Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Deconstructing "Why So Serious?"

In the previous installment of The Cinematic Civil War we talked about how to reach an audience and promote your film. One of the examples used was The Dark Knight's viral campaign. Today, the /film blog had an interesting post, titled "42 Entertainment’s Why So Serious Viral Campaign: The Future of Movie Marketing?" addressing that exact same thing. I'll paste the text below, but follow the link at the bottom to see one of the videos used.


I was just reading an interesting article in the new issue of Maxim (not available online, as far as I can tell) about 42 Entertainment, the marketing comapny behind The Dark Knight’s viral campaign when I stumbled across this video created by Alternative Reality Branding (via: FSR).

The bottom line effects of viral marketing on a film’s box office and DVD sales have yet to be proven. But watching this video on 42 Entertainment’s Why So Serious campaign will help make you a believer. It will be interesting to see how companies like 42 Entertainment and CampfireNYC (the film behind Terminator Salvation’s SkyNet campaign) will use the next few years to create a connection between the film and the potential audience. One can’t deny that the interactive experience is cool, but the arguemnt is if a viral is actually is worth the millions of dollars that it costs a movie studio.

For a film like The Dark Knight, I believe a viral keeps the fans excited and causes a word of mouth stir that is worthy of the investment. Fans feel like they are a part of the movie and take it upon themselves to promote the movie to friends, family, and anyone who will listen. On the other hand, Sony hired 42 Entertainment for The International. The resulting alternative reality game was just as good as the company’s Why So Serious campaign, but fans just wen’t interested and the turn out was minimal in comparison. My conclusion so far is that Virals only work in two arenas: 1. With a project hidden in mystery that fans are eager to uncover (ie Cloverfield) or 2. A Highly anticipated property that has a year or more runway to develop a connection with it’s audience.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ted Hope: New York Tax Credits Stall Out

Independent filmmaker Ted Hope calls filmmakers to action on the first of many disasters the New York film industry MUST pro-actively attack.

"I love New York City and hope I never have to call anywhere else my home. I am regularly reminded of all that I love about this town and the reasons why I first moved here. I never expected it to be easy to make movies here, but I did think it would be a positively progressive pursuit. Unfortunately, I am consistently reminded how all of us who make their living creating motion picture content are easily broadsided by that which we should be most cognizant of: the policies and regulations that affect our ability to earn a living (let alone create good work).

Whether on the local, state, or federal level—or simply in the standard practices in our industry or the polices of the tools (Facebook, various video posting sites, etc.) we utilize—we appear collectively to be ignorant of crucial issues until after they occur. Sometimes after-the-fact is not too late, as was evidenced over five years ago when New York producers joined together to break the MPAA’s anti-trust-violating “Screener Ban.” Yet in these harsh economic times, it is even more crucial that we are vigilant about what is going on around us, and wherever possible we must quickly join together in a unified response against those that attack our livelihood.

All New York filmmakers—and those dependent on them—got a quick lesson two weeks ago, when we learned that the New York tax credits had run out of money. It hit everyone as a shock, but did it really need to? It couldn’t have come as a surprise that $500M was gone—or that it was being spent far quicker than expected. This wasn’t some sort of Madoff swindle. It was something that was easy to calculate or predict if you knew what films and TV shows were shooting in the state. But it seems that no one was doing that calculation. I wasn’t. Our politicians evidently weren’t. And neither were our industry’s leaders, organizations, or guilds. What’s up with that?

Nonetheless, I was particularly impressed with how quickly the community responded to this problem. Derek Yip, a production accountant, authored a petition, and Alex Zablocki quickly created a Facebook community (Save New York State’s TV and Film Tax Credits), gathered over 8000 signatures and forwarded them to Governor Paterson. Unfortunately, the fact that we allowed ourselves to be in this situation in the first place gave our West Coast brethren the added impetus to finally pass some film tax credit laws of their own. Our ability to attract new productions—and all the jobs and additional revenue that come with them—has just been significantly diminished. Each passing week—as the question of whether the New York credits will even be reinstated goes unanswered—the chances of productions running away to other locales increases.

It has long been my dream to create an ultimate film love letter to this city I call home. My producing partner and I recently had the good fortune to become involved in just such a project. It covers the city and puts some of my favorite elements and dream locations on display. Just as we have started to pull it together, the tax rebates have run dry, and we now have to think of taking it to Chicago or Los Angeles or even Canada! It is a sad day in Mudville, but the tears are particularly resonant as this is neither a super low-budget nor a big studio film. The project in question is the kind of well-budgeted, specialized film geared towards an international audience that I pursue. It is the kind of film that sells New York to the world over, all the while hopefully establishing a new group of New York filmmakers and actors that continue to bring our city residual good will. Well, it could be that kind of film, or it could do that for another city and state.

