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Jon Reiss: "We are in the midst of a new world order or crisis"

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire November 17, 2009 at 2:40AM

This speech was delivered at the recent CPH:DOX Forum in Copenhagen. Jon Reiss will be doing a presentation today at 6 p.m. at IFC Center in Manhattan and selling his book, "Think Outside the Box Office," immediately after. The book is also available for purchase on his website.
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This speech was delivered at the recent CPH:DOX Forum in Copenhagen. Jon Reiss will be doing a presentation today at 6 p.m. at IFC Center in Manhattan and selling his book, "Think Outside the Box Office," immediately after. The book is also available for purchase on his website.

Much has been said and written about the current distribution crises of independent films, I am not going to belabor the horror stories here.

But just as a way of introducing myself – I will give you a brief introduction to my own horror story.

In 2007, I was at the Tribeca film festival where I was trying to sell my documentary "Bomb It." We did everything by the old school book, kept the screeners a secret, we spent $20,000 launching the film at the festival, with the result of packed houses and hundreds of people turned away. After all the excitement, what we had were a few $10,000 all rights deals that we rejected. A week after Tribeca, our film was available for sale on Canal Street — as a bootleg.

A number of lucky films each year will still get overall deals that make some kind of financial sense for them. However these deals are not available to the vast majority of filmmakers at this time. We are in the midst of a new world order or crisis.

Just as the digital revolution spawned a democritizaton of production, it is now spawing a democratization of distribution and marketing. This new way of filmmaking – and I include distribution and marketing as part of filmmaking - is about connecting filmmakers with audiences and creating long-term relationships with them. It is about thinking outside the box in terms of form and content. It is about embracing the changes in our industry that are facing all of us— and using them to spur new creativity.

The cover of Jon Reiss' new book, "Think Outside the Box Office."

Times of crises lend themselves to manifestos and I am going to use this opportunity to propose my own. This manifesto will speak to those filmmakers who are uncertain about the distribution and marketing of their films and want to know what alternatives exist to traditional forms. It will also speak to our partners in the industry such as distribution companies, festivals, guilds, funding entities and the like.

1. KNOW YOUR FILM/KNOW YOURSELF
EVERY FILM IS DIFFERENT AND SHOULD BE TREATED AS SUCH
The studio model of distribution was created because it made sense for large mass market films, and for a time it worked for some independent films as well.

However each film is different, and many independent films did not fair well within the studio machine – because they were not marketed to their unique audience.

It is best to determine what distribution and marketing path makes sense for your particular film and to do so as early in the process as possible. This plan/strategy will change over time and will evolve organically as your film evolves but you need a starting place.

Going through this process will not only save you a lot of grief, but will help you achieve success for your film whatever that may be.

Before embarking on releasing your film you should evaluate your film and your needs. Depending on how you release your film, it can cost a lot of time and money.

Look yourself in the eye, take a cold hard look at the film and determine how much time and money you are willing to spend on the release of it. Are you going to take a year or two of your life to devote to a full release including some form of theatrical, DVD, digital etc.

Also determine what type of film it is, even if it is brilliant, there might be only certain audiences that will take to it.

The point is to match the distribution path with the film, to balance your time releasing a film with the time needed to create new work.


2. CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARD MARKETING
As an iconoclastic, ex punk rock anarchist neo Marxist who most recently made a documentary about graffiti and the battle over visual public space, I feel that I have come about as far as anyone could come in this embrace of marketing.

I would argue that the biggest problem facing independent film is not one of distribution – it is one of marketing. It is one thing to put your film out into the world, it is another to get people to know about it, and want to watch it.

It is not a matter of changing your work to meet a supposed market. But to consider what kinds of audiences might be interested in your work and seek to cultivate them.

The artificial divide between art and commerce must be eliminated.

Most if not all filmmakers if they are truly honest with themselves, want as many people to watch their films as possible.

I propose that filmmakers view marketing as the way to connect with the audience of their film that either already exists, or should exist.

This process can be reverse engineered. Start with an underserved niche that spends money on content and create a product for them. This is a tried and true way that manufacturing (and much art) has been done for thousands of years. Are we so pure that we must be the only workers who eschew patterns of consumption? Even Michaelanglo and Davinci created work for Popes and Kings – and no one accused them of selling out. Somehow these artists managed to make this work their own.

In other words – embrace restrictions as a mother of invention and opportunity. This is not the solution for everyone, or every film – but it is something to consider.


3. DETERMINE YOUR AUDIENCES AND HOW TO REACH THEM FROM INCEPTION
Many independent filmmakers for many years have made films without thinking about who the audiences for their films might be. Or their ideas about audiences are much too general. Alternatively the studios have erred on the other side and catered to a mass audience and left any form of specialty taste behind.

But audience identification should be a constant process of discovery during the production (and prep, post and distribution) of your film. It is difficult to market to your audience if you don’t know who that audience is.

How will you reach those audiences?

