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Embrace The Onslaught: How More Films Can Mean Better Viewing

Embrace The Onslaught: How More Films Can Mean Better Viewing

Eager filmmakers, journalists, and fans
from around the world are now in Park City, Utah, for this country’s best known
film festival: Sundance. A testament to
the commitment of Robert Redford and long the launching pad for independent
films, Sundance also marks an unofficial start to the New Year for film, and provides
clear proof of the medium’s popularity.
It also has set off a debate about whether the profusion of filmmaking
(or at least of films shoe-horning their way into theaters) is a positive

The New York Times’ influential film
critic Manohla Dargis argues that it is not; her recent piece
has sparked both agreement and outrage. (We
found responses by Anne
and Thom
to be particularly valuable.) But as film producers and founders of
SnagFilms – a digital platform dedicated to bringing great films and journalism
to fans and the industry – we think Ms. Dargis’s criticism and some of the ensuing
conversation largely misses the point.
In a society where images now have
a greater cultural impact than words, the number of aspiring independent
filmmakers continues to grow. Sundance
have grown from 9816 in four years ago to 12,218 this year,
while the number of acceptances has stayed flat; Ted Leonsis has pointed out
that it is easier for your child to be accepted at Harvard than for your film to
be selected for Sundance. 

Clearly, more films don’t necessarily mean better films.  Manohla Dargis takes this argument a step
further, asserting, “There are too many lackluster, forgettable and just plain
bad movies” for audiences to sift through. Ms. Dargis proposes that fewer films
should be bought and theatrically released, and inferentially at least, that
fewer films should be made.  Here, Ms.
Dargis is like the legendary King Canute, trying to order back the tide. The wave of films made each year will
continue to rise; the real challenge that the industry now faces is how to connect
each film to its maximum interested audience.
Ms. Dargis proposes three arguments. First,
she believes that the New York Times’s policy
of reviewing all New York theatrical openings wastes critics’ time on mediocre
films.  She then argues that the majority
of the 900 films reviewed in 2013 should not have been released in theaters,
but instead should have gone straight to on-demand services where they likely will
earn the majority of their revenue. 
Finally, Ms. Dargis argues that the poor theatrical performances of
independent films prove market oversaturation, and that the studios have
inevitably gobbled up the best of the indie lot.
We think Ms. Dargis is peering
through the wrong end of the telescope.
She overlooks the inevitability that more films will continue to be
released due to three factors. First,
both cameras and editing software will follow Moore’s Law, and become
increasingly sophisticated and relentlessly less expensive, allowing an easier
path for more people to become visual storytellers. Second, that process is accelerating
globally, and the various factors shrinking our world also mean that audiences
are increasingly welcoming content made well beyond one’s home country’s
borders – a global audience that filmmakers can reach via the web in seconds.
It is no wonder that at this years Sundance
Festival, there were more international film entries for the feature film
competition than from the U.S. And third, the moving image dominates modern
culture. We live in a society where more time is spent viewing
than reading, and there
is a belief that anyone can make a movie
. Technology has made that belief
a reality.
If we agree that technology has
reduced the barriers between artist and audience, and also has facilitated an
explosion in filmmaking, the real challenge therefore becomes guiding the
public to satisfying viewing experiences.
The challenges are three-fold: How
will audiences find films that align with their tastes?  How will the viewing experience adapt to viewer
needs? And will there be an economic
equation that can sustain this supply of films?
Ms. Dargis’ proposition that distributors “stop buying so many movies” falls
short of addressing any of these challenges, and would worsen a gatekeeper
structure that poorly serves filmmakers and fans.
There have always been more films
than the most committed fan can— or wants to—watch.The Internet’s democratization makes more
content available with precious little guidance for audiences.  Industry veteran Ted Hope recently told Thompson on Hollywood, “[t]he
industry has done a poor job matching people with the content they are most
likely to enjoy, particularly in a presentation and context that they will
In the past, theater bookers, TV network programmers, and even
critics have served as gatekeepers, determining availability and
visibility. Ms. Dargis argues that the
900 New York releases overwhelm The New York Times critics, but as Jonathan
