Saturday, June 28, 2008

NewFest, Cinetic, and the Future of Media

I haven't been to New York in ten years, and I'd forgotten all the dos and dont's:
-When telling a taxi driver an address, you DO say the street first, then the crossing avenue. “I'm going to fourth and second.” DO NOT mix it up or you'll end up in the wrong place, and then you'll probably be killed for your shoes.
-DO NOT ever say about someone's apartment: “Wow, this place is small!” (also DO NOT say “you pay that much for this?”)
-DO NOT look at a subway map while on the street, but
-DO look at the subway map while on the subway. Even locals do. And
-DO look disoriented when walking out of the subway. Even locals do. But
-DO NOT look up at the tall buildings when coming out of the subway, or any other time. Finally,
-DO complain about the heat and humidity. (This is my favorite DO.)

I was in New York for NewFest, the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the first screening of The Lost Coast since SXSW in March. NewFest's films screen in a multiplex, the AMC on 34th street: during the festival there were so many gays milling about the theater lobby that I thought I had stepped into L'Occitane's flagship store.

The screening went well, though we didn't have a very full house.

I like to take pictures of the audience before the film

Afterwards we went over to a festival party and enjoyed the free vodka (it's always vodka; why vodka? These parties never have free whiskey, dammit.) There I met with Matt Dentler to talk about:

Our Recent Deal for Cinetic Rights Management to Represent The Lost Coast

Matt Dentler is the new King of All Media

I've been talking to a lot of filmmakers about this deal. It's a confusing step into the future of indie film, and no one really knows how the chips are going to fall, but I'm excited about it. To me it represents the final (or near final) break from the financial/artistic restraints of the traditional filmmaking model, and in my grandest dreams I can see a future of surviving financially from making little “art” movies using this new model. To understand what Cinetic is doing, it helps to take a bit of a global view of recent changes in cinema.

The course of cheapening filmmaking technology, known collectively as the digital video “revolution,” began in 1995 with the introduction of DV, continued into post-production with Final Cut Pro in 1999, improved with pro-sumer HD video in 2004, and is littered with many little but important cheapening steps along the way (DVD burners, 24P mode, ProTools, AfterEffects, Color, etc.). These technologies bring pre-production, production, and post-production within economic reach of your average middle-class idiot. The promise, however, of the truly cheap idiot movie has yet to be fulfilled. There are two remaining expensive links in the moviemaking chain: distribution and promotion.

We stand now on the brink of breaking one of those links, my fellow idiot: distribution.

Cinetic Media is a leading New York film sales agency, and they've started a new division called Cinetic Rights Management (CRM) to boldly dive into the future of indie film distribution. Cinetic poached Matt Dentler, former director of SXSW, to help run the new division, and create a new model for indie film distribution.

The old model goes something like this: Filmmaker makes film, Filmmaker hires sales agent to negotiate sale of film to distributors, distributors (from different international regions) license exclusive rights of film for respective region, distributor puts ads in papers, makes prints and DVDs, sends prints and DVDs to retailers (theaters and videostores), then viewers go to the theater or rent a DVD. (Oh, and then this happens: distributors cross-amortize their costs, distributors throw parties for themselves, distributors hire fancy accountants who reduce or eliminate profit (for tax purposes), and distributors end up paying almost nothing to the filmmaker. Many small indie films never see any money at all from traditional distribution.)

So now we have this fancy new internet thing. The way people consume media is changing. Theatrical audiences for indie films are dwindling (indie theatrical releases are now merely a promotional device for the DVD market). But uh-oh! DVD rental is declining! Then here comes iTunes starting an online video rental service. Netflix does the same thing. Apple creates AppleTV, letting you watch downloaded movies on your television. Netflix releases their Roku box performing the same function.

Broadband internet is now found in more than half of American households. The base of consumers downloading their movies and television is increasing exponentially. In a year or so you (yes, even you, my middle-class luddite idiot friend) will be watching your movies and television in your living room via a downloaded source.

(From personal experience, I've been downloading virtually all of my tv shows and movies for over a year, and I have no desire to go back to cable tv and the video store. I don't have to drive anywhere, I never see commercials anymore (alleluia), and I watch better stuff. Case closed. It's like getting a microwave. When you do, you can't remember what it was like to live without it.)

That's the new dynamic. Wow! Everything's different! you say. The question arises, then: what's even the purpose of an indie film distributor in this new system? I can just put my movie on iTunes! Well, it turns out distributors perform functions besides physical distribution: selection and promotion.

That's where CRM steps in. They select films, and promote them (among other things of course: dealing with all of the specifics and bullshit of each individual market, packaging, all the stuff that filmmakers don't want to deal with). CRM is not quite a distributor, not just a sales agent, but connects the final link between film and audience.

It sounds a bit like I'm shilling for CRM. Really I'm shilling for the concept, the new model that they're advancing. It's a vision that took me a little while to understand, but now it seems obvious.

The results of this system remain to be seen. There are still obstacles to overcome. Even after most consumers are downloading all of their TV shows and movies off the internet and watching them on the tv in their living room, we still have a few steps to go before the system really works. How do you cheaply connect with the people who would want to see your movie?

With The Lost Coast, I just know that there are a lot of people who would really want to see it, people who would gladly pay for it, if they only knew about it. The challenge is to reach them in a way that doesn't cost fifteen million dollars, or even fifteen thousand. There are technological strides being made in that direction. In a way, the entire internet industry is working on that very issue: advertising and connecting targeted products with targeted audiences. Google has made their billions from this challenge. (Thanks Google. Thanks for running for free; I will gladly look at those little ads on the side of my search results as payment). I have high hopes that a cheap film/television advertising system will present itself.

One thought along those lines: as it turns out, we already have this vast, elaborate selection and promotion process: film festivals. If film festivals were to make it possible to view films from their program, link from their website to the film available on iTunes, whatever, you'd watch, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you go through the Sundance films from the program every year, watch the trailers, see if there's any that looks good to you, and rent them for five bucks? I would. (I would not, and do not, however, remember those same films two years later when they are available in an obscure corner of my video store.)

As a final note to this long-winded and soapbox-ish entry, I want to say something about art. (Okay, I can hear you groaning). The technological changes to filmmaking are not just technological. They will have a profound impact on the art of cinema itself, in ways that we are only starting to see.

One can draw a comparison to the music industry, which is going through the same transformation, except that they are about five years ahead of the film world. While the traditional music industry is in trouble, there has been an amazing explosion of tiny indie bands reaching small but global audiences. (Ever heard of the sub-genre “drone-doom”? Well, apparently enough people have for it to exist at all, and for these bands to be reaching their audiences). These days we have an amazingly rich independent music environment. The hope is that this same flowering will occur with cinema. Who knows, maybe it already is; we just can't find it and download it yet.

1 comment:

Prince Gomolvilas said...

Fleming, everything I taught you about Cinetic Rights Management and new models for indie film distribution was proprietary information that was not meant to be stolen by you and passed off as your own thoughts. You don't have your own thoughts. I teach you everything. Please admit it publicly. Thank you.