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Over 30 Really Good Things In The Indie Film Biz 2013
By Ted Hope
We have plenty to be thankful for. Things are getting better — at least in the Indie Film Biz they are… Or should I say Specialized Film Biz? Artist First Film Biz? Whatever this is, let’s celebrate. We have plenty to be thankful for.
I have over 30 points to prove it to you. Granted I have something close to an equal number on the negative side too, but I will shield you from those for the time being. Besides, those negative things are all just opportunities, right? So what is this cornucopia of things we have to be thankful for? Well…
- The initial steps towards building a sustainable investor class have been taken. Impact Partners probably should get the credit for doing the necessary initial work: creating a community of socially minded investors, linking them through shared values and quality engagement, and educating them for the long hall. Now Sundance has launched their Catalyst group gathering, and Slated.com is doing awesome work aiding in the connecting serious investors with serious filmmakers (more on them later). Let’s hope this is just the start of many such groups and the industry overall recognizing that smart money is far better than the dumb kind. I am making it a bit of a mission for me, and have some big plans ahead, all things willing…
- The film biz is excited about entrepreneurial training for filmmakers. Under my guidance, SFFS launched A2E (Artist To Entrepreneur) at the SFIFF in April and I immediately had invites to travel to talk about the program and even to franchise it by many film support organizations. There’s interest to carry this forward elsewhere. I hope to pilot this sort of concept one more time somewhere and then finally be able to evaluate spreading it. In the meantime, I am confident that there will be other similar iniatives springing up all over. Whether it is training filmmakers to budget their films through the entire process and not just to festival release, market their movies alongside producing them, or focus on long term community building and audience aggregation, we will help filmmakers become owner operators of their own creations as they navigate this paradigm shift from false scarcity and mass market to grand abundance and targeted niches.
- The film community wants to pull its head out of the sand and confront reality. I got a great response to my post on 17 Things About The Film Biz That Should Significantly Alter Your Creative Practice. We have ignored the paradigm shift (see #2 above) and perhaps now we are willing to accept the truth and stop betting that a white knight will rescue us.
- 2013 is the year that crowdfunding went mainstream. Say what you will about the celebrity factor but Veronica Mars, Zack Braff, Spike Lee, and others brought thousands more on to the platforms. It is not a zero sum game. Crowdfunding is an incredible asset to all artists’ arsenal, and not just for financing, but for marketing, outreach, and true engagement.
- 2013 is the year that crowd funding became crowd equity. Even with crowdfunding going mainstream, there are limits to the type of movies that can utilize it. Granting goods and services for donations limits the size of investments creators will receive. Granting people shares, utilizing investments over donations is another gamechanger. The JOBS Act has turned that game on, and here’s hoping that investors turn on too.
- Crowdfunding is evolving from a project focus to one centered around the artist. The move for fans to become funders and then to become PATRONS, is truly significant. Platforms like Patreon help advance this. Sure it is an old way — didn’t DaVinci use the patron platform? — but I don’t know about you, but I want to make sure that the artists I admire are free to experiment and don’t have to pitch each new project to advance one step. It’s exciting to see folks call for the emergence of a sustainable patron class. I am in!
- Direct Distribution is on course to become next year’s indie fim phenomenon. It took crowd funding several years to go mainstream, but for the Direct Distro community that gathered around #A2E in 2013, it kinda felt you were there watching the Pistols or the V.U. play their initial gig, and you too were going to now gonna go home a start a band. We are learning how and how to work together to get our films to the people that want them. (This is an evolution from where Direct Distribution was when included on 2012′s list).
- Sundance’s #SAS aka Artist Services has helped 80 films or so to connect with audiences and generate some significant revenue. Granted no one’s gotten rich, but that never was a goal anyway. Their support has allowed folks to consider direct distribution not just as a back up but as Plan A. They not only have an amazing group of participating films, they have a top shelf selection of platforms to work with. The truly impressive thing is how they have also opened up the platform to several other supplying organizations. This is group learning and film support at it’s best. Here’s hoping it lasts forever and beyond!
