Embrace The Onslaught: How More Films Can Mean Better Viewing

Embrace The Onslaught: How More Films Can Mean Better Viewing

Eager filmmakers, journalists, and fans
from around the world are now in Park City, Utah, for this country’s best known
film festival: Sundance. A testament to
the commitment of Robert Redford and long the launching pad for independent
films, Sundance also marks an unofficial start to the New Year for film, and provides
clear proof of the medium’s popularity.
It also has set off a debate about whether the profusion of filmmaking
(or at least of films shoe-horning their way into theaters) is a positive
trend. 

The New York Times’ influential film
critic Manohla Dargis argues that it is not; her recent piece
has sparked both agreement and outrage. (We
found responses by Anne
Thompson
and Thom
Powers
to be particularly valuable.) But as film producers and founders of
SnagFilms – a digital platform dedicated to bringing great films and journalism
to fans and the industry – we think Ms. Dargis’s criticism and some of the ensuing
conversation largely misses the point.
In a society where images now have
a greater cultural impact than words, the number of aspiring independent
filmmakers continues to grow. Sundance
submissions
have grown from 9816 in four years ago to 12,218 this year,
while the number of acceptances has stayed flat; Ted Leonsis has pointed out
that it is easier for your child to be accepted at Harvard than for your film to
be selected for Sundance. 

Clearly, more films don’t necessarily mean better films.  Manohla Dargis takes this argument a step
further, asserting, “There are too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain
bad movies” for audiences to sift through. Ms. Dargis proposes that fewer films
should be bought and theatrically released, and inferentially at least, that
fewer films should be made.  Here, Ms.
Dargis is like the legendary King Canute, trying to order back the tide. The wave of films made each year will
continue to rise; the real challenge that the industry now faces is how to connect
each film to its maximum interested audience.
Ms. Dargis proposes three arguments. First,
she believes that the New York Times’s policy
of reviewing all New York theatrical openings wastes critics’ time on mediocre
films.  She then argues that the majority
of the 900 films reviewed in 2013 should not have been released in theaters,
but instead should have gone straight to on-demand services where they likely will
earn the majority of their revenue. 
Finally, Ms. Dargis argues that the poor theatrical performances of
independent films prove market oversaturation, and that the studios have
inevitably gobbled up the best of the indie lot.
We think Ms. Dargis is peering
through the wrong end of the telescope.
She overlooks the inevitability that more films will continue to be
released due to three factors. First,
both cameras and editing software will follow Moore’s Law, and become
increasingly sophisticated and relentlessly less expensive, allowing an easier
path for more people to become visual storytellers. Second, that process is accelerating
globally, and the various factors shrinking our world also mean that audiences
are increasingly welcoming content made well beyond one’s home country’s
borders – a global audience that filmmakers can reach via the web in seconds.
It is no wonder that at this years Sundance
Festival, there were more international film entries for the feature film
competition than from the U.S. And third, the moving image dominates modern
culture. We live in a society where more time is spent viewing
than reading, and there
is a belief that anyone can make a movie
. Technology has made that belief
a reality.