When I first decided I was going to make movies, my first decision was to move to New York City. It was the history of great New York movies by great New York directors that brought me here. The NYC culture was like honey to a bee for me. When I was about to graduate from NYU film school, I was worried about my future (oh, how little things change). I was worried if I would be able to get to make the kind of movies I wanted to. Within a two-week period, I encountered Fran McDormand and The Coen Brothers (who I realized were my neighbors), Spike Lee (promoting She's Gotta Have It in front of the theater where it would soon premiere), and Jim Jarmusch (entering the same subway that I rode daily). These shoulder brushes meant the world to me; they were the filmmakers who were making the kind of films I aspired to, and they seemed to be living lives very similar to mine. If they could make it work, maybe I could too.

I have found this city to be the greatest creative inspiration for me, but who can really afford to remain here anymore? It is expensive to live here. It is expensive to shoot here. The tax credits were the great leveler: they brought full employment to the filmmaking community, and they brought the costs of filming down for the financiers.

The cycle of each generation of NYC filmmakers recruiting the next is in jeopardy—and with that we can expect fewer films will be made in our city. Filmmakers will always be able to make the super low budget films here, but will they be able to make the ones that are decently financed enough to catapult them to the world stage? Will they even be able to afford to live here?

Those initial encounters with New York’s great new wave of filmmakers filled me with hope and kept me wed to our mean streets for several decades. I have never taken a movie to Canada (or to any location for that matter) simply to make it cheaper—only ever because the story demanded it. I steadfastly believe that local producers can make a much better movie, dollar for dollar—hell, even dollar for ninety cents!—in New York, regardless of whatever other hassles the city may require. Yet now, when we are faced with both astronomical costs of living and a thirty-percent budget discrepancy, it is not just making a movie cheaper that is the question—it is an entirely different movie one has to consider. Sadly, there is no comparison.

Where does all this leave us now? We can look at the bright side and see how fast our community responded, but we know that is not enough. We can look at the hard reality and recognize the precarious position we find ourselves in: with new competition from California and other states, and a huge shortfall in our state budget to contend with. We can look at the obvious and see the huge economic benefit the tax credits have brought the state, and just hope that this is enough to put us back on the right track. We can look at the huge residual benefits the New York film industry bestows on our city and pray that our officials reciprocate the favor. But will any of this be enough?

There is so much work to be done advocating on our industry’s behalf, and seemingly very few doing it. How can we all make part of this work part of our daily lives? How much should we rely on policy to protect and improve our industry? Surely affordable health care, education, and housing would go a long way for all of us to pursue our craft.

With the system as it is, it is a wonder we have any artists left: students graduate from college with heavy loans weighing on them and there are no jobs for them to get. They return to grad school, hoping that the employment situation will improve in two years, but they increase their debt significantly. They finish graduate school with a now-colossal debt and unable to afford health care and housing. The only sensible pursuit seems to be the high-paying gigs in finance or the corporate world. We are depleting our creative class and corresponding culture before it has had a chance to flourish.

There is nothing resembling government funding for the arts to begin to entice artists to enter the field. To compound our problems, Saturday comes along and the last thing audiences want to do is spend money on a film funded by the corporate committee hellbent on chancing last year’s hits—or made by the children of privilege who did not have the financial burden the rest of us did. These movies don’t resemble our reality. Even art film audiences feel they might as well steal a movie off the Internet, since they are forced to live out in the middle of nowhere (in the housing they can afford) and the corporations don’t see fit to offer screenings in places other than the dead center of major media markets anyway. If we don’t find a platform and delivery system to solve this dilemma, the consumer will decimate what’s left of our industry as they did the music business.

Don’t get me wrong: there are many reasons to be hopeful for the future of independent film. In fact I listed 52 of them on my TrulyFreeFilm blog at the start of the year, and have had a good number of other folks chime in with additional reasons. Nonetheless, the challenges before us are too great to ignore. Beyond the rudimentary requirements of health, housing, and education, our industry has a great deal to worry about:

-Net Neutrality—Our ability to access and distribute work and ideas, organize around it, is dependent on this core democratic principle.

-Media Consolidation—The lack of an antitrust action has created an environment that is virtually impossible to compete in.

-Labor Union Stability—The unrest of this year across the guilds has helped no one.

-Copyright Law Revision—The rules are antiquated, protecting corporate interests over the creators, while limiting the audience's access to new art forms.

-Copyright Protection—The blatant disregard for artists' rights across the Internet make a bad situation even worse.

-Government Funding For The Arts (or lack thereof)—The only work artists can expect to be compensated for are the most blatantly commercial endeavors.

-Social Network Rules—The Draconian control different networks exert over user content does not bode well for community hopes of sharing information and content.

-Data Portability—Everyone’s right to the information their work generates is a necessary principle if artists are ever going to have a direct relationship with their audiences.

-Demystification of Distribution and Exhibition Practices—The last twenty years were about demystifying the production process, but there will be no true independence unless the cycle is made complete.

-Exhibition Booking Policies and Practices Revision—Distributors require exhibitors to book on full weeks, restricting their ability to become true community centers, providing their audiences with what they want, when they want it.

