When you work at a successful film festival one of the main things that gets you out of bed in the morning and bouncing into work with ambition and energy is the feeling that the entire festival team is making the world a better place. Half our team have been trolling through festival submissions, the other half labour over marketing strategies. What causes this enthusiasm? It’s the belief that the very next film, or the very next person that crosses our path could be the ‘next big thing’ in movies. Hence the Raindance tagline: Discover. Be Discovered.
The real reason I started Raindance was my belief in this mission. That under nearly every stone or leaf lay a talent worth shouting about to the entire world. I believed back then as I do now, that the only thing a talented newcomer needs is a bit of limelight and a few words of encouragement. Which also led me to found the British Independent Film Awards.
Nearly three decades later is this still realistic and possible? I think so. I’ve seen our festival efforts, and those of the British Independent Film Awards deliver incredible results for the films and filmmakers who have passed through our doors. I’ve watched my first intern Edgar Wright and another newbie, Christopher Nolan, soar, to name but two of the countless filmmakers we have embraced and believed in.
While the festival has created a very positive momentum for so many, and where the festival launch pad has helped get so many careers up the ramp to the speeding motorway of commercial success, it’s easy to fret and worry about how important and worthy films can get seen by enough film lovers so that the film’s producers can pay back their investors and do it again. Distribution is the bottleneck that’s strangling independent film.
We see it again and again. There are hundreds of commercial screens in the country, but they are programmed with mind-numbingly-dull saccharine flavoured pap. Why? Because cinema owners and audiences alike have been brain-washed into thinking that there is no market for entertaining but challenging independent films.
It’s a world where no one wins. Cinemas are faced with declining audiences. Consumers are faced with a shrinking number of the types of films they can see (or consumer choice as the politicians label it). There are five main reasons I wake up at night worried that we are going to descend into a neanderthal world where no one cares about quality film.
A world where blinkered distribution policies rules is one where no one wins – especially not consumers and filmmakers. These are the main issues that keep me up at night, worrying that we’ll slink back into a dark age of little choice and futile movies.
1. The lack of good scripts
I used to think that distribution was the bottleneck. Now I’ not so sure.
You know this fact don’t you: Cinema and movies are up against super tough competiton from gaming, web series and new media content creators.
Great films with loyal audiences require remarkable scripts. Remarkable writers are still paid poorly. If film companies don’t start hiring talented writers and editors it’s hard to see film competing with the rest of the media world. You know who’s paying big bucks to writers? Gaming, advertising and online series.
But that’s not all. The film industry is cramped by a development ethos that is totally blinkered to story. Yes they’ve taken all the story structure classes, and yes they’ve read all the ‘right’ books. Nothing seems to sink in. In my opinion, story isn’t something you learn. It’s a skill we all have, and one that is strengthened through a mix of practice and mentorship.
Unfortunately there is little new thinking on story education on the horizon. Storytelling for cells, tablets, television and cinema is different in each case. On top of that, as the traditional movie audience is ever more attuned to their handheld devices, their response to storytelling is changing. Who is researching this? Who is talking about non-linnear storytelling other than Guillermo Arriga? Brrr. It’s frightening. Could it be that we are slowly losing our ability to tell stories?
Two thoughts about beaurocracy. Firstly, it’s a necessary part of our socio-economic system. Secondly, there seems to be nothing you can do about it.
No matter which institution, company or organisation you are dealing with, you are going to have to deal with beaurocracy. Which means you have three choices. Suck it up and shut up about it; or scream and rant and rave about it; or learn how to deal with it.
In an ideal world you’d be the hottest thing since Tarantino and everyone will run after you and you can tell them all to bugger off. Since that ain’t going to happen, you can either be a total maverick and work independently free from the strings of beaurocracy, or embrace it.
My nightmare is trying to decide when to suck or when to blow. As you know you can’t suck and blow at the same time.
3. The campaign marketing mindset
All the effort of making a movie and devising a marketing campaign is wasted because film promotion is set in a campaign mindset. When the movie opens (and closes) all the expensive and shiny marketing materials are shunted off to a warehouse never to be seen again.
The trick, I think, is to build a loyal audience because you are telling a great story. Launching a movie is not the short-term opportunity the distributors think it is. It is the opportunity to start building a loyal audience over time. All of a filmmaker’s movies need to be part of a cohesive whole, working toward clear goals. It’s the filmmaker’s job to figure out what they want that to be and then develop a series of great stories (screenplays) that will attract and maintain loyal audiences.
Some of our filmmakers do this: Ken Loach, Shane Meadows, Chrsitopher Nolan and Mike Leigh are four British examples. The current great American example is Tarantino with his quirky movies.
If building an audience and converting them into loyal followers is the key, where is the training for filmmakers going to come from, and where, again, oh where are the screenplays?
4. Filmmakers who believe, “If you build it, they will come.”
There’s nothing more depressing than when a filmmaker overcomes tons of hurdles, creates some amazing movies, and then gets labeled as a failure because no one saw them.
Filmmakers need to get paid distribution for their movies. They need to be paid and they need to pay their investors like any other industry.
I’ve seen filmmaker after filmmaker spend enormous sums of money on their actual films and then stop spending on the marketing and promotion of their films. To me this game plan really sucks.
These days marketing has become so incredibly simple. At Raindance we regularly use Facebook ads, sometimes for as little as 0.01 per website click. After all the trouble a filmmaker has gone through, why the hell wouldn’t they spend £1,000 to put their film content in front of 10,000 new people? Like right before their festival screening? Have any filmmakers actually considered adding this element to the production budget of their film?
Remember that no one watches films. People rent and buy movies. Filmmakers make films. One of the challenges of an independent filmmaker is how to turn their film into a movie. One of the ways is to advertise the film on the internet. This means you take the responsibity for the distribution cycle of your film, effectively cutting out the middle man.
The days of writing, financing, producing and directing a movie and having distribution companies banging at your door are long gone. Unless, of course you have a proven track record, a name, and your own self distribution and marketing strategy.
Who is willing to share their secrets? Why are there so many dark alleyways with locked doors?
5. Fade Out: Filmmakers’ ability to show ROI
Investors are always looking for a Return On Investment (ROI). Recently the ROI for most of the films I see or know about is pretty low, meaning investing in film looks set to become a side hobby for all but the most skilled investors.
[If you are looking for investors do you really want to work with amateurs or star-fuckers?]
The ROI of filmmaking will be a mediocre proposition at best if talented people don’t have the freedom to tell great stories and have the resources to get those stories out there. You can’t solve one problem without solving all of them. And I hope we do.
So. You’re out there in www-land. Are you going to silently read this? Or are you going to chide me, challenge me, agree with or disagree with me?
Either doesn’t matter. What drives me into my worst nightmare is passivity and silence.
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