This past weekend at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival, a few dozen people enjoyed a vigorous panel discussion, moderated by Anne Thompson (of Thompson on Hollywood and the recent The $11 Billion Year), on the future of film distribution. What follows is a live tweet summary of the conversation that took place on June 8 at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle, Washington.
Though the new distribution landscape, especially for independent filmmakers, is constantly evolving, this discussion offers a candid snapshot of this particular moment in time when we're all still in the position of making many decisions with imperfect (or incomplete) information.
A few things that stuck with me as key takeaways from the panel were the following:
1) "It's a crowded, risky marketplace for independent filmmakers." This has certainly been the case since the dawn of the VHS-era, when new media technologies allow for increased participation from "non-vetted" content creators (e.g. independent filmmakers), but, now, thanks to social media, we have new ways to connect directly and immediately with our respective audiences, which is something that our pioneering counterparts did not. This glut of new content also forces us to push the boundaries of what is possible in independent film in order to stand out from the crowd.
Bottom line: it's time to take creative risks and make an effort to build an audience that's excited about watching you take each successive creative leap.
2) "We need more transparency (and case studies) around new methods of digital, online distribution." With as much information as you could care to know about last weekend's box office, we currently have a dearth of good data when it comes to VOD, streaming, and online distribution platforms. Perhaps one could make the argument that a privately held company is not required to disclose such information, which is technically accurate, but, in so doing, you also limit the ability for indie filmmakers to make sound, data-driven decisions when it comes to the distribution strategies for their films. Without an increased level of transparency, indie filmmakers (and producers) must make educated guesses instead of informed decisions.
Bottom line: It's time to make online "box office" data available in a way that doesn't harm the reputation of the distributor, but still provides actionable data for current and future filmmakers.
3) "With the opportunities currently offered by the convergence of digital distribution, social media audience engagement, and crowdfunding platforms, how does an independent filmmaker build a sustainable career?"
This seemed to be the question that hung in the air throughout the entire conversation. A few panelists confirmed that a good review (or a few of them) no longer offers the lift at the box office that you could once count on...and the costs of traditional marketing are increasing at a rate that prices many but the most deep-pocketed out of the game. As dour as many of the predictions were, though, there was still a sense that, with the right plan and enough information, a filmmaker could get her work out to an audience, and even make a few dollars while she's at it. The amount made, though, is where much of the uncertainty lies, and, most likely, will continue to be the elephant in the room until we collectively navigate our way through these new digital frameworks together.
Bottom line: As William Goldman once said about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything." In this case, though, we all know a little bit more than we used to, but it's still going to take a collective effort to figure out where we go next.
Speaking of which, if you have ideas, comments, or links to case studies or relevant articles, please share them below in the comments.