-New Blood Recruitment for Distribution and Exhibition—Since virtually all of the specialized distribution and exhibition entities are run by people who came of age in the days of pure theatrical exhibition, they yearn for a return to those days and are resistant to new practices.

-Ratings Structure—The current system is not applicable to the diverse work being made today.

-Loss of Film Critics’ Old Media Platforms—Our critics were our curators, letting audiences know what to see when, and now most have been fired. Where will our new curators be found? We’ve started HammerToNail to help audiences find the best in true indie American narrative work, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

-Filmmaker Re-education for this New Media Universe—Let’s face it, we are all a bunch of Luddites. Until we recognize what tools are available and how to use them, we are depriving both ourselves and our audiences from the quality of work we all deserve.

-Creation of Indie Film Promotional Portals—How can we see good work when we don’t even know it exists?

-Broadband Availability and Strength—America lags behind the rest of the developed world not just in terms of broadband penetration, but also in the quality and level of that broadband service.

-Digital Film Archive—As more and more filmmakers move to a digital medium to both originate and finish that work, how will this work be preserved for future generations?

-Indie Film History Archive—The history and process of how this work we are now creating will be remembered will be impossible without some joint effort to preserve it.

The list goes on. The questions are: Who is going to lead? Where will the structure come from? How can we prevent disasters before they occur? And what are we going to do about it on an individual basis? It is not enough to just sign another Internet petition after the disaster strikes." —Ted Hope, February 22, 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Cinematic Civil War – Part 3: Beating The Drums of War

When it comes to Marketing and PR, the Studio System and the Indie World have two very different practices.

The Studio System, through use of their vast funds, begins a blitzkrieg of advertising, mostly through Television Commercials and Magazine Ads. Sometimes they’ll partner with a Food Service Company as well. The Dark Knight partnered with Dominos for their “Gotham Pizza”, Disney will usually partner with either Burger King or McDonald’s for their kids meal prizes. I even remember getting a Darth Maul plastic cup from the local cinema, when Star Wars: Episode I came out. These traditions are tried and true. They’ve worked for the studios and the studios will naturally continue to use what works.

The Indie Community, seemingly structure free, and not as financially well-off has to come up with its own methods for marketing, and they’ve come up with some fantastic stuff.

Thanks to the power and freedom of the Internet, Indie Film has been able to blaze a trail with Viral Marketing. Viral marketing and viral advertising are marketing techniques that utilize social networks to advertise and spread the word about any subject, primarily and in this case, Films. It can be word-of-mouth delivered or enhanced by the network effects of the Internet. Viral promotions may take the form of video clips, interactive Flash games, advergames, ebooks, brandable software, images, or even text messages. Filmmakers hope to identify individuals with high Social Networking Potential (SNP) and create Viral Messages that appeal to this segment of the population and have a high probability of being passed along.

Some notable examples of Viral Marketing

-Simpsonsize Yourself - Created for the Simpsons movie, this site allowed visitors to create an avatar of themselves as a character from the cartoon.

- Four Eyed Monsters: After failing to secure a distribution deal for their debut feature directors Arin Crumley and Susan Bice began documenting their process (and failures) via video podcasts just as the video iPod was becoming the "it gadget". They became minor internet/MySpace celebrities, saw their film play in five major cities and released a DVD of their film as well.

-The film Cloverfield was first publicized with a teaser trailer that did not advertise the film's title, only its release date: "01·18·08." Elements of the viral marketing campaign included MySpace pages created for fictional characters and websites created for fictional companies alluded to in the film.

-The Dark Knight - In May 2007, 42 Entertainment began a viral marketing campaign utilizing the film's "Why So Serious?" tagline with the launch of a website featuring the fictional political campaign of Harvey Dent, with the caption, "I Believe in Harvey Dent.” The site aimed to interest fans by having them try to earn what they wanted to see and, on behalf of Warner Bros., 42 Entertainment also established a "vandalized" version of I Believe in Harvey Dent, called "I believe in Harvey Dent too," where e-mails sent by fans slowly removed pixels, revealing the first official image of the Joker; it was ultimately replaced with many "Haha"s and a hidden message that said "see you in December." Later, to prove that Viral Marketing doesn’t have to be just through the Internet (a well appreciated, but little known fact) the studio combined both online and real-life elements to make it resemble an alternate reality game. Techniques included mass gatherings of Joker fans, scavenger hunts around world, detailed and intricate websites that let fans actually participate in "voting" for political offices in Gotham City, and even a Gotham News Network that has links to other Gotham pages such as Gotham Rail, a Gotham travel agency, and political candidate's pages. The movie also markets heavily off of word of mouth from the thousands of Batman fans. (and there is NO better advertising than word of mouth people, make no mistake about that.)

-Early in its existence (perhaps between 1988 and 1992), the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 had limited distribution. The producers encouraged viewers to makes copies of the show on video tape and give them to friends in order to expand viewership and increase demand for the fledgling Comedy Central network. During this period the closing credits included the words "Keep circulating the tapes!" (word of mouth in its purest form)

-And this one, unrelated to film but I have to mention it because it works so well: Will it Blend - One of the most recent best viral marketing campaign examples, Blendtec’s will it blend video series shows scientists testing if various household items will blend in their super-powerful blender. This campaign leveraged the popularity of online video sharing sites.

