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Reinventing Story: Bob Berney, John Sloss, Lance Weiler and More Face the Future During Independent Film Week

Reinventing Story: Bob Berney, John Sloss, Lance Weiler and More Face the Future During Independent Film Week

Midway through Independent Film Week 2012, IFP held a closed panel titled “Reinvent: Media Arts for the 21st Century” at the Walter Reade Theater that featured seven speakers weighing in on the evolution and potential of independent film, its growing distribution options and the nature of storytelling itself. On the roster were former Apparition and FilmDistrict exec Bob Berney; National Black Programming Consortium director of programming Leslie Fields-Cruz; Film Society of Lincoln Center director of digital strategy (and Indiewire co-founder) Eugene Hernandez; Cinedigm Entertainment Group co-president Susan Margolin; Cinetic Media founder John Sloss; ARTE France Cinema executive director Michel Reilhac; and storyteller extraordinaire Lance Weiler.

Bookended by comments from Filmmaker Magazine editor-in-chief Scott Macaulay and an open debate among the 80-90 indie-film players in attendance — including IFP executive director Joana Vicente, Sundance Institute fixtures Michelle Satter and Bob Hawk, SXSW programmer Jarod Neece, Sheffield International Doc/Fest director Heather Croall, producer (and Indiewire blogger) Ted Hope and independent distributor Louise Rosen — the forum spanned everything from the nuts and bolts of digital distribution to the transmedia possibilities of stories crowdsourced by fifth graders and shot into space.

Below are some of the most provocative thoughts from the event.

“The field of independent film is at this moment an incredibly elastic and dynamic one,” said Foundas, who used his introductory remarks to impress upon the crowd that the incendiary “Innocence of Muslims” footage, the “Hillary: The Movie” political film that sparked the Citizens United Supreme Court case and the short-video filmmakers using YouTube to make six-figure salaries all fall under the indie-film umbrella. “It is being claimed by larger and larger groups of people. Some of those people share the hopes, goals and values of many of us in this room, and some of them do not. As we think about the future of independent film, it’s important for us to understand that there are many futures possible, some of which can happily coexist with each other and some of which cannot. It’s important to remember that the future of independent film is powered by our own imaginations and our own ability to shape what is possible.”

READ MORE: Documentary Filmmakers Argue the Nature of Truth at Independent Film Week Panel — And Further Muddy the Waters

“We found out a few years ago that we had to make our own revolution,” said Reilhac, who has spent more than 20 years orchestrating content for a bilingual, bicultural French-German broadcaster. “We decided that we were no longer going to be defined by the TV screen. We would start defining ourselves as content providers and content curators, and that it would not matter on which screens the content would be channeled through to the audience.”

Referencing recent releases such as “Arbitrage,” “Margin Call” and “Bachelorette,” Berney criticized the old model of running an acquisition through the standard release machine, noting that there were companies picking up films at the Toronto film festival that weren’t even distributors. “Film by film, or case by case, is the secret to making films work,” he said. “Even though it makes it more difficult for distributors and producers to figure out, they have a lot more choices on every kind of platform. They don’t necessarily have to think of a distribution deal that’s just one all-rights deal. There are other ways to do it.”

“My process as a storyteller has changed — I feel like I’ve gone through a reinvention,” said Weiler, who has created games and genre films, such as “The Last Broadcast” and “Head Trauma,” over the last 17 years. As he now tries to monetize transmedia, Weiler has created a working methodology built around “treating story as software.” “This is an amazing time to be a storyteller,” he said. “Very similar to how writing is all about the rewriting, software development is an agile process, and you’re constantly trying to fail quickly, learn from that failure and continue forward. Classically, filmmakers tend to make one product, one film. And they live and die by that one product. And eventually they push it out into the world. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. They go lick their wounds, and they go back to making another film. But what I’ve been experimenting with over the last six years is this idea of changing my process and looking at ways that I can take advantage of disruption that I see.”

