“The way we operate is being dissected and reassembled in front of our eyes,” noted Endgame’s James D. Stern in a keynote speech at the Los Angeles Film Festival over the weekend (which was published in its entirety by indieWIRE). Later that day, a panel of key industry players gathered at the fest’s Film Financing Conference to, as moderator and industry blogger Anne Thompson put it, “parse the desperate stage of the indie economy” right now. The panel, titled “The World As We Know It: Is It Over?,” included “Che” producer Laura Bickford, Christian Gaines of Withoutabox, Ted Mundorff from Landmark Theatres, “Notorious” producer Bob Teitel, and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch from Oscilloscope Laboratories.
The discussion touched on how to profit from Internet and VOD distribution plans, the increasingly uncertain fate of traditional media, the financial limitations of producing independent film in the current economic climate, and the recent formation of DF Indie Studios. Though realistic about the challenges facing the industry, all the panel members offered valuable insights on how to make the financing, marketing and distribution of independent films come together during tough times.
Here are 10 insights shared this weekend in Los Angeles:
1. Christian Gaines on the changing role of film festivals.
Insight: Festivals may be returning to their roots as a showcase for filmmaker’s work and become less of a platform for corporate sponsors and the industry to promote themselves.
“The 80s and 90s came along and there was a proliferation, a globalization and standardization of film festivals. All of a sudden film festivals had to serve other constituents besides simply filmmakers and audiences but also sponsors and the media, the film industry and so on… Every town has a film festival, there are film festivals of every possible genre, every possible niche that you can think of. And so now we’re kind of entering this world where nontraditional distribution platforms are starting to emerge and film festivals are definitely coping with and struggling with that new world. There’s real fear, I think, of obliteration. People think that technology will obliterate anything that came before it and I don’t believe that at all. I do think that film fess have to recalibrate, reboot, what their role is and why they’re important beyond simply promoting a sponsor’s product or beyond being a good junket for a few celebrities prior to the theatrical release of a big film. I do think that there are some fundamental core principals that film festivals are returning to such as presenting a film in the best possible picture and sound and honoring the artist by yielding to the experience, yielding to their work of art from beginning to end. I believe that film festivals are returning to that.”
2. Adam Yauch on starting an independent distribution company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, during a recession.
Insight: Allow your company to grow at a manageable rate and don’t just rely on traditional marketing to get the word out about your film.
“The time we actually launched the company was just before the economy tanked so that was not actually part of the decision making process. But it actually worked out all right because the company’s already so small and we started looking at picking up inexpensive films and distributing them in ways where we weren’t spending too much on ads and finding other ways to do the press for it… And so far it’s been okay because we’ve been able to ramp up the company in a way that feels like it makes sense with where the economy is at, rather than being in a place where there’s already a company that has hundreds of employees and has to refigure how to deal with people buying fewer DVDs.”
3. Laura Bickford on the innovative VOD distribution model for “Che.”
Insight: VOD may be able to maximize a relatively small marketing budget’s impact.
“On ‘Che’ we couldn’t get a US distributor to be interested while we were shooting because it was in Spanish. And it wasn’t politics like a lot of people thought it might have been. It was that the US distributors make a huge chunk of change on pay television. Pay television deals cover their marketing costs on movies. The more your movie makes at the box office, the more pay television has to pay for it. But it’s only for English-language products. It was a financial reason that they didn’t want to spend the marketing dollars on it. We thought if we went to Cannes and won an award—which we did—that there would be a buyer… Fortunately we ended up with IFC films and approximately one million dollars in marketing money—no money to go to the Oscars—and happily at Landmark and VOD which was fantastic for us. We got to maximize all our marketing dollars by having people be able to buy it at home at a good price at the same time they went to the theater.”
4. Bob Teitel on the announcement of the formation of and speculation surrounding DF Indie Studios.
Insight: If DF Indie Studios is, in fact, real, the formation of an independent production company is a risky move but a hopeful sign.
