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in Filmmaking
on Jun 22, 2009

At last year’s FIND Film Financing Conference in Los Angeles, Mark Gill told us the sky is falling. This year’s keynote speaker, Endgame Entertainment CEO James H. Stern, had a more optimistic message. Referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Stern reminded the crowd, “We are lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time for great opportunities.” Stern encouraged the crowd of filmmakers to not just make better movies, but smarter ones that keep a film’s audience — and how to reach it — in mind well before the cameras roll, not just after the film is complete. He cited distribution execs Bob Berney and Ira Deutchman as conceptual thinkers on the cutting edge of the new independent film business, and took lessons from football hero Herschel Walker, who infamously turned to ballet for his off-season training so that he could learn to use a completely different set of muscles to improve his game. Stern reminded us that, as producers, it’s time for us to do the same in our business.

The biggest muscle producers need to flex, it was implied in the panel discussions that followed Stern’s keynote, is harnessing the power of the internet. During “Independent Financing Models,” Paradigm Consulting distribution strategist Peter Broderick touted the success of “crowd-funding” films, or raising production money in small donations via Facebook, websites and other social networks. He used documentarian Robert Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale and the filmmakers behind The Age of Stupid as successful examples of films that not only raised six-figure budgets online but built critical relationships with their respective fan bases even before they began shooting. In these cases, Broderick pointed out, the filmmaker’s mailing lists were their most valuable assets.

The discussion continued in the “Digital Distribution” panel, during which SnagFilms’ CEO Rick Allen, Oscilloscope Laboratories’ David Fenkel and New American Vision co-president Orly Ravid helped the audience of producers navigate the tricky waters of online distribution models, and figure out how to make them even modestly profitable. Allen boasted that the producers of the 800 or so films on SnagFilms.com get a check every quarter because of his company’s unique sub-distribution model (according to Allen, SnagFilms has partnered with nearly 25,000 niche websites to market films to their target audience online, and that they also help push traditional DVD sales). Fenkel and Ravid countered that in spite of the rapid growth of online distribution platforms, iTunes and NetFlix still capture the lion’s share of the business, and both have a very high barrier to entry. All concurred that there is no one-size-fits-all model, and that each film has to be evaluated individually and producers must create a tailor-made distribution and marketing plan for their product.

The irony of discussing the future of independent cinema—in which very few films will actually be seen projected in 35mm in traditional movie theaters—while sitting in the plush stadium seating at the Landmark wasn’t lost on anyone. Nor was the fact that, by 6pm, attendees were hastily ushered out of the theater to make room for moviegoers lined up to see The Proposal.

For all the cautious optimism, the earnest plans and the crystal-ball predictions of the future, the critical question of whether independent film is doomed to become just another commodity remains unanswered. Perhaps a worthy topic for next year’s keynote. — Smriti Mundhra

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