With this proven track record its no wonder that Internet marketers are turning more and more to social media to help build online buzz around television shows, internet tv, theatrical and dvd releases of blockbuster and independent movies. Some marketers are experimenting with creative new ways to use less-heard-of social network websites such as Twitter to help achieve their online marketing and buzz-building goals.

It’s common to see TV & movie Internet marketing campaigns include facebook and myspace marketing strategies, but in coming months, as Twitter begins to get more traction, we expect to see more video, television, movie & entertainment marketers experimenting with and finding success using Twitter as part of a well rounded social media marketing campaign. Such a campaign could involve a blog, microsite, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, and other online marketing resources.

As an online community of people writing text-based, miniature-scale blog posts of no more than 140 characters, it’s not immediately apparent how Twitter could be used in movie or television internet marketing. But Twitter isn’t just another instant messaging tool. Twitter holds great potential for movie and television producers, directors, distributors, networks, PR teams and internet marketers for online communication, collaboration and relationship building with investors, internal teams, and targeted viewers.

Using Twitter, we see film & television developers & promoters coming up with new ways to reach their targeted audiences that include:

- providing insight and commentary in real time (on location during shooting)
- promoting special contests, sneak previews
- facilitating collaborative video production experience
- building conversation about the movie or television season or individual episodes
- opening dialogue between promoter and promotion participants
- movie & television website traffic generation
- promoting events such as movie premiers
- posting press releases

If, for example, during the making of a film a well-known actor, actress or director posted regular Tweets via Twitter via their mobile phone it’s conceivable that hundreds if not thousands would follow and engage these immediate, seemingly intimate, “insider” posts.

Already, many TV networks such as ABC Family, NBC, CBS and MTV are experimenting with Twitter as a way to reach younger, tech-savvy audiences. MTV used Twitter to promote its MTV Music awards on June 3, 2007. The Disney-owned ABC Family network used Twitter to launch a new show called “Greek”, offering text updates and behind-the-scenes glimpses from cast and writers. NBC plans to use Twitter to drive traffic to a targeted MySpace page.

As the Internet grows and becomes more integrated into our lives, its easy to see how using Viral Marketing will allow for Indie Films to compete in the same viewer Market as the Studio System.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Spirit Award Winners

the winners....

Best Feature: The Wrestler

Best Director: Tom McCarthy, The Visitor

Best Male Lead: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Best Female Lead: Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Best Supporting Male: James Franco, Milk

Best Supporting Female: Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Foreign Film: The Class

Best Documentary: Man on Wire

Best Screenplay: Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best First Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, Milk

Best First Feature: Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

Best Cinematography: Maryse Alberti, The Wrestler

Piaget Producers Award: Heather Rae, Frozen River

John Cassavetes Award: In Search of a Midnight Kiss

Acura Someone to Watch Award: Lynn Shelton, My Effortless Brilliance

Lacoste Truer Than Fiction Award: Margaret Brown, The Order of Myths

Robert Altman Award:
Charlie Kaufman (Director), Jeanne McCarthy (Casting Director), Hope Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Emily Watson, Diane Weist, Michelle Williams, Synecdoche, New York

Friday, February 20, 2009

To: Conan O'Brien - From: A Former Staffer

While this post differs from the traditional Indie Film topic that I strive to maintain here, I would not be where I am today without the help of this man: Conan O'Brien. I started out as an Intern on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in 2003 and was part of the show for a little over a year, including the 10th Anniversary show. My time there was some of the most memorable, I learned so very much and I was exposed to even more. I just want to wish Conan O'Brien the best of luck in his new timeslot and on his new show. Good luck, Conan.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Outbreak - A Choose Your Own Adventure Zombie Movie

Chris Lund has created a choose your adventure zombie film called The Outbreak, and released it online. I can’t say that it’s that much better than the choose your own adventure books from our childhood, but its a great example showcasing how indie filmmakers are able to explore these kind of interactive options.

Check out the Trailer below:

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Cinematic Civil War – Part 2: Getting To The Battlefield

All The Old Familiar Places….

You’ve shot your film, edited it, did all the finishing polishes, and now you’re ready to go, but you’re a first time filmmaker, so it won’t be easy. Let’s also assume that your film is of the best quality possible; it will make things more applicable. The good news is that you’re far, far from alone; every single filmmaker in this industry has been exactly where you are right now. Naturally, the first instinct is to send your film off to film festivals in hopes of recognition and appreciation, and that’s a very good instinct, but its not the only option you have.

The Short Route

You made a short film. You sent it off to festivals and it did well, won a few awards, maybe a few featured posts on blogs or coverage in a trade, but no distribution deal has come your way. As American Filmmakers we have to face our first hump: Short Films have no Market in America.

