By Saskia Wilson-Brown, October 20th, 2010

We live in a world with immediate access to any content we want, whenever we want it–and a lot of it. With cheap production tools and omnipresent distribution outlets, anyone with a laptop can make films, and a lot of people seem to want to.

Hot on the heels of this expansion in our content supply comes the debate surrounding how best to sort our creative surfeit. It goes without saying that independent filmmakers are going to continue to increase in numbers. Movies are going to continue to compete for audiences on yet more distribution platforms. We – as an industry – thus need to develop good systems to help promote their discovery, and much of the discussion around these systems has centered on DIY distribution and marketing strategies. But there is a fundamental part of the puzzle that is missing, put to evidence by the fact that most filmmakers are having difficulties – still – finding their audience.

Curation has become fundamental to the issue of audience building. Indeed, it can serve a crucial role in corralling attention spans in what Lance Weiler dubs the “digital attention economy”. To that end, a new crop of curators have come to the fore in an attempt to create new access points for filmmakers. But how are their efforts helping to further promote, support and sustain independent filmmakers, if at all?

NEW CURATORS

Among the most prominent contemporary curators is Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice and, more recently, streetbonersandtvcarnage.com. A maverick curator/producer hybrid, he is devoted to a simple and intuitive premise: “I basically do exactly what I’ve always been doing: making jokes and picking fights [and showing] stuff I like.”

McInnes amassed a following largely through word-of-mouth while building the Vice platform, and – aware of the value of consistency – he remains loyal to the stylistic idiosyncracies that first informed his success. He also, however, recognizes the audience as his core obligation by placing priority on how his content decisions are affecting them. Alternately stated: “I think it’s important to do shit other people haven’t already done to death. I’ve been accused of being conservative in the past but it’s only because ‘Bush is stupid’ and ’Obama rules’ is flogging a dead horse. Give people something new to think about. As far as I’m concerned, [this] is about social commentary and stimulating some kind of discussion.”

The value he places on his audience perhaps forces McInnes to engage in the dictionary definition of gate-keeping. He has to make choices, and he excludes. Influenced by his online-only practice, where he differs perhaps from the gatekeepers of yesteryear is in his encouragement of immediate conversation, through comments functionality, mostly: “Whenever I see sites without the option for comments I think, ‘You are old and you don’t really use the Internet very much,’ [...] It doesn’t engage people. It’s all about participation.“

With similar intentions to McInness, Jonathan Wells, founder of ResFest and co-founder of Flux (along with his partner Meg Wells) explains his practice as one dedicated to uncovering fresh voices: “I love discovering new talent and really enjoy sharing their work with an audience. [At RESFEST] we sought to expose international work that hadn’t been seen in the US as well as amazing independent work that wasn’t being screened in festivals or on television.”

Wells is very aware of the role his personal preferences play in his selection process, but he also nods to adapting his practice to the needs of diverse audiences:  “Filmmakers who use unusual techniques and compelling storytelling to further their story in a novel way is what I’m always looking for. That said our outlets have different programming needs.”

It is no different at larger institutions such as Sundance. Todd Luoto, a shorts programmer for the festival, defines his group’s curatorial methods as “[to] collect the most interesting, moving, touching, funny, innovative and fresh content out there [...to] show diverse stories and sensibilities. We want to challenge an audience as much as we want to make them laugh or be moved.”

This focus on innovation is tempered by Luoto’s awareness of the inherent relativity of curatorial prerequisites, and again, the needs of the audience: “The criteria can change, and has – in my experience – with regional festivals. Sometimes there are issues that resonate a bit more with a certain crowd or culture.”

Mike Plante, programmer for CineVegas and Sundance (and a consulting programmer for a number of smaller organizations such as Los Angeles’ Cinefamily), yet again confirms the need to balance discovery with audience awareness.

“A good programmer […] goes out and finds those great films that did not send their DVD in. Even for Sundance, there is a lot of outreach to the underground. [...] It’s different for each fest, as to what could show [but] the one thing the film has to do is ‘work.’”