- Release windows are compressing and everyone is benefiting — and some of the exhibitors are no longer complaining. One of the key to reducing piracy is making sure people can get what they want when they want. Desire is highest when the marketing is at it’s most intense, usually in the theatrical window — so it only makes sense to have it available soon after. And now they are. And Netflix is threatening to amp this up. And our arthouse community theaters are not afraid.
- Platforms are for the many. Distribution was for the few. Once you had to be chosen; now the choice is yours. Giving people everywhere access to your work is a crucial first step to developing a sustainable creative practice — well maybe, after you’ve developed a sizable community base (yeah, it’s a Catch 22, I know, but…). The point is now we can reach people with our work… and you don’t have to be chosen. The power is yours. Take it (but please be prepared).
- Exhibitors are setting their own rules. Perhaps the IFC Center’s refusal to enforce the NC-17 rating is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps from there the arthouses can move well beyond the week long booking policy of many distributors and start to multiplex individual screens, offering specific content for specific audiences at specific times.
- Exhibitors are getting serious about gender bias. Maybe filmmakers and the studios will be next. It may only be happening in Sweden now, but how great would it be if we rated films every where on gender bias? We can expect to see the Bechdel Test rating in other regions to appear. Of course, even as simple as it is, there are many films you’d be surprised to find can’t past the Bechdel Test.
- Movie Theaters keep getting better and better. Whether it is the sound (have you heard Atmos?!), the seats, food, or alcoholic offerings, it just keeps getting better and better. Soon you won’t want to ever stay home.
- Crowdsourced Theatrical Exhibition is gaining traction. There are a whole handful of platforms to chose from. Folks are doing it. And audiences are going. My hope is that independent theaters across the world start using these tools directly and putting the power of curation in the hands of their community. From there, there will start to emerge small groups of local voices who become major forces in their community for curation.
- Exhibitors are doing some excellent things to woo younger people to the theater. Digital natives like to watch whatever whenever and however they damn well please, and that’s fine, but theaters are our community centers and that is where movies truly become cinema. Putting the social back into the experience elevates it for everyone. The European Independent Arthouses got together this past week in Athens for the annual Europa Cinemas conference and discussed many great techniques to keep younger audiences involved.
- Better, more realistic business plans are something many people recognize are needed. This was the impetus behind my initial A2E lab, the OnRamp Direct Distribution workshop that we did at the SFIFF56. Film schools and support organizations previously only taught us to budget our films halfway — up to the festival. Now that we all have access to digital platforms for the release of our films, we need to learn to budget them for the complete process. There are many revenue streams open to all but if we don’t plan and project their use, we can not reap the rewards. Investors I speak to in SF are asking for projections beyond just foreign estimates & domestic all rights sales guesses — and I hope filmmakers wake up and comply. If they don’t, I would like to start a lab to do just this very thing, and had planned to do that at SFFS (until I resigned). Maybe we could do it elsewhere.
- Filmmakers, their advisors, and a few distributors, are recognizing the potential in both bundling and dynamic pricing. Marc Schiller dubbed this the 360 approach and is building a business on it. This is precisely the sort of thing that will figure into the next era film business plan I mention above.
- Slated. If you ask filmmakers what the biggest problem they have or what they would like to be made easier, they would say “connecting to financiers”. I think this has been true for about 100 years. It’s sort of remarkable how their have been so few efforts to solve it. Sure there are all the crowdfunding sites, but that is actually connecting with fans, some of which may become patrons. They are doing it for the love. Connecting with investors, people who fund films for business reasons, is something else together. Slated is that, or at least seeks to become that. It is an elegant way for potential investors to discover and track viable film projects. Anything that brings us one step closer to a secondary market for film investment gets praise in my book.
