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in Filmmaking
on Oct 17, 2009

Here is director Zak Forsman’s second post from the FIND Filmmaker Forum, which took place in Los Angeles last weekend.

In the men’s room of the DGA, I overheard a conversation by two gentlemen who had sat through two full days of panels at Film Independent’s Filmmaking Forum. One in particular was mentally exhausted, “I don’t know, should I hire a producer’s rep or a publicist? Should I be blogging? Tweeting?”

He joked, dismissing them with a laugh. The man standing with him simply answered, “Yes.”

And it reminded me of the post-event murmur I heard at DIY Days LA last year. Moving between pockets of attendees, I was struck by the inclination to dismiss the content of the panels, presentations and case studies from that day. Some felt the success stories were flukes or just an experience that couldn’t be replicated; only one can be the first to podcast or to create an online ARG. So why are attendees resistant to the advice coming from conferences like DIY Days and the FIND Filmmaker Forum? Clearly the insights have cut through to many people who have found reason to embrace them – the man who countered with a simple “yes” is likely one of them.

I found the final panel of the event to be especially hard to ignore. “New Uses For Film Festivals” was a dizzying array of insight, advice, accounts of missed opportunities, lessons learned and tales of well-executed strategy. Moderated by John August (Go, The Nines), much focus fell upon Ondi Timoner (We Live In Public) and her experiences pushing several docs through the festival gauntlet. She led a popular refrain: more than anything else, a publicist is essential — a must-have. The per festival rate fell between $7,000 and $10,000 as quoted by each of the panelists. Interestingly, Alex Holdridge (In Search of a Midnight Kiss) revealed he paid the same amount for a publicist to work the entirety of his theatrical release. He suggested therefore that the festival rate was maybe a bit dishonest. Either way, that’s a sizable investment but what struck me was that every single person sharing their experiences on stage that day attributed their publicist as a key component to their successful navigation of the festival circuit.

That’s a powerful notion to behold – that not one of the success stories on the Filmmaker Forum panels did it alone. All had publicists. All had producer’s reps. Most had their reps submitting directly to the top personnel of each festival on their behalf. Even Mark Ankner of WM/E confirmed that his team works with festivals to open the marketing of their films. I’d heard all this before as conjecture, but never from the horse’s mouth. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in finding this refreshingly candid as it offered filmmakers the opportunity to base their choices on the reality of how things work, rather than a fantasy of being picked from obscurity.

But what value is the festival circuit NOW – to an evolving community? What are the “New Uses” promised in the panel’s title? While the discussion was informative beyond measure, this specific attribute was not addressed other than to say that festivals once frowned upon filmmakers selling DVDs and merch at their screenings, and now… they don’t. There was no discussion of using festivals as the equivalent to a theatrical release, there was no discussion of filmmakers participating in the box office grosses, there were no innovative or emerging uses offered.

One had to look earlier in the day to the “Distribution Case Studies” for these answers. Jon Reiss (Bomb It) detailed his own path that lead to using festivals as a launch for a theatrical tour. He insisted that filmmakers don’t really need festivals, rather they should reclaim theatrical exhibition and shape it into an event. Danielle Renfrew (American Son) suggested she might forgo festivals all together and hold exclusive screenings for acquisitions executives. Not everyone was so quick to dismiss their usefulness, however. Blayne Weaver (Weather Girl) reminded the other panelists that the festivals still give third-party validation to a film in a meaningful way. And that speaks to the festivals’ value as a trusted curatorial body. Perhaps the most willing to question the current model was Alex Holdridge who humbly suggested that none of this was necessary – and especially not the distributers, as filmmakers could cut their own VOD and Netflix deals now and claim a bigger slice of the money pie. After Alex detailed his current VOD take, he illustrated a scenario where everyone else standing between him and his audience (distributer, cable outlet, etc) makes $200,000 on VOD before the filmmakers see a penny.

We know that festivals are struggling to operate on fewer sponsorship dollars. Maybe this is a time for festivals to link together as a theatrical network for independent works. Maybe this is a time for filmmakers, programming directors and exhibitors to stop talking about how to survive a broken model and start demanding and defining a sustainable one. Maybe its time to empower festivals as curators for the exhibitors, cut the middlemen and connect filmmakers directly with audiences. To an extent that is the premise festivals operate on, minus a model for a filmmaker’s sustainability (unless you count a “day job” as part of that model). And last, maybe this is a time to consider where the money is going, and where it should be going.

I have to say that I sense a groundswell – this week Ted Hope defined his “six pillars” at Power to the Pixel, Open Indie is striving to lower resistances that stifle discovery and exhibition, The Workbook Project and IndieFlix have partnered to experiment with curation and supported theatrical and online exhibition, and the chatter behind the scenes suggests that the time for talk is over. We should be mindful that many in our community have the will and enthusiasm for change but lack a global understanding of these ideas. Some will even dismiss them openly in the DGA mens’ room.

I will end with this thought: I would like to see a collective leadership emerge and make sense of it all, and willfully pursue the changes we seek. We need declarative action and a defined trajectory. But who will that be? — Zak Forsman

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