Will Hollywood learn from The Fault in Our Stars?

In June of 2012 I wrote Another Crack in the Mass Media Wall, a post that detailed how Lionsgate effectively used social media for the first time to get a huge opening weekend for The Hunger Games.

It is worth noting that two years later Hollywood decided to follow up on its own innovation with the release of The Fault in Our Stars.

As described in How “The Fault in Our Stars” Movie became a Social Media Supernova, Fox effectively reached its audience with a well planned social media campaign before the movie opened.

“Other movies have done [social media outreach] in places,” George Dewey, Fox’s senior vice-president for domestic digital marketing, tells Yahoo Movies. “We’re doing it across the board. I think the combination of the passion that pre-existed the movie with the decision to involve fans every single step of the way is why you see so much conversation about The Fault in Our Stars now.”

Dewey goes on to comment.

“In general, treating fans as part of the campaign as opposed to the audience for the campaign is the future of how movies will market.”

This view expressed by Dewey is still a minority one within the Hollywood marketing and distribution machine.  Most in Hollywood still believe that the audience is simply there to receive the campaign—not be part of it. This dominant point of view clings to the old mass media model of “we create, you simply consume”, where all control rests with the media company and gives no control or “emotional ownership” to the audience.  But we live in a new connected world. 

This past weekend showed that the marketing strategy employed by Fox and Mr. Dewey was “spot on”. 

The studio projected that the movie would hit $29 million at the North American box office.

But something bigger happened. As detailed in the New York Times,

The Fault in Our Stars took in a spectacular $48.2 million at North American theaters between Thursday night and Sunday, and it did so with nary a billboard in sight and no weeks long television ad barrage. In fact, 20th Century Fox spent less than $30 million on marketing, or half of what studios typically spend to introduce a summer film.”

It is important to mention that the movie was made for $12 million—paltry by Hollywood standards.

So Fox effectively cut their marketing spend in half  (thus saving $30 million), by not buying many ads (on that old fashioned one way mass media channel called TV) and instead reached out to fans directly on the Tumblrs, Pinterests, Facebooks and Twitters of the world (all built on that new fangled two way network called the Internet.)

They went directly to potential fans, invited them in and created an ongoing conversation.  They allowed them to converse with the “movie” and converse with each other about the movie.

And note that @realjohngreen, the book’s author and a social media force in his own right, was a big part of this conversation.

Will Hollywood bosses ignore the lessons from this success?  Will they insist that this is just a “one off” that cannot be repeated?   Will Mr. Dewey be praised for his work but also be told that this is really not the future of how movie marketing will work?

Very likely, if history is any guide.

Most industries would be thrilled to find a model that creates their product for less money, gets it into the market it at a reduced cost and still attracts a large number of consumers.  Most industries would work hard to see how they might replicate this model for future products.

They would have R&D units within their companies whose only purpose is to figure out the new connected world we live in.  They would experiment and innovate.

But this is the movie business we are talking about. Change is slow and not actively pursued. Instead of two years between innovations, it should be two months, two weeks or two days.

Can Hollywood learn a new trick that it can repeat, improve and execute consistently over time?

It should. After all, the new world is staring them in the face.  On at least two occasions it has also contributed massively to Hollywood’s bottom line.

But maybe it is just an old dog. 

And learning new tricks is just not its thing.

Update, June 23: A excellent piece today by Kathleen Toohill of Full Screen gives further detail on the social media campaign waged by Fox and John Green. Here it is: Getting Gen C to the Box Office [Infographic]. Read it!

Posted in Distribution, Hollywood, Innovation, Internet, Marketing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Comcast Tax and Broadband Shell Game

Cable companies operate two distinct lines of business.

Traditionally they bundle and resell linear TV networks.  The cable company feeds these networks into our homes and provides the interface that lists the content for our selection.  The cable company pays each network a fee for each subscriber.  The consumer pays a monthly fee to the cable company.

The cable companies also provide high speed Internet access, known as broadband.  With this service, they do not pay any content providers for their channels nor do they provide a guide to the content that flows through the pipes.  They move the bits requested by the consumer as well as those bits she sends back out to the Internet.  And the consumer pays a monthly fee to the cable company.

