The sky is falling. Indie bloodbath. Independent film is dead. All are phrases that have provoked passionate discussions. Instead of going there, though, a group of distribution veterans eschewed dark talk in favor of optimism earlier this week at a signature IFP panel discussion on the current state of film distribution.
The old model — making a film with investors, taking it to festivals, selling it there and releasing it months later in theaters before hitting other ancillary markets — is nearly gone, the group seemed to agree. IFC Films head Jonathan Sehring, Mark Urman from upstart label Palladin, Paola Freccero from B-Side and filmmaker and author Jon Reiss joined producer and Filmmaker Magazine editor-in-chief Scott Macaulay to survey the state of distribution in a week when bleak talk out of the recent Toronto International Film Festival has meshed with stories of individual filmmaker empowerment here at the IFP Market.
“There are fewer buyers,” Jonathan Sehring summarized, “Distributors are more cautious. Companies don’t feel like it is their obligation, [ and they are] not there to compensate producers and pay back the production cost. It’s also a buyers market.”
“The [old] model is not [completely] dead, but obviously things have changed,” began Mark Urman, saying that the reasons for the shift are too numerous to mention, but he pointed to the fact that in part, there were too many movies competing to partake in the old approach. “The model has got to change,” he added. With that in mind, he agreed to stop grousing about the fact and instead doing something about it. But, what?
“None of this came with instructions, the way to fix it is to do it in the way that works for you,” Urman continued, “There is no model and maybe that’s the model.”
“Filmmakers need to re-conceptualize marketing and distribution,” advocated Jon Reiss, the director of “Bomb It” who has become a passionate advocate aimed at distribution empowerment. “Filmmakers need to redefine the theatrical experience.” He also held up a copy of his new book, “Think Outside the Box Office.”
Critics v. Audiences?
If there is a new distinction that may emerge among future models of distribution, it may revolve around how movies are filtered, by critics or by the audiences themselves.
Paula Freccero, who is heading B-Side’s distribution arm that aims to connect audiences with films, laid out the difference between her approach and that of a company like IFC Films. She underscored the difference between an Eastern European film about abortion (namely IFC’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) and a doc about pot smoking (B-Side’s “Super High Me”), emphasizing her broader approach to finding customers and having those movies sifted in a different way.
“For a long time, independent film was about critics, about major cities,” she explained, “It wasn’t necessarily about quote-unquote ordinary audiences in places where art houses weren’t thriving.” Now, there are fewer paid critics, some of whom are now competiting for attention from bloggers and even Twitter.
Both B-Side and IFC are aiming to reach a wider array of viewers for their films, without spending a lot on prints and advertising. While B-Side seems more aimed at building a grassroots crowd around films that may be of interest to them, IFC is acquiring acclaimed films from name festivals like Cannes and relying on critics to help create momentum for a movie. B-Side is plucking audience favorites from smaller fests that aren’t driven by the attention of name critics.
Don’t Call it Self-Distribution
Alternatively, many producers are opting to take control of their destiny, through new modes of what is essentially self-distribution, even as folks struggle with the stigma attached to that particular term. Mark Urman’s new company, and also approaches being advocated by filmmakers like Jon Reiss, are built around producers and directors taking the reigns.
“This is not self-distribution,” Urman, a sort of hired gun distributor, said of his new company that is supported by filmmaker funded releases. “I am distributing the film.” He continued, “The funding of that is being brought to the table by people who are invested in the movies. I am not obtaining rights, I am enabling these films to enter the marketplace so that the filmmakers continue to own their films. [It is] a component in their eventual full, all media distribution.”
“For the first time, I am not in opposition to my filmmakers,” Urman explained. “I had to out smart them. How do I get this film for the lowest possible price? This is the first time in my career as a distributor, instead of sitting on the opposite side of the table, it’s a round table. It’s a discussion. It’s such a clean sensation that this too gives me hope. It all gives me hope.”
But, that approach is not for everyone, Reiss warned. “Self distribution is great as a last resort,” he said. “The best this is for filmmakers to be savvy about what the options are.” He advocated that folks consider the recent treatise published by Peter Broderick in indieWIRE, pursuing a so-called hybrid strategy.
Sehring said that he, for one, is skeptical of Broderick’s suggested hybrid approach because and he and his company don’t do self-distribution, they favor their revamped model that often includes both theatrical and VOD.
The New Producer
New models, or tweaks of an old model, are demanding new skills as filmmakers grapple with how they navigate a climate that requires that they develop new skills as well as new sources of funding to support alternative distribution approaches.
Jon Reiss called upon filmmakers to create a new crew position for a film, a “Producer of Distribution and Marketing,” advocating that, like it or not, “You have to think of distribution and marketing as integral to the actual film.”
“We can’t do it the same way,” Mark Urman offered, “Movies have to be available much more immediately.” A truly national relase that can quickly bring movies to many markets, via multiple platforms, must be carefully considered, he added. “It is pointless for anyone to spend any money on a theaterical release if there isn’t an ancillary strategy in place.”
All seemed to agree that the film festival circuit remains an important piece of that strategy for getting a film out today, but they all advocated that with the demise of the old model, filmmakers look at fests differently.
“Don’t take your film to a film festival to sell it,” Urman advised, “Set it up with the appropriate distributor and then take it to the film festival.” Reiss agreed, saying that the $20,000 he spent to premiere his doc, “Bomb It” at the Tribeca Film Festival a few years back would have been better spent on making the fest launch a part of his direct release strategy.
In the end, the discussion’s take away message was optimistic.
“There is an audience for almost any type of film,” IFC’s Jonathan Sehring offered, reiterating that it’s a matter of finding the right model for getting it out. “It may not be the biggest and it may not mean a theatrical release in a traditional model, [but] there is a big enough audience.”
“I dont know where it’s going,” Sehring concluded, “I think that’s one of the exciting things.”