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"We can solve this": Ted Hope on His New Direct Distribution Labs and How Technology Will Save Indie Film

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire May 8, 2013 at 11:16AM

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.
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Pamela Gentile/San Francisco Film Society Ted Hope

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.

"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."

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?

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.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, Interviews, Ted Hope, A2E, San Francisco International Film Festival, Distribution