If we agree that technology has
reduced the barriers between artist and audience, and also has facilitated an
explosion in filmmaking, the real challenge therefore becomes guiding the
public to satisfying viewing experiences.
The challenges are three-fold: How
will audiences find films that align with their tastes?  How will the viewing experience adapt to viewer
needs? And will there be an economic
equation that can sustain this supply of films?
Ms. Dargis’ proposition that distributors “stop buying so many movies” falls
short of addressing any of these challenges, and would worsen a gatekeeper
structure that poorly serves filmmakers and fans.
There have always been more films
than the most committed fan can— or wants to—watch.The Internet’s democratization makes more
content available with precious little guidance for audiences.  Industry veteran Ted Hope recently told Thompson on Hollywood, “[t]he
industry has done a poor job matching people with the content they are most
likely to enjoy, particularly in a presentation and context that they will
appreciate.”
In the past, theater bookers, TV network programmers, and even
critics have served as gatekeepers, determining availability and
visibility. Ms. Dargis argues that the
900 New York releases overwhelm The New York Times critics, but as Jonathan
Sehring
, President of Sundance Selects, notes, there are “another 10,000 to
15,000 movies made in any given year that don’t get released” which are “not
any worse” than those that are released. We think these films deserve homes,
and the digital world now can provide platforms for all filmmakers to find
their audience. 
And we believe fans are empowered
by choice – if the film discovery
process provides multiple ways into what has become a gigantic content
room.  With over 9,000 films available,
SnagFilms provides real choice, and offers four discovery routes: experts, the
crowd, your friends, and the machine.  Utilizing our own editors, the resources of
Indiewire and the more than 550 professional critics who make up Criticwire, we
offer selections of films favored by the folks who make a living watching and
writing about them. 
Sometimes, you’ll
look for the wisdom of the crowd, and try a film that has proven popular on the
site. Because you can share your social
circles with us, we can flag those titles that your friends have watched. And finally, we learn from your viewing
behavior, constantly refining our recommendations for you. 
The second industry challenge is
the viewing experience itself. No matter
how advanced our home systems may be, they will still pale in comparison to a
state-of-the-art commercial theater, and many filmmakers still identify
theatrical exhibition as proof of professional success. But now even more
realize how rapidly the quality of the viewing experience in other environments
has improved. 
Technology has consistently
increased screen clarity, even on mobile devices, and accelerating streaming
speeds generally have eliminated the purgatory of buffering.  Now a Santa’s bag of gateway devices from
Roku to Xbox to Chromecast to Apple TV bring IP streams to the ideal personal
screen: the home TV. And nearly every new TV comes “connected” directly for
anyone with Internet access.  A viewing
service needs to be available via all of these devices, and a superb viewing
experience must provide even more flexibility, like the portable queue we offer
at SnagFilms, where you can select a film and begin watching on your work
computer, continue it on your tablet or smartphone during the ride home, and
finish it on your TV.
Perhaps the ultimate question posed
by the shifting state of the film industry is whether a new economic model will
develop between filmmakers and their audience.
SnagFilms emphasizes an ad model because it enables free viewing,
allowing audiences to take risk-free chances on films they may know little about. However, this model is tough. It requires the support of an ad community,
patient viewers, and most of all, the creation of an audience of real
scale.  Unless views are substantial, the
revenue per film is modest. 
Professional
critics can be vital in breaking through the clutter if they embrace new
distribution routes as enthusiastically as their readers do. We are proud of Indiewire and its Criticwire
service in leading the way, and of influential critics with established media,
like The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, championing great films wherever they
play. 
Piercing the clutter also requires
filmmakers to become active partners in marketing, rather than assuming that
their distributor can cover all of the necessary ground themselves.  Social media platforms offer a promising
start, and more filmmakers are connecting with their fan community while making
their film, securing both crowdfunding support and equally vital evangelizers, who
help spread the word to the broader public. 
And finally, that broader public has
the ultimate power, by watching not only the studio blockbusters, but also enthralling
and enriching smaller films that remain in one’s memories, sometimes for a
lifetime.
It is worth keeping in mind the
advice of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller: “You
never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something,
build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We will hear about new or evolving models
during Sundance 2014 and throughout the year.
And in the end, the New York Times
will need to hire more reviewers – or embrace Criticwire and other
alternatives. Ms. Dargis’s deep film
knowledge and wonderful writing will continue to be a guide for the industry
and many fans. She will be more
overworked, but can be even more impactful.
And audiences will take more films into their hearts and lives. 
Ted Leonsis has
produced four movies, and won an Emmy, a Peabody and multiple festival awards.
Chairman and founder of SnagFilms, Inc. (which also owns Indiewire), Leonsis is
also the Chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment (which owns DC-based
NBA, NHL and WNBA teams and their playing arena); Chairman of Groupon;
co-founder of the Revolution Growth Fund; and a frequent tech investor and
philanthropist. Rick Allen is a media executive and film producer who
co-founded SnagFilms, and is its CEO. Casey Meurer was a valued contributor to
this piece.

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Comments

Robert Maier

"Unless views are substantial, the revenue per film is modest. "
What the heck is wrong with modest revenue?
And I hope there will still be an audience for large screen presentations with an audience to get people away from their mind-shrinking mini-screens. I can't imagine watching a thought-provoking, life-changing film on my phone, peppered with ads for toilet paper, SUVs and watery beer.

jean vigo

Let's simplify this: look at those numbers of submissions and then look at the "acceptance" rate for features: assuming the Premieres and Spotlight films were not submitted, but handpicked by the programmers, then it's roughly 2 percent.

That's pretty darn hair-pulling for a programming committee do get to 80 or so films in the sections from 4,000. And that's a damn tough job.