- Pinterest. It doesn’t have to be just about fashion any more. Or just the ladies. It is a super useful tool to collect, organize, and share information. Whether you use it to collect samples of what you like to later share with your collaborators or use it to show people where they can get money for their films, it will be useful to you. I keep my dreams, my recommended movies (across multiple platforms, lengths, forms, and genres), and inspirations. Use it. Okay, granted it started in 2010 but now the film world has discovered it, and with over 2.5Billion page views per month, can you ignore it.
- The Black List. Although technically, they opened up their site to writers everywhere, it hit flashpoint in 2013. The Black List now allows any screenwriter in the world to make their script available to over 2000 working film industry professionals and have it evaluated. The site has already resulted in more than 13,000 industry downloads of uploaded scripts and helped more than thirty writers find major agency and management company representation, twenty sell their scripts, one get a two script blind deal at a major studio, and one get their film produced, starring David Oyelowo. Access and opportunity is what it is all about.
- New film websites (aka marketing platforms) have launched. The folks behind Pitchfork have given us TheDissolve and I am digging it. Cinephiled also has emerged, looking pretty mainstream. Fandor’s KeyFrame was born earlier, but has blossomed nicely this year. There’s got to be more. Marketing your film remains one of the biggest challenges in this Era of Grand Abundance.
- The rise of Local Cinema. Indie film rose on the promise of “regional” cinema — small films about specific regions and places. Now we can be far more focused than that. We can get hyper-local. We are recognizing that film need not be mass-market these days to have success and we can focus on the niches instead. It may just be that the seeds have been planted but I look forward to the harvest in the years ahead when local filmmakers make local films for local audiences and play them locally — and they are able to recoup fully from local support. Heck, we don’t even need theaters; we have the tools to show locally.
- Filmmakers are taking greater responsibility for their work. Shane Caruth’s direct distribution approach on UPSTREAM COLOR as well as numerous documentary efforts like DETROPIA and others speak well of this. Sundance’s #ArtistServices initiative is to thank for this, far beyond the dollars and cents it has generated, we have to recognize that it has been transformative in helping filmmakers understand that they have the power to own their work and get it seen. This approach is virtually now mandated due to the polarization of the tentpoles vs. everything else. Our vibrant diverse culture depends on filmmakers recognizing they can not even hope for a distributor to rescue their film.
- Serious analytics are being applied to the film space, be it a quantitative look at the creative process, or just a more varied look at the economics of film. Although I still don’t understand what some data visualization does, I am hopeful that be it the NYTimes examining film economics more fully, and others examinations, we will start to understand what we do better.
- Good movies are getting made. Now if we can only get them seen. And a bit sooner after they premiere at a festival too… But seriously look at all the good films this year: 12 Years A Slave, The Act Of Killing, American Promise, Before Midnight, Blue Caprice, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Blue Jasmine, The Crash Reel, Cutie And The Boxer, Fruitvale Station, Gravity, Her, Inequality For All, The Missing Picture, Museum Hours, Nebraska, Short Term 12, Stories We Tell,The Square, Upstream Color. And that’s just the ones I have seen — I am sure there are a whole lot more.
- America is growing more hospitable to foreign language films. One of the best paths to world peace IMHO is through cinema. Movie tickets are passports to other lands; they build bridges of empathy across gulfs of difference. Just like the studios dominate abroad, they have historically dominated stateside too — only we don’t really recognize it because we think we get enough of a varied diet. But we don’t and it is partially because we make it too hard for foreign films to gain traction here. Call it a little step but the changes AMPAS has made regarding the voting for foreign language Oscar and the increased discussion on Oscar qualifying rules are important displays of progress.
- Hybrid documentaries are emerging as their own genre, applying fiction techniques to doc films, and doc techniques to fiction films. Be this the application of Godard’s “All great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend toward fiction. ” finally coming home, or a group consensus that cinema needs a kick in the ass, I love it. Be it STORIES WE TELL, THE ACT OF KILLING, THE MISSING PICTURE, THE SUMMIT or THE IMPOSTER, we are getting the start of a Hybrid canon.