How do those audiences consume media?

You should provide ways for your audience to consume media in the ways they desire.

START THE PROCESS AT INCEPTION
It can take a long time to engage your audience. As important as developing individual audience members are connections you can make with organizations that will help you expand your reach.

This audience engagement (aka marketing) will be much more organic if you integrate it into the whole life cycle of a film.

By starting during prep and production, you are allowing your audience to be involved in the creation of your work. This in turn invests them with the success of your film. This can happen through crowdsourcing of various creative aspects of the film or through crowdfunding the budget for the film. These engaged audience members will be active core promoters because they will feel a connection with your film.

Even if you are picked up by a distributor, any marketing work you do in advance will not only help you during your release, but might actually help you get stronger distribution deals than you would have otherwise. Having a robust email list, active Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts with many friends and followers is value.

Your fans exist. You just need to find them. The way you do that is through distribution and marketing.


4. WHEN YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR FILM, YOU ARE HALF DONE
Distribution and marketing can take as long and cost as much, or more than you spent on your film. The new 50/50 is not a revenue split but the mental shift that filmmakers must make about the filmmaking process.

Too many filmmakers have no resources for the second half of the process once they finish their films. It is a shame. Why make a brilliant wonderful film if you do not have the resources to get it to its audience.

This is not a hard and fast rule, remember all films are unique. But it is a good guideline when embarking on a project.

- Money for distribution and marketing should be budgeted for, raised and put into escrow. It is far better to have $50,000 to release a $50,000 film than to make a $100,000 film with no way of getting it to an audience.

- We must create new crew positions to be responsible for these tasks.

Just like you most likely did not make the film on your own, you should not be distributing and marketing the film on your own. I would argue that from now on, every film needs one person devoted to the distribution and marketing of the film from inception, just as they have a line producer, assistant director, or DP. Since it always helps for a crew person to have a title I propose the following:

The Producer of Marketing and Distribution or PMD

This producer needs to be integrated into the film production team itself. They are not responsible for the physical production of the film (because if they are – you and I know they will never do their distribution and marketing work).

-This article continues on the next page-

5. WE MUST TAKE BACK THE THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE AND REDEFINE IT AS LIVE EVENT/ THEATRICAL
Many people feel that the theatrical release is dead. It is too expensive and time consuming for independent filmmakers to engage. I believe it should be reborn.

Theatrical has come to mean a paid screening in conventional theaters with built in sound and visual projection that start on Friday – end Thursday with a review Friday in venuses that all sell popcorn.

Any booking of a film into a projected environment that does not meet the conventions outlined above falls into a category of “non-theatrical” or “semi-theatrical”. Given that these screenings are defined primarily in negative terms (non-, semi-,) it is not surprising that they receive a second-class status.

This classification of theatrical markets wasn’t always the case. In the earliest days of motion picture films, screenings occurred in a variety of spaces: storefronts, tents, public parks, churches. Films often toured with vaudeville acts or circuses or on their own.

It is time for filmmakers to reclaim the meaning of a theatrical release so that it is inclusive of a multitude of live-screening event scenarios.

Live Event/Theatrical should be defined as any exhibition of a film to a live audience, following whatever formal guidelines are intended by the filmmaker.

With “live,” I am emphasizing the communal nature of the filmgoing experience.

I also want to emphasize the “event” nature of the screenings: Something special is conveyed by going to a screening at a specific time at a specific place. The more specific that time and place is, the more it will take on the qualities of an event. It also encourages filmmakers to think of ways to turn their screenings into events.

Theatrical because independent filmmakers like to say that they had a theatrical release. It’s a term that has been in use for decades; let’s not throw it out, let’s take it back.

Venues can and should be as diverse as:

Conventional film theaters

Community centers

Bars, cafes, and nightclubs

College auditoriums

Churches

Parking lots

Parks

Galleries

For a green release you might want to consider digital transmission of your film into theaters, avoiding the carbon footprint of print creation and shipping. You might also champion community screenings and discourage people driving cars to attend, encouraging transportation by foot, public transit, or bicycle. I am not kidding.


6. CREATE PRODUCTS PEOPLE WANT TO BUY
Is it a wonder that in the digital era people have stopped buying DVDs? For what is a DVD but a package of 0s and 1s in a crap plastic case.

We should look to musicians who have struggled with this conundrum for longer than we. Just as they are touring, many of them understand the difference between a physical product and a digital product and not only price them accordingly, but create added value to their physical products that cannot be replicated digitally.

Consider items that your fans and audience will want to purchase, it will be different for every film. Consider books of photographs that contain the DVD. Video games, Toys that can be printed on demand with new three dimensional printers.

If you wish to have a green release you may not want to manufacture any products at all, thereby not using scarce resources for the production, distribution and disposal of consumer goods.


