The first-ever A2E: Artist to Entrepreneur direct distribution labs took place this past weekend at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival, an initiative launched to help find ways to make a sustainable living from filmmaking in an industry undergoing rapid changes. The program was started by veteran producer Ted Hope, who left New York to take on the role of executive director of the San Francisco Film Society in September, and whose first term overseeing the festival has been marked by bold, flag-planting moves like the creation of A2E and Steven Soderbergh's "State of Cinema" address. Over A2E's four intensely scheduled days, representatives from 12 indie film projects met with and heard presentations from expert advisers and representatives from digitally inclined, forward-thinking companies like Cinedigm, Kickstarter, Tugg and Vimeo, the discussion centering on how to get films out to audiences without selling off all the rights for a fraction of what they cost to make. You can read our report from the labs here. Indiewire also sat down with Hope to talk about the first iteration of the labs, the spirit in which they were born and how they'll evolve.
Listening in on these meetings has been interesting, because it feels like people are working towards hammering out this process that's not set at all.
People have relied on distribution to reach an audience -- there was no reason to ever learn how to do anything with your film beyond get it to the festival stage and then sell it. So much of the last 20 years was about learning how to manage the festival strategy, foreign sales, publicity. Now, through the proliferation of tech platforms, you don't need a distributor to reach an audience. And because of the improvement of technology to lower the cost of production, of marketing, of some forms of distribution, we have such a huge number of movies that you recognize that distribution is for the privileged, but platforms are for everybody.
How do we do the same thing we learned how to do with our films: budget, schedule, and strategize, so we can predict revenues, returns on our movies? It's really exciting, I think, to see people see that they can manage their own destiny. For the audience, it means that we're on the verge of actually having a greater variety of films. You start to see then that you can make a movie that is not designed for a mass market.
A person who's making the decision on what films to buy or what to push is influenced by their own experience, and that starts to shape the nature of what is released and given to the general public. Once we start to step away from that, once the public decides, that will also change the nature of what films get made. As we separate ourselves away from traditional distribution, we start to see the fact that it isn't all one film industry -- it's actually a series of industries. Out of the 500, 600 films released in America each year, 150 of them are studio movies, 200 more are studio wannabe movies, and the other 150 films are something completely unique between foreign films and true independent films, and yet American movies are still designed for a market, to bring to sale to a market as opposed to designed for an audience.
How did you select this first round of filmmakers? A lot of the films being used as successful examples in the talks are documentaries.
And we picked no documentaries. That was basically because documentaries are so much further down the road. It's acknowledged. Look at the films that were shortlisted for the doc Academy Awards last year -- half of them went with direct distribution, and they did it successfully. Try to name the narrative films that have done it. Very few have gone on this route. To me, as a not-for-profit organization, where can we have the most amount of impact? Who needs it? Right now the narrative filmmakers need it more than the doc filmmakers.
As we go forward, by all means I want this to work with doc films too. Whether we should keep them separate, I don't have an answer for that yet. The way we selected them... This is a pilot program, and it is a clear example of how I want to work. To borrow the parlance of my neighbors here in the Bay Area, it's rapid prototyping. Had the idea, knew how to do it, wanted it done fast. Luckily I had some support. It couldn't have been done without the help of Screen Australia, our producer on the program Alicia Brown. We didn't have the capacity within our organization to do it as an application process, so it made sense to reach out to other film support organizations and say "Do you have a film that is either right for direct distribution, direct distribution curious, or would like to just get a better handle on it?"
We generally went out to other organizations that are partnered in the Sundance Artist Services platform, as we are, then reached out to Frameline, the Canadian Film Centre and BFI, along with Sundance, Cinereach, IFP and Film Independent. That made up more than 80% of the films. The others were movies that we had a relationship with. It was invite only. People were worried about stigma of being direct distribution curious. But we had about twice as many folks being interested in doing it -- we have a great group of films to do it again with.
In the spirit of that rapid prototyping and this being the first iteration, are there things that you already know you want to have adapt and change in the next round?
The biggest challenge is time commitment versus experience. I think the best model for it is to stretch it over a week but only have the days be half as long so the filmmakers could see movies, see each other's films, and do their own bit of networking. Initially, when I mapped it out on my own, I had it at two days, and it became really clear that that wasn't going to work. But from a cost perspective you don't want to pay for too many hotel rooms and all of that. I wish there were more time.
It's such an impressive group of people that came in for this, I wish I could've done more things to allow them to talk to each other. I would've loved to have had a two-hour state of the union address in the beginning where everyone just said who they are, what their experience is, and what kind of big idea they're interested in. That is a great equalizer and something that really inspires people going forward because you start to hear people's ideas and you say, yeah, we can solve this in this room.
In some ways the trajectory to this started at the Indie Film Summit at MoMA in 2009. I was so glad that happened, and I was frustrated by the experience, because it was the first gathering and everyone could see an inevitable collapse of the horizon, no matter how long it would take. It was kind of a bitchfest. One person after the next just complained that they weren't getting their fair share or promoting whatever it was they were doing. How do you get around that, how do you get beyond that?