Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Alison Willmore
May 8, 2013 11:16 AM
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"We can solve this": Ted Hope on His New Direct Distribution Labs and How Technology Will Save Indie Film

Jan Lundberg, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
When Vanessa, my wife, and I walked out of that we were talking about how the film industry really needed a non-partisan body to bring together the industry, the creators, businesses and government. And ultimately later we said education. You can look at so many other different fields of enterprise and see those things existing, think tanks. But where was that in the film space? When the opportunity came in to run the San Francisco Film Society, I thought I could take all these different ventures that I was engaged with and find a better model in a not-for-profit place.

The core idea is that there's such a wealth of intellect, vision, experience and hope, because the way most great indie movies get made is out of ignorance -- out of the belief that we will do it better. By having all those folks in a room -- you're not going to win anything, you're not going to get five steps ahead of the next guy, you're going to work together to try to do it. That's a hundred committed individuals who basically were saying, I'm going to give you my time, I'm going to give you my experience, I'm going to share my ideas, on the condition that you do the same and we'll somehow get farther down the road together.

You've mentioned the need for film needing to break out of being its own isolated community and engage in broader discussions -- be it by looking to Silicon Valley or Amanda Palmer. How do you see this program as facilitating that conversation?

You just see the spark that comes from the mixture of like-minded individuals and folks who are outside the common experience. You see different things. When I started blogging, that whole idea that film industry doesn't meet tech and tech doesn't meet film industry -- five years later it's the exact same thing. What little benefit we get from just putting folks in that room is so evident. Unfortunately, even at different film festivals where they have different startup alleys and so on, it's not organized for the industry to participate in.

I totally believe that the future of the film business, for better and for worse, is determined by the technology that's going to come down the pike that we've yet to see. And we're here [in San Francisco], it's easy to do -- I'm not traveling in technologists from all over the globe (yet).

"I think that we misconceived of what movies really are. We think they're too unique and too isolated from other forms."
I think that we misconceived of what movies really are. We think they're too unique and too isolated from other forms. There are a tremendous number of examples that we can learn from from different cultural and business strands and how they apply to our practice. Also, the feature film forum is a construct of the economic model. When the economic model doesn't work, and all of the processes along the way have evolved, the form itself will also evolve. I can't say I've been a fan of the terms we've used to try and describe it -- transmedia, cross platform -- but I do think the fact that there is something about experience design, story world creation, participatory culture, that is a much different form. It's still cinema in the Steven Soderbergh sense of the word, but it has many different ways that we can engage with it.

I love the pure process of sitting in a dark room watching a film with a bunch of other people. But at the same time I think that we don't have enough examples of things that we can cite. The best example of a participatory film is 45 years old, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." That was an incredibly successful economic model that has rarely been replicated. We don't have many examples like [doc short and viral hit] "Caine's Arcade," of short form content that had an embedded call to action which hopefully made it a participatory event, because it wasn't the watching that made it an event, it was changing Caine's life. In two weeks, we changed his future because people loved him and what he did.

That's phenomenal and we can do that in so many different ways. And we haven't unleashed that power that is purely unique to cinema: the ability to create empathy from people and actions that you know nothing about. To share that feeling with strangers. If we think movies end when the lights go back on, we're fools, because that moment that change occurs we change that equation that prevents action. We've found the escape from change only coming when the pain in the present exceeds the fear of the future. At that moment when the lights go back on and you are feeling hope and confident, anger and desire and kinetic activity, boom, something can happen. And we've instead placed all of our efforts into selling a 15 cent bag of popcorn for six dollars. We love in a consumer society where the way we know how to express ourselves best is through what we buy, but that's changing too.

Moving back to direct distribution, you mention that there's still a stigma attached to it despite the giant shift happening. Does film distribution needs an Amanda Palmer equivalent to kind of have that cultural caché? A lot of the success stories that have been brought up so far about direct distribution are not always the sexiest ones. They're very practical, market-based.

There isn't a sexy version of direct distribution yet. But the thing that I think is important is that we move off this culture of success and we recognize that there is a level of both practicality and responsibility. There was a band that I was really inspired by when I was 20 called the Minutemen. Never aspired initially to commercial success. They were happy to be a working band on the road. And if you get to create as your livelihood, that's an incredible privilege that we should be thankful for. There's a real benefit to understanding the slog, the daily grind, the job aspect of earning the privilege of doing what you want.

That said, look where we were a year ago. A year ago we were saying, I wish that somebody like Quentin Tarantino would do a crowdfunding campaign. And who came first? Amanda Palmer. And that was all over the internet for it. Then Paul Schrader did it with his film. Then "Veronica Mars" did it in a colossal way and showed if you did a mainstream thing that had been percolating for a while it could work. And what happened after that? Zach Braff said "I want to do this." A change has occurred. I think we're in the -1 of that cycle. Give us that year and we will have the sexy example of direct distribution to put out there.

Someone, somewhere, is not just going to get rich on this one time but in the process of doing it they will have this other major transformation that occurs which is their funders, their supporters, become patrons. And they have a livelihood in front of them based on giving people what they really want and haven't ever gotten before -- instead of what the film industry has always been based on, which is the white hare phenomenon of someone saying "I like what I get" as opposed to saying "I get what I want." We're not trained to understand that we can actually get what we want. We end up being satisfied, generally speaking, with what is handed to us instead. And that's the change that is occurring.

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2 Comments

  • shelly | May 9, 2013 12:36 AMReply

    There is nothing in the indie film world more awful that Ted Hope.

  • DavidD | May 8, 2013 1:16 PMReply

    It's unfortunate, but the only real beneficiaries of these programs are people like Ted Hope, and the other employees of the institutions he cites. They alone enjoy a guaranteed income and a 50 watt megaphone, and no prospect of ending up a temp or a waiter after a failed life in the arts.

    Go to Ted Hope's blog, and you'll find contradictory claims in every post. He knows full well that filmmaking today is senseless for the vast majority who pursue it, even as he endlessly talks up the possibilities. But without that vast army, Ted Hope would have no audience.