, President of Sundance Selects, notes, there are “another 10,000 to
15,000 movies made in any given year that don’t get released” which are “not
any worse” than those that are released. We think these films deserve homes,
and the digital world now can provide platforms for all filmmakers to find
their audience. 
And we believe fans are empowered
by choice – if the film discovery
process provides multiple ways into what has become a gigantic content
room.  With over 9,000 films available,
SnagFilms provides real choice, and offers four discovery routes: experts, the
crowd, your friends, and the machine.  Utilizing our own editors, the resources of
Indiewire and the more than 550 professional critics who make up Criticwire, we
offer selections of films favored by the folks who make a living watching and
writing about them. 
Sometimes, you’ll
look for the wisdom of the crowd, and try a film that has proven popular on the
site. Because you can share your social
circles with us, we can flag those titles that your friends have watched. And finally, we learn from your viewing
behavior, constantly refining our recommendations for you. 
The second industry challenge is
the viewing experience itself. No matter
how advanced our home systems may be, they will still pale in comparison to a
state-of-the-art commercial theater, and many filmmakers still identify
theatrical exhibition as proof of professional success. But now even more
realize how rapidly the quality of the viewing experience in other environments
has improved. 
Technology has consistently
increased screen clarity, even on mobile devices, and accelerating streaming
speeds generally have eliminated the purgatory of buffering.  Now a Santa’s bag of gateway devices from
Roku to Xbox to Chromecast to Apple TV bring IP streams to the ideal personal
screen: the home TV. And nearly every new TV comes “connected” directly for
anyone with Internet access.  A viewing
service needs to be available via all of these devices, and a superb viewing
experience must provide even more flexibility, like the portable queue we offer
at SnagFilms, where you can select a film and begin watching on your work
computer, continue it on your tablet or smartphone during the ride home, and
finish it on your TV.
Perhaps the ultimate question posed
by the shifting state of the film industry is whether a new economic model will
develop between filmmakers and their audience.
SnagFilms emphasizes an ad model because it enables free viewing,
allowing audiences to take risk-free chances on films they may know little about. However, this model is tough. It requires the support of an ad community,
patient viewers, and most of all, the creation of an audience of real
scale.  Unless views are substantial, the
revenue per film is modest. 
critics can be vital in breaking through the clutter if they embrace new
distribution routes as enthusiastically as their readers do. We are proud of Indiewire and its Criticwire
service in leading the way, and of influential critics with established media,
like The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, championing great films wherever they
Piercing the clutter also requires
filmmakers to become active partners in marketing, rather than assuming that
their distributor can cover all of the necessary ground themselves.  Social media platforms offer a promising
start, and more filmmakers are connecting with their fan community while making
their film, securing both crowdfunding support and equally vital evangelizers, who
help spread the word to the broader public. 
And finally, that broader public has
the ultimate power, by watching not only the studio blockbusters, but also enthralling
and enriching smaller films that remain in one’s memories, sometimes for a
It is worth keeping in mind the
advice of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller: “You
never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something,
build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” We will hear about new or evolving models
during Sundance 2014 and throughout the year.
And in the end, the New York Times
will need to hire more reviewers – or embrace Criticwire and other
alternatives. Ms. Dargis’s deep film
knowledge and wonderful writing will continue to be a guide for the industry
and many fans. She will be more
overworked, but can be even more impactful.
And audiences will take more films into their hearts and lives. 
Ted Leonsis has
produced four movies, and won an Emmy, a Peabody and multiple festival awards.
Chairman and founder of SnagFilms, Inc. (which also owns Indiewire), Leonsis is
also the Chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment (which owns DC-based
NBA, NHL and WNBA teams and their playing arena); Chairman of Groupon;
co-founder of the Revolution Growth Fund; and a frequent tech investor and
philanthropist. Rick Allen is a media executive and film producer who
co-founded SnagFilms, and is its CEO. Casey Meurer was a valued contributor to
this piece.

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