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Saving Cinema in the Digital Era

Saving Cinema in the Digital Era

Amidst the rush to find new digital models and preserve a business for indies, how do we save film as an art form? Can we monetize movies and also save cinema? Do we risk films being judged differently as the vast majority of movies are seen on smaller screens? These were the questions in mind at a panel earlier this week at the SXSW Film Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas. And as the festival head into its final days, it’s a good time to look to the future through the words of four industry leaders.

Moderated by indieWIRE‘s own Eugene Hernandez, the panel featured an eclectic mix of folks from various sides of film world: Matt Dentler, former SXSW director and head of programming and marketing for Cinetic Rights Management, Ryan Werner, vice president of marketing at IFC Entertainment, David Hudson, curator of The Auteurs Daily blog, and Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema here in Austin, Texas.

Highlights from the panel:

Just because a film plays great in a theater at a festival, doesn’t mean it’s best suited for theatrical release.

Matt Dentler: “One of the breakthroughs I had in thinking about the evolving trends of theatrical in the marketplace was actually inspired by my work at SXSW. You would see these films that would be amazingly embraced by the audiences at SXSW and other film festivals. Films would play through the roof, get standing ovations, be completely spread through word-of-mouth at the festival. And then those same films would find their way into the theatrical marketplace in a traditional manner, and just die. They’d find no way to recapture that same energy… So part of that for me is that a festival environment is very unique and special. And just because you see in a movie theater with a bunch of strangers at a film festival and love it, doesn’t necessarily mean the best way to get that film out to the marketplace is in a movie theater with a bunch of strangers.”

And just because it’s not screening theatrically, doesn’t mean it can’t be a communal experience.

Matt Dentler: “For us [at Cinetic], it’s about keeping the idea of the communal experience alive. Which is tough to do because VOD is not a communal experience necessarily. You’re watching something by yourself or with your significant other or with your friends… either on cable or VOD or Netflix streaming or any of those places. But for us it’s about building awareness of films and trying to make it a communal event in that space through social networking and through doing, say, Twitter Q&As or Facebook stuff. Things of that nature. Because the way that people are leaning right now is that people are leaning toward a much more solitary experience watching films. I think it’s harder for people to justify going to a movie theater… So the onus is on us to try to make that same event experience happen in your own living room.”

It’s this potential digital sense of community that may just save cinema in the digital era.

David Hudson: “I’ve been going to SXSW for like 15 years now, and what’s interesting to me is that each year many of the same questions keep coming up again and again and again. And those are the panicky questions… about how we make money right now, about specific revenue models. But what’s interesting is that we’re still dealing with questions like pay-per-view vs. subscription… These are an ancient questions. It’s the magazine business in 1996.

So in the short term, yes, we have reason to panic. But in the long term, though… I’m a long term optimist. As online technology continues to develop, these communities that we’re talking about can find each other much more easily. The system becomes much more efficient. So that community that wants to see ‘Antichrist’ – whether they’re seeing it in theaters or on a screen at home – they’re finding each other through The Auteurs, Facebook, Twitter… We’re finding ways to find each other. And I think ultimately, community is what it’s going to take to save cinema in the digital era… Though don’t carve that in stone.”

And it’s possible to make money from VOD.

Ryan Werner: “We [at IFC] decided to experiment by putting films on video on demand at the same time they were going into theaters for another revenue stream to support more challenging films. And it really became a success for us, pretty much off the bat… So we started doing two a month, and these movies started becoming profitable very quickly without huge P&A expenses, so that made us start approaching bigger films and bigger filmmakers. We’ve done it with Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee… and we’ve done it with a lot of smaller films like ones that have shown at SXSW.”

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ policy.

Matt Dentler: “It’s different for every film. One of the things I like to say is there’s no ‘one size fits all’ policy. One example of something [Cinetic] did that speaks to this is when Magnolia Pictures had acquired two Wayne Wang films that were kind of complimentary pieces. One was called ‘A Thousand Years of Good Prayer’ and the other was called ‘Princess of Nebraska.’ And one of the things Wang wanted to do was figure out a way to release these two films together.

