Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eugene Hernandez
February 20, 2009 7:48 AM
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Trading Up: New Paradigm Poaches From Fests

Why did Geoff Gilmore leave the most coveted position in the independent film industry? The answer almost lies within the question itself.

For years festivals, conferences and awards shows have made a lot of hay over the so-called industry of indie film. Yet any industry requires a strong delivery system. And it's no news that the system is ailing. From Gilmore's perspective, maybe it always has.

Film festivals began as art film's primary exhibitor, and with the closure and hobbling of so many specialty distribs they have resurged as one of the few places audiences can see art film as it was intended -- on the big screen and in the company of strangers.

Yet some fest directors looked at their event's success -- a success confined primarily to a locality and/or industry clientele -- and felt frustrated. After screening countless DVDs and sweating over a program to be exhibited just once a year, where did they see their selections going but to other fests. Aside from an exciting screening and endless pints of Stella, most undistributed films aren't seeing a dime from a successful "fest run."

After almost 20 years of watching some of his favorite films be overlooked or flatly forgotten in a distributor's marketing scheme -- Gilmore's frustration is understandable. A look back at his 19 Sundance fest catalogs is sobering -- even within the successes, there's still a lot of good work that never stepped outside of the fest circuit. And a lot of good filmmakers that couldn't build the Sundance laurels into another film or, more importantly, a sustainable career.

In my talks with him, Gilmore was never one to embrace the idea that fests alone were a realistic distribution model.

Fests remain vital city events that remind people what it means to leave their plasma screen for the big screen. They weren't built to shoulder the burden of indie film's problems. But they did grow into unique laboratories where alt-distrib ideas were tested on panels, in demonstrations, and with frustrated filmmakers looking for something beyond their fest run.

Gilmore's move indicates we are well out of the testing phase. And he's not alone.

His cross-country jump is only the latest in a trend of festival execs moving up, not only for a bigger paycheck, but for a bigger canvas -- a way to expand art and indie film out of a broken domestic model and into a global one.

Moreover, it shows that fests have turned into hunting grounds for certain companies looking for a different kind of exec -- one who can take ideas formed within their microcosmic event and apply them to an international strategy.

Christian Gaines left AFI FEST to be Director of Festivals for Withoutabox, now a division of IMDb.com, which in turn is owned by Amazon. While Gaines is charged with helping client festivals connect with filmmakers and audiences, his job title stresses the global outreach of Amazon and IMDb.

In theory, lineups from festivals via Withoutabox are cataloged on IMDb and either streamed right on IMDb, or linked to VOD purchases and rentals on Amazon. And while Amazon's ebook device, Kindle 2, doesn't yet have movie-viewing ability, you can bet that's in the works, closing the circle.

"Being a festival director often means addressing the basics needed to put on a good show," says Gaines. "In doing that, I learned about the evolving needs of filmmakers and audiences. Now I work with the world's great film festivals to harness the benefits of emerging, global distribution platforms. It's a fascinating challenge."

Matt Dentler left SXSW Film to manage digital rights for Cinetic. At SXSW, Dentler championed a group of filmmakers who shared internet-based marketing and distribution notions. Thus, at Cinetic, Dentler has been pushing a steady stream of festival films to iTunes, Amazon, Jaman, Hulu, SnagFilms etc. "The Auteur," which premiered at Tribeca last year, is now on iTunes while Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan," which began at the Independent Feature Film Market in 1989, is on Hulu.

"It's very similar to being a festival programmer," says Dentler. "I'm still working in the world of contextualizing an indie film for the right audience. And my favorite part of my old job still rings true: uniting filmmakers with audiences."

Paola Freccero left Tribeca to head up B-Side's new distribution arm, formed out of the company's success distributing the docs "Super High Me" and "Crawford" via an internet-based, grassroots effort.

"Moving from festivals into for-profit distribution takes the same skills and expertise - on steroids," says Freccero. "Probably the biggest difference is that instead of worrying about the launch of 200 festival films, I'm worrying about the entire fate of 10 or 15. The focus is more concentrated, but the skills and the stress are the same."

And while some people think Gilmore is Tribeca fest's new programming head, he clearly indicates he's got much bigger ideas, as he told indieWIRE:

"The problems right now for the independent arena are multiple. They include the distribution bottleneck and the difficulties of finding new alternatives to having your films reach audiences. Festivals have helped that world change and festivals are going to continue to help that world change. What Tribeca Enterprises is going to do is be involved in setting up a new paradigm," exploring, "the ways that festivals become platforms for new enterprises."

As the economy sinks some believe time has run out on these ideas, or at least put them on the back-burner. Profit was elusive even before the downturn and a few industryites believe these business models are just too vague.

"You can't blog your way to financial success," quipped one major sales rep before this year's Sundance. Don't bother talking to him about digital, he continued. Traditional theatrical discussions were the only ones he was open to for his slate. Even when cash changes hands within these new models filmmakers mostly see pennies, he stressed.

