BIZ: How's Your Dotcom Treating You? Part 5
by Alan and Smithee
Two filmmakers, in the midst of the current dotcom frenzy, have agreed to share their email correspondences on the subject with indieWIRE in a
continuing segment called "How's Your Dotcom Treating You?" To protect their
privacy, the filmmakers (one with a deal at AtomFilms) have decided to
remain anonymous as they tread the muddy waters of the new dotcom business,
trying to find the best place for their short, the most money and the widest
Coincidentally, after getting your last e mail, I went to a panel discussion about film distribution on the Internet, with a bunch of CEOs from smaller sites, including shortbuzz.com, sputnik7.com, undergroundfilm.com and pitchtv.com.
Amazingly, every time anyone spoke about their company, they also mentioned that colossus of a dotcom, AtomFilms. Each answer began defensively: "Well, we're not AtomFilms, but..."
The main difference is that these companies offer "exposure" and non-exclusive deals. I probed the panel with questions about loss of value through exposure, HBO not being interested when a film has been seen on the Internet, etc., but they diffused nearly all of my criticisms and concerns.
I left the building with my head spinning, and a possible new point of view forming: maybe the best use of the Internet IS to put out your stuff in as many places as possible, without giving up any control or rights, and see what happens. If the film becomes popular, logically, its value can only increase. After all, HBO has only bought a total of about 13 short films, so statistics suggest it might not be worth holding out for them.
Meanwhile, in another great coup for the hungry leviathan, veteran shorts distributors Forefront Films have sold their entire catalogue of over 100 short films to AtomFilms. Forefront heads Megan O'Neill and Harry Warren have even joined the Atom staff and are opening a New York office. What alarmed me at first does have a reassuring flipside: ever faithful to her filmmakers, Megan has also taken on the role of Head of the newly created (and much needed) Atom Artist Relations department. Apparently, Atom now has over 1,000 films. God knows how it can be possible to promote, sell, or even keep track of, that many.
Meanwhile, I still have not heard of any sales of my films. But I did get my first "Quarterly Report" from Atom, including revenue sharing from advertising on their website: I laughed out loud when I read that I had earned a total of $1.71, which would apparently be deducted from my advance.
To be fair, further inspection revealed that these accounts were for the last quarter of '99 -- I had only signed with King Kong in January 2000, so I shouldn't have got anything.
So Smithee, where are you at with your Pop.com, or not.com, decision?
I avoid panel discussions whenever possible, because everyone's advertising, and the room is filled with geekazoids asking dumb questions. "Hi, how does a person go about making a film?" Uh, by spitting on plexiglass?
So, my man Alan, you seem to be advising me to make a non-exclusive internet-only deal. I should let the Internet be an advertising tool, and then I can sell my film elsewhere and keep 100% of the profit. Do you think the big companies like Atom and Pop are lying when they say they will market your film more effectively than you would going it alone? That they can
negotiate a far better price than you can?
Let's look at two sides of the coin:
1. If you sell Internet rights only, then you may get the exposure you need to make an independent sale (where you get 100% of the sale). But maybe you have less sales.
2. If you show your whole film on the Internet to promote it, however, will TV stations really want to pay any kind of premium for it?
This is the kind of thorny question that makes it pretty cool that Atom now has an "artist relations" department. But how can one "customer service professional" handle 1,000 filmmakers? And answer such questions as: Will I ever make more than $1.71 against my advance!?!
As far as my signing goes, it's a big tough question. Pop.com promises me they will put my film in a prominent, strong position online. The gambler in me is leaning towards them. Though. . . what kind of name is "Pop.com"? How late-nineties! I am scared, also, that Pop may not have the savvy Atom has, putting together foreign theatrical deals, producing films, etc.. And even Mediatrip is now hooked up with playahzz, and at least they have some experience. It's scary, because eventually you have to go on that horrible thing, TRUST -- you can't go on the size of the advance, which is by nature pathetically small. So, beyond trust, I only hold one card: once I sign with anyone, I can tell them -- as I've already told them all: "Hey, I'll only consider you for my next film, which is damn good, if you prove yourself with the one you're wanting to snatch now."
