Industry Report: Digital
Pioneers Of The Digital Revolution
by Sandy Mandelberger
- “We realized pretty quickly that the existing system was not going to work in our benefit… so we decided it was easier to create a new alternative rather than battle the system that was in place”, filmmaker Lance Weiler declared at the Power To The Pixel Conference last Friday at the London Film Festival. And thus, the gauntlet was launched, as a new generation of filmmakers, distributors and marketers discussed the myriad ways that the digital revolution is upending the traditional methods of film distribution.
The system that Weiler employed involved an arsenal of DIY (Do It Yourself) methods that included such internet-savvy methods as viral marketing, filmmaker blogs, mass emailing and interactive gaming. For his second feature, the horror thriller HEAD TRAUMA, the tech-savvy Weiler began traditionally enough, by premiering the film at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival. “We were one of a hundred films at the Festival, but we were different in one crucial way”, Weiler explained. “We were not hungry for a traditional distributor to pick up the rights to the film… in fact, we discouraged distributor interest, since our plan was to use the buzz surrounding the Festival to launch a DIY digital theatrical tour around the US and for release of the film to the television and DVD markets.” Through his own initiative and those of his partners, the film enjoyed a 17 city theatrical tour and is now being sold both online and in brick and mortar retail outlets. He keeps interest growing in the film nearly two years after its initial release through a HEAD TRAUMA interactive ARG (alternate reality game) that allows audience members to do a mash-up of the film, mixing it with other film outtakes, music clips and other interactive games. In all, Weiler used no cost online tools to create huge buzz around his movie and is expanding his audiences through the use of remixed cinema. All without a traditional distributor, which was referred to by several speakers as “the gatekeeper”. Weiler is part of a new generation of content creators who are openly questioning the need and effectiveness of “gatekeepers” at the leading film festivals, theatrical distribution companies, DVD labels and exhibition conglomerates.
Through his adventures in DIY, Weiler learned many tricks of the trade that he now shares through The Workshop Project, a “social open source” project for filmmakers. The Project’s goal is to help filmmakers understanding the changing landscape of funding, production, promotion and distribution. “For those filmmakers who are ready to manage their projects through the maze of distribution and don’t want to give up total control to a distributor who can lose interest in your project in a couple of weeks if it underperforms, we’ve discovered many ways of reaching audiences and keeping them interested, motivated and involved”, Weiler said. “Most distributors don’t understand the ways that the younger generation wants to be involved with a film, and how they want to consume their media. It is a new world and filmmakers need to push the envelope, because the distributors are too tied into the old system to know how to.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by filmmakers Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, the co-directors of the indie sleeper hit FOUR EYED MONSTERS. When the film first appeared on the film festival circuit, its quirky low budget aesthetic left many traditional distributors scratching their heads. When influential news agency INDIEWIRE declared FOUR EYED MONSTERS to be the best undistributed film of the year, the filmmakers were hopeful that a distributor knight in shining armor would finally come forward. “The deals we were offered from traditional distributors just were a joke and didn’t come even close to covering our modest budgets”, Crumley declared. “We decided that we knew more about how to engage audiences for the film than these guys did, so we decided to go the self-distribution route.” The filmmakers created a viral marketing campaign that fed a huge fanbase by using various online tools and social networking sites. The film ultimately was screened in 30 cities across the United States and is beginning its international career.
FOUR EYED MONSTERS became the first full-length feature to be uploaded to YouTube and MySpace, and has since enjoyed thousands of downloads from around the world. They even created a podcast series based on the twenty-something slackers featured in the film, which has been viewed by millions online, in theaters and on dvd. “We started out with a feeling that our film could speak to young people our age but realized that it required a new approach to reach that audience”, Bruice explained. “We were able to turn a low budget film about very recognizable young people into a cult phenomenon, by engaging audiences and giving our audiences a chance to influence our decisions on how to distribute and enhance what we had done.” What has been unique is that all of this was managed by the film’s creators, which is definitely a new phenomenon in the tightly-held world of theatrical distribution, where the distributor makes the ultimate media and marketing decisions often without consulting the original filmmaker.
Director-turned-distributor Robert Greenwald is a leader in the arena of social issue documentaries that are being distributed directly to audiences. He is the award-winning director of such provocative films as OUTFOXED: RUPERT MURDOCH’S WAR ON JOURNALISM (2004), WALMART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE (2005) and IRAQ FOR SALE: THE WAR PROFITEERS (2006). He has combined traditional theatrical releases with a grassroots approach that stresses “house party screenings” that take place in people’s homes or at local educational or religious institutions, that not only bring together the local community, but also engage it in debate over the provocative and disturbing facts portrayed in his films. He was a “virtual speaker” at the Conference, having prepared a special videoconference for the event. In his talk, Greenwald explained how he uses his extensive email lists and a community of people and organizations who use his films as educational tools, in a highly effective marketing initiative that has reached millions and actually impacted legislation and political debate. “Our goal is to be as effective as we can in reaching out to audiences, without using the mainstream media or the existent distribution system, which is, after all, part of corporate America”, Greenwald stated.
While the filmmakers were the most provocative speakers of the day, several more established institutional players in this new arena also were represented. “We’re a platform where filmmakers tell us how they want to manage their rights”, David Straus, the co-founder of Without A Box expressed. The site, which originally was oriented towards the streamlining of the festival submission process, is now expanding into the rights management arena, allowing filmmakers to control the rights they may want to share, give away or split with distributors, programmers and other industry professionals. “We take our cue from the filmmakers, who are way ahead of the curve in terms of how they want their films looked at and appreciated”, Straus continued. With its recent acquisition of rights management tracking firm Film Finders, the company is well placed to influence the new arena of distribution and marketing initiatives, giving client filmmakers unprecedented control and management tools to make effective decisions on the future of their personal film projects.
Sarah Pollack, Manager of Film and Animation for YouTube gave a very professional presentation of how the network has created a formidable alternative to traditional distribution methods, by generating millions of downloads of original material that one cannot find at the local multiplex or even on a 500-channel cable or satellite television system. Kelly DeVine, a veteran distribution consultant and currently working with non-profit organization Renew Media, described how the web-based initiative Reframe will allow filmmakers and content creators to reach a vast network of institutional users such as universities, media centers, libraries and film clubs. By repurposing existing films from the vast libraries of existing distributors and filmmakers, and by accessing new works, Reframe will become a portal site for institutional users to research and access relevant materials for educational syllabi and discussion purposes, while also being available to students and researchers to use as audio-visual resources. Paula Le Dieu, the Managing Director of distributor Magic Lantern, spent most of her allotted time discussing the informational initiative iCommons, the international arm of Creative Commons. The organization has created a boilerplate of distribution agreements and contracts that filmmakers can easily access while negotiating full or partial rights.
It was, indeed, a heady day of information, inspiration and new ideas. One could not help but sense that the old order was indeed crumbling, and that a new way of reaching audiences was becoming viable and infinitely malleable. For those of us who have always known that a film’s marketing can be as creative and challenging as its creation, these are indeed exciting times. As this particular old dog attempts to learn the new tricks of the new media, there is no doubt that innovative times lie ahead. Kudos to Power To The Pixel director Liz Rosenthal for offering a provocative, illuminating and challenging day of ideas, inspiration and creative uses of the new media tools.