And a national, grassroots distribution effort will not work for every film. When it does, it takes a long commitment. Even with this new marketing and distribution pipeline, it still takes experience and elbow grease. And less experience equals more grease.

So as indie film stakes its future on a different pipeline, the industry needs to remember what worked before and what didn't. Gilmore's old-school experience in a "new paradigm" may be what this new model needs. Let's hope he's able to build it from the experimental to the viable. Because within the tiring discussions between the "falling sky" and a "new frontier," indie film simply needs something to work. And soon.

Mike Jones is a writer based in Los Angeles. He's held senior editorial positions at Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE, and most recently served on staff at Variety covering the independent film and film festival beats.

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10 Comments

  • mteplitsky@gmail.com | February 23, 2009 6:46 AMReply

    Excellent article and comments. Mitchell Block's statement especially caught my attention.

    " Celebrating works that never really reach an audience, never break even or cover their costs isn’t a very good model for a for-profit"

    I'd like to see more recognition of filmmakers who have made films and actually earned some money, even on a modest scale, or were able to keep their day jobs. They do exist. To me, that's a success story. It kind of baffles me sometimes when films/filmmakers are lauded as distribution case studies or experts - but when you ask or dig deeper, you find the projects are a financial mess. That doesn't diminish their artistic achievement of course...

  • genartjeff | February 22, 2009 7:32 AMReply

    Angelo.

    What do you mean by "if we don't watch out,"? The Amazon/createspace/imdb model is well integrated and that only serves the filmmakers better. And there is so much potential for its growth. The market will determine what company has the best services at the best prices.

    Even in a world of unlimited access to indies there needs to be a system of vetting and endorsing. Good content and money will always help a film rise above the masses - but festivals and their organizers have long known how to select good movies and find audiences for them - . . . and Gilmore knows that Tribeca has resources to play a bigger role in this process.

    I do agree that filmmakers need to study more. And to that point - share what they learn from their experiences with others (as Four Eyed Monsters did on their website). Filmmakers can play a significant role in shaping these new distribution models.

    Great article Mike!

    Jeff
    www.genart.org/filmfestival (I also agree you can blog your way to success, as long as people are reading)

  • mteplitsky@gmail.com | February 22, 2009 3:35 AMReply

    Excellent article and comments. I especially liked this:

    "Celebrating works that never really reach an audience, never break even or cover their costs isn't a very good model for a for-profit" - Mitchell Block

    I'd like to see more recognition of filmmakers who have made films and actually earned some money, even on a modest scale, or were able to keep their day jobs. They do exist. To me, that's a success story. It kind of baffles me sometimes when films/filmmakers are lauded as distribution case studies or experts - but when you ask or dig deeper, you find the projects are a financial mess. That doesn't diminish their artistic achievement or courage and sacrifice, of course.

    - Mitch Teplitsky

  • mteplitsky@gmail.com | February 22, 2009 2:47 AMReply

    Excellent article and comments. I especially liked this:

    "Celebrating works that never really reach an audience, never break even or cover their costs isn’t a very good model for a for-profit" - Mitchell Block

    I'd like to see more recognition of filmmakers who have made films and actually earned some money, even on a modest scale, or were able to keep their day jobs. They do exist. To me, that's a success story. It kind of baffles me sometimes when films/filmmakers are lauded as distribution case studies or experts - but when you ask or dig deeper, you find the projects are a financial mess. That doesn't diminish their artistic achievement of course...

    - Mitch Teplitsky

  • mwblock | February 21, 2009 9:15 AMReply

    I remember when Geoff came to Sundance and replaced Tony Safford. The shift from Sundance to Tribeca should benefit both organizations. Sundance gets the opportunity to rethink Geoff's position and Tribeca can see if it can find a way to monetize Groff's skill sets. Safford has been very sucessful doing acquisitions for Fox.

    Sundance has become a cheerleader for independent films. 3000 entries and a few financially successful works a year suggests a huge disconnect between the business of independent films and the reality of the film business. The landscape is littered with far too many films that never should have been made. The Festival Circuit is considered by many independent filmmakers as being a desirable outcome for their unsold projects.

    It will be interesting if Gillmore will be successful in this transition. After all, Sundance became the tail that waves the Institute. If one believes the reality is to make films that work financially as well as artistically as I do, then festival models becomes almost irrelevant. Celebrating works that never really reach an audience, never break even or cover their costs isn't a very good model for a for-profit.

    Let's see what happens.

    Mitchell Block
    www.directcinema.com

  • Alive Mind | February 21, 2009 7:50 AMReply

    he issue most indie filmmakers who seek to self-distribute face -- either because they don't find a distributor or they think they can do it better themselves -- is the daunting task of creating market awareness of their films outside of the indie film/festival community. Your fellow filmmakers are not your consumers. Even if a filmmaker uses Amazon and createspace, people still have to know about the film. That is where the expertise and knowledge of a savvy distributor can make the difference between selling a few hundred copies and a few
    thousand.

