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April 5 at 7:24am

Thoughts on “Free” From The Conversation: NYC Edition

By Ted Hope

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.

LINKS:

The Conversation:

http://www.theconversationspot.com/home.html

Eugene Hernandez’s case study: http://www.indiewire.com/article/eugene_hernandez_breaking_upwards._breaking_even/

Sita Sings the Blues:

http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/

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14 Comments

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  1. James Lantz / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    I was at ‘The Conversation,’ too, and the ‘film as hobby’ statement bothered me, as well. Are you familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’? The last stanza seems super appropriate to this conversation:

    My object in living is to unite
    My avocation and my vocation
    As my two eyes make one in sight.
    Only where love and need are one,
    And the work is play for mortal stakes,
    Is the deed ever really done
    For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

  2. Mark / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    I don’t see the “film as hobby” statement accurate. There are many arts that do not support themselves through their own “box office.” Basically, none of the “fine arts” operate this way. They all depend on external support.

    Maybe independent film will just go the way of ballet or opera or theater(except broadway and tours), and rely on patrons, non-profit status, grants, etc. to keep it in business.

    I’m curious what would be wrong with this? The net result to the filmmakers would be the same, no? They would make their living making films.

    I already know more than one documentary filmmaker who survives only because a wealthy person is interested in funding doc on certain subjects…

  3. filmutopia (Clive) / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    Personally, I think the independent movie making sector still has its head on backwards in its analysis of itself as an industry. By this I mean that the vast majority of movie makers still make movies and approach movie making in the same way as the mainstream industry… but with less or no money. Despite all the talk of radical new distribution platforms, hybrid distribution and free content, the core values are still all centred around an unwillingness to actually look at the core problems within the existing business models and look for ways to exploit our strengths as opposed to being hamstrung by our weaknesses.
    What interests me most right now is the battle that is currently being waged between independent movie makers and the unions in the UK. The independents are clinging desperately to the right to make movies without providing wages… and the unions are demanding that movies can only be made if people working on those projects receive the kind of wages equivalent of minimum wage. A move that would require a level of investment that everyone knows isn’t going to happen in this business environment.
    There is a huge ethical issue here for independents who see free as acceptable… the issue is, for how long can they insist on personal ownership of a piece (even if that piece is then given away) if the people involved in production remain unwaged. The price of “free” seems to require a level of exploitation, all be it a willing exploitation, of talent.
    It seems to me that as movie makers we have an ethical decision to make about whether we are running a business or indulging in a hobby. If we are running a business then we have a duty of care to ensure that our product can support the people engaged in making that product… if it’s a hobby, we have a duty to inform the people involved in donating their time and resources that this is the case.
    What we can’t do, is what people are doing currently, which is to have the best of both worlds… we can’t play at running a business, whilst remaining personally unaccountable for the people we work with.
    Personally, I believe there are better ways to move forwards than the ones currently on the table. I also think the view, that if the content is free the business has no income, is a painfully naive view of what a business is and what content’s place is in a business’ overall strategy. I can think of half a dozen viable business models where free content at the point of viewing could and does support other revenue streams… but that’s conversation for another day. Or rather a conversation for after I finish my next movie, when I can present actual data as opposed to theories and opinions.

  4. Robert / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    I think there is potential for filmmakers to earn a living from films but it going to be through a basket of finance sources.

    I feel sad for those filmmakers that give their films away for free without thinking through how they’re going to make the money back. It’s all very well thinking that this one will be a lost-leader and I’ll grow a big audience and then I’ll sell my second movie but that’s the road to ruin.

    If you’re going to give your film away, you have to look at it as a marketing expense and think how that exposure – if it indeed gets spread, which it might not – is going to lead to money. I won’t go into the importance of offering audiences a range of opportunities to part with their money at a spread of price points but instead refer you to Ross Pruden’s blog at http://rosspruden.blogspot.com where it’s discussed at length.

    The old saying “a small amount of knowledge is a dangerous thing” is so true for filmmakers who come away from mind-blowing events like DIYDAYs. Although the speakers impart their knowledge openly and honestly, too few filmmakers in the audience really understand and connect all the dots – leading them to implement half-baked or single-sided distribution tactics rather than thoughtful strategies.

    I agree with Peter – many of the distributors I have for my films are good people who paid me upfront. The stories of bad distributors and sales agents are plenty but it is possible to avoid the wankers if you ask the right questions. Also consider contacting other directors with that distributor – if they don’t return your email then that tells you all you need to know :)

    That said, the money has fallen out of the industry and many of the bottom-feeding distributors are new entrants without a clue how to distribute movies. If they don’t have money upfront then ignore the promise of being put into Barnes & Noble or Best Buy and sell direct yourself. It’s a much harder and more time consuming but it is infinitely more rewarding. And you’ll learn how hard it is – the most valuable lesson you could learn for the next feature.

