The Future of Film: True Independence

The Future of Film: True Independence

This is a guest post by Emily Best, of Seed&*Spark a new community/platform for crowdfunding and distributing your film online.

My introduction to the world of film distribution was nothing short of terrifying. At a distribution panel at SVA in early 2009, I sat in the audience and watched three out of four panelists, defeated, their heads in their hands, saying, “There just is no silver bullet like iTunes for film. The numbers just don’t work. We don’t honestly know what to do.” It was pretty dire.

No magic spell for film success

But the fourth panelist, attorney and sales agent Steven C. Beer (the only one who didn’t look scared) said, “Look, filmmakers are going to have to work harder for less money.” I thought maybe I didn’t want be be in film after all. But over the last few years I have come to understand that what he was saying was, in fact, the great hope for film: true independence that might mean smaller “box office” numbers but much larger returns directly to the filmmaker.

Making movies is hard! Fundraising is hard. Production is hard. Post-production is more inundated with digital options every millisecond. But nothing, NOTHING is harder than actually getting an audience to watch your movie, no matter what the budget is.

Today, the market is more fragmented than ever. Tens of thousands of independent films are made per year. To be sure, not all of them are necessarily worthy of an audience, but they’re competing for it anyway. About 1% of those films get picked up for traditional distribution. That means more than half of the films that premiere at the top festivals (Sundance, SXSW, TriBeCa, etc) are out there on their own vying for a slice of the ever fragmented digital marketplace with everyone else.

For independent films, theatrical is basically a loss leader because it costs SO MUCH MONEY to get the word out to an audience. Even if a filmmaker is lucky enough for someone to spend that money on behalf of her film, she’s the last person in line to reap the benefits. Once the sales agents, distributors, and exhibitors take their cut and are reimbursed for their costs, there’s pennies on the dollar left for that filmmaker (or first, her investors). So, that’s independent film?

In an age where all the technology is available to connect directly to the audience, why would a filmmaker give away so much? In part, I think it’s because some filmmakers believe that until their film sees a theater, it doesn’t matter. And I just don’t agree.

empty movie theater

All dressed up and no one to see me.

The art of storytelling is one of the most important teaching tools we have as a species. It is about expanding imagination, shining a light on the world inside and deepening empathy for the world outside. In the current political and economic climate where many consider the arts a luxury, I believe artists are responsible to teach their audiences why they are essential. That means making stories that matter to the audiences willing to support them.

Does that mean “pandering” to audiences? No, and that very common language used in our community means we must not think very much of the audiences on whose eyeballs and pocketbooks we live and die as artists and businesspeople.

It means acknowledging we live in the age of engagement. People want to feel included. Just like the filmmaker looking for the big screen, audiences want to be made to feel like they matter, too.  The success of crowd-funding has said LOUD AND CLEAR that audiences are looking for different perspectives and viewpoints, for artistry and innovation.

It’s true, filmmakers have to do more of the legwork to include their audiences earlier in their process. Anyone who’s done it will tell you that a successful crowd-funding campaign can feel like a full time job.  It means keeping your supporters in the loop from pitch to premiere. It also means building a small army of folks who feel ownership and pride in your project. Who are telling their friends, “Let’s watch my movie!”

We built Seed&*Spark to allow hardworking filmmakers to build powerful communities of support for their projects and their careers by leveraging the audience-build capacity of crowd-funding and the seamless integration of streaming distribution.

 

The “box-office” dollars on self-distribution certainly don’t (yet) hold a candle to the hundreds of thousands or millions reaped by theatrical release. But in self-distribution, the hardworking filmmakers are keeping up to 80% of their revenue, whereas they may be getting only fractions of a percentage of sexier box-office numbers. A small theatrical release can often have less chance of paying a filmmaker’s rent than an honest attempt at building an audience from the beginning and releasing the film right to that audience of dedicated followers. It’s like fair trade filmmaking. Audiences feel good knowing more of their money is going to the folks who made the movie, and filmmakers reap the benefits for all their hard work. It’s sustainable. “Work harder for less money,” but keep more of it. A healthy eco-system for independent film. TRULY independent film.

Freedom!

So what do you think? Crowdfunding and Distribution: one platform. Seed&*Spark launches in December.  Would you use it?

  • A seriously fantastic article you have here! Perhaps you and your readers would be interested in our new independent film networking site Mutinee?
    It is for any and all filmmakers and is completely free.
    You can upload, share, rate and comment on all videos!
    We’re here to keep independent films alive.