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Every Thursday I pen an Editor’s Note that goes out to subscribers of our email newsletter (you can subscribe for free here) that is usually not also posted on the blog.  I’m reposting today’s newsletter below because some kind of software glitch stripped out most of the punctuation from the copy as well as certain key words. Apologies if you received it and it was less than elegant.  Here it is again:

The big news in the independent world this week was Tribeca Enterprise’s announcement that it would launch a “virtual film festival” alongside this Spring’s Tribeca Film Festival event. A select group of films will be available under the Tribeca brand on VOD around the festival, with many premiering day-and-date. Additionally, a group of viewers paying $45 will receive a “premium pass” allowing them to watch Tribeca films as the festival unspools.

The initiative is several steps beyond Sundance’s recent foray into day-and-date online distribution, where five titles were available via YouTube during the festival, and already it’s generated a huge amount of discussion. Eugene Hernandez in Indiewire asked whether Tribeca will become “the new Miramax” — a trusted brand that rains reputational value on its films and filmmakers. David Poland, on the other hand, titled his story, “Festivals Raping Filmmakers… Or Just A Friendly Reach Around?,” arguing that it’s just another aggregator play.

According to the reports, Tribeca sponsor American Express will be contributing to a promotional campaign for the initiative, and the scale and effectiveness of this effort — and whether it’s able to promote individual films as well as the larger festival brand — will be something to monitor.

Ted Hope raised many questions inspired by Tribeca’s announcement in a must-read post at his Truly Free Film site. (The comments section is worth threading through too.) Ted writes, “I worry that the lack of prior promotion, non-existent window, and filmmaker-led marketing will lead Tribeca’s bold step forward to mirror the popular (and negative) wisdom that came from the Sundance YouTube experiment (i.e. Fail!).  This is totally avoidable.” For Ted, the VOD play should occur only after audiences have been identified and built using the many promotional and social-network tools available to filmmakers today. He makes this excellent point: “It is not as if we are lacking in good films to view.  It is not even as if we are lacking in good films to view instantly.  New films compete against the entire history of filmmaking.  What new films offer that the classic movies don’t is the opportunity for an audience to engage with one another in a new and unexpected way all at the same time.  The launch of the conversation is a key component in the launch of a film.”

Ted raises many compelling issues in his piece, so I suggest you read it along with the other links above. I just want to add one thing from a magazine editor’s perspective.

Every film tells a story but, when it comes to the press, every film is a story. One hopes that the narrative that spins around a film is an enticing one, or at least one that doesn’t actively dissuade an audience from seeing the movie in question. I guess I’m speaking in part of “buzz,” good and bad, but it’s more than that. I’m talking about the storyline that a film’s release unfolds as it is announced to the world, marketed, released, and then offered in various ancillary markets. To use an outsized example, on a story level, Avatar may be a futuristic eco-version of Dances with Wolves, but the popular narrative that formed around it was that James Cameron obsessively pushed the limits of technology to create an exciting film-going experience that was both new as well as deeply old-fashioned in its ability to restore a sense of child-like cinematic wonder. You could be less interested in the plot of Avatar but you still wanted to see for yourself if Cameron succeeded or failed in his effort.

The problem so far with the announcements of these various new distribution platforms is that discussion of one element always seems to get left out: the films themselves. The films are introduced to the press and to audiences under the rubric of these new distribution initiatives, thereby setting in motion a storyline that is followed by not only journalists like me but also tech-savvy audiences interested in what is new. And the problem with these storylines? You can participate in them without having seen the films. The film’s hooks live outside of the films themselves. You can judge the results of Sundance’s YouTube experiment by reading about the number of downloads or revenue instead of discovering for yourself how great – or not — the films were.

Does anyone rent a film on VOD or download from a site because they want to be part of a business-school experiment?

As Hope argues, filmmakers must lay the groundwork for their films to be successful on these platforms. If they fail to do so, they are allowing the industry business narrative to define their films as something other than art. One producer who has gone this route with a movie said something to me like, “Nobody really talks about our film, they only talk about the way we distributed it.”

These days, it’s impossible to ignore the storylines the industry places on our films. But filmmakers can launch their own narratives alongside — or, one hopes, before — their films are designated as test subjects for a new distribution model.

Why would someone want to see your movie? What story will your distribution tell? What synergies exist between the content of your film, its distribution, and your audience? How will you, not a festival sponsor, create a meaningful distribution storyline? While the media is obsessed with the business elements of these stories, don’t let your film and its hopefully rich content become an afterthought.

Two other notes. We’re at work on the Spring issue of Filmmaker, where this subject above will be dealt with at greater length. You’ve got about two weeks to subscribe in order to guarantee getting this issue in the mail. Click here (http://filmmakermagazine.net/buy/) to receive Filmmaker in the mail, and you’ll also receive a link to the digital edition of the current issue.

Second, Filmmaker will be at SXSW next week, and we’ll have a special standalone website up alongside the festival. Additionally, I’m on a panel on Monday the 15th about the best ways to manage your film’s release. If you’re there, please say hello, and if you have any SXSW-related news, you can email me at editor.filmmakermagazine AT gmail.com.

See you next week.

Scott Macaulay

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