I hope it works.
That last comment you made is a good one. As a younger filmmaker, you are probably more interested in the future part of your career than the past, and your potential business partners should share this interest.
About the exclusive/nonexclusive question: I'm not sure of anything. I think it's hard to decide, but somebody's got to do it. Only the future can ever tell whether a decision was a good one, or a "learning experience."
The name Pop.com certainly does suck. I guess there weren't that many unclaimed three-letter domain names left. It was probably a toss up between that, and "Gob.com," which I personally find much more evocative.
I hope Pop.com will get involved in your filmmaking on a one-to-one basis. Atom are doing something very different right now: In a project called "Mogul-Makers" they are asking their filmmakers to submit pitches for films, which will then be put on the website and voted upon by their audience. The project with the most votes (from kids who spend too much time at home playing on their computers) will be "greenlighted." This looks to me like the Hollywood pre-screening mentality at its worse. A similar thing is now happening with their new 360-degree camera technology: a jury decides on a "winner" who will be allowed to make a film.
Back to your immediate situation, Smithee, "trust" IS the word. . . except perhaps if you manage to negotiate a clause in your contract which allows you to pull out after an agreed period, if they have not performed as well as expected. A clause like this could help a filmmaker stay sane if or when, a few months down the road, your once enthusiastic dotcom may have forgotten you because they are out frying bigger fish, using your name and film titles to entice filmmakers still on the fence about the dotcoms. I think a year should give any company enough time to show what they are capable of.
Eventually this decision-making can run you in circles, and I have to pick one and do it. There are no guarantees with any of them. But the important things are:
-- finding some assurance that they will treat you right (letting them take a look at your future films, etc).
-- escape clause, to allow you to pull out if they've forgotten you.
-- a good personal relationship!!!
As far as your gripe with Atom for fostering competition, I'm not sure it's so bad. I mean, film IS competitive. Of course, I'm as wary as you are of a bunch of greasy-haired, teenage masturbators voting about which films deserve to get made, but it seems to me that Atom is making wise decisions about how to make the web audience feel involved, in a way that they aren't in Hollywood. This is part of the charm and curse of the Internet: interactivity. I don't think you should be so afraid of it.
With that "don't be afraid," I may call Pop at last.
What I forgot to mention about the Mogul-Maker thing, is that there is also an audience winner (the "Mogul") who gets to cast several of the lead roles (from one particular agency). How would you like to have your actors chosen by a kid in Iowa?
Some final thoughts, before you ink your deal. Here is a related article I read about this year's dotcom presence in Cannes, in which numerous dotcoms aren't living up to expectations:
I LIKE that Atom is experimenting. I hope the others will too.
I read the article you recommended. It's scary -- Dot-coms going bust every minute. Frankly, they deserve it in a way -- the arrogance of thinking they're the saviors and future of cinema, when half of them don't know a thing about movies. (Though half of them do.)
Even Pop is mentioned there, strutting their stuff in Cannes and getting told to shove it. Probably it's unnecessary hostility from snobs, but it's worth it for the Internet companies to be humbled. Maybe they'll work harder to get their films into the marketplace (including theatrically, before features, which is where shorts should be!) in order to get the respect they crave. Because how many people do you know actually watch films on the Internet? I know a grand total of ZERO. And I'm not out of it. Everything is conjecture -- let's hope the Internet companies are distributors too.
Now that REALITY seems to be finally entering the dotcom world, and even some of the larger companies are beginning to fold, I hope some of the hip corporate identities like "shortbuzz.com" and "underground.com" won't turn out to be prophetic names.
Just when we were talking about reality. . .Now the pendulum swings back towards the fantastic: I just heard that Atom have licensed my film to another website for a (low) five-figure amount. This staggering sum is all the more amazing if you consider that the license period only lasts one month. Apparently, it's some kind of record sale. The value of short films is rising fast...and Atom are pushing the envelope.
Most of that amount will stay in Atomic pockets, but as I said to myself when I made the deal, getting a small percentage of a lot is better than a large percentage of nothing. Let's hope this is just the beginning.
As you said, this is a competitive business, so here's the challenge for your boys at Pop.com: