Out of SXSW, a New Indie Film Ecosystem Emerges

on Thursday, Mar. 21st

The first “prosumer” grade video cameras were hailed as the arrival of a filmmaking revolution. Igniting that revolution has proven to be a bit more complicated than grabbing a camera from Best Buy. 
 
The cost of production equipment has been driven down, and the rise of digital distribution — both theatrical and on-demand — has radically reduced certain costs on the exhibition side. However, the core issues that face any filmmaker, how to fund their film and find an audience for it, feel as if they have only grown more acute.

For filmmakers, crowdfunding has been the next big part of a continuing revolution.
 
“I believe that it has only begun to disrupt the film funding space,” said Emily Best, founder of the crowdfunding/distribution hybrid Seed & Spark. “And that’s a big claim when Kickstarter raised over $30 million for independent film in the past three years. That’s a tremendous feat.” 
 
At this year’s South By Southwest Festival, it became apparent that a new ecosystem that goes far beyond crowdfunding is emerging. One that could, in theory, shepherd a film through all the phases of its life apart from production: development, financing, distribution and exhibition. Perhaps the last obstacle remaining is the lack of a map to help navigate them all.
 
What follows is an attempt to illustrate some of these choices. A snapshot of the terrain as viewed from the vantage point coming out of SXSW. 
 

 
DEVELOPMENT  
 
What was once the most coveted prize for an up and coming screenwriter — a spot on The Black List — is now a service that can be bought. Founder Franklin Leonard sees his new site, built on the reputation he earned as the creator of its namesake, as a way to crowdsource quality control on screenplays. 
 
A monthly fee gives a screenwriter the right to list their work on the site, which Leonard and company have recruited over a 1000 industry professionals to be a part of.
 
JuntoBox Films is another experiment in crowdsourcing films. Its built a community around the development process, encouraging would-be filmmakers to campaign for support from the start. It has ties to the Slamdance Film Festival, and actor Forest Whitaker’s production company. JuntoBox frames itself as a studio, rather than a service. The producers there seek to discover films within their system, and then bring to production.
 
(For another development model, check out Amazon Studios‘ somewhat complex crowdsourcing system.)
 
FINANCING
 
There are paths that are opening up beyond Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Some that are closer to the old funding models, while others look to push crowdfunding into new forms.
 
Stephan Paternot came to Hollywood from Silicon Valley and was shocked to find that nearly every value held in the tech sector — openness and a daredevil’s need for speed — was matched by it polar opposite. Inspired in part by the success of the venture capital website Angel List, Paternot has founded Slated.
 
Slated seeks to connect would-be financiers with film projects that have talent attached. During a panel with The Black List’s Leonard, Paternot expressed an interest in folding that site’s recommendation system into his site’s project pages.
 
From the outside it appears that sites like Slated and The Black List are focused on bolstering up the prospects of “mid-range” projects, that step above do-it-yourself that has largely been abandoned by major studios as they chase blockbuster money.
 
Seed & Spark is firmly in the DIY part of the spectrum. The site marries crowdfunding and crowdsourcing into a “wedding registry” system that lets filmmakers count in-kind donations towards their budget.
 
DISTRIBUTION 
 
Funding isn’t the only problem Seed & Spark is looking to solve for the filmmakers who use the site.
 
“I think there’s a certain myopia that ‘once I get the funding, everything will be fine’,” said founder Emily Best. “This is not the case, because the hardest part about making a movie is getting anyone to see it once it is finished. And this is what studios and television stations… it’s what everyone spends all their money trying to do: get to audiences.”
 
Best sees crowdfunding as “one of the best audience building tools thats ever been made. You’re not just building audiences, you’re building advocates.”
 
To that end, Seed & Spark acts as an online distribution platform for films, one that awards credits to members of its community for taking actions that support filmmakers on the site.
 
Film distribution is the part of the process where there appears to be the fiercest competition. This “last mile” battle to define how films reach audiences has major and minor players alike looking to define the consumer facing market. Sites like VHX and Vimeo are seeking to be the online distribution choice for indie filmmakers. 
 
Vimeo has cultivated a reputation for creating a high quality experience for short films, and is now giving its users the ability to put up their work for rent and purchase.
 
VHX, co-founded by Vimeo’s first hire and Emmy winner Casey Pugh, is making a play to be a backbone for direct sales for filmmakers. VHX isn’t looking to become a destination, but to take care of video and merchandise sales for filmmakers. Its emphasis is on the ability of filmmakers to sell their products through their own website, which touts the company as being “Kickstarter friendly – we fulfill your backers.”
 
This is in addition to more “traditional” video on demand markets like iTunes, Amazon, and the like. The real trouble here is not the lack of options, but how easy it is to get lost in the marketplace.
 
Mike Wilson, co-founder of video game publisher Devlover Digital explained the problem he faced with a film of his own.
 
“As a producer of an indie film,” said Wilson, “I went to release it on VOD. I talked to all the distributors who do that, all the new age distributors. They just don’t really do anything to push it. They literally just upload as many as they can and then just hope that one sticks every now and then.”
 
With that in mind Wilson is taking his marketing experience from the world of video games and applying that to indie film. The new venture, Devolver Digital Films, won’t be a solution open to all. They’re looking to market just a few films a year. But it highlights a need for more boutique distributors willing to navigate the choppy VOD seas.
 
EXHIBITION
 
Video on Demand isn’t the only way that films reach audiences. There’s still the old-fashioned notion of leaving the house to see a film. Shocking to some, quintessential to the experience for others.
 
Tugg Inc., which celebrated its one year anniversary at SXSW, has created a marketplace that matches films, movie theaters, and film promoters. Anyone can set up a screening at one of the participating venues. Tickets are pre-sold, and the screening only takes place if the hosting venue’s minimum is met. 
 
Tugg is currently being used for both indie films and revival screenings. 
 
A similar, brand spanking new site, is Smplmchn (pronounced “simple machine”).  In an early beta, co-founder Nandan Rao says that the project evolved out of an attempt to curate a film cycle at a local theater in Corvallis, Oregon. Rao sees Smplmchn not so much as a competitor to Tugg, but as an AirBnB like service for films. 
 
Smplmchn will work with “pop-up” venues and traditional theaters alike, acting as a the middleman between filmmakers and venues for negotiating terms and delivery.
 
It may be of interest to know what kind of people are behind these potential industry disruptors.
 
Best and Rao are filmmakers in their own right. Leonard began the original The Black List while working for Leonardo DiCapro, while Paternot has spent 11 years producing films. Tugg’s co-founder Nicolas Gonda produces films for Terrence Malick.
 
The tools of the new film revolution are being built by the filmmakers themselves.

[Image: The Digital Bolex, a new camera, with retro looks, designed by a team of filmmakers.]

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