Reflections on “The Conversation”

The Conversation: Social Media, Digital Distribution and the Future of Filmmaking

The theme of The Conversation up at Columbia this past weekend seemed to be, “We have no idea what we are doing. Does anyone have any good ideas to share?” This echoes what people have been saying for a few years now and I have to wonder when we will know what we are doing in this exciting but uncertain brave new world of filmmaking.

The conversation got started on a fairly pessimistic note as Ira Deutchman suggested that all media makers read the book The Long Tail that analyses changes in the market place and suggests that the old model of business where 80% of your profit was made by 20% of your products no longer applies.  The new model suggests that everything can and eventually will sell because the reach to potential consumers is greater. This is bad news for filmmakers because the market is flooded with content and we are only making pennies on the dollar for our work.  He went on to suggest that filmmaking is being relegated to the likes of other art forms where many are creating but only a small percentage are successful and can make a good living from what they do.

Tiffany Shlain, director of Connected and one of the organizers of the event, kicked off the first panel, Attracting an Audience with the quote of the day: “If you aren’t living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”  You could hear the tapping of small keyboards all over the room as listeners sent that one off into cyberspace.

The emphasis on the first panel was that filmmakers have to get personal with their audience.  We have to connect with and give to our viewers.  We have to make our viewers a part of our projects.  Facebook and Twitter are obvious tools that help filmmakers do that, but we have to go even further: create interactive games and gimmicks to entertain our audiences and give them a chance to express themselves.  Madman was given as a good example of how to personalize your audience and get them involved.  In their online application, you can create your own madman.  As filmmakers we need to have personas, become brands.  We need to get out there and attract audiences that will follow us from film to film.  Arin Crumley, one of the guests on the panel (Four-Eyed Monster) explained how he podcasted through out his film’s life hooking fans to his personal stories which was highly successful.  The point is that you have to get your audience to help you raise money, awareness, sell DVDs, and create buzz and hype and around your film.  The point is that the traditional way of selling a film – the media – is no longer as important as it was ten years ago.  You are the vehicle to drive your audience.  You are in control and have to be as creative in distribution as you are with your stories!

Nina Paley, (Sita Sings the Blues) talked about how she actually gave her film to the audience for free and has been astonished by how they have taken to the film as their own, publicized it, and become involved in the tremendous success of the film.  Even though the film is out there for free she still makes money from DVDs, merchandise and public screenings.  But be warned:  Don’t just throw your film out there for free.  You need to have a strategy to make money from your freebee.  Put your film on the internet for free for a limited time, ask for donations, encourage them to by the DVD, partner with an organization that can help you promote the film, donate some profits to a charity that you can link to your film to.  You have to be smart and strategic about how you interact with your audience.

We’ve also got to be in many places at the same time.  Viewers use different platforms to get information.  If your film is only on your website, then your audience will be much smaller.  Not everyone watches Netflix; not everyone downloads off pirating websites.  Our audience potential has grown exponentially so we have to be all over the place if we want to get their attention.  We also need to re-purpose our media for different formats like handhelds and iphones and even ipads, which will surely revolutionize the way we interact with content.  Information is a-plenty.  Attraction is scarce.  You’ve got a feature-length documentary?  How can you cut it down to 2 minutes for an iphone application that will help lure your audience to your feature-length film on DVD?

Here are some examples of sites to visit for inspiration:

The single most important nugget of information I got from the second panel, Digital Distribution, was that DVDs are not dead!  Richard Lorber of Kino Lorber said that 90% of sales still come from DVDs and that we have a good 2-5 years to exploit that form before it goes the way of CDs.  Don’t give away your digital rights as they estimate that 2013 may be the year that digital takes over DVD sales.  That’s only 3 years away.  If you are trying to sell your film now and you aren’t smart with how you negotiate your digital rights, you’ll be sorry in the very near future.  Digital VOD is the most lucrative of the digital rights.  This exhibition medium is expanding all the time.  At the moment you have Xbox, Playstation, Netflix, Hulu and Itunes but the market continues to grow bigger and become more accessible.  An interesting point Richard made was that titles that begin with a number, A, B, of C are the best sellers.  Most viewers have trouble navigating or little patience to scroll through lists of alphabetized titles.  Something to think about, folks.

Steve Savage from New Video stressed that films need to translate in all formats.  We can no longer afford to think in terms of single formats. The term that was used several times was “platform agnostic”.  And we can no longer hold on to the idea that we make films, drop them off at a distributor then walk away.  Distributors are now taking into consideration how much a filmmaker will be part of the distribution plan.  Are you going to work on building an audience?  Are you nurturing that baby you created?  How well do you know your core audience?  Distributors are also more open to let filmmakers sell DVDs off their website and at screenings because they now see us as part of a partnership that doesn’t hurt their sales figures but strengthens their bottom line.

Some of the strategies that were mentioned were

  • Self built VOD platforms that you host on your website. Stream your film for .99 then offer the DVD, applying the .99 to the purchase
  • Build stories around stories
  • Create micro-documentaries that lead back to your film
  • Encourage user contributed content
  • Expand your audiences beyond the core to prevent audience fatigue
  • You have to update your website with fresh content if you are going to get them to come back
  • Let audiences post their reactions to your movie on your website.  Encourage them to create youtube videos that describe their thoughts, feelings.  Helps create a conversation around your movie.
  • You as the creator must have a persona as well.

So what’s the point?  Well, making films has grown beyond a self-contained story with a finite beginning and end.  We now have to look at what we create from different vantage points, be willing to re-shape our work into different media and become brands that our audiences experience, interact with and identify with.

Later in the day I headed into the packed session “Let’s Make a Deal” by Peter Broderick, ( the guru consultant for filmmakers who have a good budget for distribution.  This was the most informative session where he basically broke down the deal making process as it has evolved.  Click here to read this post.