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Reinventing Story: Bob Berney, John Sloss, Lance Weiler and More Face the Future During Independent Film Week

Photo of Jay A. Fernandez By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire September 25, 2012 at 1:33PM

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.

"The digital platform is starting to get just as crowded as the theatrical platform is," said Berney, who noted that Rentrak listed 24 films opening the weekend of Sept. 21. "We’re moving beyond the period where anything might work on VOD. Because whenever a film comes in you have these anomalies. My favorite is 'ATM,' which did really well for IFC because it starts with an 'A.' Everybody’s like, 'My movie’s now called "AAA Action Film.'" You’re going to have to spend more as a distributor or a filmmaker to support VOD or pre-theatrical. You have to rethink your plan — even the companies that do this [regularly], IFC or Magnolia — everyone has to rethink it every year."


In a presentation that counter-intuitively championed the tension between community and curation, Hernandez connected the impulse behind creating Indiewire 16 years ago to the forward-thinking approach he brings to his relatively new job at FSLC. "The Film Society has always been a very analog place," he said. "One of the things I started thinking about was, How could we leverage digital tools and strategies to build a new foundation for the Film Society? And I was anxious to apply digital approaches. People want digital strategies or new technologies to be definitive when in fact making sense of these changes is actually what’s exhilarating. That’s the power of digital from my vantage point — how you apply it, and how you preserve the analog core that exists at the very center. We can’t expect digital to fix or replace everything about an aging system or a structure we don’t like. All or nothing answers are way too easy. The answer lies in the gray area.”

Walking through the origins of Black Public Media, the company she started in 1979, Fields-Cruz detailed just much the public TV audience has changed in the decades since. "The problem right now for us if our goal is to help public television provide diverse content for the American public — also to cultivate diverse audiences so that they will engage with public television — is how can we do that when right now public television’s core audience is 60 and older, white, middle-class, college-educated Americans? How do we connect with all the African Americans who might not engage with public television the same way?” Her attempts to answer that have recently encompassed creating short media content such as the “Black Folk Don’t" web series and other direct-to-audience efforts.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is easily the most dynamic period that I’ve ever been a part of," said Sloss. "A lot of the changes that are taking place in distribution are mutating hourly. The 20th century was a century of distributor ownership, where everyone was serving that beast. The 21st century is about creator ownership and facilitation."

Leslie Fields-Cruz
Leslie Fields-Cruz

Berney applauded exhibitors experimenting with "new ways to show movies," such as Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, the Nighthawk in Williamsburg, the Bell Lightbox Theater in Toronto and the growing Sundance Cinemas chain. "The other big change has been Netflix and streaming," said Berney. "Indies now have a pay TV outlet. That’s really made all the difference in getting the support for a theatrical release. That’s what’s made distributors willing to step up and do theatrical."

"People wanted social media or social networks to replace critics and curators," said Hernandez, pointing to his recent efforts (in a joint initiative with Indiewire) to create a festival-centric young critics academy at, first, the Locarno Film Festival and, next, at the New York Film Festival. "What excites me is that tension between curation and community. It’s not going to replace the need for critics anytime soon. I’ll state categorically, film criticism is not dead. But like indie filmmaking, monetization is a big challenge. We need to take a critical approach to our content. We need curators, we need filters. We also need to enable and support and cultivate new voices."

Alamo Drafthouse
Alamo Drafthouse

Among the transmedia projects Reilhac is working on: an "augmented reality app" called Cinema City that will launch next summer that connects global tourists to the sites around the world where their favorite films were shot and encourages them to film their own versions of scenes and upload them; a crowdsourced sci-fi film called “Rosa” that takes place in 2040 Paris that will be 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; and a movie-oriented LARP (live-action role-playing) experience in October that will involve two large groups of people viewing a film in character and then improvising the ongoing story as a kind of sequel. “We take this as an exploration of different dimensions than the ones that would be expected for a broadcaster so that we can provide artistic experiences to the audience, taking them to story worlds, to fiction worlds, that they would like to experience just to have something different from the traditional film experience,” Reilhac said. “We do believe that it's part of our mandate as a cultural public broadcaster to explore those new fields, because the fundamental need that we all have, and the pleasure that we all have, when we go and watch a movie is not so much the movie, it’s the story and it’s the experience of where it takes us. It’s such a privileged moment right now that we have so many options at our disposal to tell stories in so many different ways. We think we need to explore all of them, including those that do not sound like they are technical or tailored for a traditionally received audio-visual medium. It’s a very exciting adventure.”

This article is related to: IFP, Independent Film Week , Bob Berney, John Sloss, Lance Weiler, Eugene Hernandez, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Filmmaker Toolkit, Filmmaker Toolkit: IFP

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