hunger), but the unfortunate flip side is that it is rarely in a commercial theater that I see these films anymore. It’s bad that it has become increasingly hard to read about such films (please check out HammerToNail) as papers and magazines fire critics and give less space to ambitious work. The really horrible reality is the trickle down is going to reduce & effect the films you see for years to come completely altering the movies that get made and find their way to your eyeballs.
The next few years’ culture dose is corroding rapidly away as I type and your diet is about to get really limited and hyper-specific. Trust me, as someone who has tried this with other such essentials like food — even if it is delivered right to your door, you don’t want the same meal on a regular basis, particularly when they can’t source or afford the best and most unique ingrediants. Filmmaking is going on a horribly bland diet that is not good for anyone.
Now if I was really good, I would tell you how we can all solve this by working together. But I am not. I need your help for that — and that is a hard thing to both get and then to use.
I stopped doing email blasts as I thought the blogging would give more people access and thus I would get more input, but I am now not believing that is the case. On TrulyFreeFilm, I have spent the year speaking of solutions for Indieville, but what I always find people prefer to hear about the problems. On TheseAreThoseThings, I have attempted to curate a little corner of pop culture, but it’s hard to get people to participate. On TheNextGoodIdea, I’ve hoped to publicize the things that are making this world a better place step by step. I lost steam at InfoWantsToBeFree hoping to highlight the issues that shaped our media-mindscape, as I was encouraged to build it and others would join, but that just wasn’t so. And yes, there is the one I do with my son, for the young ‘uns too: BowlOfNoses. I would love it if you chose to subscribe to these blogs so I could believe they were valuable to you — or maybe I need to recognize the opposite.
So today, I blast out with a statement of the obvious: Art FIlm culture will dwindle down further to a bloody flatline unless you start to act to preserve it. Everyone sees it, but what are we going to do about it? This is urgent. Really urgent. More good films are going undistributed than ever before.
Mainstream news media has started reporting on Indie’s presumed death. This is the first time that in twenty years I think that MainstreamMedia looked at Indie without naming it Weinstien, Sloss, or Sundance or that wasn’t during the Oscar season I believe (okay, so I exaggerate for the sake of emphasis, but you know what I am saying). In prepping for what was my first live broadcast appearance (what? you didn’t yet look at that earlier link? just click on it now), I tried to consider what were the problems facing Indie film, and in less time than it took to write with this email, I came up with 38 Problems. Thirty Eight. And that was easy. Read them. Ponder. Link. Distribute. Add to the list. To kill the beast, we must name the beast.
But the situation is worse than what I just wrote. If you missed it Hollywood Reporter did an article how even the A-list auteurs’ star-filled agency-backed packages are failing to find US buyers at Cannes on Sunday:
And that’s not the only one. Foreign sales acquisitions have fallen. Festival funding is drying up. Places to push the message out, like newspapers and magazines, are folding. And is anything taking their place? I have been twittering similar stuff for a long time. What? You are not on Twitter yet? Forget about what others have said; Twitter is a great filter, a curating tool. I have found a film project through it, music to listen too, art to see, books to read, and issues to respond to. Forget the folks who Twit about what they… eat. Follow the ones I follow. Heck, follow me. It’s simple and free and I dig it.
It’s funny. I wrote this blast for a clear reason. The title still sticks, even if the answer never made it to print. I have now gone on too long to burden you with such further details. That will have to be another blast. Or blog post (where you will miss it if you don’t subscribe). I am sure you have some ideas for solutions, or evidence to the contrary. Let me know them. I will blast about them. Or I would be happy to have you post on any of the blogs. Let me know.
But don’t despair. Trauma generally breeds action. As a species, we’ve generally demonstrated we don’t act until the pain of the present becomes greater than the fear of the future and the unknown. I think we are there — maybe not at the bottom, but with a little imagination we can now see the bottom or at least guess the depth. And there are reasons to look up (many of which have been chronicled on TFF): as has been said by others “The theatrical market is healthy; the economic model is not healthy.”. A better delivery system has been found, albeit by the bootleggers, but hopefully someone — and someone with a commitment for equal access and equal opportunity — will learn how to monetize it.
In the meantime, please go see some films. Tell your friends, family, fans, and followers why you liked them. Tell them to see them. Curate. Facebook about them. Take culture into your hands. Bring people together. Tell the media you care about culture and want it covered.
Maybe come here me talk about all this stuff. I am doing an event 5/28 for NY Foundation For The Arts. Please come.
Thanks for reading. And watching. But don’t fiddle. Our culture is burning.
If you haven’t checked out the comments to last week’s post, scroll down now and do so. It’s a lively discussion with lots of interesting points raised.
In the “up” years of the indie film economy, enough people were getting a little bit of action, and the difficult questions of which models to endorse going forward and which to let die did not have to be made. Now due to collapsing revenue and business models, they do. Independent film is, after all, content, and while having specific challenges of its own it also shares many of the troubles that all content, from scripted one-hour dramas to daily newspapers, is currently facing. So, one question I had after reading Ted’s list is whether the loosely defined, loosely configured movement known as indie film will organize itself around the answers to these problems, or whether makers will decouple from the definitional tent of independent film and address them using entirely different paradigms.