7. DIGITAL RIGHTS ARE A MINEFIELD – BE CAREFUL

Any form of viewing media that is solely delivered electronically as 0s and 1s falls into the realm of digital rights, whether it is viewed on a television, computer, or mobile device and whether it is delivered over the air or via a cable or wire. Is there any real difference for the consumer between a broadcast signal and wireless internet?

The television is just one viewing platform for digital rights. Cable is just one delivery system for digital rights. Many free streaming channels are building themselves as television channels for the future.

There are two certainties:

1. Companies buying your rights, whether digital, cable, home video, or domestic or foreign, will try to get as many of your rights as they can, whether or not they have the ability to exploit those rights.

2. Little by little, television/cable/digital rights are competing for one another’s business.

If a company does not have the ability to sell your rights and is not willing to offer you something for those rights, you should push hard not to give them up.

But one ever so slight misstep in this process can blow up in your face: deals cancelled, people pissed off, money down the drain. But you can survive. Perhaps you’ll lose a finger or hand but make it through alive).

In keeping with the minefield metaphore. You should:

Hire a Bomb Squad: Get a consultant, digital distributor, or lawyer, who knows the digital landscape and will fight to retain your rights, and more importantly strategize your digital rights.

Keep a map of the minefield. Record all your deals and track them, no one else will.


8. ENTERTAINMENT COMPANIES MUST MOVE BEYOND OLD WAYS OF DOING BUSINESS
Just as filmmakers must think out side the box in terms of the way they make and distribute and market films, companies need to do this as well.

Everyone is hurting in the birth of this new paradigm, so more than ever it is necessary to work together.

I believe it is important for filmmakers to collaborate with experienced and reputable companies in getting their work seen. Unless you are completely committed to DIY for philosophical reasons, or because you cannot find a company to partner with, I recommend DIY being a last resort. You will still end up doing more work than you can imagine on a release in a company supported split rights scenario.

In turn, companies need to embrace the split rights world we live in and stop being so omnivorous of our rights, if you are not going to provide monetary compensation for those rights or have no plans to you should not demand them.

Companies need to be more transparent about their ways of conducting business.

Companies and festivals must be open to creative windowing strategies and not punish filmmakers for doing the work they need to do to reach an audience and monetize their film.

Companies should share information and techniques with the film community so that we can learn as a community.

Festivals should open up their communities of audiences for new ways of collaboration with filmmakers seeking to engage with those audiences.

Festivals should break out of traditional models and recognize their role as as curators. They should take this one step further and use their existing acquisition apparatus to secure films for distribution and find creative ways to distribute new content to their audiences and the world.


9. EXPLORE NEW WAYS TO TELL STORIES

We live in a fractured marketplace for media. Audiences have media and consumption preferences. You can’t bend them, you must accommodate them.

We must embrace new forms beyond the short and the feature and recognize that a film can be one part of a larger narrative universe that can be explored in a variety of mediums.

Think of a story that takes place via a feature film, but extends out over mobile devices, gaming consoles, social networks, through websites, text messages, downloadable clips, or iPhone apps. An exciting amount of creative potential awaits adventurous filmmakers.

Further, audiences want to participate with culture. By allowing them to participate, filmmakers open themselves up to a deeper relationship with their audiences.

Don’t be proprietary with your media. Give people assets — footage, sounds, environments. Let them re-edit your scenes.

Not all of your audience is going to engage in this way, but a devoted core who will. It is this core that you can turn to as advocates of your work, who by participating in the expanded experience you provide for them will actually become your marketing allies.

Just as we have to break down the artificial construct between art and commerce, we need to end the divide between creator and audience. Let them play and participate with you. Don’t worry – you are still ultimately in control – or perhaps it might be better to lose control.


10. WE MUST SUPPORT EACH OTHER AS A COMMUNITY
Filmmakers are lovers of film and our best allies. We must support one another’s work. Stop asking for free copies or trades, if you want someone’s film, offer them $15 for it. Better than that, be there on opening weekend. Give them $25 or $100 when they start crowdfunding. The more generous you are – the more you will receive in return.

Similarly, if there is a film that you love – support it in other ways. Use your newly developed social networking skills to tell your own fans and followers why they should see the film. They are your followers, they are interested in your tastes and opinions, use that power to the good of the film community.

Be transparent with your data. Help other filmmakers learn from your experiences. I am creating a distribution and marketing tools website that will enable filmmakers and companies to share information about their experiences and the resources that they provide.

The book and the website are first steps toward keeping us as a community from reinventing the wheel each time and to increase the rapidity of information so that instead of shooting our selves in the foot, we can move forward and spend more energy on creative pursuits.

SO THAT’S THE MANIFESTO
I AM OPTIMISTIC ABOUT FILM
PEOPLE NEED TO TELL STORIES
People have been gathering around fires to tell and listen to stories since the birth of humankind. The form and delivery of those stories will change, but not the need.

The process of how to release and market your film in today’s digital landscape is covered in my book released this week.

More information on Jon Reiss and his book can be found on his website.

This article is related to: First Person