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How Do You Make a Career in Indie Film in the Age of Piracy?

How Do You Make a Career in Indie Film in the Age of Piracy?

At IFP Film Week, Eugene Hernandez, Deputy Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center (and Indiewire founder), sat down with four key players in the changing landscape of independent film to discuss that which makes the world go ’round: money (and specifically, protecting creative work in the digital age). Emily Best, the founder and CEO of Seed & Spark; Kent Sanderson, President, Acquisitions and Ancillary Distribution, Bleecker Street; John Sloss, founder, Cinetic Media; and Ruth Vitale, Executive Director, CreativeFuture, participated in the panel. That the panelists had difficulty agreeing upon many points of discussion was indicative of the flux state of the industry, but it didn’t take long for the focus to coalesce into two major themes: crowdfunding and piracy.

Below are key takeaways from their conversation:

If you’re a filmmaker, you must be a businessperson

“One of the hardest pills to swallow is that you no longer just get to make films and be creative, and leave business things up to business people,” said Emily Best. “That environment has left filmmakers and investors scrounging for cash for a long time now. If you don’t think of yourself as a businessperson and filmmaker, you’re not looking at the whole picture. You will not find success in this environment.”

So, what does being a filmmaker-businessperson entail? For Ruth Vitale, it means being marketing-savvy. You see a lot of films at festivals and you realize that the filmmakers didn’t think about the end product: who was going to see it, how it could be marketed, what the trailer might look like, what the one-sheet might look like. You have to put in all that thought before you start,” she said.

READ MORE: 6 Crowdfunding Tips from IFP Independent Filmmaker Week

Crowdfunding: Build your audience in advance

“If you don’t think that engaging an audience is your job as a filmmaker, you run the risk of getting left in the dust. The tools that are being used by big distribution companies are also available to you. Where you decide to spend your online time should be a product of real evidence that that’s where your audience is hanging out. It’s not ‘spray and pray.’ It’s about spending time as a researcher,” said Emily Best.
Engaging directly with your film’s niche audience is the best way to get the word out. “Find 5 people who you think would independently like your film and ask them, ‘Where do you hang out online? Where do you get your information about movies? What kind of blogs do you read?’ There’s no conventional wisdom that’s going to tell you where your audience is. You have to ask them,” said Best.

“The primary revelation of Sundance for me was not ‘Boyhood.’ It was ‘Life Itself,'” said John Sloss. “It showed me the inherent power of crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is primarily about community-building. The benefit is fundraising, and obviously that’s essential, but it’s really about identifying the community or communities. What we did with ‘Life Itself’: the ultimate tip of the hat to our community. If you contribute to our film and come in at the inception, we will pre-sell to you a stream of the film before any other human can see it. To me, for film lovers, that’s the ultimate reward. It was a huge success. It gave me a glimpse of the awesome power of marrying marketing, finance, and consumption at the inception of a project.” 

Piracy: Shifting paradigms

“What the fuck does piracy mean to me, and why should I care? What can I do to either prevent it or leverage it?” Best’s questions are rightly emphatic. In today’s world of instant gratification, piracy poses a very real threat to career sustainability for filmmakers.

As Vitale described it, “I want the Chanel 2016 line, but I have to wait until Karl Lagerfeld decides to release it. When did we decide that whatever we wanted, we should have it now?”

“Technology decided for us,” Sloss offered in response. And he’s right; piracy has set a precedent of entitlement that’s here to stay. If you can get something for free, why would you want to pay for it? “I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement — encouraging people to want to own something legally,” Best said. “It’s about enhancing the experience of owning a movie.”

One way to do this is to replicate the experience of a DVD. When FilmBuff released “Internet’s Own Boy,” Sloss’s company included a special features package that was available only to paying subscribers on iTunes. Additionally, filmmakers can incentivize with convenience: “If you own ‘Internet’s Own Boy,’ you can watch it on any device, rather than having to schlep around a 2 GB file across multiple devices,” Sloss said.

Crowdfunding + piracy = revenue

Crowdfunding and piracy can form an essential feedback loop in which direct contact with the film’s audience results in word-of-mouth information exchange. This, in turn, inevitably leads to file-sharing, but that can actually help your cause. As Best pointed out, “one of the things we have to talk about when we talk about piracy is this: How do you, as the creator, build a relationship with your audience such that they’re very interested in paying you for your work so that you can continue to make it? You want to see if file-sharing can actually be advantageous to you as opposed to actually a danger to you.” 

It may seem paradoxical, but “one of the best weapons you can have against piracy is ubiquity of availability,” said Kent Sanderson. Fighting piracy with accessibility to the product “turns [your file-sharing audience] into your ultimate evangelists. Which, of course, goes back to the ultimate importance of crowdfunding. Reaching out to them, getting them to tell their friends. You would go for a day-and-date release because you’re not going to sell 8,000 Blu-Rays. You’re making the film as widely available as you can.”

Sanderson went on to explain that direct-to-consumer platforms that embrace the Creative Commons license, such as Vimeo and VHX, are great tools for those hoping to self-distribute because they operate within the framework of file-sharing legally. 

“There are myriad examples of where pay-what-you-can models have worked in music, specifically with a young high school and college crowd,” Best said. “Because, generally speaking, when people really like something, either they don’t pay for it and they come back and pay for it afterwards, or they’ll tell their friends. If you know where your audience is, both in platforms and physical location, your tailored distribution strategy is entirely around how to take advantage of the physical location and digital locations where you can reach them, and then making sure it’s accessible seamlessly if they find out about it.”

READ MORE: 6 Tips for Breaking Into Branded Content Without Selling Out

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