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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.

“My partner at Cinetic, Bart Walker, was an agent but really functioned more as a manager,” said Sloss, “and I felt that as a lawyer often I functioned more as a manager. So I think those distinctions are artificial and a product of the 20th century. They’ll be less relevant in the future.”

“There’s all this opportunity for innovation, yet the innovation is lacking primarily because most of the software that’s been built up to this point has been dictated by user need,” said Weiler, who is developing a “Lord of the Flies” kind of genre project called “Hope Is Missing” about a sleep pandemic for which he’s collaborating with scientists and engaging real people to determine the storyline. “I honestly believe that story is going to drive the next generation of mobile and social applications. So storytellers are going to be in an amazing place.”

Lance Weiler
Lance Weiler

Discussing the "eco-systems" being created by YouTube, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and others, Margolin, who has been in the distribution business for more than 25 years, said, "Curation becomes critical in helping audiences find and sort through and make sense of the choices that are available to them. So we as aggregators and distributors play an important role in all three — being disrupters, enabling access and also curating. We’re at the dawn of a new age. It’s trying for filmmakers, rights holders and distributors, but at the same time there are so many opportunities, and we’re looking at experimenting and disrupting a lot. So much so that I’m getting daily phone calls saying, ‘What did you just do?’ from our distribution partners. And that’s part of the game. In this environment, you have to be willing to take risks."

“As stories become more impactful and more meaningful, a huge opportunity moving forward is found within those who are ‘formerly known as the audience,’” said Weiler, who has been working on a “collected learning” project involving a tiny robot called Laika that a pair of fifth-grade classes has been able to move around the country using their curriculum and other measurable stimuli (eventually, the artwork and stories that are inspired by the process will be shot into space by NASA). “Just figuring out ways to give them agency, to give them value within the process. Any time I ever bring this up, storytellers who hold on to auteur theory are terrified, ‘Oh my God, it’s all going to go to crap, how are we going to have anything of quality?’ But it’s all about collaborative filtering, and it’s about conversation.”

“Reviewers are ceding their own obsolescence, and I don’t really understand why,” said Sloss. “They’ll give front-page coverage to review-proof films, and they’ll trash them with no impact. And then there are the films like ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ that will get capsule reviews, and those are films they could impact. I guess by the same token, the idea that they are insisting that it appear in a theater before they review it, even though it’s a film that’s worthy of their review regardless of the cut, is a distinction I don’t understand.”

"The Wedding Banquet"
"The Wedding Banquet"

"We’re not really addressing the elephant in the room," said Hope. “As much as it’s a great time to be a storyteller, and as much as the cost of making movies goes down, as disruptive as the transformation from an entertainment economy of scarcity to one of great abundance is, the real issue right now is the artists and the people that support them are not benefiting from their work, and it just can’t be done. I’ve watched six years of my own personal earnings keep going down each year. I talk to all my fellow producers, who are saying, ‘I have to move out of New York, it’s too expensive to live here.’ I’m not making a living producing the movies. And the system as it’s set up right now does not benefit artists or those that support them. Until we can tell stories again of ‘The Wedding Banquet’ or 43 times return on ‘Brothers McMullen,’ until we have our Google billionaires again, there won’t be enough money. We need to develop a sustainable investor class that supports the artists and benefits from doing so. Right now, it doesn’t happen. And that’s what we need to do is focus on that. Because we, in America, live in a market-driven entertainment economy, and it can’t support itself. Filmmaking will be the province of the young and the rich for the next 10-20 years unless we do something drastic to change it. And that’s where we are right now for all the change and disruption we have. We don’t have a system that supports the creators or their supporters.”

"For me, the reinvention is about what you do with the stories, and how you get the stories out, and how you make them valuable," Weiler says. "Because in the end, it’s a three-tiered thing: Is it fun, is it social and participatory? Is somebody emotionally invested in it? Is it something that somebody will effectively move forward and want to share with somebody else? 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."

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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