October 23, 2008
Looking at Distribution in The Americas (Part I)

We seem to be in an indie cinema kick over at C3 (see posts here , here and here); can't say I'm one to complain. With the appropriation of emerging technologies and an increasingly participatory audience, independent film is uniquely positioned to ask itself hard questions and come up with innovative answers. It's no wonder that in studying convergence culture we'd be inclined to look towards that field.

For me this past month has been unusually filled with conferences, first the Independent Feature Project Conference in New York, then I headed south to Mexico for the First Ibero-American Culture Conference (dedicated to film), and at last I arrived in Cambridge just in time to present our spreadability research over at DIY DAYS Boston with Xiaochang. I took these events to listen and think about the evolving film distribution landscape.

Although film was the through line, these events couldn't have differed more from one another. IFP, with 30 years under its belt, struggles with the conceptual fuzziness related to its name. "Independent" defines itself by not being the "studio system", but that "not being" is lager and more diverse every year and "independent" sometimes seems to mean everything and then next to nothing. Although, being a membership-based organization, it's very clear who IFP's constituency is, it's easy to understand how they would be caught in the struggle between innovation and maintaining the status quo. The independent film world has created a huge infrastructure to support itself, and my sense is that IFP works both to question and sustain it. Not an easy task.

My favorite moment of the conference was "The state of Distribution" panel, here they paired Lance Weiler (also popular in our blog these days) with Tom Bernard of Sony Picture Classics. Weiler could be described as a constructive disruptor and even though Sony Picture Classics acquires and distributes independent films, their brand certainly doesn't scream transgression (at least as far as film distribution goes). Ira Deutchman, from Emerging Pictures, was saddled with the task of moderating the discussion. Deutchman, with his digital cinema theaters and extensive production experience, understands the tensions between these two worlds better than anybody. This event synthesized the conflict that IFP has to deal with and, to a certain extent, represents.

Neither panelist was outright confrontational, but it was clear that they worked under different mind-sets. While Bernard referred often to the limitations of marketing online and the cyclical nature of the current crisis, Weiler proposed that distribution has moved from an era of competition to one of collaboration, both with the audience and with other filmmakers.

This panel was not a space to find answers, but one to understand the different options, although this can prove to be frustrating, it's necessary as well.

Throughout the conference filmmakers were also confronted with what are "legitimate" reasons to do a theatrical release. Josh Braun, who released "Man on Wire" and "Monster", was adamant in pointing out that "it would be so great to see my movie in the theater" doesn't justify an effort that tends to end with monetary losses. Moving out of the theatrical space means not being able to control how the audience will engage with the film and potentially giving up on the social experience. To counteract this reality filmmakers have come up with some experimental theatrical experiences like Robert Greenwald's Brave New Theaters a social network of alternative venue (from living rooms to universities) organized around the exhibition of social documentaries.

Although filmmakers were also concerned about the loss of public screening venues, in general terms, Mexico was a completely different scene...