- The dominance of the social action thesis focused Documentary film may be starting to wain. Or maybe I am being overly hopeful. Don’t get me wrong, I like films that make the world a better place, but sometimes it feels like that is the only sort of doc film that gets made and seen in America. With THE ACT OF KILLING, CUTIE AND THE BOXER, and STORIES WE TELL we have some films changing that paradigm. It is so refreshing to find film artists bucking the norm and forging ahead with what is in their heart, and not just what sells or gets programed.
- The establishment is calling for greater transparency, clarity, and reporting of the data digital releases generate. Liesl Copland spoke well of this at #TIFF13, but the fact that she is from WME and speaking at one of Film Biz’s top markets is what is truly exciting. The dam is going to burst and the truth will soon flow freely.
- The establishment is hearing the call for greater transparency and heeding it. John Sloss released (to Deadline) the initial VOD numbers on ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW. Will others now follow suit? The UK is truly leading the way here with the BFI providing a host of in depth reports on new models. I have collected all the Direct Distribution case studies and the like that I could find (and others provided) here.
- The establishment is recognizing that the studio model not only does not produce the best movies, it is not the most efficient way of working. Steven Soderbergh explained how cinema and studios are at opposite ends (so he is done — for now). Gavin Palone gave the advice that “To Fix Hollywood, Studios Need To Act Like Indies“. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicted that the studios are on the verge of implosion. We need a better model. Betting on blockbusters gives us The Lone Ranger. Here’s Hope hoping for some better long range thinking ahead out of Hollywood.
- Artists are recognizing that we do not need to accept the terms that the aggregators provide, and that aggregation tends to only benefit the aggregators (and those who need to be, and then are, discovered). They are getting organized too. Established artists are also reacting to aggregators getting rich on the backs of emerging artists. Okay, this is not happening in the film biz, but that is only because no one is getting rich selling films these days, but it is happening in the music biz (which always does everything first). Radiohead’s, David Byrne‘s and others reaction to Spotify signals that when similar things happen in the film biz there will be a reaction.
- A new business model for serialized content is emerging where entire seasons of programs are being green lit from the start. And people are talking about. The fact that Kevin Spacey’s public discussion of “House Of Cards” greenlight odyssey got over 1 million views points that the tipping point has truly arrived.
- The Academy (aka AMPAS) is indie friendly. The fact that the dominant membership organization of creative and craft personnel is widening it’s diversity, is a very swell thing. Hopefully this will be reflected in the films that are celebrated, and then with that, the films that are made — ultimately leading to the broadening of films that audiences support.
- Women are 50% of the producer ranks. Well, almost. Variety reported that over 60% of the Oscar contenders had female producers. Slowly we are moving to proportionally equal gender representation in the industry. And when we do, it will be good for all as we will have a greater variety of work to show for it.
- It is really getting a lot better for indie film. If this list was a measure, we have more than twice as many things as we did last year to be thankful for. Maybe we are finally out of the swamp. Maybe we are truly starting to build it better together. Maybe it is time to rejoice.
Again, I am sure I have left a great deal off — so you can rest assured that it is even better than it seems. They may be on these lists from 2011 or 2012, but I may have also overlooked them too. Let me know if you have suggestions, and please add them to the comments below. Of course though, we also can never forget how fragile everything is. Unless we are committed to building it better together, we will never sustain a vibrant and diverse film culture or industry, let alone one that is open, generous, and appropriately respectful.
Here’s Hope hoping for an incredible 2014. 2013 certainly has given us a nice launchpad. Thank you. And please let me know of the good things you find in the year ahead. Gratitude towards all that is good is part of the process after all.
Even with all this good that we have made, it is a struggle out there. Indie filmmakers need to not give up hope and must recognize that it is getting better. Please share this list with them. Use this link: http://bit.ly/1ewO8w4 THANKS AGAIN!