Several areas, then, enjoy mutual accord: The desire to push the envelope, to discover new content, to address the needs of diverse audiences, and to show what is ‘good’. In one sense, this can be heartening for filmmakers – clearly there is a hunger for new films and a number of intelligent well-versed curators to champion them. But this paradigm also relies on one individual’s conception of what makes a ‘good’ film- a truly impossible concept to categorically define. Thus, this enthusiasm for new content can quickly start to feel hollow if no one wants to curate your film into a program.

Does the discriminative aspect of curation, then, create insurmountable problems for filmmakers? Is there something nonetheless to be gained?

THE CURATOR’S DILEMMA

General consensus in the DIY movement holds that exclusion is not to be tolerated -and contemporary curators are well aware of this issue. Luoto, for instance, is the first to admit that “[Curating] movies is a subjective art”.

Compounding the issue is the scarcity of openings in curatorial programs, as Brent Hoff, editor and co-founder of Wholphin DVD wryly explains. “We only have so much space on a DVD and viewers only have so much time to watch movies… This is a problem of time itself and it affects all aspects of life.  We can’t do or see everything there is to do and see in life.”

“On the flip side, it’s that limitation which gives a [platform] its prestige and identity, as no filmmaker probably wants to screen at an event that selects just about everything and anything” furthers Luoto.

Indeed, any experience wading through unfiltered content shows us that we benefit from some sort of qualitative exclusionary practice. Yet, paradoxically, no one wants to be excluded. Therein lies the curator’s dilemma: How do you serve filmmakers while simultaneously shutting them out?

SOLUTIONS?

One solution around this problem are processes such as online aggregators and crowd-powered tools (evident on websites like Digg.com). Indeed, there is no shortage of spots for exhibition on the internet, and the usage levels for this model are very high- certainly higher than attendance at festivals or screening series. But, by moving from an individual vision towards automated processes favoring the intelligence of the crowd (or the targeted information provided by data), and by excluding the peculiarities of personal taste, these solutions run the risk of creating some supremely ineffectual and dull content discovery experiences– what Jaron Lanier calls “the blandest possible bible”.

The advantage, of course, is that crowdsourced or aggregation models can provide a way past the gatekeepers, for filmmakers. But, they do so by erasing real connection. Further, lacking the ability to contextualize content, these solutions ultimately do filmmakers a disservice by placing their work alongside (and therefore equal to) random internet ephemera. A thoughtful short film about a family’s Christmas is placed on equal footing with a home video of a kitten playing with Christmas wrapping paper. Vute as kittens are, this is typically not the company an independent filmmaker wants to keep.

Thus the individual curatorial model finds itself ever more relevant in our current landscape simply because it can contextualize work in way that algorithms cannot. As Lance Weiler puts it, a trusted (and informed) individual voice is the most effective recommendation engine: It most powerfully activates its audience’s faith in the content it is endorsing. Supported by their knowledge of the independent film landscape, these curators search out, draw parallels and contextualize content in a way that allows for better connection with the audience, and can program films that others might brush off.

Wholphin’s Brent Hoff confirms this, saying that as much as he’s had to exclude content, he’s also “found and chosen things other people have passed on.” Luoto furthers: “It’s not just about selecting safe films that everyone in the audience will love, but constructing a lineup of stories we really believe should be seen.”

These curators become advocates for the content they believe in, their exclusionary practices notwithstanding, in a way no algorithm can emulate.

CONCLUSIONS

The unavoidable but alarming curatorial subjectivity – compounded as we have seen by the scarcity of space on any given platform – may possibly yet be further counterbalanced by an increasing profusion of those platforms. This, of course, serves filmmakers by creating ever more opportunities to connect with new audiences in a meaningful way, as we have seen, through tight and thoughtful film programs. The increase in what Jonathan Wells calls ‘boutique platforms’ can help complement a film’s lifespan – shepherded to new groups and sub-cultures by trusted individuals who understand their audiences’ needs.

Although independent curators cannot yet pretend to the reach achieved by aggregation-based internet properties or by some of the larger festivals, they can still perhaps make up for the relative paucity of their audience numbers by the greater depth of their influence. Individual curation, inevitably, works with a simple goal: To present film that counts. If all is done right, the audience will have a better chance to find and connect to those films.

Instead of decrying the gatekeepers, we should all be trying to emulate them.

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Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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By Mike Ambs, July 1st, 2010

Recently, I’ve been keeping a close eye on tools for audience building. Several months ago I was very excited about a project, being funding through Kickstarter, called Openindie – if you’re not following Kieran Masterton on twitter already, then you should be. The site is still in beta, and what is exciting about Openindie is that it’s still finding and building it’s community: it is open to ideas and able to adapt quickly to what the filmmaking community needs.

Request Tool Sketch

A few nights ago I was in night-owl mode, with a moleskine and pen in hand, as I was pouring over some of the most-requested films on Openindie. Among them: Heart of Now, We Live in Public, and What’s Up Lovely. I was sketching out site designs that made use of an integrated Openindie request button. Researching which of these top-requested films on Openindie were heavily using Openindie on their film’s main site, the answer: none of them.

Which, I found very strange. But I’ll get to that below.

What I mostly wanted to talk about is: better approaches for audience building. Either for the purpose of mapping out which zipcodes have enough support + demand to schedule screening events, or for other purposes. A question I kept coming back to was “is it necessary for the audience to actually sign-up?”. Openindie does make the process quick and painless by offering Twitter Oauth and Facebook Connect – but does this benefit Openindie more than it does the film?

For example: I’ve been very interested in using twitter as the main engine behind building audience interest – asking that someone interested in FToM simply twitter the hashtag #requestFToM (for those who do not have a twitter account already, they could simply text #requestFToM to 40404). If Openindie could make use of that kind of information, I think it would be a far more powerful tool then having people navigate to a specific URL, sign-up, and then click on the request button. Any #hashtag attributed with GEO information could be mapped immediately, and any #hashtag without could be @replied back to requesting a zipcode. There is no sign-up form, there is no Oauth or Connect needed. Anyone with a cell phone that walks past your flyer on the street could immediately voice their interest.

What I would most love to see from a site like Openindie is a request tool that is 100% flexible on the filmmaker’s end. By that I mean, the request button does not change, you can grab a short piece of code and embed it anywhere you like. But from within Openindie the tool can be scaled out and adjusted in reaction to what is working best and what isn’t. As a filmmaker, what would I like to happen when the request button is clicked?

I would like the visitor to never leave the film’s site. Or if they do leave, much like Paypal, they are returned right back to where they started after the request is finished.

I would like control over what the visitor sees. Have I turned on the options for both twitter and facebook? Or am I just asking them to provide an email? Am I offering all 3 or 4 or 5 options? Does it take them straight to a pre-written twitter with the #hashtag and other important info? These should be settings that can be controlled from the Openindie dashboard without having to replace any embed script.

Once a visitor clicks the request button, that same button then reads: promote. And, of course, have 100% control from within Openindie as to what exactly happens when that is clicked. Does it take the visitor to Openindie’s list of sharing options? Or point them to a site of sharing tools still under the film’s URL? Perhaps I’m running a campaign that involves real-world action like flyers or stickers in public places and want them taken to a page walking them through that idea.
Only a tool that is 100% flexible is going to be a perfect fit for each different filmmaker.

I’m really excited about where Openindie is heading – and I’ve already pestered Kieran about some of these ideas and he seems very open to them, even more so he seems excited about talking to filmmakers and getting feedback on what tools are going to take independent film the furthest.

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Posted in audience distribution promotion tools and services

Mike Ambs currently lives in Ypsilanti. He loves to film things and tell stories. And read on the subway. He's pretty sure blue whales are his power animal.

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By Saskia Wilson-Brown, April 21st, 2010

How small festivals can be the future of meatspace film distribution

In the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and listen to a lot of conversations about the shifting role of film festivals, particularly as those shifts apply to mid to high level independent festivals. There are a number of conflicting opinions on the role of film festivals – from ‘they’re useless and will die’ to ‘they are the future of theatrical’. In truth, all theorizing aside, nobody knows the role film festivals will take over the course of the next few years because nobody know how time-based media will evolve. I do, nonetheless, believe that they can retain their relevance… if they adapt.

What follows here are the last of four thoughts that came to me about the functionality of film festivals, and in no particular discursive order.

Thought 3.

What festivals should do to better serve their communities.