1. It's made easier by allotting a significant amount of "acceptances" from "alumni" and the usual suspects – sepcifically certain producers who have an almost 1.000 batting average in the films they "submit."

2. Because the selections are VERY alumni slanted (which is logical for the mission of any festival to invest in furthering the careers of its discoveries. Of course!), there is a tendency that, because these alums are indie elite (let's not kid ourselves), they will attract all the US buying activity at Sundance.

3. Now, look at the ultimate results, once the dust settles. Reviews and responses trickle out and then barely 15 or so films a year (largely docs) actually receive the kind of accolades that jumpstart new discoveries and further careers. For every Fruitvale Station, there are 5 that go into oblivion.

4. So, why, out of 4,000+ feature submissions and 80 or so selections – pretty insanely selective – are only a 15 or so considered "playable/watchable" (just to be pedantic about it)? Are the other 3,900 pretty awful? Because I've seen "awful" from the selections over the years.

So, maybe the truth lies somewhere in-between. Dargis may onto something without being clear as to what she is trying to communicate. So, is Leonsis (but, let's not forget, Leonsis IS one of the wealthiest people in the US; that's an elephant you can't just dismiss, and it SHOULD play a role in the discussion of financing, distribution and monetizing of the US Indie Cinema, since he participates in it; he's no outsider 'dabbling' in it)

What I'd like to see is the usual "alums" and "suspects" take their films and make an effort to premiere them ELSEWHERE.

The problem is that 90 percent of buying US indies is vested in 1 festival and its programming folks. By amassing a huge behemoth of a MORE market/LESS fest atmosphere, the result is a lot of flights, bookings, hustling, and running around to make bigger mistakes in buying up lousy films. REMEMBER: the Sundance audience is mostly industry and other filmmakers, NOT your "general audience." So, therein lies the mistake. Add the fire that critics are afraid to lose their Sundance creeds by getting too critical of a lousy film….

The producers/writers/directors/actors need to premiere films by premiering them in other fests akin to a roulette table. It will give for a better litmus test as to the possibilities of a new film and increase the chances it will succeed and not get lost. It's a good sign that SXSW has grown as a 'discovery' springboard; albeit, too long in coming, but it's here. More fests must compete for the dissemination of the "better" premieres to HELP financial success. The "group/herd mentality" for a non-profit, yet superbly oiled, marketing brand (see sponsors, photo-ops) works to a point, but it is NOT maximizing the underlying issue – pruning the best films.

I have NO axe to grind with Sundance; far from it. It's just the age old discussion of whether it's getting too busy-business/herd-thinking, and the objective quality judgements become skewed.

The answer: the filmmakers who 'know' a Sundance 'acceptance' is all but guaranteed NEED to PREMIERE their films at other US fests. Just because something works – like our government – doesn't mean it can't find ways to improve.

Film & journalism professional

I agree that Manohla's looking at this the wrong way, and I find a lot of strength in the arguments Ted and Rick share. However, I wish that Indiewire had asked them to follow a rule of traditional journalism: stating conflicts of interest right up front, like a vested stake in one of the content platforms being discussed. I love SnagFilms and I consider Indiewire to be a really useful news source, but I find troubling the bias against traditional exhibition and for online/VOD that seems to stem from that partnership. For instance, a recent article about VOD in which the author included a comment about how distributors are actually seeing little to no decreased cost on the exhibition end with the jump from 35mm to DCP. That's a startling fact to those who follow this story, tossed out with no attribution or further explanation, seemingly because it strengthened the case for online/VOD as the future of independent film watching. Running what is essentially an ad for Snagfilms under the guise of an editorial doesn't serve your website or your readers well.

malodour

When the writers of this article start investing their own money to produce celebrity-free movies with little prospect of theatrical distribution, or they're prepared to compete in the theatrical marketplace with 10 other "indie" movies opening the same day, THEN we'll know they really believe the marketplace has an endless hunger for yet more movies and that images have far more to say than words.

However, as long as their business model is largely parasitic — read indiewire, you too can become a famous filmmaker — or their business is based on a fee-for-service model, the call for ever more film production is anything but persuasive.

spam

Speaking as a viewer who does not specifically follow independent films for their own sake, a glut of them tends to devalue my estimation of them. More movies = more mediocrity, and even the good ones will get lost in the tidal wave.

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