There’s a holy grail out there, I just know it.
Okay, I don’t know it. Might be a myth. Maybe it doesn’t exist. Even if it does exist, there are likely forces that wouldn’t want it discovered, not to mention revealed to the world at large. Or maybe they’d simply prefer to use it to their own nefarious ends, like the Nazis and the Lost Ark. Even if some modern day Indiana Jones can successfully uncover it, the world at large might very well ignore it. Or simply miss it altogether in a giant warehouse full of boxes.
I love independent film. As a filmmaker, I was exhilarated by the democratization of the filmmaking process in the 90s — with the advent of digital video technology and a tiny port dubbed “FireWire,” every 14-year-old geek with a slightly generous uncle and an arsenal of friends could scrounge up a ragtag crew and become an auteur. Sure, some crappy movies were made. But that didn’t actually change anything — Hollywood has been cranking out crappy movies since 1910. What excited me was that these were different crappy movies. These were truly independent crappy movies. And some of them…might not even be crappy.
The problem is only the filmmaking part of the equation was democratized in the 90s. The film watching part of the equation has not been as easily upgraded. Part of this conundrum is purely technical, part of it historical, and a huge part — good old fashioned capitalist greed. But whatever the reasons, some legitimate and some illegitimate, film distribution is still trapped in the dark ages, still waiting to break free.
I’ve been spending a lot of mental time lately with this conundrum. There’s lots of facets to the issue. Lots of buzzwords and theories. Release strategies: “day-and-date,” “VOD” (video-on-demand), multi-tiered windows, etc. Lots of business strategies, marketing strategies and advertising investments to be considered and reconsidered. There’s theatrical release costs versus word-of-mouth buzz versus PR versus this-that-and-the-other.
But the thing that interests me the most is the fundamental concept — actually distributing all these crappy movies. And by that I don’t mean simply business models or venue or packaging: theatrical, or VOD, or DVD, or Blu-ray, or internet-on-demand. I mean the fundamental problem of actually finding the audience. Of getting the movie seen, in any medium.
All these wonderful, unique, exhilarating crappy movies. Festival award-winners. Critically-acclaimed. Independent movies. That. Are. Not. Getting. Seen. That are sitting on a debt-shackled filmmakers’ shelf — a failure. Or scratching for a late-night run on IFC. Or some crappy self-distributed DVD deal. Lost in the noise. Or worse.
The thing is — I believe a lot of these movies have an audience. Not just a lukewarm audience, but an audience that would think they are wonderful. I’ve stuck around enough Q&As at film festivals to hear people gush about a film that I barely managed to keep from walking out of. This has made it very clear to me that people have a wide range of tastes when it comes to film. What might not be my cup of tea might be your cat’s meow. Or cat’s pajamas. Whatever. The question that plagues me as a filmmaker is this: How many wonderful, beautiful, touching, gripping, shocking, enchanting, insert-your-favorite-adjective-here films out there have never found their audience?
In the indie world, the sad truth is: most of them.
“Niche” is Not A Dirty Word.
The avenues of traditional distribution are so limited, it’s hard to get noticed. Advertising, as we know it, is terribly expensive. The Hollywood model only allows for large marketing budgets to films with wide, universal appeal. (I’m inclined to call this “wide, universal, crappy appeal,” but hey, that’s me.) This eliminates a huge number of wonderful films (including award-winning, critically-praised, etc.) right off the bat. Hollywood often treats “niche” films like a dirty word, but niche doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Having a target audience that is smaller than “general, universal appeal” can allow a film to focus and not water down its subject. It can be many things a mainstream film often cannot. Adjectives like smart, intelligent, clever, edgy, complex, come to mind. Adjectives like good often follow.
When I go to a film festival and find that indie gem that truly speaks to me (and I find at least one such film every festival), I often leave the theater depressed as hell. Mostly because I know personally how much work the filmmakers have put into their masterpiece, and I also know almost without exception that these poor folks will never get distribution. At most I silently hope they can recoup some of their credit-card debt on low-quantity (or even self-distributed) DVD sales, which itself is getting harder and harder to accomplish, since there’s such a glut of product these days competing for eyeballs. I’ll buy their discs, as an avid supporter of their cause, and because I’d love to see them make a second film. But in general, I am saddened because I know there are others like me out there, others who would love their film but will probably never even know it exists.
The financial viability of the niche market is covered thoroughly in Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, the model Amazon (and in some ways Netflix) essentially capitalizes on. Small quantities of a large number of unique items can be a profitable business model. If Amazon or Netflix can make the model work for their bottom line, surely it can be made to work for the films themselves, especially for micro-budget features. The real challenge is getting the message to a potentially tiny audience without the overhead cost of wide-range marketing and advertising.
On Algorithms and Acute Angles
So what is the answer to this dilemma?
I know it exists. (At least I hope it does.) But maybe it doesn’t… quite… exist yet.
I think Netflix has captured a piece of it, in their CineMatch technology. People rate the movies they like and some clever algorithms sort and siphon all that data, and then recommend other movies you are likely to enjoy as well. (Because others did.) Yet even at a glance there are clearly limits to CineMatch; it often recommends things to me that I’ve seen but wouldn’t rate nearly as high as it thinks I would. So are the limitations technical? Only 1-5 stars? Why not 1-10? Or is it a complexity issue? Could it be that different people like certain movies for different reasons? Or even something practical, like the fact that more than one person often share a Netflix account?
Does the logic warrant more complexity or less? Maybe we need a simpler algorithm? Maybe higher math just isn’t it. Or maybe the fickle tastes of filmgoers is too elusive for any one algorithm. How much of the answer lies in the individual reviewer and how much in a social solution? How much in the math and how much in the approach to the math?
Maybe we need something like Pandora for film? Pandora takes a unique approach to extracting the “genome” for a song. People are often shocked at how wonderfully Pandora can adapt to one’s tastes after only a few thumbs-ups or thumbs-downs. And yet film is very different than music…
Regardless, several internet entities are in fact trying to tackle the genetics of movies. Sites like Jinni.com (currently in beta) and HelloMovies.com are attempting to find the genetic makeup of cinema, each with their own slant and user interfaces. Sites like Criticker.com instead tackle the rating system with a much-needed twist — matching people’s tastes in movies and filtering out reviewers with different tastes.
Even new media distribution is getting clever with these concepts. Companies like B-Side Entertainment (www.bside.com) are now getting into the distribution game itself, using film festival review data to find great films, and then using social networking to get the word out, drastically lowering ad costs by targeting their sermon right at the proverbial choir. Right at the target “niche.”
In future entries, I’ll delve into some of these sites (and others like them) in more detail. I’ll try to study their techniques if not their algorithms. Try to find that holy grail.
All a part of my ongoing quest to democratize distribution — and finally liberate independent film.
Next Stop: What’s Really Rotten about RottenTomatoes?