The motivations that guide independent film festivals vary wildly: Whereas some were founded solely to develop industry in a second-city environment, others take radical stances against the industry altogether, shifting their focus towards serving their local creatives instead. Others, still, strive to function as arts-based businesses, leveraging sponsorships and ticket sales in an attempt at joining the ranks of corporatized culture-hawkers.

It is hard to generally classify the purpose of pre-existing film festivals, then, as their needs and motivations are often so divergent. One can nonetheless begin to make an attempt at creating a sort of style guide outlining some pragmatic ways that festivals can better serve independent filmmakers and artists, their contradictory purposes notwithstanding.

Based on several conversations had with such luminaries as Lance Weiler, Brian Newman, Paul Rachman, Peter Baxter, Lisa Vandever, Roger Mayer and others, here is the beginning of a list of how festivals can better help independent filmmakers.

NB. I see the following 5 points as responsibilities, not suggestions. I believe that arts organizations, due to their very nature of being the cynosure of dialogue and thought, have the responsibility to guide that discussion in the correct, honest direction.

I. Manage Filmmaker Expectation (No dangling carrots)

Too often festivals obliquely play into a system based on false promises and permission-based access. In this, they encourage and fail to manage filmmaker expectations, and inevitably end up with some seriously disappointed filmmakers on their hands.

It is crucial for independent filmmakers to understand how the system actually works, and to understand, also, that there are alternatives. It is therefore crucial for a festival to actually explain what they are to expect – from an industry point of view- from inclusion in the festival.

Action point: Clarify what will and probably won’t happen at the festival with your filmmakers along every step of the way, from the call for submissions to the acceptance letter.

II. Be transparent:

If a filmmaker, however naively assuming that his independent festival of choice has scads of dollars to throw at promoting his screening, throws up his hands and lets the festival do all the work, imagine the shock and dismay he may feel when finds his big premiere empty. Conversely, if a filmmaker is aware that the festival has no marketing budget, he might be inclined to engage in a little marketing of his own, and in so-doing will support the festival’s efforts (with the happy accident of helping ticket sales, to boot).

My point is this: Anyone who’s worked a festival knows that they are damn hard to run, and are often on the verge of collapse. BUT: Most filmmakers and attendees do not realize this. In order to – again – temper expectations and ensure a good experience for all, it is simply a question of a festival engaging in a little transparency in its affairs. Open books and open access (within reason, of course) can be positive for several reasons, most saliently in helping people know what to expect of you- what you are capable of providing as a festival. It also allows a community to help where they see problems or deficiencies.

Action point: Clarify and publish your budgets, be clear about shortcomings and explain how your community (including your filmmakers) can help fill them.

III. Educate:

With transparency in festival affairs and transparency about the reality of what to expect, festivals also have a responsibility to provide their filmmakers with information about alternative solutions for independent film. This can be done simply by shifting the focus away from old-industry panels towards realistic, functional and educational seminars centering both on the ‘art’ side of the filmmaking process and, of course, the business.

There are several areas that are drastically changing with the advent of new(ish) technologies: New fundraising stratagems (crowdsourced); New storytelling techniques (transmedia); New production processes (crowdsourced); New distribution strategies (online, VOD, etc); Open culture

Action Point: Taking a cue from The WorkBook Project’s DIY Days, create open access educational seminars around the new models in distribution and fundraising. Make the information available online.

IV. Develop access to new distribution models

In addition to educating filmmakers about new models for film production and distribution, festivals should also provide optional distribution solutions for its filmmakers in new media platforms, VOD and theatrical. These should allow filmmakers to exploit their rights piece-meal, monetize their films and gain new audiences, with the appui of the festival’s curatorial credibility behind them.

This is a hugely lengthy topic to go into, but for examples of festivals that are attempting to do this, take a look at a few examples: Slamdance’s deal with Xbox; Sundance’s deal with YouTube; Tribeca’s recent VOD deal

Action Point: Use your festival’s organization cachet to broker deals for your filmmakers, and offer those deals as optional systems to complement their distribution strategies.

V. Share resources and organize year-round community screenings

Imagine a scenario where the audience winner at Nashville FF is given a 15 city theatrical run through community screening programs run by Nashville FF partner fests.