I never did get to my 38 Reasons but I did get one good answer in. Peter Guber got my questions (but man, is he GOOD! He answered the challenges questions better than I could of) and Marina kept getting my other questions. I did get to give props to Lance Hammer but he was only the first of at least ten people I wanted to mention! I have to admit though it was a lot of fun. Many thanks to Reed Martin for getting me on the show (read/buy his book now!).
Okay, I think it’s obvious that I prefer to look at the opportunities and solutions before us, as opposed to the problems and concerns, but I am afraid this post may obscure that just a tad.
- Too many leisure options for film to compete without further enhancing the theatrical and cinematic experience.
- Too many “specialized” films opening to allow such films to gain word of mouth and audience’s attention.
- Too many films available and being distributed to allow films to stay in one theater for very long, making it more difficult to develop a word of mouth audience.
- Lack of access — outside of NYC & LA –to films when they are at their highest media awareness (encourages bootlegging, limits appeal by reducing timeliness).
- Distrib’s abandonment (and lack of development) of community-building marketing approaches for specialized releases (which reduces appeal for a group activity i.e. the theatrical experience).
- Distrib’s failure to embrace limited streaming of features for audience building.
- Reliance on large marketing spend release model restricts content to broad subjects (which decreases films’ distinction in marketplace) and reduces ability to focus on pre-aggregated niche audiences.
- Emphasis on upfront compensation for star talent creates budgets that can’t reasonably recoup investment.
- HP&W fringe levels at too high a level to allow low-bud production to benefit from know how and talent of union labor.
- Lack of media literacy/education programs that help audience to recognize they need to begin to chose what they see vs. just impulse buy.
- Collapse of US acquisition market requires reduced budgets for filmmakers, and thus resulting in limiting content.
- Collapse of International sales markets requires reduced budgets for filmmakers, and thus resulting in limiting content.
- Foreign subsidies for marketing of foreign film makes reduces buyers’ acquisition appetite for US product.
- Foreign subsidies for foreign productions contribute greater budget percentage than US tax rebates do, allowing foreign productions to have larger budgets and thus more production value and expansive content — thus making it harder for US product to compete.
- Recession has reduced private equity available for film investment.
- Credit crunch has reduced ability to use debt financing for film investment.
- Threat of piracy makes library value of titles unstable, which in turn limits investment in content companies and reduces acquisition prices, which in turn reduces budgets, which in turn limits the options for content — so everybody loses.
- No new business model for internet exploitation at a level that can justify reasonable film budgets.
- Lack of community embrace of new creative story expansion models that would facilitate audience aggregation and participation (to seed, build, drive audiences).
- Emphasis on single pictures for filmmakers vs. ongoing conversation with fans has lead to a neglect of content that helps audiences bridge gaps between films and that would prevent each new film to be a reinvention of the wheel for audience building.
- Panic due to the 15 year promise of crystal clear downloads over internet despite the reality that it still has not developed — allowing the fear to move to a business practice of inactivity.
- Bootleggers have developed a platform that allows audiences to simply download whatever they want where ever they want whenever they want — something that the film industry has yet to do.
- Loss of job for newspaper based film critics reduces curatorial oversight which lessens word-of-mouth and want-to-see.
- Reliance on synopsis style reviewing fails to provide enriching cultural context for film and thus reduces audience satisfaction.
- Lack of marketing/distribution knowledge by filmmakers limits DIY success.
- Indie filmmakers mimic Hollywood’s obsession with regurgitating past success models, by regurgitating past festival hits’ story-lines or navel gazing. Cinema is 100 years old but we still tell the same stories in the same ways. Audiences get bored, move on, play video games.
- Amer-Indie filmmakers are only recently starting to look at non-US-centric stories that can “travel” into international territories.
- America has no funding for the arts so filmmakers have to develop material based on pre-existing markets instead forward thinking inspiration.
- America has no co-production treaties (other than Puerto Rico’s Letters Of Understanding) that allow filmmakers to access foreign soft money subsidies.
- The specialized distributors force exhibitors to program for full week runs, preventing them from developing local community audience or niche programs on off nights.
- The truly independent exhibitors are not yet developed into a collaborating organization that would allow true independent features to be easily booked nationwide.
- There is no independent collection and disbursement agency that could allow DIY distribution to take hold.
- Filmmakers still believe that festivals are first and foremost markets and not media launches.
- The ego-driven approach to filmmaking vs. one of true collaboration generally yields lower quality of films and greater dissatisfaction amongst all participants.
- Lack of real role models who represent integrity and commitment to the craft (in order to inspire others).
- Corporate hierarchy and access that is driven foremost by privilege (college, connections, class) limiting diversity and new content and approaches.
- Inability for filmmakers to influence iTunes editors to promote their work.
- Lists like this make the foolish despair.