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Is Direct Distribution the Future for Indie Film? Notes From A2E at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire May 7, 2013 at 10:00AM

The mood at the San Francisco International Film Festival's inaugural A2E: Artist to Entrepreneur direct distribution labs this past weekend might have been described as buoyantly apocalyptic. The new four-day initiative kicked off on May 2nd, with the film world still buzzing about the "State of Cinema" address delivered a few days before at the fest by Steven Soderbergh, a prolific and influential director whose latest, boldest project has been his announced retirement from the medium.
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JAN LUNDBERG, COURTESY OF SAN FRANCISCO FILM SOCIETY

Direct distribution is all about practicality. Just as indie filmmakers have learned to keep to tight budgets and come up with their own solutions for problems that arise during production, the distribution process is going to be a patchwork of partnerships and pragmatic decisions. In the one-on-one meetings, filmmakers were asked about whether they really needed a theatrical release and how much of one that would be, and were requested to think realistically about the audience for their work and how to reach those potential viewers. Olson spoke of realizing that "The Perfect Family" skewed older and softer than the films that usually performed well on the festival circuit, and that it might be better suited to Lifetime, who eventually bought it. Broderick noted that all docs should have a 52-minute cut ready for the all-important TV sales. Opeka pointed out that with the rise of streaming and our journey toward everything being available all the time, digital rentals are outpacing sales. Rather than looking for a lump sum, the future of monetizing filmmaking is going to be all about the accruing of these smaller payments.

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Filmmakers should think about themselves as the brand rather than a single film. Hope brought up the shift in the music industry from albums to singles, pointing out that many artists are releasing their output in a more steady flow rather than always saving it up to be put out in chunks dictated by older technology. Filmmaking doesn't quite work the same way, though Hope called out the documentary short as ideally suited to the digital age. But the most common recurring theme for A2E was that filmmakers need to build up and have a way of reaching out to their fanbases, via social media, a mailing list or beyond, and that they should engage with these followers in ways that are more continuous and that aren't just about asking for funds for a new project or announcing their film's latest festival acceptance. As Kickstarter's Holm put it, crowdfunding is the "intersection of patronage and commerce," and people don't perceive it as charity: "Having an engaged audience doesn't mean that they want nothing in exchange." It's important for filmmakers to maintain communication with their community.

Outside of OnRamp, the main A2E lab, the festival also offered LaunchPad, a two-day forum in which film and media entrepreneurs presented their companies to the lab's participants. Crowdfunding sites like Rally and Seed & Spark, streaming platforms like Epoch and Elevison and innovative accelerators and production companies like Dogfish and JuntoBox offered up intriguing new possibilities for finding funding and getting movies out to the world.

"It can be such a closed little world, and it's really hard to get numbers and real, practical advice."

But for the participating filmmakers, one of the major benefits of A2E was just knowing that they weren't alone on the road toward self-distribution, that it was starting to make more sense both for other directors and producers and for these new businesses springing up, and to talk tangible details. "You get the feeling you are on the verge of something so new and so powerful," said "Detroit Unleaded" writer/producer/director Rola Nashef. "It can be such a closed little world, and it's really hard to get numbers and real, practical advice. It worked together so well. You don't feel so alienated." She pointed out something that UTA's Bec Smith had mentioned in her presentation -- that what a lot of filmmakers really want is the industry to endorse them, a mindset that's no longer necessary.

"You're not feeling like you're in a room, alone, and there's this industry out there that has teeth," agreed "Pit Stop" producer Jonathan Duffy. He said that for the next film he works on, he's going to consider all of the partners he met at the lab from the beginning and discuss what they offer with his investors.

For others, the information presented changed their approach to their current project. "I had an idea about what I wanted to do with the film before I got here," said Tommy Oliver, the writer, director, producer and editor of "1982." "Being here, it really jogged some stuff, and now I've got a very different idea -- something that hasn't been done before in film." What that idea is, he wouldn't say, but as with all of the A2E projects, what happens next is going to be the really interesting part.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, San Francisco International Film Festival, Ted Hope, A2E, Digital Distribution, Distribution







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