One service allows you to navigate and view a predetermined, pre purchased bundle of linear channels. The other service gives you a pipe and access to an infinite array of content.

In its traditional business the cable company is the ultimate gatekeeper. It determines what you can see and what you will pay. 

With broadband, the gatekeeper role disappears.  Cable companies do not determine what you will watch nor do they charge you based on the content you watch.  

Some cable companies would like to change this.

Cable companies feel much more comfortable seeing the world through the lens of their traditional business.  They are working to reshape their broadband business so it looks more and more like their traditional business—a closed system, where they act as a gatekeeper and extract rent at every turn. 

See, for example, the comments made by Brian Roberts, the head of Comcast, at the recent Re/code conference.  As reported on GigaOm,

 “In a series of analogies, Roberts likened his company’s role to that of a postmaster, pointing out that Netflix pays hundreds of millions of dollars to mail DVDs to its customers but now expects to be able to deliver the same content over the Internet for free.”

His analogy is wrong.  Netflix does not want to distribute its bits for free.  He obfuscates the truth about how bits are paid for and how bits travel across the Internet.  He sows confusion while claiming to be clear.  Watch carefully as the shell gets moved.

Netflix pays money (a lot) to third parties in order to transport its bits over the Internet. (Just as it pays the postal service for DVD transport.) These bits are delivered via the Internet directly to the cable companies and other ISPs known as the last mile providers.  They in turn deliver the bits to their subscribers.

Mr. Roberts neglects to mention that broadband subscribers (you and I) pay up front for access to these bits. (Remember that monthly fee!)

Comcast is not satisfied with what we pay for broadband. It would like a little more.

As Mike Masnik puts it,

“What Roberts really wants to do is to get Netflix to pay a second time for Comcast’s customers’ bandwidth, even though they’re already paying for it.”

I believe this is called double dipping.

Mr. Roberts can double dip if he so chooses—but he should call it what it is.

Guess what happens when extra rent is extracted?

The end user pays extra.

Perhaps we should call it the Comcast tax.

UPDATE: John Oliver just did a brilliant and funny piece on his HBO show about net neutrality—it is a must see—here it is. (thanks to Sheri Candler)

Posted in Broadband, Cable, Distribution, Internet | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie Piracy: Surprising Tips from a Hollywood Insider

My recent post, The Movie Studios: Blinded by Piracy, generated many public and private comments.  One very smart one came in an email from a highly placed executive within the movie and television business. He has allowed me to quote him as long as I do not reveal his identity.

He writes,

 “Unlike the vast majority of my colleagues, I believe that the anti-piracy crusade (irrespective of where you stand on the issue morally) is practically futile and akin to “the war on drugs” or stopping people from speeding.  Earlier in my career, like most lawyers brought up in pre-21st century media, I was all gung-ho about enforcement and the sanctity of private property.  Although I still believe that respect for intellectual property laws is foundational for our industry, I am also a pragmatist, and I have come to believe that our biggest problem is ourselves, not the pirates.”

“It is the lack of creative marketing, pricing and windowing schemes that service and entice the customer that give the mainstream entertainment industry its biggest problem.  This is a social phenomenon, not a legal one, and, therefore, needs social solutions.” 

 This is a point that needs to be repeated and restated over and over. 

 Hollywood is radically out of sync with its customers, who now live in a hyper connected world.  These are the people who love movies and TV programs. They want to watch them on every screen they own.

It is Hollywood’s refusal to change its business model and learn how to entice its customers that is the problem.  Not piracy.

A purely legal point of view on piracy prevents Hollywood from finding a solution that brings in these customers.  Another frame is needed.

This Hollywood executive proposes one.

 “I analogize to other social issues such as traffic law violations where researchers have discovered that the answer isn’t changing the law, stricter enforcement or better education but actually better design of roads, intersections, stoplights and street signs to entice people to actually drive more safely. 

 The decision to use pirated content is not made in a vacuum.  It is a complex social transaction like any other in which the user takes into account his or her options and the costs and benefits of each. 

If the industry offered more people more convenience and better pricing and availability schemes, they would not turn as often to illegal content (which is not always easy to find and not always “free” – viruses, hassle, time, bad quality, etc.).  No solution is perfect – a certain percentage will always “cheat” or game the system (just as retail understands that there will always be a certain base level of shoplifting), but such an approach would pave the way for new markets and innovation.

