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in Filmmaking
on Oct 14, 2009

My posting of a strange letter from the future I received from an independent filmmaker has prompted a diverse group of reactions throughout the blogosphere. Ted Hope kindly called it “brilliant” over at his blog while an Anonymous poster here said he was “revolted” by it and hoped it was a Jon Reiss parody. One producer/distribution executive accused us of revealing his business plan. And at Film Utopia, filmmaker Clive Davies-Frayne called it “one of the most depressing articles” he’s ever read and posted a response not to the author (who, after all, is both redacted and from the future) but to Ted, who then wrote a lengthy reply of his own.

Now, making this something of a blog round-robin, filmmaker Jon Reiss. who has been preaching the gospel of a new, filmmaker-centric distribution, replies to Clive and Ted. His response is below.

Clive, Ted,

I thought I would weigh in here since it seems that Scott Macaulay’s original blog post might have been inspired either by my forthcoming book, Think Outside the Box Office or by my statements at the recent Independent Film Week panel I was on concerning independent film distribution. One of the commentators on Scott’s blog seemed to think so.

Here are my thoughts on the subject which I feel addresses both Scott’s original post and Clive’s response to Ted’s response to the post (which was tweeted)(confused enough?):

1. New distribution models are NOT just self-distribution. Self-distribution is not the savior of independent film. Self-distribution connotes that filmmakers are doing every aspect of the release themselves with no collaboration with larger entities or support structures.

2. Honoring the process of distribution and marketing and filmmaker’s role in it as an equal component to making a film is essential for independent filmmakers from now on.

There are a wide variety of distribution opportunities and strategies available for filmmakers. I consider pure self-distribution a last resort when no other options make sense for a film. A more common scenario already being practiced by a number of filmmakers is to create a split rights strategy in which some of the work is undertaken by a filmmaking team and some of the rights are allocated to various distribution entities. However the filmmakers are in charge of the strategy in all cases.

3. Each film needs to find its own path to release. It is unclear whether the studio model that indies have been using for 20 years worked for most indie films. It certainly worked for some. But many films got lost in the process, ended up on distributor shelves or got unceremoniously dumped to DVD without much promotion. The emerging model encourages films to find a path that works best for them. Most films want to recoup, but that is not the main priority for all films. Some filmmakers like the folks from The Age of Stupid want to change the world. Filmmakers must first determine what they want from their film – and then figure out how best to get it.

4. I agree with Clive (and I believe Ted feels this way as well) that marketing is as important to independent filmmakers as distribution, perhaps more. It is relatively easy these days to put your film out for distribution in some fashion, but how do you get people to find your film? I think this is one of the big challenges for independent film these days — especially with the shrinkage in traditional print media.

5. I don’t feel that the only way that films can be discovered is through the referral power of the Internet. I do feel that filmmakers have to embrace marketing. It’s not a dirty word — it is the way that filmmakers will connect with their audience.

6. Filmmakers need marketing plans as much as a distribution strategy. By being in charge of these plans they will make sure they get enacted and work for their films so that they don’t just dump their film on DVD without promotion.

I think that a lot of tools are developing that will help filmmakers market their films. In addition, these tools will help filmmakers create a long-term perhaps sustainable relationship with their fan base. (I’m not deluded into thinking that fans are going to pay enough for filmmakers to make multimillion dollar projects at this point — but there are some hopeful signs such as the approximately $1.4 million raised by The Age of Stupid folks via crowdfunding.)

7. Filmmakers need to consider distribution and marketing from a much earlier stage than they typically have, preferably from inception, at least in production. A world of benefits awaits them if they do this. Alternatively if filmmakers don’t do this, it makes getting their film in front of an audience much more difficult when they are finally finished creating their opus.

8. I believe the Internet will develop referral mechanisms which will become some kind of bastard child of A) cable television and film festival curatorial power and B) the Netflix/Amazon recommendation algorithims.

9. Filmmakers are talking about distribution – because it is in a bit of a crisis right now. We’re all chickens with our heads cut off. How important is it to talk about films (and I think it is very important) when we’re uncertain about the future of our community, our livelihoods and our ability to make more films in the future. (However, there are still many film blogs still arguing about the merits of one film or another)

Filmmakers talking about distribution and marketing is a way to create community around this topic which is essential for us to survive as a community.

10. I agree with both of you that we have to focus on film, talk about film and support other filmmakers. I think Ted has been providing a great example. Perhaps on Twitter in addition to Follow Friday, Music Monday ‚ one day should be film recommendation day — Thumping Thursday anyone? Thursday is perhaps the best day. Ayone good at alliterations?

I don’t think anyone knows all the answers including myself. But because I struggled releasing my film Bomb It, and saw other filmmakers doing the same, I wrote a book to help filmmakers in this crazy time. It’s a 360 page nuts and bolts guide to distribution and marketing for filmmakers. I spoke to tons of people and got tons of advice that I crammed in there.

It’s coming out in November, you can sign up for a $5 off coupon on my blog. (Although I have about 40 copies of the preview edition left in LA that I will be selling at book signings in the next few weeks – and Ted has about 25 at his office in NYC).

In November, I will be simultaneously launching a distribution and marketing tools website for filmmakers.
I’m currently blogging and posting about all of these issues on Twitter, the Facebook page for the book and my blog.

Here are my deets. I look forward to hearing from you!

Jon Reiss

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