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THOUGHTS ON FREE, DIGITAL FILM MARKETS, AND THE DEATH OF NEWSPAPERS

by
in Filmmaking
on Mar 22, 2009

Kudos to Noah Harlan for braving the tape-recorded audio wilds of the breakfast conversation I took part in at SXSW this past week. At the festival CinemaTech’s Scott Kirsner gathered myself, Ted Hope, Lance Weiler, Brian Chirls, Liz Rosenthal, Brett Gaylor and Caitlin Boyle for a morning roundtable in which he asked us what had been on our mind while attending the festival. Each of us spoke for a few minutes and then there was a group discussion.

As Harlan notes, the audio quality is poor, and I think an edited version, which I hope one of us can put together sometime in the near future, will be more useful than listening to the tape. Still, Harlan listened to the talk in its entirety and used it as the jumping-off point for a blog post at his 401st Blow blog.

He writes:

As I listened to them wrestle with questions relating to finding revenue in a digital age, I got the sense that there was a battle that had been fought and had already been lost. The battle was over payments for content. The semi-consensus view, and one I know Lance in particular espouses, is that the days of people paying directly for content (or at least paying up front) are rapidly disappearing and we should step forward into a share economy (I’m not sure that Scott was totally in agreement, but I don’t won’t to put words in anyone’s mouths). There was much discussion of putting your work out for free and then asking for contributions from consumers and this model, I feel, is akin to going back to the shareware model on computers.

I’m not quite sure that’s what we all felt (although I will note that the “free” meme was floating around SXSW, with Chris Anderson giving his closing keynote just a few hours later). In fact, I would categorize my own position as somewhat schizophrenic. I do subscribe to a number of Anderson’s tenets (see my summary of his talk here) and believe that digital distribution does tend to push the price of the broad category of digital goods to zero. The question for me is, does it need to drive the price of specific digital goods perceived of as having high cultural value to zero?

For Harlan, like many who have been writing recently about the newspaper industry, the solution is not to follow the logic of the “free” model but to create a coherently constructed digital marketplace. He writes:

We need to embrace and fight for the technological innovations that can support our need to support ourselves. While releasing media for free and asking for contributions may work on a micro-scale and/or for the few, amazingly talented promoter/marketers like Lance and Arin, but for many talented filmmakers, it’s not their best skill and they should still be able to make amazing work, pay back their supporters, and earn a living. I do not believe that throwing in the towel and saying we live in a Pirate Bay world now and that we should give up on paid content is the right attitude and doing so will potentially hamstring future generations of content creators in their endeavors to make lives from their work.

Read the entirety of Noah’s post because before these concluding statements he details a five point plan to make this happen.

In thinking about these issues lately, my mind has been influenced by a number of things, including the same ongoing discussion of the decimation of the newspaper industry, an occurrence that is mulled over at the end of Eric Daniel Metzgar’s documentary Reporter, which observes that free models, or blog-style production can’t support the time-intensive, long-thinking and necessary reporting of the New York Times‘ Nicolas Kristof. At the same time, preserving reporting like Kristof’s within a huge, print-media publication with Auto and Home and other lifestyle sections, may not be the answer either. Like Brian Newman at his Springboard Media, I was taken by Clay Shirkey’s recent essay, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” I highly recommend reading the entire essay, but here are a few key graphs:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

And:

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

And:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

(There’s a lot more to Shirkey’s piece. Make sure to read it.)

Brian Newman’s adaptation of Shirkey’s thoughts to the film world is this:

The old system of making and distributing films is broken and it isn’t coming back. Arguing for how we can keep theatres going, or preserve the DVD market or the margins or the profits are asking for the lie.

But if we shift the question away from how do we keep doing the same old thing to what really should be done, we start to get interesting answers.

After quoting the same “demanding to be lied to” passage that I quoted above, Newman ends his piece just as he starts to get going on what comes next:

Amen. In film/media, I think this means let’s focus on – “what do audiences want” and “what best connects filmmakers to these audiences” who are also producers, participants and even filmmakers by the way….

Newman is clearly pointing to a different conception of “audience,” one that is more communal and two-way. My thought after reading Shirkey is a bit different — it’s one that analogizes the feature film to the newspaper. What shouldn’t be fought for is the feature film at all costs but rather boundary-exploring-and-breaking, formally challenging, compelling, and skillfully executed filmed storytelling hailing from outside the dominant commercial culture. There are those who say that the feature film is an immutable unit of dramatic presentation, but I’d rather fight for great work of whatever length and in whatever form most suitable for its delivery medium. Sure, there will always be feature films because there is something deeply satisfying about the form. But whether the feature film will continue to be the default choice for filmic storytelling, and whether the market will support this, are what’s up for discussion. (Actually, with regards to the second part of the preceding sentence, I think the markets have already made their chioce.)

This is obviously an ongoing dialogue. For a summary of the things I wanted to talk about at the Kirsner breakfast, some of which apply to what is being discussed here, here are the notes I scribbled down before the meeting:

So much of the energy at SXSWi was focused on work that is informational, instructive, or has to do with games; how do we harness that same desire for new business models and modes of delivery but point it towards the making of films that have art and culture as their goal?

As new modes of online distribution take hold, how will the form of our cinematic storytelling change?

How do we convey a sense that our work has scarcity and value when it is so easily delivered to our audiences?

How do we force our artists to be ambitious in a medium that prioritizes the quick and immediate?

How does viewing work through a browser window change both our perception of its value and our reception of its storytelling?

And, finally, what are the alternatives to increasingly dominant ad models when it comes to the financial support of independent film? Chris Anderson has written about his “free” theory and said that in today’s digital economy you need to give away 95% in order to charge that remaining 5% of our customer base. True success comes, he said, when you can up that 5% to 10%. If this is true, how do we get 10% of the people out there who say they desire quality cinema to make a regular, predictable commitment to pay for it so we can begin constructing new financial models for our films?

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