The single-minded focus to hold onto today’s market share and today’s pricing schemes is folly that will eventually lead to long term loss.”

 Hollywood believes that its obsession with piracy is good for business.

 In fact it is really bad for business.

 As this insider states so eloquently,

 “I have come to believe that our biggest problem is ourselves, not the pirates.”

Imagine how different Hollywood could be if a major studio head possessed the insight (even courage) to utter such a line.

Hollywood should heed the advice of one of its own insiders as it wrestles with its future.  Perhaps then it can “pave the way for new markets and innovation”.

But will it choose to?


Posted in Hollywood, Innovation | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Movie Studios: Blinded by Piracy

When a bull enters the ring, the matador pulls out a red cape and waves it in front of his eyes.  Predictably the bull goes mad and charges toward the cape.  He leaves all his better instincts behind. 

We all know how the bullfight ends. Not well for the bull.

Replace “bull” with “major movie studios” and replace “red cape” with “piracy” and you have in a nutshell the bind within which the movie studios have placed themselves.

All they can see is the red cape. 

When they need an explanation for any of their myriad woes—bring on the red cape. When they try to think about the opportunities that the Internet might bring them—bring on the red cape.  This obsession with the red cape blinds them to anything new, anything innovative, any thing that might help them invigorate their business.

The red cape was on display recently on the Cannes Panel: Studios Fight Piracy While Indies Embrace Digital Future, reported on by Anne Thompson. The panel featured a lot of back and forth between Ruth Vitale, the executive director of CreativeFuture and Tim League of Alamo Drafthouse about distribution and piracy. One exchange is particularly illuminating.

Vitale, warming to her subject, said that people who download illegally are putting money in the pockets of criminals, the Russian mafia, and felons… That money “could have gone back into making more movies and TV shows,” she said. “They’re in drugs, child prostitution.”

Like I said, the red cape really causes the bull to get a little irrational. Vitale would have us believe that anyone who illegally downloads a movie is funding the drug and child sex trade. Really?

She then goes on to say that filmmakers should stay away from VHX or Vimeo because they do not use DRM that is approved by the studios. 

I guess Joss Whedon and Kevin Spacey did not get the memo.  They are releasing movies that they own on those platforms today.

Fortunately Tim League was on the panel to help calm down the rhetoric and focus on reality.  As Thompson writes:

 League thinks the solution is to “make the experience of going to the movies compelling,” he said, “to engage with young people and get them excited about foreign language films. I admire edgy engaging films and market them to young people, which puts us in the digital space. We worked with BitTorrent to promote ‘The Act of Killing,’ which has new sophisticated product bundles next month with DV extras as a package with a link to where to download the movie in a legal fashion with a credit card. We have email addresses. We’re not sure if we’re promoting to people to pirate it. Sometimes if our films show up on Bittorrent we high five because it means it cares!”

League and Vitale represent two paths within the film industry.

Vitale articulates the studio position.  She believes that piracy is the defining issue of the Internet.  It is the red flag that shapes every approach the studios take towards the Internet and blinds them to any other approach. They believe that they must convince young people to see the error of their ways and swear off piracy.

I say, “good luck with that”.

League represents another approach.  Find out where your audience is and engage with them on their own terms.  Don’t ask them to change—“make the experience of going to movies compelling.”

If this requires the movie studios to change their business model—change it. If this requires the movie studios to engage directly with their customers—engage directly.  If this requires the movie studios to get on BitTorrent-because that is where millions of film fans live—get on.

Vitale heads up an organization that has the name Future in its title.   Yet, it is focused on the past.

League heads up an organization whose name refers to an event deep in the history of the United States.  Yet, it is aimed at the future.

The red cape blinds the bull. The red cape of piracy blinds the movie studios. 

We all know how the bullfight ends.

Posted in Distribution, Hollywood, Independent Film, Innovation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Indie Film needs an Open Internet

Recently I watched the new movie IN YOUR EYES on my large screen TV in HD.  I paid $5 to rent it from Vimeo and stream it on my Apple TV.  The movie was very good and the experience was seamless.

The idea that you can rent a movie on the Internet and watch it on your TV is still a very new one, especially on a mass scale.  How long have we been doing this? A year? 5 years, tops?