*When I use the term “Market”, I mean it in the most economic sense, you could make the argument that due to YouTube, Short (Media) Films are actually the most popular form of media to date and more people have viewed video on YouTube than every single film ever made combined. However, YouTube is free. It costs nothing to watch or post videos on it. (more on this later)

There are primarily 3 reasons we make short films:

-1. We have a vision for a wonderful little piece and it doesn’t need to be more than that.

-2. We have a vision for a wonderful story and make the short as a Demo in hopes of raising money for a full feature.

-3. A showcase of our skills and an addition to our reels and resumes.

Naturally, we want as many people as possible to see our work and sometimes it’d be nice to recover any money we put into it. There are several ways to do both that are just beginning to develop in this new age of Do It Yourself (DIY) Distribution.

In October 2008, through the distribution deal with Shorts International, “Centigrade” a Canadian Short Film made by Madison Graie & Colin Cunningham (no relation), became the first Live-Action Canadian made Short Film distributed on iTunes. In March 2008, the same film became the first Canadian film to qualify for the 2009 Oscars when it won the Best Narrative Short prize at the Cinequest Film Festival, an Academy Awards-sanctioned event.

“In making this short, we didn't expect it to be a financial success,” says Cunningham, the film’s lead actor who also wrote and directed it. “This deal opens doors to aspiring directors and producers.

Cunningham and Graie are currently in discussions to turn “Centigrade” into a feature. The 17-minute film, which is about a man trapped in a trailer that is slowly burning up, captured 5 Leo Awards, which honor the British Columbia Film and Television Industry, and has qualified for the Genie Awards.

Since iTunes first became user friendly in 2004, anyone could distribute video and audio podcasts for free through the program, but in February of 2007, iTunes started to open its doors to Indie Filmmakers, with the film “That”, available for download at the cost of $1.99. It is currently unknown what the profit share between the Mac Company and the Filmmakers is. iTunes has since stated that it will sell video outside of its larger deals with companies like Disney and Lionsgate. Another note about distribution through iTunes is that the company will not distribute your project if you are giving it away for free somewhere else.

Just recently in January ’09, The Sundance Institute joined with iTunes to release 10 short films which played at the festival, available for free download. "We are thrilled to be able to highlight a selection of short films from this year's program free online on the iTunes Store for those who can't make it to the Festival," said Trevor Groth, Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer. "The 10 films offer a sample of the diversity and originality of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival shorts program."

With these few examples, we can see the trend of profit based releases for Short Films beginning to rise, but not everyone is keen on having their short film’s watched on a laptop, some believe that their films should ideally be shown at a theater.

Over the past few months, a movement of traveling exhibitions and film festivals has been on the rise. Groups of filmmakers and artists are joining with each other in order to take their films and projects to more people and expand their audiences.

Currently, as part of the “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Culture” exhibition, 3 films made specifically for the exhibition that bring Latino music and dance to life. Each short film (approx. 6-8 minutes long) features performance footage and filmed interviews with artists and experts, and the narratives examine key events in the history of post-World War II Latino music.

- “Rivalry at the Palladium” tells the story of the musical rivalry between Tito Puente and Pablo “Tito” Rodriguez, two Puerto Rican mambo masters.
- “Dance! Dance! Dance!” explores the effects of dance crazes such as tango, mambo, and cha cha cha have helped introduce Latino music to broader audiences.
- “Hollywood” looks at Hollywood’s role in creating images of Latino artists.

These three shorts are not the only art being displayed in the exhibition, many artifacts, wardrobes, musical scores and speakers will also be featured, but it serves as a successful example of a group of artists traveling with their work. Some artists have decided to take a cue from Music Groups. In January ’09, New Media group “The Collective” announced plans to compile the short films of several filmmakers (much like bands compile their music videos and bonus content) and release them over a series of affordable DVDs in effort to bring both exposure and funding to filmmakers.

There’s really no market for shorts here,” says Ryan Strouss, V.P of The Collective. “with the right marketing and the right art, we can target specific audiences that already exist. Not only would they enjoy these films, but potentially use them as tools in an educational setting.

The Featured Way

You made a feature film. You sent it off to festivals and it did well, won a few awards, maybe a few featured posts on blogs or coverage in a trade, but no distribution deal has come your way. You put effort, time and money into the project and you hope to recoup it, as well as give your film exposure. Now what?

The dream of some filmmakers today (those who wish to use their Indie Films as a jumping point to the Studio System) is for a high priced negative pickup. The film they made is bought, including all rights and intellectual property, by a distribution company for national and foreign wide release. This scenario, per capita, is uncommon, varying buyouts, but not unheard of. Motives for wanting such a deal are wide reaching, but if this were the only way, there’d be no call for creative thinking and new ways to reach your audience that makes this industry so surprising. And what are those alternative methods? How much of it can be considered Self-Distribution?

