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.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent discussion here! This is quite enlightening.

    I will point out that I would have liked to have seen a fourth reason for making short films. I agree completely with the three reasons you mentioned above. However, I do have a fourth reason of my own for making short films (one which I think many new filmmakers out there share): I make short films to learn the craft of filmmaking and improve my skills without the great expense and time a feature film production consumes.

    I can, however, definitely understand why in this particular discussion presented here you might not include this point, since we are assuming that one's grasp of cinematic grammar and technique is in fact proficient enough to make something that will stand out above the crap you mentioned in your note.

    And as for that note: Yes, we would do best to recognize that probably 80% of anything mass produced is going to be crap. But I do agree with you that we should encourage and nurture each other as independent and/or new filmmakers so that we can see more films that are truly worthwhile. For starters, I would like to encourage everyone to make films that they genuinely feel compelled to make, not just as a stepping stone, or to copy the success of some formula, but to authentically tell a story one can't help but tell.