Magnolia wasn’t exactly sure how to go about this. ‘A Thousands Years of Good Prayer’ is a very traditional arthouse film… and they were feeling good about that. But this companion piece – ‘Princess of Nebraska’ – was much more experimental. It had a shaky video cam, improvised dialogue, non-professional actors… They didn’t know the best way to get it out to the marketplace, because they knew if they had released that film for one week in New York City theaters, it probably would have tanked. It’s not the kind of movie a lot of people in the art house community want to see.

So Wang looked to us – because he’s actually a management client of our sister company – and wanted to know if we had any ideas or suggestions. So Magnolia took a chance and decided to partner with us, and we actually released the film on YouTube. And this was before YouTube started getting feature length films… And to have the new Wayne Wang film premiere on YouTube I think for a lot of people was rather questionable. But A.O. Scott even reviewed the film in The New York Times after watching it on YouTube and he and other people got it: This is the kind of film that deserves to be seen on a smaller screen and deserves to maybe be seen on a video stream.”

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Remember that the small screen also isn’t so small anymore.

David Hudson: “What need to be reminded of is that ‘the small screen’ is not what it used to be. Small is not so small anymore.

Know your target audience.

Tim League: “The marketing strategies we had 12 years ago are wildly different from what we’re doing now. Those tools just don’t work anymore. Every week, we go through a process of where we decide what films we’re going to showing in the short term and the long term. Part of that decision is based on what sort of micro-networks we have available to the theater. Do we feel that we can promote that film to an audience that we have depth and outreach into. If we don’t have depth, or we don’t know how to reach that audience, we generally just don’t play that film. You can turn that model in reverse and say, if you’re going to be producing films, for example, look at the target market in mind or if you have some sort of niche audience. The easiest audience for us to outreach is the genre film audience because we worked very hard to establish a community and they trust the things that we put out there. We listen to their suggestions and therefore we have this really broad network of people. So when we have a new genre film to promote, we know exactly how to do it… But for non-star driven indie dramas that don’t really have some sort of target niche like a gay audience or if there’s a social or political issue that we can target, it’s very difficult for us to get the audience.

Hollywood is giving indie film some serious breathing room.

David Hudson: “Another possible positive development for art cinema is that Hollywood is breaking off. Hollywood – it seems – is not going to be making movies anymore. They’re making rides. They’re merging with video games. That leaves a lot of space for us. They’re going to look at ‘Avatar”s numbers and say, ‘this is our new business.’ Or they’ll split themselves – like Paramount has just done – and say, we’ll do our rides and our interactive 3-D video games and then we invest this $100,000 into a new division.”

Critics still matter, and can drive the success of a film (even if they don’t like it).

Ryan Werner: “I think these days for non-Hollywood films, that they really live and die by the press. There’s a lot of discussion about whether critics matter anymore but if you look at the films that do well, there’s no question that the critics are making these films work. It’s true for our company. Every single success we’ve had have been driven by the critics.

Sometimes they don’t always like the movie, like with ‘Antichrist.’ But we work really hard to make it an argument.”

David Hudson: “I think press is interesting because that was another community driven thing: ‘You gotta see the fox say ‘chaos reigns.’ You just gotta go see this thing.'”

Matt Dentler [to Werner]: You don’t have to get into specifics, but did ‘Antichrist’ do better on VOD than it did theatrically?”

Ryan Werner: “There’s no question that it’s our number one VOD title. It did more than any film we’ve done.”

Also vital, Twitter and blogs that aggregate reviews.

Ryan Werner: At film festivals when we’re looking for movies, the first two things we do is look at twitter and look at what David Hudson is aggregating [on The Auteurs blog]. And I get a sense of what’s happening with this movie immediately, both the critics point of view and people who were at the screening.”

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