For the occasion of the first Indiewire Influencers list, a survey of 40 people and companies impacting the direction of the film industry, the Los Angeles Film Festival hosted a panel in downtown Los Angeles on Monday night sponsored by DIRECTV and Loyola Marymount University – Los Angeles featuring several people from the list.
The hour-long conversation opened with a recent news hook: A recent statement made by Steven Spielberg, during an appearance at USC, that the film industry is on the verge of implosion. With panelists currently embroiled in the process of addressing changes to the marketplace of independent film, the reactions to this statement revolved less around the veracity of Spielberg’s statement and instead focused on what kinds of models may come next.
Indiewire editor-in-chief Dana Harris moderated the discussion, which featured innovators from across the landscape of independent film production and distribution (click their names to learn more about them): Emily Best, Founder and CEO of Seed&Spark; Nicolas Gonda, Co-Founder of theatrical on-demand platform Tugg; Chris Horton, Associate Director of Sundance Institute’s Artist Services; Stephan Paternot, Co-Founder and Chairman of film financing platform Slated; Jay Van Hoy, producer; and David Wilson, Co-Founder of the True/False Film Festival.
The following edited transcript highlights some of the key exchanges from the panel.
STEPHAN PATERNOT: If there are enough artists who are all throwing darts at the wall, some of them are really going to emerge and blow up big. We just haven’t seen that in the film industry quite yet. We’re seeing a lot of noise being made by crowdfunding campaigns, but when you see one big, successful film get out there without going through a traditional studio, that’s when everybody’s lights will go off. We’re waiting for that moment to occur.
JAY VAN HOY: What that doesn’t acknowledge is the talent behind the actual marketers and distributors. There are some extremely talented marketers and publicists behind the success of these films who aren’t acknowledged for what they do. They work with you, as a filmmaker, to help position your film to the public and understand what’s exciting about it. I think that, more and more, distribution companies offer that service. It can be a full-time job and not everybody’s the best at it. I don’t know if every director is good at being a marketer or cuts their best trailer. Some of them are very gifted at it. But they may not have a relationship with a bright trailer cutter, whereas someone doing this exclusively for 10 years can make these connections really quickly.
SP: You’re absolutely right. But what’s happened is that those experts are now for hire. You might create a film and then do a rental model as opposed to giving up the rights, giving up final cut, giving up everything and then having a fight with the distributor or the one investor who put up $10 million for your film. So you now have more options.
EMILY BEST: The music business had an advantage: The creator and the product were never divorced from one another. You would associate the song you would listen to with the band’s name. That’s not true in the film business. The people in this room pay attention to who directed a film they like. For the rest of the universe, they think of the name of the movie or the name of the actors. The name of the creator is not usually involved. Therefore, creators are starting over from zero to create a new audience for each film. It’s a highly, highly inefficient system. Every time musicians release an album, they build a fan base for the band; the next time they release an album, they build a new fan base for that album on top of the existing one from the previous album. From album to album, they’re growing steadily. One of the most exciting things about crowdfunding is that it doesn’t divorce the product from the creator. So you’re building an audience from that film for your whole career.
By putting crowdfunding ahead of pre-production, you’re pulling some basic inefficiencies out of the system. You used to have to hire all these super-talented people, but you have to spend a lot less money if you have a few thousand influencers who are already marketing your film ahead of its festival release. We have a lot to talk about around what day and date means. Does it happen at a festival? Could you do a Tugg campaign during a festival and leverage all that press? We haven’t figured out the most efficient ways to combine all these things. I agree that we have to find a way to incorporate the experts — maybe as producers. Maybe they’re your social media producers.
SP: Once enough films go through this process, a new type of distributor will emerge that specializes in that, optimizes that and makes that their business. It’s not like, “Can we make everything from the old guard fit into the new guard?” There’s this groundswell of filmmakers finding new means to build audiences and investors online. At Slated, that’s all we do. It’s happening faster and requires a lot of work. It’ll get easier with time. Honestly, we view it as a 10-year endeavor. In 10 years, filmmakers will grow up experiencing it this way. They will never know the pain that we’ve gone through before the revolution kicked in.
Next: An example of success.
DAVID WILSON: To use a recent example, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Detropia” received funding for production through a traditional means. The filmmakers handled the release. They funded it via Kickstarter. They worked their asses off but they were incredibly successful in the context of theatrical docs, which is not a very high bar. But they worked it. I think it’s hugely problematic to think that should be every filmmaker’s job, but there will be filmmakers for whom that works.
CHRIS HORTON: We helped those filmmakers out through our partnership at Sundance with Kickstarter and helped them raise a little over $70,000, which they used to hire a theatrical booker, a publicist, and to get the film in over 100 theaters. It ended up grossing over $100,000 at the box office, which is great for a doc. That’s fantastic. They said, “We have no regrets at all. We just don’t know if we’d do it again.” Results really worked in that case but it’s not for everyone. The reality is that filmmakers have to be their best marketers and you do have to know a helluva lot about distribution now. At the same time, at Sundance, we want our filmmakers to be filmmakers. But unless we arm them with as many tools as possible to navigate the marketplace, they’re screwed and we’re screwed.
JVH: The only way you can afford to do that is by paying for it yourself. Pick one of the most successful films acquired at Sundance. They may have understood the options for self-release but they chose to go with a seemingly more efficient system for distributing the movie. Whatever was on the table was so compelling that they made the decision to go with Fox Searchlight or whomever.
EB: But that only applies to .01 percent of the films made every year. That’s only a tiny fraction of the films that are being made. When the “Indie Game: The Movie” guys went to the table, they passed on all these deals, but that was just because they had done all their work in advance.
SP: 10 years ago, I think a lot of the innovators had been hoping Hollywood would be completely changed by now. It hasn’t changed. Everybody here knows how difficult it is to move the fulcrum up the mountain. There’s no sudden exponential growth going on with all of our business models yet. Netflix is probably the biggest champion that has made everybody realize how things have changed. Even a couple of years ago, when their stock dipped because of that ridiculous name they came up with for their DVD service — Qwickster — the reality was that the CEO was trying to push that this was a streaming business now.
NICOLAS GONDA: If this event weren’t going on tonight, a weeknight, this theater might be empty. Yet we have tons of independent filmmakers trying to get their work into theaters right now. There’s been that pain point that nobody has the answer for. We came up with the idea at Tugg that if you could take away the question marks by presenting a theater with a guaranteed audience, then they could get what they want when they want it. In terms of where we see that fitting in, it’s very much along the lines of what we’re talking about. We’re all fascinated by what’s to come with more direct engagement with fans. Some people have been complaining about the vernacular of “self-distribution.” As it is with filmmaking, nobody’s doing it on their own. There’s a new role emerging now that’s the equivalent of a hospitalist. When you walk into a hospital, there are actually people there to help you navigate all of its resources. Right now, when independent filmmakers reach distribution, it’s like walking into an emergency care unit. What we’re missing is a curator of these services.