Trading Up: New Paradigm Poaches From Festsby Mike Jones (February 20, 2009)
Why did Geoff Gilmore leave the most coveted position in the independent film industry? The answer almost lies within the question itself.
For years festivals, conferences and awards shows have made a lot of hay over the so-called industry of indie film. Yet any industry requires a strong delivery system. And it’s no news that the system is ailing. From Gilmore’s perspective, maybe it always has.
Film festivals began as art film’s primary exhibitor, and with the closure and hobbling of so many specialty distribs they have resurged as one of the few places audiences can see art film as it was intended—on the big screen and in the company of strangers.
Yet some fest directors looked at their event’s success—a success confined primarily to a locality and/or industry clientele—and felt frustrated. After screening countless DVDs and sweating over a program to be exhibited just once a year, where did they see their selections going but to other fests. Aside from an exciting screening and endless pints of Stella, most undistributed films aren’t seeing a dime from a successful “fest run.”
After almost 20 years of watching some of his favorite films be overlooked or flatly forgotten in a distributor’s marketing scheme—Gilmore’s frustration is understandable. A look back at his 19 Sundance fest catalogs is sobering—even within the successes, there’s still a lot of good work that never stepped outside of the fest circuit. And a lot of good filmmakers that couldn’t build the Sundance laurels into another film or, more importantly, a sustainable career.
In my talks with him, Gilmore was never one to embrace the idea that fests alone were a realistic distribution model.
Fests remain vital city events that remind people what it means to leave their plasma screen for the big screen. They weren’t built to shoulder the burden of indie film’s problems. But they did grow into unique laboratories where alt-distrib ideas were tested on panels, in demonstrations, and with frustrated filmmakers looking for something beyond their fest run.
Gilmore’s move indicates we are well out of the testing phase. And he’s not alone.His cross-country jump is only the latest in a trend of festival execs moving up, not only for a bigger paycheck, but for a bigger canvas—a way to expand art and indie film out of a broken domestic model and into a global one.
Moreover, it shows that fests have turned into hunting grounds for certain companies looking for a different kind of exec—one who can take ideas formed within their microcosmic event and apply them to an international strategy.
Christian Gaines left AFI FEST to be Director of Festivals for Withoutabox, now a division of IMDb.com, which in turn is owned by Amazon. While Gaines is charged with helping client festivals connect with filmmakers and audiences, his job title stresses the global outreach of Amazon and IMDb.
In theory, lineups from festivals via Withoutabox are cataloged on IMDb and either streamed right on IMDb, or linked to VOD purchases and rentals on Amazon. And while Amazon’s ebook device, Kindle 2, doesn’t yet have movie-viewing ability, you can bet that’s in the works, closing the circle.
“Being a festival director often means addressing the basics needed to put on a good show,” says Gaines. “In doing that, I learned about the evolving needs of filmmakers and audiences. Now I work with the world’s great film festivals to harness the benefits of emerging, global distribution platforms. It’s a fascinating challenge.”
Matt Dentler left SXSW Film to manage digital rights for Cinetic. At SXSW, Dentler championed a group of filmmakers who shared internet-based marketing and distribution notions. Thus, at Cinetic, Dentler has been pushing a steady stream of festival films to iTunes, Amazon, Jaman, Hulu, SnagFilms etc. “The Auteur,” which premiered at Tribeca last year, is now on iTunes while Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan,” which began at the Independent Feature Film Market in 1989, is on Hulu.
“It’s very similar to being a festival programmer,” says Dentler. “I’m still working in the world of contextualizing an indie film for the right audience. And my favorite part of my old job still rings true: uniting filmmakers with audiences.”
Paola Freccero left Tribeca to head up B-Side’s new distribution arm, formed out of the company’s success distributing the docs “Super High Me” and “Crawford” via an internet-based, grassroots effort.
“Moving from festivals into for-profit distribution takes the same skills and expertise - on steroids,” says Freccero. “Probably the biggest difference is that instead of worrying about the launch of 200 festival films, I’m worrying about the entire fate of 10 or 15. The focus is more concentrated, but the skills and the stress are the same.”
And while some people think Gilmore is Tribeca fest’s new programming head, he clearly indicates he’s got much bigger ideas, as he told indieWIRE:
“The problems right now for the independent arena are multiple. They include the distribution bottleneck and the difficulties of finding new alternatives to having your films reach audiences. Festivals have helped that world change and festivals are going to continue to help that world change. What Tribeca Enterprises is going to do is be involved in setting up a new paradigm,” exploring, “the ways that festivals become platforms for new enterprises.”
As the economy sinks some believe time has run out on these ideas, or at least put them on the back-burner. Profit was elusive even before the downturn and a few industryites believe these business models are just too vague.
“You can’t blog your way to financial success,” quipped one major sales rep before this year’s Sundance. Don’t bother talking to him about digital, he continued. Traditional theatrical discussions were the only ones he was open to for his slate. Even when cash changes hands within these new models filmmakers mostly see pennies, he stressed.
And a national, grassroots distribution effort will not work for every film. When it does, it takes a long commitment. Even with this new marketing and distribution pipeline, it still takes experience and elbow grease. And less experience equals more grease.
So as indie film stakes its future on a different pipeline, the industry needs to remember what worked before and what didn’t. Gilmore’s old-school experience in a “new paradigm” may be what this new model needs. Let’s hope he’s able to build it from the experimental to the viable. Because within the tiring discussions between the “falling sky” and a “new frontier,” indie film simply needs something to work. And soon.
Mike Jones is a writer based in Los Angeles. He’s held senior editorial positions at Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE, and most recently served on staff at Variety covering the independent film and film festival beats.
I remember when Geoff came to Sundance and replaced Tony Safford. The shift from Sundance to Tribeca should benefit both organizations. Sundance gets the opportunity to rethink Geoff's position and Tribeca can see if it can find a way to monetize Groff's skill sets. Safford has been very sucessful doing acquisitions for Fox.
Sundance has become a cheerleader for independent films. 3000 entries and a few financially successful works a year suggests a huge disconnect between the business of independent films and the reality of the film business. The landscape is littered with far too many films that never should have been made. The Festival Circuit is considered by many independent filmmakers as being a desirable outcome for their unsold projects.
It will be interesting if Gilmore will be successful in this transition. After all, Sundance became the tail that waves the Institute. If one believes the reality is to make films that work financially as well as artistically as I do, then festival models becomes almost irrelevant. Celebrating works that never really reach an audience, never break even or cover their costs isn't a very good model for a for-profit.
Let's see what happens.
February 21, 2009