READ MORE: 7 Tips For Navigating Conflicts in Documentary Filmmaking From Independent Film Week 2012

“What happened at Toronto this year was a further evolution and emblematic,” said Sloss. “The 40 sales are very different in nature from what they used to be. A lot of them went to IFC, which is a great distributor, and Magnolia, a great distributor, and to Roadside, which bought a number of movies. But the high end of the purchases is what the low end used to be. We can bemoan that, but I don’t choose to see it that way. I just think it’s a further indication that maybe the future isn’t about giving your film to distributors for 15 years and trusting to them alone [to bring it] to the public. With the ability to market them directly to your audience, and with the great transparency of knowledge that is taking place, the responsibility of filmmakers is not to necessarily hand their film off, but to understand what the waterfalls and revenue streams are, who their audiences are, and be a partner in getting the film out to their audience.” As an example, Sloss mentioned the ad hoc distributor he co-founded called PDA, Producers Distribution Agency, that lets filmmakers and producers retain ownership and stay involved in the process, as with “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Senna,” “The Way” and the upcoming “Brooklyn Castle.” “What we’re trying to do is illustrate to people the possibilities of all the different ways, if you are a creator and you’re willing to stay involved and take responsibility, that you can take your film out in the world,” he said. “And now is a time like no other I’ve seen to do that.”

“The digital platform is starting to get just as crowded as the theatrical platform is,” said Berney, who noted that Rentrak listed 24 films opening the weekend of Sept. 21. “We’re moving beyond the period where anything might work on VOD. Because whenever a film comes in you have these anomalies. My favorite is ‘ATM,’ which did really well for IFC because it starts with an ‘A.’ Everybody’s like, ‘My movie’s now called “AAA Action Film.'” You’re going to have to spend more as a distributor or a filmmaker to support VOD or pre-theatrical. You have to rethink your plan — even the companies that do this [regularly], IFC or Magnolia — everyone has to rethink it every year.”

In a presentation that counter-intuitively championed the tension between community and curation, Hernandez connected the impulse behind creating Indiewire 16 years ago to the forward-thinking approach he brings to his relatively new job at FSLC. “The Film Society has always been a very analog place,” he said. “One of the things I started thinking about was, How could we leverage digital tools and strategies to build a new foundation for the Film Society? And I was anxious to apply digital approaches. People want digital strategies or new technologies to be definitive when in fact making sense of these changes is actually what’s exhilarating. That’s the power of digital from my vantage point — how you apply it, and how you preserve the analog core that exists at the very center. We can’t expect digital to fix or replace everything about an aging system or a structure we don’t like. All or nothing answers are way too easy. The answer lies in the gray area.”

Walking through the origins of Black Public Media, the company she started in 1979, Fields-Cruz detailed just much the public TV audience has changed in the decades since. “The problem right now for us if our goal is to help public television provide diverse content for the American public — also to cultivate diverse audiences so that they will engage with public television — is how can we do that when right now public television’s core audience is 60 and older, white, middle-class, college-educated Americans? How do we connect with all the African Americans who might not engage with public television the same way?” Her attempts to answer that have recently encompassed creating short media content such as the “Black Folk Don’t” web series and other direct-to-audience efforts.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is easily the most dynamic period that I’ve ever been a part of,” said Sloss. “A lot of the changes that are taking place in distribution are mutating hourly. The 20th century was a century of distributor ownership, where everyone was serving that beast. The 21st century is about creator ownership and facilitation.”

Berney applauded exhibitors experimenting with “new ways to show movies,” such as Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, the Nighthawk in Williamsburg, the Bell Lightbox Theater in Toronto and the growing Sundance Cinemas chain. “The other big change has been Netflix and streaming,” said Berney. “Indies now have a pay TV outlet. That’s really made all the difference in getting the support for a theatrical release. That’s what’s made distributors willing to step up and do theatrical.”

“People wanted social media or social networks to replace critics and curators,” said Hernandez, pointing to his recent efforts (in a joint initiative with Indiewire) to create a festival-centric young critics academy at, first, the Locarno Film Festival and, next, at the New York Film Festival. “What excites me is that tension between curation and community. It’s not going to replace the need for critics anytime soon. I’ll state categorically, film criticism is not dead. But like indie filmmaking, monetization is a big challenge. We need to take a critical approach to our content. We need curators, we need filters. We also need to enable and support and cultivate new voices.”

Among the transmedia projects Reilhac is working on: an “augmented reality app” called Cinema City that will launch next summer that connects global tourists to the sites around the world where their favorite films were shot and encourages them to film their own versions of scenes and upload them; a crowdsourced sci-fi film called “Rosa” that takes place in 2040 Paris that will be inspired by the intermingling of two groups of real people — a geek-oriented, male, ’50s computer science community fixated on the archeology of cybernetics, and a female community based around burlesque and pin-ups; and a movie-oriented LARP (live-action role-playing) experience in October that will involve two large groups of people viewing a film in character and then improvising the ongoing story as a kind of sequel. “We take this as an exploration of different dimensions than the ones that would be expected for a broadcaster so that we can provide artistic experiences to the audience, taking them to story worlds, to fiction worlds, that they would like to experience just to have something different from the traditional film experience,” Reilhac said. “We do believe that it’s part of our mandate as a cultural public broadcaster to explore those new fields, because the fundamental need that we all have, and the pleasure that we all have, when we go and watch a movie is not so much the movie, it’s the story and it’s the experience of where it takes us. It’s such a privileged moment right now that we have so many options at our disposal to tell stories in so many different ways. We think we need to explore all of them, including those that do not sound like they are technical or tailored for a traditionally received audio-visual medium. It’s a very exciting adventure.”