“It’s like opening a car company now… People were so surprised that during these times a company would come out like that. I know everyone’s trying to figure out if it’s real or not, who’s in it and who’s not. It’s a positive thing if it is real. And I hope it is real for everybody’s sake.”
5. Laura Bickford on the state of the major studios.
Insight: The current distribution model of major studios is simply not sustainable and can not successfully be applied to smaller budget films.
“The reason the studios aren’t doing these [smaller budget] movies isn’t because of taste, it’s because the economic model didn’t work for them. And right now they know they’re on their way down, too. The studios are facing what the music industry was facing. They know that they’re dinosaurs, they know that they’re bloated and they know that they’re going to be over. But they don’t know when and they don’t know what’s going to replace it. Nobody knows how to monetize the internet, nobody knows how monetize video on demand and other forms of that, which is the way of the future shared with the theatrical experience… But they just don’t know where their revenues are going to come from… If we can show them how to make money on smaller budget films they’d be doing it.”
— five more insights from the panel are on page two. —
6. Ted Mundorff on the changing roles of traditional media and the film critic.
Insight: The impact that a local critic in print can have on a film’s performance at the box office has not been supplanted by the internet.
“We’re scared to death that critics have gone away. Wire services don’t cut it. Those reviews, the aggregators, just don’t do the same job as your local critic does in all the markets in the country. Currently, when a local critic reviews a film positively, there’s a spike in box office. I have never seen a spike in box office because of an online critic.”
7. Christian Gaines on piracy.
Insight: The often long period of time between a film’s premiere at a festival and its eventual theatrical release can harm its success in an increasingly on-demand world by killing buzz and encouraging piracy.
“I think the long lag between the excitement a film generates on the festival circuit and then its eventual theatrical release—the three, four, five, six, ten month lag—can kill a film and open it up for piracy… I think the only thing one can do is have due diligence, have caution [to guard against piracy at festivals]… It’s the answer to a lot of things but it really has to do with education and letting people know that pirating something and receiving something that is pirated is a crime.”
8. Laura Bickford on the state of indie distributors.
Insight: Filmmakers have to be realistic about their chances of getting distribution through an indie studio which is even tougher now than it has been in recent years and budget accordingly.
“The bad news is, there’s a huge constriction. Most of the indie distributors have gone down as we’ve known it so there will be new ones… It’s a great time for new ones. But they take a while to ramp up so right now it’s very constricted for US distribution. As your financing model for film, you can’t really count on that as a ‘money piece,’ you can’t give a value to it, if you can get it. So that’s really, really tough. And at the same time the foreign buyers are not buying [like they were before the recession]. It’s devastated them so they’ve bough nothing this year… [Indie filmmmakers need to be] realistic about what the economic value of your film is so that you can price it accordingly.”
9. Ted Mundorff on how the recession has affected theatrical releasing.
Insight: In many ways, the recession has not affected box office performance and ticket sales are up from last year.
“We’ve had only one week this year that’s actually less than last year… November and December—key months—were record months for Landmark theaters. It never was better. So it’s amusing, amazing to watch the depression, almost, that has set in that ‘independent film is dead.’ I think there’s a concern but there’s also a huge, huge opportunity in the marketplace… People want and will support the theatrical experience and we’re pretty happy right now.”
10. Christian Gaines on making your short film available online while submitting it to festivals.
Insight: Film festivals are becoming increasingly more comfortable with accepting work that is already available online.
“This is happening more and more lately. More and more filmmakers have been calling up the film festival [they’ve submitted to] and said, ‘My film is paying on YouTube right now. Is that a problem?’ And I think you’re going to see more and more and more film festivals make it not be a problem. And it shouldn’t be a problem, actually, because at the end of the day what a film festival should really be doing is providing as many opportunities as possible to the artist, to the rights holder, to the filmmaker… A few festivals still really do have a problem with you showing your film on the internet but more and more don’t. Sundance this year actually showed a few shorts that were on the web.”
For more, check out the podcast of the entire panel discussion on the LA Fest website.