In line with the previous point, festivals could increasingly work together to further four-wall film exhibition through year-round screenings, and by combining marketing and local resources with other festivals.

In turn, by leveraging partnerships with other arts organizations and venues worldwide, festivals can help their filmmakers reach wider audiences, and also provide them with a de facto theatrical release. Of course, the benefits of partnering reach beyond only helping filmmakers, as these sorts of partnerships can help spread a festival’s brand, vision, and curatorial voice- in turn allowing for higher levels of sponsorship or- better yet- more participants in its next crowdsourced fundraising campaign.

Action Point: Organize year-round screenings in your community. Make friends with your colleagues and organize film exchanges. Share resources and programming.

All these points, to me, demonstrate one overarching fact: In order for an independent arts community to thrive, it must take a conscious stand to stop trying to emulate a corporate business methodology of exclusion, competitiveness and opacity.

In copying a system that, really, has little to do with how we as independents actually work, festivals are unwittingly incorporating all the nasty little habits that are anathema to thriving collaboration and creativity: Status-based ranking systems for humans (‘VIP’ passes, for instance), one-way payment systems, the obsession with celebrity attendance, fearful and covetous business practices. In following this approach, of course, we effectively stop innovation and discourage the development of new collaborative systems altogether.

In servicing the arts, a festival services the arts community in all its forms – even those it sees as its competitors. One will never exist without the other.

Thought 4.

How to sustain without selling out: An exercise in ego management.

In the last several posts I’ve argued that film festivals should take a step away from the commercial approach and should adopt a community-centric view in their strategic direction.

Maslow's pyramid, as applied to film festivals

However, if we apply Maslow’s taxonomy of human needs to film festivals, it becomes quickly apparent that it’s all well and good for festivals to try to better serve their communities, but when they’re barely surviving, simple basic needs end up perforce taking precedence.

Most independent festivals function at the ‘safety’ level of the pyramid—trying to securely retain theatre space, staff, volunteers, film submissions… It’s hard for these hard-working people to discuss the philosophical approaches towards how they serve filmmakers (the top of the pyramid) in these tenuous circumstances.

Running & funding a film festival

Consider the bare mimimum needed to run a festival: Theatre rental; Projectors, seats & screens, if you use alternate spaces; Special decks (beta decks, for instance); Liability insurance; A budget for marketing (banners, festival programs, lanyards and passes, any further visibility needs), and a budget for the design thereof; A publicity and advertising budget to garner submissions and audiences; Transportation; Online operations (email, url, web design & maintenance, submissions tracking); Staffing (Fest director, programming director, submissions manager, volunteer manager, ticketing manager, print traffic manager & runners, sponsor liaison, filmmaker liaison, venues manager… etc.)

Festivals are, in short, pricey. Looking to fill these basic needs without going out of pocket, most festivals survive through four options for revenue sources: Public funding, ticket & merchandise sales, submission fees and sponsorships (private and corporate).

Unfortunately the United States happens to be a government that has piss-poor public funding for non-profit arts institutions, so the European model of public funding is, for the most part, out of reach for US based festivals.

Similarly, ticket and merchandise sales are helpful, but usually provide a tiny financial drop in the big bucket of need. If you take an average independent festival—7 days long with 3 screenings a day in a 100-seat house, selling tickets at an accessible $9 each- the festival stands to bring in $18,900 IF EVERY SCREENING IS SOLD OUT. More realistically, they can probably hope to bring in about half that.

Looking at submission fees- say a small independent festival gets 800 submissions in (it’s usually less for most festivals) and charges an average of $30 per submission, it stands to make an income of $24,000. Though distasteful to many, submission fees nonetheless become the bulk of the funding.

In this climate, then, it is not surprising that most festivals immediately turn to sponsorships, which have proven in some instances to be very helpful. However, this is an approach that is problematic on many levels, not the least because it turns festival directors into glorified salesmen. Further, still, corporate sponsorship is a double edged sword.

