San Francisco Film Society head Ted Hope.
San Francisco Film Society head Ted Hope.

On the brink of announcing the full lineup of the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco Film Society has exclusively revealed to Indiewire a new plan for a series of labs designed to help filmmakers release their films under the constraints of the 21st century marketplace.

Titled A2E: Artist to Entrepreneur, the new initiative will take the form of several short labs to help existing film productions invited to participate in the program to develop distribution and marketing strategies tailor-made to each film's need. "We're looking to further help filmmakers to develop the skills to exploit digital platforms," said SFFS executive director Ted Hope, "to improve the knowledge base of the filmmakers so they can figure out the best practices." Two of these labs will take place during the San Francisco Film Festival next month, and Hope intends to develop "at least four more chapters" in the near future.

A2E marks a major initiative for Hope as he enters into his first festival in the role at the Film Society he first took on last summer. The veteran indie producer told Indiewire that A2E emerged in part from inspiration by Sundance's #ArtistsServices distribution program, which assists filmmakers at the festival to find ways of bringing their projects to digital platforms. However, A2E has been formulated to go one step further by helping projects not only become available on a variety of platforms but also ensuring that filmmakers have the opportunity to cultivate relationships with audiences and further embolden the prospects of getting their films seen.

"You can reach your audience with your film. Can you get them to engage and plan on that? We haven't been thinking that way."

Hope added that A2E reflected shifts in the marketplace for independent film that he has witnessed over the course of his career, pointing out that as filmmakers are offered increasingly smaller pieces of a film's revenue in conventional distribution deals, the need for self-reliance has dramatically increased. Recalling his own experiences with production house Good Machine, Hope pointed out the drop in distribution offers in both national and overseas deals typically used to compensate for negative costs. In the nineties, Hope said, a combination of U.S. and overseas distribution deals could enable filmmakers to cover 100% of those costs. "That really allowed independent film as an enterprise to flourish," he said.

Over the past decade, offers have shrunk to numbers that fail to cover such costs. "Starting around then, we started to recognize that people weren't acquiring films in that ballpark anymore," Hope said.  Citing a recent example, he noted that Todd Solondz's "Dark Horse," which Hope produced, received 13 distribution offers, the highest of which covered a mere 10 percent of the film's negative costs.

With A2E, Hope intends for filmmakers to consider a wider range of possibilities for their films, taking into account the potential revenue streams available on VOD and other emerging platforms. "Everyone has access to this whole variety of digital platforms online," he said. :You can reach your audience with your film. Can you get them to engage and plan on that? You certainly can, but we haven't been thinking that way. "

As with #ArtistsServices, A2E will include the participation of several organizations, including IFP, Film Independent, Cinereach and Indiewire parent company SnagFilms. While Hope intends for the labs to take place over the course of several months, for the time being, the SFFS has planned two initial mini-labs set to take place over the course of the festival's second weekend: From May 2 - 5, filmmakers will participate in the A2E Direct Distribution Lab during which each various companies will assist filmmakers in formulating distribution strategies for each film.

During that same window, from May 3 - 4, the A2E LaunchPad will find participating filmmakers holding 20-minute meetings with various tech partners to allow filmmakers to consider a wide range of options for releasing their films using new tools.

With more and more filmmakers growing frustrated by the limited revenue and visibility available by way of conventional distribution deals, A2E certainly has the potential to allow filmmakers a bigger piece of the pie and tighter control of their work. Hope added that the labs won't force filmmakers to embrace unconventional distribution but instead provide them with the opportunities to explore as many innovative options as possible. "This isn't to require them to use direct distribution," he said. "This is to help them evaluate their choice of direct distribution."

Ultimately, of course, the success of the program is partly dependent on the strength of the movies and engagement of the filmmakers selected for the program, whom Hope said they will unveil in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to this space for more details on the participants and the impact of the lab on their films.

Read the full release on the next page.