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by Jay A. Fernandez
September 25, 2012 1:33 PM
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Reinventing Story: Bob Berney, John Sloss, Lance Weiler and More Face the Future During Independent Film Week

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.”

READ MORE: Documentary Filmmakers Argue the Nature of Truth at Independent Film Week Panel -- And Further Muddy the Waters

Michel Reilhac
"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.”

READ MORE: 7 Tips For Navigating Conflicts in Documentary Filmmaking From Independent Film Week 2012

"Exit Through the Gift Shop"
“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.”

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3 Comments

  • Gary Sales | October 12, 2012 6:34 PMReply

    I'm not sure about the ideas proposed for the "new" story telling as described in this article. When it comes to the perception of what's entertaining and worth paying to watch the audience is always ahead of the curators. If they like it, their interest transcends any expert's criticism of why it's bad. Sometimes the professional critics are the last to "get it" when it comes to the heretofore unknown tastes rumbling up from cinema culture's grass roots. There's no shortage of critically panned movies that have risen to the top of the box office. There are also a number that take a while for even the public to catch on to. (Rocky Horror suffered from both I think.) What I am sure of, is that the landscape for selling & distributing my latest indie feature has changed yet again.

    Here I am coming through final post for THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, starring Stephen Lang, Henry Ian Cusick, Nicki Aycox and David Margulies in a superbly written, well shot, neo-noir murder mystery that I produced for writer/director Larry Brand last spring here in NY. We're d only weeks away from attending the AFM in LA and from the stories I'm hearing I have major concerns about navigating those labyrinthian Loews hallways to make a deal that will offer me and my associates & investors enough up front to buy a bottle of Champagne to celebrate a deal.

    I've been making movies since the early 80's and have been part of, and witness to, the great rise and blossoming of the indie film sector. A number of under financed indie efforts broke though to great viewership and financial success. Sadly, most failed and many movies never got seen beyond their initial festival push and many producers went into the real estate business. Nowadays there may be a digital shelf somewhere where those movies might be accessible. Still, the money's long gone and getting them in front of eyeballs for even the satisfaction that at least someone's getting to see the work, is still the issue.

    In the last couple of decades, technology has opened new doors to cinemamakers, (I hesitate to say film any more), both on a production level and in distribution but now the new problem is way more supply than demand; way more movies to curate than curators; way too many digital diversions to hijack paying eyeballs; and way too little advance money to help a guy/gal and their investors get whole after maxed budgets and his credit cards used to deliver a movie. It's laughable, that having cracked the code on delivering unique, quality content to viewers by shifting from schlepping atoms (film prints) to sending bits (media files), little has changed for indie creators in terms of a knowable pathway to making and releasing our hard made wares for reasonable payments, so we can get back to the work of creating new movies.

    Yes, I can see the new model they say is forming-- becoming a part of the continuing sales and marketing of our creations. I'm just not sure that those of us who slave to produce and deliver movies are suited to sales or that eager to take it on. The old model had certain advantages if you were successful-- you got paid an advance for your movie; you left the crass, crazy world of sales & marketing your movie to your distributor; and you went back to the hard work making or thinking about making your next one. Luck and the quality of the distributor's campaign be with you-- and you might even see a check in your mail box 60 days after the end of the first quarter after the movie's release.

    BTW-- I'm willing to wear as many hats as needed to succeed so I'll just have to call you guys up at Cinetic and PDA and find out, "what's a 21st Century Indie producer to do.?"

  • Sàrah | September 26, 2012 2:23 PMReply

    "...inspired by the intermingling of two groups of real people — a geek-oriented, male, ’50s computer science community fixated on the archeology of cybernetics, and a female community based around burlesque and pin-ups..."

    Gee, what progress!

    Yeesh.

  • Doubting_commodity | September 26, 2012 12:40 PMReply

    ""Because in the end, it’s a three-tiered thing: Is it fun, is it social and participatory? Is somebody emotionally invested in it? .... We can move past the commoditization and finally move it to the point where story can really take hold, as it should in the 21st century."

    What is being described here is not "story"; it's crowd-funding sublimated or glorified into "content" creation. Without "commoditization", there are no stories in the usual sense of the word, i.e., crafted materials which take the viewer out of his own pitiful head. Still worse, the process Weiller yearns for is already well-advanced in the indie film world: these films may have auteurs attached, but they're aggregations of the interests and market assessments of the attendees of this very conference. And nobody's interested.

    What Weiller argues for may have broader democratic ambitions and reach, but it remains a product which only interests its own creators, rather like poetry today (lots of people write it, but very few read it). This solipsistic paradise may well be the future, but nobody will make a living from it, because everyone will be the creator of it. Beware what you wish for....