Both support and interference in the arts, corporate sponsorship, when done wrong, turns an inherently let’s-talk-about-art sort of experience into a hyped-up advertising vehicle, potentially void of substance. Also, in today’s world of ‘branded content’ and ‘online properties’, it DOES bears reminding: Corporate Sponsorship is cheesy. Nothing says independent film more than a miniskirt-clad alcohol-wielding would-be actress imploring you to try her company’s vodka. Right?

Though there are many examples of sponsorship deals that do not force the festival to scream “AUDI!!!” from the rooftops, it remains a fact – to me – that corporations should not be our answer to the Medici. One might correctly point out that ulterior motives existed from time immemorial (the Medici were really into self-image, after all- a sort of precursor to the obsession with branding and corporate image), but the ulterior motives of late are just too base. Neither lofty, nor profound, our experience of philosophy and thought evolves into an experience of commerce. ‘What do you think he meant by his reference to Nietzsche in that one piece of dialogue?’ turns into ‘Oh, shit! They’re giving free Nikes away down at the filmmaker lounge! Do you have the right pass to get in?’

So: How can festivals survive without selling their souls?

I believe the answer – the way to survive without selling our souls – is in a crowd-sourced / crowd-powered film festival – a no/low sponsor film festival that is small, community-driven, and community-funded. This is possible to achieve, and would additionally be a solid step towards empowering the festival’s audiences and participants through transparency and involvement.

This would require a few action steps:

- Think about what you want to accomplish with the festival—what you think you should provide to the arts community and how you can best provide it.
- Band together with local community groups as partners to share expenses or trade assets, band together with other festivals to create larger incentive and reach
- Create comprehensive, community-based micro-donation strategies to meet goals, as they arise.
- Maintain your relationships with your community through transparency, accessibility, invitations to curate/ host screenings/ participate in whatever way it sees fit.
- Embrace your role as a community-based organization by lowering the klieg lights, ditching the red carpet and toning down the ego.

    Festivals taking ownership of their small part of a bigger whole means that they allow themselves to expand more organically and buoyed by bigger better support systems. Not trying to be the next Tribeca implies a level of humility and restraint that many festival directors would probably rail against, but one must ask oneself, how does raising $500,000 for an exclusive red carpet premiere of the latest Big-Studio schlockfest really help independent film? Is the ‘visibility’ one gains from this type of event more helpful for the festival and its filmmakers, say, than that gained by having a series of smaller open screenings in venues that are invested in the success of the film they are showing?

    Festivals with high overhead are festivals that are forced to toe the line- spending the lion’s share of their time wooing and maintaining sponsors. Smaller festivals – I would argue – actually have it a lot better than they typically think. Yeah, they’re not raking in the dough, but their overhead is controllable, and they can focus on programming and their community.

    There’s this ‘marketing guru’ called Seth Godin who wrote: “Big used to matter. Big meant power and profit and growth. [...] Today, little companies often make more money than big companies. Little churches grow faster than worldwide ones. [...] Small is the new big because small gives you the flexibility to change the business model when your competition changes theirs. [...] A small church has a minister with the time to visit you in the hospital when you’re sick. [...] Small is the new big only when the person running the small thinks big.” (Seth Godin, ‘Small is The New Big’, Portfolio, 2006)

    How does this apply to us in the fest world? Simple: Provided that the festival director is OK with slow growth, small fests are in a position of power vis-à-vis the increasingly irrelevant behemoths. Enjoy!

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    Posted in audience festival promotion

    Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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    By Saskia Wilson-Brown, April 14th, 2010

    How small festivals can be the future of meatspace film distribution

    In the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and listen to a lot of conversations about the shifting role of film festivals, particularly as those shifts apply to mid to high level independent festivals. There are a number of conflicting opinions on the role of film festivals – from ‘they’re useless and will die’ to ‘they are the future of theatrical’. In truth, all theorizing aside, nobody knows the role film festivals will take over the course of the next few years because nobody know how time-based media will evolve. I do, nonetheless, believe that they can retain their relevance… if they adapt.

    What follows here are several thoughts that came to me about the functionality of film festivals, in four parts and in no particular discursive order.

    Thought 1.

    For small festivals, the ‘shifting’ purpose of film festivals is actually not shifting at all.

    People seem to concur that the primary purpose of film festivals is (was?) akin to that of an art gallery: To sell art.