    While it is very difficult for a sole filmmaker to blog his or herself to success, blogs and other online tools employed properly can create awareness of a film beyond the friends and family of the filmmaker. At Alive Mind (www.alivemind.net), Richard Lorber's new label from Lorber Digital (www.lorberhtdigital.com), this is what we have done very successfully for several non fiction titles. We have built a community that is bigger than the topic of the film and promoted through that community. After the direct-to-consumer window, we then follow-up with traditional retail, both Internet and brick & mortar such as Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, and NetFlix, which remains the primary source of revenue. At the same time we also release to iTunes and other digital platforms such as Jaman, which as of today are not generating substantial revenue for independent filmmakers or distributors.

    Add on top of that a guerilla semi-theatrical release strategy to generate further awareness to the general public (and revenue) and the old traditional distribution model can retire to the graveyard. Film fests can continue to provide a useful platform for a film's launch where innovative distributors can learn about new films.

    Elizabeth Sheldon
    Vice President
    Lorber HT Digial - http://www.lorberhtdigital.com
    www.alilvemind.net

  • pegu | February 21, 2009 6:38 AMReply

    As to your "i think that this mentality has even affected the filmmakers who are making films.", I'd even put a little more responsibility (cough) blame (cough) on our community of filmmakers, a good portion of which now have the "I want more and I want it now" attitude to this work, art, business. Forget the days of toiling away for years and grinding it up the ladder for the brass ring, there are just too many kiddies who want the red carpet and the celeb treatment for putting together something that wouldn't have passed muster ten years ago, and they're twittering their lives away and believing that's some type of art.

    Add the money the corporate gorillas were throwing at the festies and the attention the ADD media was giving them, and you have yourself a perfect(ly) horrible storm.

  • vagabond | February 21, 2009 5:16 AMReply

    These fests (Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW and others) have become victims of the times. Everything these days feels the need to be a part of the mainstream in order to be validated. These days there are no rebel outside the gates doing what they do because they're driven too with no desire to be enclosed by the gates. There are only "rebels" at the gates clamoring for the fence to be built around them. When Sundance began it was for filmmakers and cinephiles. If you didn't work in the industry you probably never even heard of Sundance. Now it's a bloated overblown affair that the mainstream look to for some breakout success story. And the breakout success stories aren't living up to the hype placed around it by the huge corporate sponsors rolling hipster marketing plans in gift bags and the celebrity hawkers of Entertainment Tonight. Sundance is a victim of it's own success. As it's cache grew into the mainstream, so too did the pressure to have a CInderella story.

    These programmers may be dutch boys with their finger in the part of the dam that's still left standing but It seems that filmmaking is the last thing on peoples minds at these festivals. These programmers may be thinking about filmmaking but everyone else around them isn't. Tribeca hasn't even tried to be about filmmaking. It's was about getting people to spend money in a neighborhood affected by a terrorist attack. The first thing you think of when you think of the Tribeca film festival is Robert DeNiro and American Express. The success of SXSW as a hipster industry event is the first thing that comes to mind, films or filmmakers. And the formula that rocketed SXSW into one of the most powerful festivals in the country is the same formula that corporate mainstream interests would love to replicate in hawking their next "product". SXSW was the "rebel" at the gates that negotiated that the fence be made bigger to include them. They may have made a larger playing field but there's still the same fence around the borders.

    i think that this mentality has even affected the filmmakers who are making films. In order to be successful at these festivals they make films that that are just outside of the borders yelling into the gates asking to be included. Maybe i'm just being romantic but i thought that these festivals and the films they screened were about not having borders.

  • pegu | February 20, 2009 10:51 AMReply

    But even Amazon can't do this effectively for the filmmaker. Using CreateSpace, you're pocketing $6.05 off a $20 DVD sold on Amazon.com not counting who's taking the hit for shipping, taxes, etc. The old model may be flawed but the new one still has a lot of kinks to work out, esp. outside the US

  • hollywoodcity | February 20, 2009 10:24 AMReply

    If we don't watch out, Amazon will be the biggest digital distributor of indie films. Setup your film on CreateSpace, sell it on Amazon.com, which automatically gets you on IMDB, and with a few button-clicks, stream it via Amazon's Unbox. I don't see how changing film festivals will impact what Geoff Gilmore has to "deal with" regarding indies. We've known the system was flawed for some time. Best option if for filmmakers to learn as much about distribution options as they had to learn when they decided to make a film. And I disagree with the Sundance Sales Rep, yes, you CAN blog your way to success, if you reign in your concept of success.

    Angelo Bell - http://www.AngeloBell.com