What are the reasons to Self-Distribute a film? Naturally, again, the first goal is of course to get your work seen by as big an audience as possible, but there’s also a very valuable secondary reason many of us don’t think about, yet partake in quite often when discussing our projects: to document our experience, to make the notes available for our peers so that they may learn from our experience. Currently, real Self-Distribution exists in the indie rock world to an extremely high degree, but not for indie film at the moment. So how do we cultivate it?

Some of the previously mentioned methods for Shorts can be applied to feature films, but in my opinion, the best and most successful example of alternative distribution is Gary Hustwit’s documentary “Helvetica”. I have been following Mr. Hustwit and his methods with great interest for quite a long time and I am constantly surprised and impressed by both.

Gary first began the project as a self-described “geeky side project” about design and font, but found himself more and more committed to it as time went on. During the height of project activity, he began to show the film to several design firms, taking it on its own mini-tour before the project was complete. Not only did he expose the film to hundreds of audience members and create a niched buzz, but he also received valuable input from the people who knew the subject better than he and ended up incorporating some of it into the film itself.

“Helvetica” had its World Premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2007. The film subsequently toured film festivals, special events, and art house cinemas worldwide, playing in over 300 cities in 40 countries. It received its television premiere on BBC1 in November 2007, and was broadcasted on PBS as part of the Emmy award-winning series Independent Lens in fall 2008. The film was nominated for a 2008 Independent Spirit Award in the "Truer Than Fiction" category, and was shortlisted for the Design Museum London's "Designs of the Year" Award. An excerpt of the film was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. If you’re interested, and I hope that you are (you should be! Support your peers!), the film is currently available for download on iTunes as well as DVD and Bluray formats. How many self-distributed films can claim the same right now? Not many.

Now, should you wish to go theatrical with your feature, but have no offers on the table, you may consider a Service Deal, which, up until 1999/2000 was most popular with books, but has since seen an increasing viability in films. In a recent article in Filmmaker Magazine, Jon Reiss articulated the intricacies of such a scenario: “With no theatrical offer I investigated service deals. These used to carry a fair amount of stigma: “Your film isn‘t good enough for someone to release it so you have to pay them to do it,” but in the current landscape, where theatrical is often (or only) seen as merely publicity for ancillary markets, service deals are less stigmatized and increasingly even the norm.”

There are “Indie-distributors-For-Hire Services” out there should you wish to take that route, such as “Artistic License” ( and “Truly Indie” ( and they may certainly be useful in expanding and cultivating self-distribution campaigns for certain features.

With the increasing amount of interest in data portability and digital mediums these days, several companies, like iTunes, have taken advantage of that. Netflix is of course known for their monthly rental fees and unlimited rentals/free shipping costs, but now, they’ve started to massively upload films and TV shows onto their server, which, discounting the cost of bandwidth and space, is a great cost saver for them, which also makes it more feasible for the company to snatch up a few indies. After all, if they stick with a purely digital deal, there’d be no cost in manufacturing DVDs, so it becomes less of an economic and bureaucratic process for them, thus making the purchasing of indie films more appealing.

At the moment, Netflix targets primarily the big releases and Hollywood films, but other sites, like and have a more indie targeted niche, and, a service that lets anyone host a movie for free on their own Web page. Sure, many of us would like to have the feeling of holding that DVD copy of our own film in our hands and on our shelves, and many of us are wary of digital distribution, but now many of us are getting the digital deals that can keep us going through these venues. YouTube even has a “Screening Room” channel for professional short films and features that will generate revenue from ads on the site, though the filmmakers themselves will not likely see those profits.

Another great example of this is Hulu, NBC’s answer to “you can see it for free, like YouTube, but you’ve gotta watch a few ads so we can still make money” has made some wonderful, landmark headway for Indie Films in an ironically corporate delivery system. In August ‘08, Director David Modigliani struck a deal that made “Crawford” the first film to make its debut on Hulu, like YouTube, also offers tools that let people post these videos directly on their own blogs, Facebook pages and other sites (though one has to wonder how that will now work with Facebook’s recent grab for content and use rights). Since going up on the site, "Crawford" has been the top movie and one of the most-discussed videos on the site, says Hulu, which UNFORTUNATELY does not release the number of views its videos generate.

Modigliani’s agreement with Hulu was brokered by “B-Side”, an Austin company that runs the Web sites of over 200 film festivals. Like Hustwit, using email addresses and other data gathered from festival goers, “B-Side” organizes screening events around the country where movies are shown for free as a way to drive DVD sales. Now, with films like "Crawford," “B-Side” is applying the same strategy to the Web.

Hulu didn't pay anything up front for "Crawford." Instead, the company shares revenue generated by the six advertisements that run at various points during the 74-minute film, so yes, as with television shows on Hulu, there will be commercials. Neither Hulu or “B-Side” will say how much that amounts to, of course, but “B-Side” only expects it to cover the company's initial expenses on the film, which they say is only a few thousand dollars. At a time when interest in politics was running high, “B-Side” was banking on a return from selling "Crawford" on DVD, offered online for $19.99. Modigliani self-financed the film so he has no investors to pay back. He used his credit card and used tax-deductible contributions made through the Austin Film Society for the movie's $100,000 budget.

