Managing Partner of Emerging Pictures, a New York-based digital
exhibition company, Ira Deutchman is also a Professor of Professional Practice in
the Graduate Film Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia
University, where he is the Chair of the Film Program. He has worked as a movie producer, distributor and exhibitor.
Today he presented his kickoff speech at the 2014 Edition of the Art House
Convergence, in which he asks "How do
we harness the spirit of cooperation, and the potential power of a
group that keeps growing year after year?" Deutchman granted us permission to share an edited version of his speech here. Visit his web site for more information and for his full speech.
When I first started out in the Film Business, I learned a couple of very quick lessons that were in no way related to film, but were in every way related to business.
First, I learned that Business is dominated by people who are driven, sometimes myopic, and willing to do almost anything to succeed.
The second thing I learned is that the Film Business, specifically, is driven more by ego than by profit. After all, it has never been a predictable, scalable business in the traditional sense that allows for believable projections and charts with any sort of certainty. So who is drawn to such a business when far more money, far more predictably can be made elsewhere? The answer would be those people who somehow convince themselves that they know better than everyone else, or that they’ve come up with some kind of system to beat the odds.
So given those two hard truths, it doesn’t take too much imagination to realize why there was and is very little cooperation among the various players in the business, whether they be exhibitors, distributors, producers or anyone else.
The art film exhibitors in my youth…pioneers like Dan Talbot, Don Rugoff, Randy Finley, Mel Novikoff, George Mansour, Bob Laemmle and many others, were passionate, single-minded, competitive and fiercely independent. There was very little sharing of information or camaraderie. They were in some cases chasing the same films for exhibition, currying favor with the distributors, try to one-up the competition with the film rental deals they were able to negotiate and harboring dreams expanding into each other’s territories.
The same thing has generally been true of the distributors. They’re always chasing the same films for acquisition, fighting each other for holdovers, jockeying for opening dates, competing for attention in the media, etc.
One the first times I attended the Sundance Film Festival, I was on a panel with Tom Bernard, Jeff Dowd and a couple of others who I frankly can’t remember. In response to some long forgotten question, I vividly remember a panelist saying, and I quote, “In the last 5 years, I’ve worked on every specialized film that was released in theaters.” There was a long pause while everyone else on the panel turned to look at him. He continued, “Either for or against them.” The idea that someone would claim to spend even part of their time conspiring AGAINST someone else’s films was an eye-opener for me. It cemented my understanding of the world I lived in in.
Russ kind of nailed it in his pre-convergence email to all of us, when he said “The commercial film business is rooted in a retaliatory (greedy) and monopolistic ethos; it is an ethos as creaky and counterproductive as it is dysfunctional and misanthropic”
Yet, I was also briefly exposed to a quite different model earlier in my career, when I was doing non-theatrical sales for Cinema 5. There was an organization at that time called the NFDA, the Non-Theatrical Film Distributors Association. Perhaps it was the fact that selling films to colleges and libraries was such a low stakes nickel and dime business that allowed such an organization to exist, and certainly the goals of the organization were modest. The main purpose was to trade information on customers; to identify those that didn’t pay and the ones that destroyed the 16mm prints they were sent.
The only other NFDA activity that I was aware of was that there was a volleyball league that played weekly games in Central Park. By the way, Cinema 5 (my team) won the championship in that league several years in row because we had a ringer. Our head of theatrical coop advertising, Mary Kay Kammer, was over 6 feet tall and had a serve that no one could return. Throughout the league she was referred to as “Killer” Kay.
But, I digress.
When I came to what was the 2nd Art House Convergence 6 years ago, the NFDA came to mind. It was rather astounding to think that all these fiercely independent people could actually get together to share information for the good of all. It seemed to me more like wishful thinking than reality. But I guess the time was right. Cooperation sometimes is born of adversity, and at that time, rightly or wrongly, panic was in the air. Theatrical movie-going was being written off by the pundits, technological change was upon us, and according to Mark Gill, the sky was indeed falling.