    For a fuller account of my thoughts on filmmakers surviving the current apocalypse I refer you to my post on Culture Hacker about embracing a new transmedia business model http://workbookproject.com/culturehacker/2009/12/18/moving-filmmakers-to-a-transmedia-business-model/

    Robert

  5. Ira Deutchman / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    Thanks Smitri for a great re-cap…the most comprehensive one I’ve seen so far. For more on my mostly misinterpreted comments, see my response at http://www.iradeutchman.com.

  6. Smriti Mundhra / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    thanks for the link Ira.

    here’s a ray of sunshine to make up for my somewhat cynical post: looks like Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones’s decision to reinvest their advance from IFC into the marketing of their film Breaking Upwards paid off after all–
    http://www.indiewire.com/article/box_office_upwards_breaks_15k/pem

    congrats to them–even though it’s unclear whether they will actually see any of that money back in their pockets, hopefully the success of Breaking Upwards will be paid forward to their next film.

  7. Darryl Kesslar / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    Thanks for the summary. I look forward to finding more information on the discussions.

    It reminded me of a phrase that my film professor, Richard Kerr used (or quoted) when I was in university in a Fine Arts program some 20 years ago:
    “Independent films are rarely released, but occasionally one escapes.”

  8. Carson McCullers / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    I hope that the next time this businessman goes to see a movie, he tries to tell the ticket seller that films are just a “hobby” so he isn’t going to pay…

    Nothing but a Wall Street punk trying to control the game.

    What’s his name? Got a picture of this guy? I bet he’s a little weasel…

  9. Carson McCullers / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    I forgot to add that Ira Deutchman is truly courageous for what he continues to do and everyone should have a Network moment (http://vimeo.com/2693546) before they go back out, keep on trucking and get their films made.

    Long live Cassavetes!

    Long live the revolution!

    Down with Wall Street!

  10. Linda Västrik / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    I believe that independent film represent a need of communication and with the present attitude from financiers and distributors this communication will soon get very shallow, since money is needed to get the time necessary to communicate successfully at this level.

    So I would like to tell every talented person in the big apple to please do as we say in Sweden:
    please keep some ice in your stomach and just wait.

    Soon these greedy people will empty the field of communication of depth, that day if you continue doing your films and you make them lasting long,
    then there will be a crazy need in the world for deep communication and you will for sure make your money.
    Because we are working with a human need that is not going to disappear.

    It is like believing. We need to believe. If we kill God people will believe in football instead.
    Belief can not be taken away it is a human need. And we as independent filmmakers are working with the same kind of need.

    By this I send al you worrisome people lots of ice to your stomachs and hope and trust and strength to keep your endurance strong.
    And I hope you understand my Swedish English!
    Love

    Linda Västrik
    Swedish Feature Documentary Filmmaker

  11. doghouse / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    We need to ask, what actually happened in the 80s and 90s, when times were supposedly good, and members of this conference were fat and happy?

    Here’s one spiteful answer: ten or twenty independent filmmakers got recognition and opportunities far beyond their abilities, thanks to unusual market conditions. Similarly, a handful of producers and non-producing entrepreneurs made a nice living and enjoyed the podium, thanks to over-praised and inconsequential movies.

    For quality, intelligence and an actual grasp of what art is and does, then and now, you had to look (and today you have to look) abroad, where there are still non-commercial sources of funding and where original minds still manage to work, not subject to the investment, behavioral and producing filters which have normalized the non-Hollywood medium in the U.S.

    To the extent moviemaking requires money, the door has always been locked in the U.S., and the wrong people have always been on the other side.

    We do we need to sustain this mythology of the good old times? Good for whom?

  12. Ryan / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    I know this is somewhat trite – but is the problem the system or the content? Are the majority of these indies just bad? Is there so much access to filmmaking now that too much gets through and produced?

    There are, and will continue to be, independent films that make money and breakthrough to a wide audience.

    Just because a lot of films don’t make money, doesn’t mean the system is broken (not to say that it is not, but I don’t believe it is completely broken the way all of this would make it seem). It means these films failed to connect with an audience.

    Make better films. Make films audiences want to see. How can a filmmaker complain when their esoteric take on boy meets girl fails to generate interest?

    If anything, I would hope that filmmakers and producers in this current climate took a longer look at the material itself. The script, its position in the marketplace today, the production value, the acting, etc… and strive to make a better film. And remember that the first film you make might be your last. So it should be the absolute best film it can be.

  13. Chanel Sac à Main / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    L’article blog très surpris de me! Votre écriture est bonne.

  14. Mirta / Apr 5 at 7:24am

    Si desean contratar a Luis Piedrahita para sus eventos pueden hacerlo en cualquiera de
    sus facetas.

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