By Ted Leonsis and Rick Allen | Indiewire January 18, 2014 at 10:35AM
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.