By Kevin Lally
FJI correspondent Doris Toumarkine reports on the buzz about new media at the annual Digital Hollywood New York City conference.
The annual Digital Hollywood New York City conferences over the past few years have emitted less the vibe of a cross-industry gathering than that of a soul-searching, 12-step meeting convening similarly rattled souls seeking group support, encouragement and advice.
But the 2011 edition, held Nov. 17-18 again at midtown Manhattan's McGraw-Hill Building, emitted more welcoming signs of optimism and excitement vis--vis the changes that the digital revolution has and is unleashing on all the entertainment/media/communications sectors.
Attracting those in advertising, marketing, cable, film, media, mobiles, tablets, supporting technologies, finance and related businesses, the event this year also underscored the fact that digital capabilities are increasingly responsible for converging businesses and sending them into new ones while providing more bounty to consumers. Less sanguine is what this historic and ongoing changeover is doing to the other side.
Amidst the turmoil in the media and entertainment sectors, panelists in film again declared that the theatrical window remains strong because consumers, no contest, still want the big screen. Indie filmmakers, however, continue to confront the challenges of getting their films seen and sold. A panel discussing "Film Festivals in the Digital Age: Tribeca, New York, Hamptons, Toronto, IFP, Vimeo" made clear that fests are no longer what they used to be. As IndieWire writer Eric Kohn, Independent Filmmaker Project's Amy Dotson and Tribeca Film Fest chief creative officer and former Sundance director Geoff Gilmore noted, festivals that used to focus on the business of setting deals or beginning the discussions are now more about building audiences and getting films noticed by functioning as showcasing platforms.
What used to be an all-important "premiering" of a film at a fest is almost a non-issue. Also fading is the dream of someone like a Harvey Weinstein discovering a movie at a fest and grabbing it. Said Gilmore, "The issue today is really about raising the visibility of a film." Indicative of this trend is how many festivals now offer their selections day-and-date online via video-on-demand.
This virtual trend is fully realized by panelist Sebastien Perioche's Eurocinema On Demand, whose virtual fest anyone can see online 24/7. The fest finds its selections by partnering with usually government-run cultural groups across Europe. He emphasized that "it's all about mobility and accessibility�people want to see their festivals anywhere, any way they can."
"Curating" has also become integral, whatever the festival. Panelist Terence Gray's New York Television Festival has evolved into a carefully curated, must-see, rich showcase for pilots. Said Gray, "We're in the business to put the very best in front of the networks and agents and that's how we've built our brand and gotten them to pay attention." His fest also offers mentoring programs addressing subjects like what networks are actually looking for.
Regarding any profits going to filmmakers from nontheatrical, TV or video situations, panelists cited a number of hands in the till before the creators see revenues. Grabbing cuts are cable providers, middlemen/aggregators who curate, and specific channels. At least fests can offer a more streamlined, less hijacked road to viewer eyeballs and filmmaker benefits. Maybe.
As for avoiding crippling marketing costs, finding deep-pocketed sponsors is the way to go, as the Tribeca Fest has done with founding sponsor American Express. Sugar daddies come in plastic.
Gilmore, citing the Venice Fest's decision to show just an episode of HBO's Mildred Pierce, characterized this and other "transmedia" crossovers to new avenues as "murky," even wondering whether presenting nonlinear programming like gaming narratives has a place in the festival realm.
Festivals and markets also suggest that the world of independent filmmaking has gotten more inclusive. The IFP, the longtime marketplace for independent films, used to be, as Dotson put it, "very New York-centric. But now the films are coming from everywhere, not just from New York and L.A. So we're getting all kinds of fresh content."
Panelists noted that because DVD has been down for about a decade, other platforms like VOD have become all the more coveted. Filmmakers were reprimanded for not strategizing early in production who their audiences are and how to reach them. Concrete goals, panelists agreed, must be set early in the filmmaking process.
The question of the quality of film content also emerged. Will content from the top (curated, elitist) prevail over the kind of content from the bottom that Google's YouTube favors? Viewers seem divided.
Like just about everything else in flux, film fests were declared "in a transitional moment." And panelists concurred with IndieWire's Kohn that "everyone wants to see their work on the big screen."
"The Future of Content Distribution: Pay, VOD, Broadband, Cable and Mobile" addressed the new feature film avenues opened by digital. There seems to be life beyond theatres, but where are the revenues?
Like the other panelists, SnagFilms CEO Rick Allen's goal is to get his films on all platforms, "get independent films in front of everyone, whether [the movies are] ad-supported or transactional."
Screen Media Ventures senior VP of digital distribution Gary Delfiner, too, is building his now 320-film library and looking at additional platforms in a reach to ten countries so far. Also in this game is Cinetic Rights Management head of content Matt Dentler (former honcho at South by Southwest), whose filmbuff.com is releasing content across the globe.
With viewers in the driver seat, the content is available, but where is the money? There are bright spots. As an example of generated revenues that flowed back to content creators, Dentler pointed to a small film made in France by the Polish Brothers and strategically released straight to VOD that "netted a healthy six figures."
Panelists also discussed how filmmakers are splitting rights rather than giving away the farm, and how to find supportive people amidst this twisty rights conundrum. Snag and Cinetic might be a good start if content creators propose attractive material. This whole area of indie films going out non-theatrically and digitally is, as Allen said, "too new a medium to predict outcomes, so we try to innovate as best we can."
And innovate they are. SnagFilms, for instance, will release Splinters, its first theatrical release, in early 2011. Asked if there might be a conflict of interest, considering the company runs the popular IndieWire indie-focused news site, Allen assured that Snag is "so aware of this issue and have always been careful to keep up that China Wall." Additionally, he said, the strict and watchful IndieWire staff taskmasters will assure objectivity and no favoritism.
Filmmakers were encouraged to look into branded entertainment as a way of getting financial help. And short films can have a way of finding life. Allen discussed a case in which shorts funded by Goldman Sachs were re-cut into a longer-form program made available on the SnagFilms platform.
Suggesting the murkiness that the new distribution spaces present, Dentler noted that even celebrity status is different in the digital space. Web-generated stars aren't necessarily those bold-faced names that traditional media trumpets.
There was agreement that theatrical for smaller titles is not much more than "a strategy to build buzz for digital." Delfiner summed up the wobbly state of things for filmmakers and providers alike: "The Holy Grail remains�how do you get people to watch your movie?"
Film aside, the conference was most prominently loaded with discussions about the multi-screen universe of devices (TVs, tablets, broadband, smart-phones and IPTVs, etc.), constant changes in technology and user adoption, content and favored platforms, the impact of social media on advertising, marketing and growing awareness, current hegemonies like Facebook, Apple products like the iPad and services like iTunes, and so much more. Again, topics were propelled by the fury of never-ending technological innovation that impacts the media/entertainment/communication environments ("eco-systems," being the favored word).
The one constant amidst so much uncertainty seems to be the attraction of motion picture theatres that are still filling seats by filling screens with good stories. Hooray for Hollywood and gifted independents who thrive on the big screens! Their display of stability in an otherwise unstable, rocked and flummoxed world is encouraging.
As more vulnerable players experiment with radically different businesses (e.g., Apple, Google and Facebook moving into consumer electronics), filmmakers, the studios and theatres just have to continue doing the same thing better.
Still, those in this safer film haven may be missing out on uncertainty's byproduct�the excitement generated by new ideas and often rewarding risk-taking required of the more vulnerable players on the digital playing field. At least the studios have Ultraviolet in the works to provide their off-screen thrills and chills.
But let exhibitors beware: Panelists shared their own excitement about the high quality of images that the small screen can now deliver. Smaller is getting better.