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in Filmmaking
on Aug 24, 2008

On the one year anniversary of Mike Jones’s “The Circuit” column at Variety, former AFI Fest Director Christian Gaines, who is now employed by Withoutabox, contributes a two-part discussion on festivals and our current failing indie film theatrical distribution model. Part one is titled “Do Festivals Matter?” and part two is “Things Gotta Change.”

In part one, Gaines writes that festivals have become, for many films, the premiere exhibition opportunity:

In the pantheon of viable choices for getting your film seen, film festivals continue to thrive (seems there’s a new one born every minute, right?), and that’s because, putting aside economic factors for the moment, film festivals still provide the perfect environment for the cultural, communal celebration of cinema, where films can be presented in context, with optimal picture and sound, and where audiences can yield, uninterrupted, to the original experience created by the artist.

As commercial exhibition prospects for independent filmmakers diminish, the more traditional path – from festival circuit to theatrical run to DVD release to a comfy spot on the Blockbuster shelf, adorned in festival laurels – has sharply changed direction. Only the festival circuit still seems like a constant part of the equation, with thousands of filmmakers steadily submitting their films to thousands of film festivals around the world each year.

In part two, he muses on a solution and proposes that sales agents consider something he calls a “Festival Acquisition” model (and please read his pieces in their entirety to get his full argument):

In the new “Festival Acquisition” model a sales agent or producer might send a film on a six to ten month tour of sixty to eighty North American film festivals. Absent of commercial venues, if film festivals have become the ad hoc distribution infrastructure for these films – and the film in question might see 250 screenings – then a formal business proposition will emerge, one in which rights holders and film festivals each acknowledge the other’s challenges.

On the one hand, what Gaines is proposing is nothing new. Smaller distributors have always been skilled at stitching together nationwide tours that combine festival screenings with play in various non-theatrical venues. But what is a little different is that Gaines seems to be advocating that sales agents view themselves as these kind of non-theatrical distributors and use their negotiating ability to work out a more financially remunerative model for filmmakers that acknowledges that festival play is all many films will get.

There’s already a little bit of a comments thread, with David Poland contributing this:

Ask Cowboy Booking about “the festival distribution circuit.” Oops. Can’t. Out of business. Bottom line, filmmakers on the fest circuit can only expect some free trips… which is not nothing. The more effort there is to squeeze money out of fests for screenings, the fewer fests there will be. Is that a bad thing?… The question facing all of these films — and Cinetic is trying to address it online — is how to grow the number of dollars in play, from fests to DVD to other ancillaries. If a film can earn $100,000 without a major distributor, great, but it isn’t nearly enough to matter or to support American Indies.

Poland notes what is common in many of the new models and self-distribution schemes being discussed at the moment: the revenue potential is inherently low. The structure of the models themselves do not allow for upside potential. The question becomes, then, whether or not to accept to as a given diminished revenue and adjust production budgets accordingly, or to think about radically different new models that might bring new dollars into the system. Or, in fact, to think about work that is itself radically different in formulation — a new kind of independent media that that might fit more comfortably into these new forms of distribution.

Obviously, to be continued…

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