And it is remarkable for those filmmakers who create and sell their movies online using platforms like Vimeo.  In the past, to sell a film to any audience, they had to rely on a series of gatekeepers.  Now they can sell direct-which means they keep a larger part of the revenue.

When I pay $5 to Vimeo, 90% or $4.50 goes back to the filmmaking team responsible for the film.  Traditional gatekeepers take from 30% to 70% of the revenue and hold onto all the information about the customer.

Here is the promise of the Internet.  It reduces the friction and cost within the artistic economy. 

The customer gets direct access to the content easily at a reasonable price.  The creative artist gets to the consumer easily and keeps the lion’s share of the money paid for his/her work.   Both sides win; one through reduced prices and the other, through higher revenue.

Yet all of this is now at risk.

In the coming months the FCC is going to decide where they really stand on the issue of net neutrality.

What is net neutrality? Let’s quote from Wikipedia.

Net neutrality (also network neutrality or Internet neutrality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.”

If the FCC decides that paid “fast lanes” can be created on the Internet, net neutrality will cease to exist.   Data will not be treated equally. ISP’s will be able to charge whatever they want, without restriction. Discrimination will rule.

When you create a fast lane for web services that can pay more dollars to get their content delivered faster, web based services that don’t (or can’t) pay will watch their services degrade. 

This means that the great experience I had renting and watching IN YOUR EYES would be threatened.  It means that it might be a bad one-not a great one. And why would I rent another independent movie directly from the filmmaker when the experience is so bad?

And this is why net neutrality rules that protect the open Internet are vitally important to any filmmaker.

The Internet will be the major engine of growth for independent film over the next decade and beyond. It will become the main way that most filmmakers will reach their audience and get paid for their work.

This is why all the organizations that support independent filmmakers should support net neutrality.

These film organizations should signal their support by joining together and speaking with one voice about the need for an open Internet.  They should recommend that the FCC stand up for the principles of real net neutrality.

Let’s start the list: Film Independent, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Independent Feature Project , Los Angeles Film Festival, Sundance, San Francisco Film Society, South by South West and the Tribeca Film Festival.

Who else should we add? I am sure I am missing someone important.

And what leader from among these organizations will pull them all together?

Posted in Distribution, Independent Film, Innovation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

How Cable TV Invented Crowd Funding

We assume that crowd funding first appeared when Kickstarter launched five years ago.

We may be wrong.

You see, the cable television business invented crowd funding a long time ago, when they created the basic cable bundle.

The basic cable bundle is really a work of genius. 

Charge every cable subscriber for each channel that comes with the basic cable bundle even if they never watch it.

So the crowd funds all the channels in basic cable.  We all get to participate.  Think of it as democracy—without the right to vote.

And the genius of the bundle does not stop there.  The subscriber has no idea what they pay for each channel because they are sold on the notion that they get such a great deal with the basic package it does not matter. 

The implied logic is as follows: if each channel was not in the bundle—some channel you really love would be much too expensive and beyond your reach. At least that is the sales pitch.

So the crowd funds the basic cable bundle but has no idea how its money is spent. 

Think of it as “blind” crowd funding.

This plays out in a fascinating way with sports on cable.

It is widely assumed by cable analysts that 50% of your basic cable bill goes to sports related programming, ranging from ESPN to live games from the NBA, NFL, MLB, etc.

Assume your basic cable bill is $60 per month.  Therefore $30 per month goes to support sports programming—whether you watch sports or not.  So that is $360 per year that you spend on sports.

There are approximately 100 million basic cable subscribers in the United States. A pretty large crowd, when you think about it. 

$360 per year x 100 million subscribers equals 36 billion dollars.  Clearly crowd funding can yield large numbers.

So the basic cable TV “crowd” funnels 36 billion dollars per year into the sports industry. This gets passed through a variety of intermediaries, including (but not limited to) ESPN, the broadcast networks and regional sports networks. This flows through these intermediaries to the sports leagues, individual teams and the players.

This is a beautiful thing for everyone involved.

Except, perhaps for the individual cable subscriber who does not watch any sports.

And they turn out to be a very large part of the crowd.

It is estimated that only 20% of those people who subscribe to basic cable actually watch sports on a regular basis. 