There are great strides yet to be made, but for the first time we can see what the future may look like for us as an industry and as a family. Studios will ALWAYS make movies, fans will always crave tactile contact with their favorite films through Limited Edition DVD releases and technology will always set the standard for budgets, but if Indie Rock is any indication of the paralleled movement our Industry is heading for, as it has traditionally been, we, the indie artists, will always find the new ways to venture before our corporate cousins, and they, in turn, will follow suit upon proof of viability. After all, if we look to bands like Radiohead, they are paving the way by exclusively releasing their albums online and available for download with a “name your own” price, and since doing that, more than twenty-five widely released artists have followed suit.

A Note…

*in my opening statement I had said “let’s also assume that your film is of the best quality possible”. The reason I say this is because, unfortunately, a lot of the films, hell, MOST of the films made each year are crap. That’s not discrediting the talent of the cast, crew and all those involved, but sometimes the pieces just don’t fit and the film will never see the light of day. If we are to survive as a community, we must acknowledge that we will always have weak links, but we should not discourage them from making films, we should help to nurture them, educate them and embrace them as we would have done unto us. This cycle will never stop, there will always be bad films, but if we work together, we can show that we’re not all to be judged by the worst of our kind, and we lift those who lift themselves.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Escape from City 17

Want to see what a group of talented, motivated, dedicated and qualified filmmakers can do with only $500?

If you're a fan of the Half-Life video game series, it should be twice as interesting. I'm in awe of their prowess and envious of their abilities.

Dropping Like Flies (2)

A few more of my colleagues have informed me that their films have lost funding due to the lack of New York State Tax Credits, now bringing the total number crew without work to 419. If we include the projected SAG Actors each film was going to work with, it brings the number to an estimated 500.

Times are tough for all of us, but every event is transient. This too shall pass.

Survival vs. Success: A Life in Film

What do you want out of this industry?” is a very important question, and naturally we want to be successful in it. What constitutes that success? Is it continued employment and work in the world of mediocre films? Is it one film every three or four years that becomes a massive hit?

Those questions have no definite answers.

In the state of flux that the film community is in today, we find ourselves moving away from wanting that massive successful film (while still holding onto that hope) and towards the reality of survival. If we are to remain in this industry and this one alone, we must constantly find work. We must constantly struggle to survive as filmmakers. Some of us develop our production crew versatility; others pick up skills in the technological fields.

I am embarrassed to say that I am unable to articulate this the way I wished to, but its nothing more than a musing, which I had hoped to avoid on this blog.

But, as we ponder these questions, remember that its not simply enough to survive, you have to be worthy of survival… and so do your films.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dropping Like Flies

Recently, New York State has announced that there is no additional funding for the state tax credits included in their latest budget proposal. New York City has played a major, major role in the entertainment industry over the past few years. There is currently a petition to save the tax credits circling the net, and it lists a vital fact that anyone in the Government these days shouldn't ignore: According to a 2007 study by Ernst and Young, the state and city combined have issued $690 million in tax credits and have collected $2.7 billion in taxes from movie and television productions. This program pays for itself! It helped create over 7,000 jobs, directly, in 2007 and over 12,000 jobs indirectly. The Mayor's Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting reports that in 2002, there were 14,858 NYC location shooting days and in 2008, we reached over 27,250 days. There is a direct correlation between the growth of this industry and the tax credits provided from the state.

In these tough economic times, its understandable why a few government programs would need to be cut, and spending tailed off. However, its is unwise to cut back spending when those programs create jobs. I think its safe to assume that the Governor's office doesn't quite understand the implications of removing the tax credits, nor may they see the connection between tax credits the projects. As someone using Tax Credits in other states to raise funding, I can say first hand that they are an essential interest for any investor, and despite what the project actually is, the majority of our investors wanted strictly to take advantage of the State Tax Credits and Federal 181.

In the past 24 hours, I have been in contact with a few colleagues from New York, still working on projects there, or I should say, WERE working on projects there. Since the announcement that the New York State Tax Credits won't be making an appearance anytime soon, SIX projects in pre-production have shut down. Their investors were investing in large part due to the Tax Credits and now it is not that lucrative for them. With the help of each project, we tallied the number of people all the projects employ: 288 People.. That's almost 300 people now without jobs. 5 out of 6 of these projects were being made between 1 & 2 Million Dollars, the 6th had a budget of 650k.

