Midway through Independent Film Week 2012, IFP held a closed panel titled "Reinvent: Media Arts for the 21st Century" at the Walter Reade Theater that featured seven speakers weighing in on the evolution and potential of independent film, its growing distribution options and the nature of storytelling itself. On the roster were former Apparition and FilmDistrict exec Bob Berney; National Black Programming Consortium director of programming Leslie Fields-Cruz; Film Society of Lincoln Center director of digital strategy (and Indiewire co-founder) Eugene Hernandez; Cinedigm Entertainment Group co-president Susan Margolin; Cinetic Media founder John Sloss; ARTE France Cinema executive director Michel Reilhac; and storyteller extraordinaire Lance Weiler.
Bookended by comments from Filmmaker Magazine editor-in-chief Scott Macaulay and an open debate among the 80-90 indie-film players in attendance — including IFP executive director Joana Vicente, Sundance Institute fixtures Michelle Satter and Bob Hawk, SXSW programmer Jarod Neece, Sheffield International Doc/Fest director Heather Croall, producer (and Indiewire blogger) Ted Hope and independent distributor Louise Rosen — the forum spanned everything from the nuts and bolts of digital distribution to the transmedia possibilities of stories crowdsourced by fifth graders and shot into space.
Below are some of the most provocative thoughts from the event.
"The field of independent film is at this moment an incredibly elastic and dynamic one," said Foundas, who used his introductory remarks to impress upon the crowd that the incendiary "Innocence of Muslims" footage, the "Hillary: The Movie" political film that sparked the Citizens United Supreme Court case and the short-video filmmakers using YouTube to make six-figure salaries all fall under the indie-film umbrella. “It is being claimed by larger and larger groups of people. Some of those people share the hopes, goals and values of many of us in this room, and some of them do not. As we think about the future of independent film, it’s important for us to understand that there are many futures possible, some of which can happily coexist with each other and some of which cannot. It's important to remember that the future of independent film is powered by our own imaginations and our own ability to shape what is possible.”
"We found out a few years ago that we had to make our own revolution," said Reilhac, who has spent more than 20 years orchestrating content for a bilingual, bicultural French-German broadcaster. "We decided that we were no longer going to be defined by the TV screen. We would start defining ourselves as content providers and content curators, and that it would not matter on which screens the content would be channeled through to the audience."
Referencing recent releases such as "Arbitrage," “Margin Call” and “Bachelorette,” Berney criticized the old model of running an acquisition through the standard release machine, noting that there were companies picking up films at the Toronto film festival that weren’t even distributors. “Film by film, or case by case, is the secret to making films work,” he said. "Even though it makes it more difficult for distributors and producers to figure out, they have a lot more choices on every kind of platform. They don’t necessarily have to think of a distribution deal that’s just one all-rights deal. There are other ways to do it."
"My process as a storyteller has changed — I feel like I’ve gone through a reinvention," said Weiler, who has created games and genre films, such as "The Last Broadcast" and "Head Trauma," over the last 17 years. As he now tries to monetize transmedia, Weiler has created a working methodology built around "treating story as software." “This is an amazing time to be a storyteller,” he said. “Very similar to how writing is all about the rewriting, software development is an agile process, and you’re constantly trying to fail quickly, learn from that failure and continue forward. Classically, filmmakers tend to make one product, one film. And they live and die by that one product. And eventually they push it out into the world. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. They go lick their wounds, and they go back to making another film. But what I’ve been experimenting with over the last six years is this idea of changing my process and looking at ways that I can take advantage of disruption that I see.”
“What happened at Toronto this year was a further evolution and emblematic,” said Sloss. "The 40 sales are very different in nature from what they used to be. A lot of them went to IFC, which is a great distributor, and Magnolia, a great distributor, and to Roadside, which bought a number of movies. But the high end of the purchases is what the low end used to be. We can bemoan that, but I don’t choose to see it that way. I just think it’s a further indication that maybe the future isn’t about giving your film to distributors for 15 years and trusting to them alone [to bring it] to the public. With the ability to market them directly to your audience, and with the great transparency of knowledge that is taking place, the responsibility of filmmakers is not to necessarily hand their film off, but to understand what the waterfalls and revenue streams are, who their audiences are, and be a partner in getting the film out to their audience.” As an example, Sloss mentioned the ad hoc distributor he co-founded called PDA, Producers Distribution Agency, that lets filmmakers and producers retain ownership and stay involved in the process, as with "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "Senna," "The Way” and the upcoming "Brooklyn Castle." "What we’re trying to do is illustrate to people the possibilities of all the different ways, if you are a creator and you’re willing to stay involved and take responsibility, that you can take your film out in the world," he said. "And now is a time like no other I’ve seen to do that.”