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FIRST PERSON | Sony Pictures Classics EVP Dylan Leiner Says We Need to Put Filmmakers First

FIRST PERSON | Sony Pictures Classics EVP Dylan Leiner Says We Need to Put Filmmakers First

This weekend at the Galway Fleadh’s Real Deal, Business of Creativity Conference, Sony Pictures Classics Executive Vice President Dylan Leiner told the filmmakers and industry professionals convened that it’s time to put filmmakers first again.

With so much talk about new filmmaking technologies and distribution strategies, Leiner thinks the film business is losing its focus on filmmaking and storytelling.  Below is Leiner’s speech to the Real Deal crowd, reprinted with permission from the Irish Film Board.



“Ultraviolet, Key Chest, iTunes, electronic-sell-through, VOD, SVOD, NVOD, day and date, Hulu, Vudu, Netflix, LoveFilm, Amazon, X-Box…     Shrinking windows, cratering DVD revenue, skyrocketing budgets, social networking, piracy…

With all the headlines and forecasts about new technologies, emerging distribution platforms, and the economic crisis surrounding the film business, it’s easy to focus our energy on developments we can’t control in a business that changes faster than we can follow.  After all, most “films” are no longer shot on 35mm film, so can they even be called “films”? But let’s not forget what allows for any such conversations about technology and distribution to exist in the first place: films and the filmmakers behind them. You all.

You are story-tellers and we – festivals, distributors, technological platforms – are your conduits to sharing those stories.      

This idea of “filmmakers first” is among the earliest lessons I learned in the business, it is where I still focus much of my energy, and it is what leads me to the theme of this talk.

Sony Pictures Classics, where I have worked for the past 18 years, was founded by Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, on the principle that you’re only as good as the filmmakers with whom you work. They learned it from their mentors at United Artists and Orion Pictures and I learned it from them. It’s our job as distributors to preserve the heritage of the past while shaping the future legacy of filmmakers with whom we work.

One of my first major projects after joining SPC in 1994 was overseeing the restoration of nine masterworks by late Indian director Satyajit Ray. I grew up in the movie business in Los Angeles, step-son to a prolific film composer and I regularly came home from school to see the likes of Carlos Santana, Kenny Loggins, Frank Oz and Terence Blanchard in our house. But I’d never seen a Satyajit Ray film and wasn’t aware of the legacy he had left on our cultural community. So when I heard Martin Scorsese talk about the influence Ray’s films had on him as a boy, even before becoming a filmmaker, I was struck by the importance of our role as distributor in protecting the legacy of great auteurs like Ray.

So my challenge is to continue the legacy of the great men and women filmmakers with whom I have worked, as well as those with whom I’ve not, allowing the past to be my springboard into the future and focusing on the business without letting it get in the way of the art.

And your challenge as filmmakers is to become the best, most well educated and self-reliant filmmakers you can be.

20 years ago, filmmakers who had recently completed a film or been accepted into Sundance would often call us up to discuss their films and collaborate on ideas for distribution and marketing. Whether we ended up distributing the film or not, we all worked together to create, discover and showcase the works of emerging artists.  Filmmakers not only knew the distributors, they knew the theaters, even the critics. There are of course, many who still do – Pedro Almodovar and Jonathan Demme are two of them, and not surprisingly they’ve had long and satisfying careers.  

Leiner’s speech continues on page 2.But now, there are so many experts – lawyers, agents, sales reps, distribution consultants – all working for filmmakers, that information and access have become extremely compartmentalized. It’s now MORE important, not less so, for filmmakers to understand the business, the options, and the risks involved in distributing such personal works of art. And even if you don’t have ten thousand hours to dedicate to mastering the art of film distribution, you can find other filmmakers more than willing to share their experiences, good and bad, and industry veterans (like Ben Barenholtz, Simon Perry and Dominique Green who are here at the Fleadh this year) and workshops and talks (like Film Independent’s Filmmaker Conference in LA in October and some organized by Galway this year) to help walk you through some of the options and teach you how to protect your film. No one knows your film the way you do and there is no one size fits all strategy for the distribution of your film, but by doing the research about your options BEFORE you’re at a market you and your film will ultimately be the better for it.

So, business aside…

Start by finding and telling stories that are your own. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Slumdog Millionaire, A Separation – these are movies that don’t aim at the centre. They tell stories that reflect their unique cultures but with an intelligence and humanism that makes them universal.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently said in relation to Bruce Springsteen touring in Europe, “Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.”

The challenge we face together – you as filmmakers, me as distributor – like any great marriage, is to seek each other out, work hard to engage with one another, and ultimately make each other better.

James Earl Jones famously said, “If you build it, they will come.” Well, technology and new platforms will keep coming, but it is you all, our storytellers, our unique voices that will draw people to these models. And all the while, Sony Pictures Classics is excited to be there to help.

Go raimh maith agat do an Galway Film Fleadh, the Irish Film Board, James Hickey, Alan Maher, Teresa McGrane and Sarah Dillon for having me. I’m honored to be here and look forward to a fantastic festival!”


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