When working at a successful film festival, one of the most important things that will get you out of bed in the morning and jump into work with ambition and energy is the feeling that the entire festival team is making the world a better place. Half of our team searched the festival submissions. The other half deals with marketing strategies and movie distribution problems. What is causing this enthusiasm? It’s the belief that the next movie, or the next person to cross our path, could be the “next big thing” in the movie. Hence the Raindance slogan: Discover. Getting discovered.
The real reason I started Raindance was because of my belief in this mission. That under almost every stone or leaf lies a talent that is worth calling out to the whole world. Then as now, I believed that a talented newcomer just needed a little spotlight and a few words of encouragement. Which also led me to found the British Independent Film Awards in 1998.
The challenge of film distribution
Is that still realistic and possible almost three decades later? I think so. I’ve seen our festival efforts and that of the British Independent Film Awards delivering incredible results for the films and filmmakers who have walked through our doors. I saw my first volunteer Edgar Wright and another freshman, Christopher Nolan, ascend, just to name two of the myriad of filmmakers we believed in.
While the festival has created a very positive dynamic for so many, and where the festival launch pad has helped so many careers hit the fast-paced highway of commercial success, it’s easy to worry and worry about how important and how Valuable movies can be seen by enough movie lovers that the producers of the movie can repay their investors and do it again. Distribution is the bottleneck that strangles independent film.
We keep seeing it. There are hundreds of commercial screens in the country, but they’re programmed with numbly boring, sugar-flavored mush. Why? Because cinema owners and audiences alike have been brainwashed to think that there is no market for entertaining but challenging independent films.
It’s a world where nobody wins. Cinemas are confronted with dwindling audience numbers. Consumers are faced with a shrinking number of types of film they can watch (or consumer choice, as politicians call it). There are five main reasons I wake up at night worried that we are diving into a Neanderthal world where no one cares about quality films.
A world where narrow sales policies prevail is a world where no one wins – especially consumers and filmmakers. These are the main problems that keep me up at night because I fear we are sneaking back into a dark age with little choice and pointless movies.
1. The lack of good scripts
I used to think distribution was the bottleneck. Now I’m not so sure.
You know this fact, don’t you: Cinema and movies face extremely tough competition from games, web series, and new media content creators.
Great films with loyal audiences require remarkable scripts. Notable writers are still poorly paid. Unless film companies start hiring talented writers and editors, it’s hard to imagine the film rivaling the rest of the media world. Do you know who pays a lot of money to writers? Gaming, advertising and online series.
But that’s not all. The film industry has been shaped by a development ethos that is fully tied to history. Yes, you have taken all the story structure courses and yes, you have read all the “real” books. Nothing seems to sink. In my opinion, history is not something you learn. It’s a skill we all have that is strengthened through a mix of practice and mentoring.
Unfortunately, there is little new thinking about story education on the horizon. Storytelling for cells, tablets, television, and cinema is each different. Additionally, their response to storytelling is changing as traditional cinema audiences become more and more responsive to their handheld devices. Who is researching this? Who but Guillermo Arriga is talking about non-linear storytelling? Brrr. It’s scary. Could it be that we are slowly losing our ability to tell stories?
Two thoughts on bureaucracy. First, it is a necessary part of our socio-economic system. Second, there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it.
No matter what institution, company or organization you are dealing with, you will have to deal with red tape. That means you have three options. Soak it up and shut up; or scream and curse and rave about it; or learn to deal with it.
In an ideal world, you’d be the hottest thing since Tarantino and everyone will run after you and you can tell them all to piss off. Since that is not going to happen, you can either be a total loner and work independently of the shackles of bureaucracy, or you can indulge in it.
My nightmare is deciding when to suck or when to suck. As you know, you can’t suck and blow at the same time.
3. The Campaign Marketing Mindset
All the effort involved in making a film and developing a marketing campaign is wasted because film advertising is anchored in a campaign mentality. When the movie opens (and closes) all of the expensive and shiny marketing materials are shoved into a warehouse never to be seen again.
The trick, I think, is building a loyal audience because you’re telling a great story. Releasing a film is not the short-term opportunity that distributors believe. It’s the opportunity to build a loyal audience over time. All of a filmmaker’s films must be part of a cohesive whole and work towards clear goals. It’s the filmmaker’s job to figure out what that is supposed to be and then come up with a series of great stories (scripts) that will attract and keep a loyal audience.
Some of our filmmakers do this: Ken Loach, Shane Meadows, Christopher Nolan and Mike Leigh are four British examples. The current great American example is Tarantino with his bizarre films.
When it comes to building audiences and turning them into loyal followers, where is the filmmaking training supposed to come from and where, again, where are the scripts?
4. Filmmakers who believe, “If you build it, they’ll come.”
There is nothing more depressing than when a filmmaker overcomes tons of hurdles, makes great films, and is then branded as failed because no one has seen them.
Filmmakers must receive paid distribution for their films. They have to be paid and they have to pay their investors like any other industry.
I’ve seen filmmaker after filmmaker who spent huge sums on their actual films and then stopped spending on the marketing and promotion of their films. For me, this game plan really sucks.
Marketing has gotten so incredibly easy these days. At Raindance we regularly use Facebook ads, sometimes for as little as 0.01 per website click. After all the hassle a filmmaker has been through, why the hell not spend £ 1,000 getting your movie content showcased in front of 10,000 new people? Like right before your festival screening? Have filmmakers actually considered adding this element to their film’s production budget?
Remember that nobody watches movies. People rent and buy films. Filmmakers make films. One of the challenges of an independent filmmaker is turning his film into a movie. One option is to advertise the film on the internet. This means that you take responsibility for the distribution cycle of your film and effectively eliminate the middleman.
Long gone are the days when you had to write, finance, produce and direct a film and when rental companies pounded on the door. Unless you have a proven track record, name, and your own self-sales and marketing strategy.
Who is ready to share their secrets? Why are there so many dark alleys with locked doors?
5. Fade Out: Filmmakers’ ability to show ROI
Investors are always looking for a return on investment (ROI). Lately, the ROI has been pretty low for most of the films I watch or know, which means investing in films is becoming a sideline hobby for everyone but the most seasoned investors.
[If you are looking for investors do you really want to work with amateurs or star-fuckers?]
The ROI of filmmaking will be mediocre at best if talented people don’t have the freedom to tell great stories and the resources to get those stories out there. You can’t solve a problem without solving them all. And I hope we do.
So. You’re out there in the www-land. Will you read this in silence? Or will you reprimand, challenge, agree or disagree with me?
Either it doesn’t matter. What drives me into my worst nightmare is passivity and silence.
Please include your comments on film distribution below.
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