This means that 80% of the cable subscribers in the United States pay $360 per year for programs they do not view. 

Put it another way- US consumers currently spend  $28.8 billion per year on a product they do not use.

No wonder the cable and sports industries love this style of crowd funding.  That is a lot of extra cash.

The logic of the basic cable bundle means that ESPN makes money off the people who are not its customers.  This is also true for each sports league as well as each player. 

I would love to have this crowd funding mechanism for my business.  

Where do I sign up?

It is a recipe for getting rich—which is what sports television, the sports leagues and sports stars have done as a result.  The crowd gives its money through the basic cable subscription and it races up through the funnel to all of them. 

When you read that ESPN is making billions, that Donald Sterling’s Clippers are worth a billion dollars and hear about the latest NBA star signing a multimillion dollar contract—remember this—your $360 per year makes all of this possible—whether or not you watch a single game.  

I would like to thank you on behalf of everyone involved. Know that you an essential partner in this effort and that your contribution is deeply appreciated.

Cable TV perfected crowd funding long before Kickstarter was an idea and sports won big.  And we, the crowd, did not even see it happen.

We should give them some credit for being so sneaky, smart and ahead of the curve, don’t you think?

Posted in Cable, Distribution, Innovation, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Pay by the Size of the Screen? Not Likely

This was recently reported by Variety.

“DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg thinks the windowing model of feature films will become a “pay by the inch you watch.” During the Entrepreneurial Leadership in the Corporate World panel at the Milken Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Katzenberg explained what he thinks is the future of scheduling and distributing feature films.

“I think the model will change and you won’t pay for the window of availability. A movie will come out and you will have 17 days, that’s exactly three weekends, which is 95% of the revenue for 98% of movies. On the 18th day, these movies will be available everywhere ubiquitously and you will pay for the size. A movie screen will be $15. A 75” TV will be $4.00. A smartphone will be $1.99. That enterprise that will exist throughout the world, when that happens, and it will happen, it will reinvent the enterprise of movies,” he told the crowd.”

Katzenberg is right that the current windowing release model will collapse and movies will be available everywhere ubiquitously either concurrently with a movie’s theatrical release or very soon thereafter. That has already started to happen with independent releases.

He is wrong that people will pay more based on the size of the digital screen.

Mr. Katzenberg needs to understand his own customers.

If you are a subscriber to Netflix you can watch on any screen of any size for the same monthly price.  There is no additional charge to see Netflix on your TV. 

It is more expensive to see a movie in a theater because of the real estate costs associated with owning and maintaining a large physical property.  We also get to experience the movie on a very large screen.  As filmgoers we understand this.

The world of digital is completely different. Here, the costs are much lower and will continue to decline.  A movie studio can deliver me a movie over the Internet more cheaply today than 5 years ago, and will be able to do so more cheaply 5 years from now.  

I decide to watch a movie on my TV, my laptop, my tablet or my smart phone based on a number of different factors just as many other consumers do. Time of day, convenience, whether I am viewing it with others or by myself, the list goes on. 

And I know that the cost of delivering the movie to me on each one of these digital screens is the same for the company that delivers it.

Why should I pay more?

Consumers will not take kindly to any movie studio that decides to charge them more to watch on their TV than on their phone because it will try to break (and therefore ignore) the habits that we have already developed.  Habits we fully embrace. 

Netflix created simplicity for its customers by making sure they could watch on any screen at any time at one price.  They have set the bar for all others—including the movie studios.

If movie studios want to innovate their business model, they must be ahead of the digital curve-not behind it.

As they say, the horse is already out of the barn.

They might as well face it.


Posted in Distribution, Hollywood, Internet | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Audience Fund for Indie Film

“If you’re gonna make it, LEARN HOW TO SELL IT!”

Bob Lefsetz

Platforms, like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, VHX, Vimeo, Tugg and YouTube are designed for indies who are prepared to reach their audience through “direct distribution”.

It is not the responsibility of the platform to get your audience—it is yours.  Each platform gives you tools that help you achieve success but in order to succeed you have to aggressively use them.

This approach is fundamentally different from licensing your film to a traditional distributor, a method I would call “indirect distribution”.