“My partner at Cinetic, Bart Walker, was an agent but really functioned more as a manager,” said Sloss, “and I felt that as a lawyer often I functioned more as a manager. So I think those distinctions are artificial and a product of the 20th century. They’ll be less relevant in the future.”

“There’s all this opportunity for innovation, yet the innovation is lacking primarily because most of the software that’s been built up to this point has been dictated by user need,” said Weiler, who is developing a “Lord of the Flies” kind of genre project called “Hope Is Missing” about a sleep pandemic for which he’s collaborating with scientists and engaging real people to determine the storyline. “I honestly believe that story is going to drive the next generation of mobile and social applications. So storytellers are going to be in an amazing place.”

Discussing the “eco-systems” being created by YouTube, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and others, Margolin, who has been in the distribution business for more than 25 years, said, “Curation becomes critical in helping audiences find and sort through and make sense of the choices that are available to them. So we as aggregators and distributors play an important role in all three — being disrupters, enabling access and also curating. We’re at the dawn of a new age. It’s trying for filmmakers, rights holders and distributors, but at the same time there are so many opportunities, and we’re looking at experimenting and disrupting a lot. So much so that I’m getting daily phone calls saying, ‘What did you just do?’ from our distribution partners. And that’s part of the game. In this environment, you have to be willing to take risks.”

“As stories become more impactful and more meaningful, a huge opportunity moving forward is found within those who are ‘formerly known as the audience,’” said Weiler, who has been working on a “collected learning” project involving a tiny robot called Laika that a pair of fifth-grade classes has been able to move around the country using their curriculum and other measurable stimuli (eventually, the artwork and stories that are inspired by the process will be shot into space by NASA). “Just figuring out ways to give them agency, to give them value within the process. Any time I ever bring this up, storytellers who hold on to auteur theory are terrified, ‘Oh my God, it’s all going to go to crap, how are we going to have anything of quality?’ But it’s all about collaborative filtering, and it’s about conversation.”

“Reviewers are ceding their own obsolescence, and I don’t really understand why,” said Sloss. “They’ll give front-page coverage to review-proof films, and they’ll trash them with no impact. And then there are the films like ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ that will get capsule reviews, and those are films they could impact. I guess by the same token, the idea that they are insisting that it appear in a theater before they review it, even though it’s a film that’s worthy of their review regardless of the cut, is a distinction I don’t understand.”

“We’re not really addressing the elephant in the room,” said Hope. “As much as it’s a great time to be a storyteller, and as much as the cost of making movies goes down, as disruptive as the transformation from an entertainment economy of scarcity to one of great abundance is, the real issue right now is the artists and the people that support them are not benefiting from their work, and it just can’t be done. I’ve watched six years of my own personal earnings keep going down each year. I talk to all my fellow producers, who are saying, ‘I have to move out of New York, it’s too expensive to live here.’ I’m not making a living producing the movies. And the system as it’s set up right now does not benefit artists or those that support them. Until we can tell stories again of ‘The Wedding Banquet’ or 43 times return on ‘Brothers McMullen,’ until we have our Google billionaires again, there won’t be enough money. We need to develop a sustainable investor class that supports the artists and benefits from doing so. Right now, it doesn’t happen. And that’s what we need to do is focus on that. Because we, in America, live in a market-driven entertainment economy, and it can’t support itself. Filmmaking will be the province of the young and the rich for the next 10-20 years unless we do something drastic to change it. And that’s where we are right now for all the change and disruption we have. We don’t have a system that supports the creators or their supporters.”

“For me, the reinvention is about what you do with the stories, and how you get the stories out, and how you make them valuable,” Weiler says. “Because in the end, it’s a three-tiered thing: Is it fun, is it social and participatory? Is somebody emotionally invested in it? Is it something that somebody will effectively move forward and want to share with somebody else? We can move past the commoditization and finally move it to the point where story can really take hold, as it should in the 21st century.”

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