This is very unsettling news for anyone and already New York has seen an immediate reaction. Please take the time to sign the petition. I just did, it takes less than 20 seconds.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Cinematic Civil War – Part 1: Maps & Borders

“the not-so-truly-independent film, no matter how 'other' it calls itself, is often simply trying to sneak a place, it seems, amongst other films, bigger films, measured often by their commercial success, or the social advancement accorded its makers… No matter how passionately many filmmakers talk about their Vision, too often the overriding impulse is to garner admiration from bigwigs who can finance bigger films, and the attendant, supposed, freedom this will bring for future work. I would argue that this future work is already devoid of inspiration, as it is based upon a filmmaker whose work was made, at least in some measure, in order to secure career options, rather than having been made out of a serious, undeniable urge to craft a particular film, regardless, totally regardless, of its career implications.” - Jay Anania


Know what you want out of this industry before you get too far into it. We all know the general diction of where we’d like to end up, but the roads that take us there are never easy, never simple, and never a straight line. The speed bumps and detours along the way can misguide us, steer us off course, and sometimes change our destination entirely. It is this guiding philosophy that truly separates us; our “sorting hat” if I may make a Harry Potter reference.

Some are in the industry because they like the atmosphere; regardless of their station and the longer we do this, the more of them we meet. Some of us know career Production Coordinators, UPMs, Grips and Transportation Captains, that’s what they do, and that’s what they will do. They’re distinctively interchangeable from project to project and Studio to Indie. It doesn’t make them more or less filmmakers than directors, producers, DPs and actors, all the creative types… right? And I address them here to ensure that they are not forgotten and remind us all how incredibly vital they are to Production, they are a film’s arms and legs.

Although all these people are important players, they are by their very nature, not the ones who truly steer the direction of our world; rather it is the people who create, originate, develop, nurture and finish with their films, and many times those people have more than one title. At some point in their lives, these people made the decision to “work in the movies”. Some want to work within the Studio system, some wanted to work outside of it.


When this is all we do, we have to do it well. We have to make a living off of it. But not many of us are able to do this full time. Not many of us work only in this industry.

The Indie community is comprised of countless individuals and tribes wandering the world. Some just make one film and that’s it, others a few, and the rest continue to make one film after another until they can’t. When you’re an Indie filmmaker, it sometimes feels as if they world is against you and the bigger community at large doesn’t want you to succeed, no matter how many successes you’ve already had. And it feels like that a lot.

If we are the true Indie filmmakers that Anania mentions above, then we run the risk of becoming bitter; we work on our own films, developing one project at a time for what can be years on end; tweaking our characters, refining our shot lists, rethinking our scores, retooling our team, re-scouting our locations, re-evaluating available technology. And all the while we do this, a studio puts 30 million dollars into the next “Scary Movie” riff or a tweeny movie about horny kids. We see these movies coming out with horrible scripts, terrible jokes and phoned in cinematography and they make us sick. We think “for 30 million I could have made 30 to 60 amazing films, son of a bitch.” In that moment, we have the option of taking two roads, the one we planned on taking, or the easier road with a seemingly more stable [financial] future.


In his statement, Anania defines this Civil War that we seem to find ourselves in. We either make the films we want to make because we truly believe [and know] they’re wonderful and new and we continue to make films like that, or we take our first truly independent film (and for the same of argument assume this first one is a great success) and use the status gained from it to crossover into the studio financing side for future projects.

I believe that as long as you know where the roads will take you, there is no right or wrong choice.

However, because of that, I’m in a very small minority. Over the past few months my trade and travels have exposed me to many Indie Filmmakers, and most of them has a hard line view on these two options. It seems that out of these filmmakers, the majority of them want to use their first film as a launch pad for bigger projects with bigger budgets and more wide-release exposure. In contrast, the other filmmakers wish to make all their future films like their first film (in this case: well-developed, new, hopeful, honest and modest) without care of studio pickup for distribution. The small minority that I find myself a part of is the group understand both sides of the argument, but is honestly fine with whatever the means are so long as the vision isn’t compromised.

An interesting, and perhaps revealing, bit of insight is that out of all these people, their current, personal, economic situation helps them make these decisions. The bulk of us who are not so well off lean towards the career launching “crossover” films, and the bulk of us who are content with our current economic situation lean towards the continued Truly Free Films of our origins.


And what are the pros and cons of each choice? The Truly Free Film or the Post-Crossover Film. Over the next four weeks, we will be dissecting the advantages and disadvantages of each with the help of those filmmakers who have been down these roads before, and who knew, and didn’t know, where they were going, starting with distribution.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Cinematic Civil War - Prologue: Choosing Sides

Recently, Brooks Barnes wrote an article about the risk-levels of Film Investment shrinking in these uncertain economic times. The article ends with a quote that I believe is the true, fundamental and cultural argument amongst Cinephiles and Filmmakers; "If you can find the right film executives, people who consider themselves fiduciaries more than producers, it's one of the best bets you can make right now. Just remember that it's over when you start taking yourself so seriously that the project stops becoming a commercial movie," he continued, "and starts becoming an art project." - Daniel Crown, the former chief executive of Crown Theaters.

Crown has managed to articulate part of the argument amongst our community by reminding us that because films cost money to make, they are, by right and ritual, a business.

While Barnes' article mainly addresses the Studio side of film financing, Indie Films are of course a factor. Join us here each Monday for the next 5 weeks as we explore what this statement means and how its very philosophy creates a divide among filmmakers.