Most filmmakers do not understand the difference between “direct” and “indirect”. This gap in understanding holds many (if not most) indie filmmakers back.

How can this gap be closed and indie film dragged into the 21st century?

Let’s imagine an audience fund for indie film. 

We start with 1 million dollars.  We want to underwrite direct distribution for up to 15 films that will be released roughly over the same year period.  We will put in between 50K to 100K per movie.

Filmmakers must have skin in the game so we require a few things from them.

Each filmmaker must bring a minimum of 25K to the effort, preferably through a crowd funding effort.  If they come with 25K we give them 50K, if they come with 50K, we give them 100K, a 2 to 1 match.  So each audience building campaign has a range of 75K to 150K to work with.

They have to commit a substantial amount of their own time to the audience gathering effort.  It has to be a central part of their job during their film’s release.  (For this we allow a modest filmmaker fee as part of the budget.)

We require that these filmmakers learn and use every tool of every platform they need to use.  We design a boot camp that educates them quickly and thoroughly.  (Best if they already use some of the tools and this boot camp is about intermediate or advanced work.)

We bring in experts to advise and implement the campaigns that each film requires.  People like Caitlin Boyle, Sheri Candler, Jon Reiss, Marc Schiller, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky.

We also bring in companies outside the world of indie film like Collective Digital Studios or Maker Studios who understand the YouTube ecosystem and people who get where the Internet is headed like John Borthwick or Andy Weissman to connect our filmmakers with the latest in social media thinking and practice.

We require that the filmmakers write publicly and often about how they are building their audience.  They must blog about what they see, what they learn, what works and what does not.  

They need to tell us where they experience success and where they find failure.

We stipulate that they collaborate with the other filmmakers supported by the fund.  They must promote each others work. They must share information about the strategies they plan to implement and how the implementation is working (or not).  They must act as resources for each other.

We stipulate further that all the filmmakers share the numbers. How many email addresses did you collect, how many tweets or emails did you send and respond to? How much money did you spend and how much did you make? 

This all has to be shared with each other as well as the public at large.

Why all these stipulations and requirements?

This is a fund that aims to fundamentally change the way indie filmmakers think about their audiences and how they distribute their films.

A few filmmakers have used the models that this fund will support- but not nearly enough.   This fund intends to amplify the work of those that are funded and create models that many others can follow.

As Bob Lefsetz writes,

“The point is people have plenty of money to give you, you’ve just got to find a way to make it palatable.  That’s Amanda Palmer’s genius.”

This fund will create and support some new Amanda Palmers in the indie film world.

Who is in?

Posted in Audience, Distribution, Independent Film, Innovation, Social Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

The Indie Film World Needs 100 Amanda Palmers

The challenge presented to each indie filmmaker is the same.

How do I get my work discovered?

Typically, an indie film travels to success with the aid of a small group of usual suspects.  The 2012 version of that trip is laid out in Anne Thompson’s, $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System.

Thompson covers the circus that is the film festival circuit, where distributors show their new films and filmmakers woo festival audiences, critics and distributors with their latest projects.  It is an insider game that moves from Sundance to Cannes to the Academy Awards.

Harvey Weinstein knows this game better than most.  He understands how to appeal to festival insiders at Cannes and woo the members of the Motion Picture Academy.  He knows that his success depends on his ability to shape the value of a movie by appealing to elites and through these elites find the masses. 

He serves as the filmmaker’s promoter, singing the film’s praises to all the right people.  Then he pushes the film into the marketplace positioned for box office success.

Mr. Weinstein and others like him extract a large amount of rent for their efforts.  If the film succeeds-the distributor succeeds financially, but not necessarily the filmmaker.  In some rare cases money trickles back to the filmmaker, but as they say, “don’t hold your breath”.

This is the classic middleman model within a classic insider industry.

Today, outside the confines of the traditional film industry a new model is emerging.  It is based on the premise that one does not “promote a film”.  Instead, one “builds an audience”. 

It relies more on building a bond with an audience than bonding with film festival insiders or prominent film critics.  Here there are no classic middlemen and no insiders.

This model uses Internet based tools and platforms. So you might crowd fund your movie on Kickstarter, sell your movie from your own web site with VHX, or organize a screening using tugg.

These platforms are free or charge a nominal fee. Money flows back to the filmmaker without the extravagant extraction of rent.