    Festivals have long acted as the gatekeepers to commercial distribution. As such, the ideal and well-trodden path for an independent filmmaker was a simple one: Make a film; get into a good fest; get the film acquired for distribution. Done.

    This was an apt trajectory when dealing with a festival like Sundance, one of several festivals which were indeed the most functional gateways through which films could join ‘the system’. For the smaller festivals catering to independent or local film (and for the indie filmmakers whose work was typically programmed there), however, this was never a relevant model. The reason for that is simple: Distributors tended not to attend those festivals.

    This ‘festival-as-marketplace’ raison d’etre , then, has only ever been a functional purpose for the bigger festivals. Further to that, this is sort of inherently understood by the film community: Not many filmmakers ever submitted their film, for instance, to the Tulsa Overground Film Festival, Nevada City Film Festival or Cucalorus with the intention of selling to HBO.

    The obvious deduction? We’re assigning and bemoaning a dwindling commercial purpose to small festivals retro-actively in light of a perceived dearth of distribution deals – a dearth which, again, is only really relevant to festivals that were the hosting space for sales in the first place, and entirely irrelevant to the continued purpose of the small festivals who saw no such activity in their lounges and meeting rooms. Most annoyingly perhaps, small festivals gamely play along, trotting out their one or two success stories as bait for a system that never functioned for them or their filmmakers in the first place.

    With the advent of digital media and the burgeoning (but hopeful) success stories around online/DIY distribution strategies, the purpose of the festival as a sales agent becomes even more obviously questionable.
    We’ll look at that in the next post, but for now, I leave you with a recent tweet from Ted Hope: David Brown’s Secret To His Success: “I never lived beyond my means, & therefore, I never had to be a slave to Hollywood.”

    Thought 2.

    Money-making should not a successful small festival make. Culture-defining should.

    In my time running the Silver Lake Film Festival in Los Angeles (alongside my partners Greg Ptacek and Kate Marciniak), we rarely hosted any distributors at the screenings. Those that did attend never cut a deal with any of the festival’s filmmakers.

    I’m pretty sure that the Cucalorus Film Fest in North Carolina has never immediately helped filmmakers pay off their credit card debts, either.

    In these two instances, the festival hosts no commerce: No one involved is making any money to speak of. Are these festivals, then, to be seen as failures?

    The answer, of course, lies in how one defines the purpose of a cultural event. I believe that if we put aside commercial functionalities for a minute, we see that though the utility (and success) of smaller festivals becomes inherently value-based, it is nonetheless inherently of value.

    Here are some points, then, on the value and purpose of film festivals, above and beyond commerce:

    • To curate, provide imprimatur and thus help shape culture;
    • To create access to independent voices and new stories within specific, underserved geographic communities;
    • To educate filmmakers;
    • To grow independent film communities and foster creative collaboration;
    • To help create de facto four-wall releases for filmmakers through festival-run programs and partnerships above and beyond the event itself;
    • To assist with DIY distribution by offering access to distribution tools through festival-run partnerships with emerging content platforms

    These last two functionalities are becoming more important as filmmakers and festivals realize that- scary as it may be- the ‘old’ system is falling apart. It thus becomes incumbent upon a festival to help build up a new system through an increased focus on helping filmmakers sustain and exhibit their work. This can be achieved by brokering and supporting digital distribution deals for filmmakers, or simply by providing education in self-distribution. Further still, festivals can create four-wall programs and partnerships that allow greater visibility for the participating films beyond the festival itself (a traveling screening series, for instance).

    Acknowledging an alienation from the mainstream film industry has big repercussions for festivals and filmmakers alike. Silver Lake Film Festival, for instance, with all its focus on working outside the system was unable to harness the sponsorships that festivals so drastically need for survival, and died a fiery financial death in 2007 (the results of which I am feeling to this day).

    With that said… it still felt successful. It spoke to several of the points I believe to the inherent in a fruitful arts organization- points that have nothing at all to do with (immediate) economic exchange. The organization focused- largely- on what we thought should be its primary goals: Empowering a community and its artists through coherent promotion; leveraging the festival name to garner publicity and opportunity for its participants; facilitating radness in general– Art for art’s sake, as it were. The efforts of the core team, then, were mostly spent on promoting and advocating for micro-communities through programming decisions, and fostering creativity and creative collaboration in our neighborhood and beyond. Mainly, though, Silver Lake FF focused on curating a very cool and forward-thinking festival (under the benevolent expertise of programming director Roger Mayer, as well as a plethora of guest curators), the results of which are still bearing fruit in the continued existence of some of its former programs and ongoing collaboration.

    So do these artsy, community-driven, low-budget, no-commerce festivals like the still-thriving Cucalorus, Nevada City, or even Slamdance still have value? My conclusion would be that yes, they do. These festivals’ value (and purpose) lies in providing an imprimatur – an edge – for its filmmakers, and a strong platform for community-empowerment. This value, for a filmmaker, supercedes the worth of some horrid exploitative distribution deal, and lasts longer. At the end of the day, sometimes being part of something amazing and cultural is worth more than being paid a grand to have your documentary air once or twice on TV.

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    Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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    By Jenny Abel, March 30th, 2010

    Whenever I sit down to write a post, I always freeze. I transform from ‘loudmouthed truck driver’ to Cindy Brady the instant that record light turns on. Some of you may be wondering where the hell I’ve been for the last year. The answer is (usually delivered monotone), “Working on Abel Raises Cain.” And in return, the incredulous response from family and friends is always, “What? Still?”

    Yes, it’s true. It turns out that the finish line is nonexistent, the definition of success is completely nebulous, relative and random. At what point do you stop? Never. Once you make a film, you’re chained to it for life. While the preceding sounds grim, I’m actually enjoying the journey, although I’m tired as hell. The high points have overshadowed all of the ‘no’ men, naysayers and other assorted sour grapes who tried to thwart me along the way. Their feeble attempts to rain on my parade only made me stronger and more persistent.

    While I may cry myself to sleep at night over our declining DVD sales and pray that all of the nice people out there who have watched torrents or free streams of our film (our anonymous ‘fans’) will one day send us even just a few pennies, I remain optimistic that our small little movie that has taken on a life of its own will indeed survive another decade.

    I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that it’s impossible to track all of our ‘fans.’ (BTW, my parents ask for everyone who has seen the movie and laughed out loud at least once to send them a dollar in the mail.) The current issue getting everyone riled up is CreateSpace’s recently revised policy to no longer share buyer data with its clients, claiming that information sharing is a breach of consumers’ privacy.

    I handle our own DVD fulfillment, so I develop a ‘personal’ relationship with all of our direct sales customers. Amazon is a different story. I supply the stock to them (through my Advantage account), so at least I know how many units are moving, but the buyers remain faceless and nameless. On one hand, I feel good about being partially involved in the process. But it’s like a one-night stand after a drunken night on the town. No phone number and you never see that person again. Not that I would know, of course.

    Right now, we’re totally reliant on word-of-mouth in terms of people stumbling upon our film. We never had a budget for Publicity and Advertising. Our DIY journey has been an ever-morphing experiment with a million different variables at play. I continue to figure things out as I go. I struggle to embrace even just a few of the incredible tools at our collective disposal, some of which Lance Weiler talks about in a recent Culture Hacker article. The dizzying array of possible directions any one filmmaker can take in order to reach his or her audience is mind-blowing.

    One of the last frontiers that I’ve been obsessing over, wondering how in the hell we’re going to crack this ‘old world’ nut, is the esteemed educational market. To my question posed prior to the Filmmaker Summit, Is it possible for filmmakers to independently tackle educational sales and succeed, the answer is a resounding YES! I’ve recently been shown the light and have begun to embark on this journey with the help of another filmmaker, Ashley Sabin of Carnivalesque Films. Please stay tuned as I report back on our progress…I don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s looking like I may not need to raid our penny jar for groceries this month.

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    Jenny Abel graduated from Emerson College with a degree in video and television production. Moving to LA shortly thereafter, she coordinated overseas productions for Nu Image and Millennium Films and helped the company produce twenty-six pictures over the course of several years. Saying goodbye to the 'glamor' of Hollywood, Jenny soon shifted her focus toward the completion of her first independent feature documentary project, ABEL RAISES CAIN.

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