Austin Kleon identifies the attitude and approach that shapes this new model in his book, Show Your Work! : 10 Ways To Share Your Creativity And Get Discovered

He writes:

“If you want fans, you have to be a fan first.  If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community.  If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong.  You have to be a connector.  The writer Blake Butler calls this being an open node.  If you want to get, you have to give.  If you want to be noticed, your have to notice.  Shut up and listen once in a while.  Be thoughtful.  Be considerate.  Don’t turn into human spam.  Be an open node.”

A node exists on a distributed computer network where all nodes can connect directly with each other or route through other nodes to connect with an additional node. There is no central node through which all must pass.  This is the essential design of the Internet.

When human beings use this network, everyone can connect with everyone else. The mass media world does not operate on this network.  In that world of insiders, gatekeepers and middlemen one must seek permission to connect.  Rent is extracted at every possible turn.  

An open node world not only rides on this new network, it also creates new norms and new opportunities for human interaction.  As Kleon indicates in his book, these norms and opportunities are still being defined and explored.

If Harvey Weinstein is the poster child for the indie world of traditional gatekeepers and extractors of rent, Amanda Palmer is the poster child for the world where artists of all types work at “building an audience”.  Though she is a musician, indie filmmakers could do well to follow her example.

If you spend time following her on twitter, receive her emails or read her blog posts, you will see that she practices everything that Kleon preaches.  She deals directly with her audience and she points to others, (musicians and visual artists alike). She listens to her audience and responds to them.  She even connects members of her audience to each other.

One could argue that Amanda Palmer and Harvey Weinstein are very much alike. Each is larger than life, always ready to project him/herself upon the world like any classic promoter.

Yet Palmer follows the norms and expectations of an open Internet model and functions as an open node.  Weinstein follows the norms of a mass media architecture where the views of insiders matter and shape what the audience is allowed to see.

One exists in world of transparency, the other in a world of constant spin and PR.  One “builds an audience” while the other “promotes”.

Palmer speaks to anyone who wants to listen and listens to anyone who wants to speak to her. Weinstein speaks to an inner circle. Listening, not so much.

They are creatures of the world they choose to inhabit.

Weinstein’s world is very familiar and well defined.  Palmer’s world is new and its outlines are just beginning to emerge—it is changing every day—but it principles are not hard to grasp.  Austin Kleon lays them out for us and Amanda Palmer practices them for anyone to see.

It is often said that the indie film world is in a state of crisis.  People insist that there are too many movies and too little money. They argue that the audience for independent film is disappearing. 

All these explanations look in the wrong direction.

Filmmakers are too enamored with a world that is defined by a middleman, insider culture.  With every film, they hope to be among the lucky few that are discovered, are welcomed inside, get promoted and somehow-get saved.  

It is not their fault.  This is the world into which they were born.

They don’t see that something new is being born.

A world in which their work can be discovered.

Filmmakers need to see that they can create this new world. Not alone but in concert with each other. Each can be an open node.

Indie film has only one real Harvey Weinstein.  And that is OK.

But to solve its crisis it needs 100 Amanda Palmers. 

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Two Distribution Scenarios for Successful Indie Films

Here are two scenarios.

Scenario A

Your film gets into Sundance. Audiences love it and distributors swarm all over you.  The film gets nominated for multiple Academy Awards and it grosses over $20 million dollars. You never get a dime.

Scenario B

Your film gets into Sundance. Audiences love it but no distributor offers you a deal.   You build your own audience one person at a time using all the tools the Internet provides. As a result of two years of hard work, you earn $500,000.

You are an indie filmmaker. Would you rather have $500,000 in your pocket or nothing?

In scenario A your hard work ceases when you finish the film and a distributor picks it up.  In scenario B your hard work starts long before the film is finished and continues long after it is done.

In scenario A, you have no business control.  In scenario B you are totally in control.

In scenario A, you take on no risk.  In scenario B you take on all the risk.

You get a shot at fame or a shot at fortune.  You get one or the other—not both.

These are not abstract scenarios or simple what ifs pulled out of the air.

They are based on real films in the real world.

What drives you, fame or fortune?  The chance of fleeting celebrity or real income?

What is the plot of your film’s journey?

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